Ever since the middle ages, apocalyptic visions have been a staple of Western thought. With every minor or major upheaval that came along, whether it would be the plague, Communism, or climate change, there was a large constituency receptive to the idea that the end of times was near and only repentance would avoid oblivion. The mystery for you to solve is where the demand for these stories comes from?

The list of apocalyptic visions currently on offer is enormous, ranging from the killer meteorite to the end of the Mayan Calendar, to the second (or third) coming of Christ, to pandemics and global jihad. No end of potential supply in sight to apocalyptic visions. There is a veritable horde of Doom Sayers ready to mobilise us all towards averting this or that threat.

If I were to take only one in a hundred of the raving prophets telling me to repent seriously, I would be whipping myself to scourge my soul, minimize my carbon footprint by shitting on my vegetable patch and thus saving on fertiliser, read books of a zillion prophets to learn how to avoid being dragged to the pits of hell for my many sins, wear face masks to avoid inhaling germs, stay inside with my kids to avoid them being abused by any man who wears a priest’s collar, vote for more taxes to go to our military to kill everyone who might become an enemy (which is virtually everyone), and scan the night sky for the rock that is coming to wipe us out.

Now of course, just because most Doom Sayers are paranoid attention seekers doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong. There are people you should not trust your kids with, the climate is most likely changing, meteorites have probably done damage to us in the past, germs picked up by others can make you sick, and only the religious stories of hell and brimstone most probably have absolutely no probability of coming true.

But quietly, most of us don’t really buy into the next Doom story, not even if we declare ourselves devout believers in heaven and hell. We hear about acidifying oceans, lower sperm counts, philandering priests, melting glaciers, disappearing reefs, fanatical enemies, etc.. But we nevertheless lead happy and productive lives, mainly ignoring all these pending catastrophes as if they were not there. Every now and then, like on a Sunday morning, we get our fix of Dooms Day stories, reflect upon how the world is undoubtedly going to end soon as a result of our sinful ways, and then pour ourselves another beer and have a good time with friends, to the great chagrin of the Doom Sayers who want us mobilised 24/7 around their pet fear.

The deeper question in this is not really the veracity of the latest batch of apocalyptic stories but the inner source of demand: why are stories of impending doom so successful in capturing our imagination and in mobilising us as societies? Did we use to have an appetite for these stories even before modern societies or did we then not have them (i.e. did the Australian Aborigines have stories of the future apocalypse?). If they are new to us humans and hence an outgrowth of modern societies, what is it about them that gives rise to this yearning for the apocalypse?

As usual, your thoughts are very much appreciated on the comment thread, particularly on whether or not apocalyptic stories are universal to all cultures or specific to a few. To be continued on Monday.

6 Responses to Who yearns for the apocalypse?

  1. Ben says:

    Here’s a hypothesis: we highlight the apocalyptic as a communication measure to try to avoid perceived ‘Tragedy of the commons’/'prisoner’s dilemma’ situations.

    Nuclear apocalypse to avoid proliferation, the worst parts of climate change to avoid the more mundane parts of climate change, hell and damnation for the erosion of society’s morals. They create a ‘mutually assured destruction’ mechanic which is one of the only ways of breaking a Prisoner’s Dilemma.

    I’m completely making this up. I have no idea really. But isn’t Game Theory cool?

  2. Yes I like Ben’s argument. Getting people to change habits relies on the idea of an impending crisis. So there is at least one incentive for people to perpetuate apocalyptic-type versions of otherwise mundane events.

    But why do people listen? Well, you’ve kind of answered that question for yourself – people don’t really. They don’t really change their behaviour much at all. So, back to Ben’s point, if you gave them a mundane interpretation of climate change, it seems almost guaranteed that no cooperative action would be taken.

  3. Ben says:

    Although in a democratic society, where the ‘doom’ requires political action (say carbon pricing or moratoriums on nuclear weapons) rather than truly collective action (everybody just stop using carbon Mmmkay? Everybody stop having sex, hellfire awaits!), you only need 51%.

  4. Ian says:

    What a fascinating topic! Congratulations on raising it. I don’t think it is a modern phenomenon, just Google “History of the Apocalypse” or “History of Doomsday” and you will see that it goes back at least as far as Assyrian clay tablets of 2800 BC (which blamed it, inter alia, on disrespectful young people). It has infected all the usual western-middle eastern religions, including Zoroastrianism, Judaism and of course Christianity.

    The economist has a neat summary:

    http://www.economist.com/node/3490697

    with their usual world-weary cynicism brought to bear, and the English scholar Simon Pearson has written “A Brief History of the End of the World: Apocalyptic Beliefs from Revelation to UFO Cults”

    Personally, I think it is innate, but just what the evolutionary biology explanation would be is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps believing that some form of catastrophe or other would follow errant behaviour preserved the clan’s solidarity, and prevented destructive internal wranglings? But there is no doubt it has been used as a social-political tool by bigots, demagogues and the power-obssessed to seek or maintain control for as long as organised society has been around – Innocent III used it as an excuse to mount a crusade.

    I’m inclined to think that, in our contemporary age of anxiety, it is having something of a vogue. If you believe the doom-sayers, the world should have ended several times since the end of World War II, through a nuclear holocaust, pollution, overpopulation, failure of the food supply, running out of resources, …. And yet here we all are, healthier, happier, richer and more knowledgable than any generation hitherto. Climate change is, of course, the bugbear du jour.

    Its worth comparing/contrasting with that other essentially misguided social-political philosophy, utopianism. The contrast is of course that the utopians believe that not only will the world not end, but it can be made perpetually perfect, as long as everyone else does EXACTLY as the utopians say. That is the similarity with the contemporary doomsayers – they too believe that they are the high priests of the righteous, doom-avoiding path, and tend to take a dim view of (and have rather nasty prescriptions for) the cynical.

    Both philosophies are, in my view, to be eschewed. They are but poor excuses for the expression of a nasty, authoritarian streak. After all, as Bertrand Russell (a nuclear doomsayer) said, “Much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power”.

  5. Ian says:

    I meant, in the third paragraph, to say “evolutionary psychology”, not “evolutionary biology”

  6. [...] Friday, I asked the readers what they thought the source of the demand for apocalyptic stories was in our societies, and [...]

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