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.