Yearning for the apocalypse, part II

Last Friday, I asked the readers what they thought the source of the demand for apocalyptic stories was in our societies, and particularly whether there was anything new about the prevalence of apocalyptic stories.

As Michael Stanley and Ian pointed out, apocalyptic stories go back a long way and at least include the agricultural kingdoms of around 1000 BC, most particularly the Zoroastrians who preceded the 3 bible-related religions and thus share stories of hell and Judgment day. The Assyrians were into it before then apparently, though more in a spirit of ‘moral breakdown due to wayward youth’. Similarly, the Hindus and Germanic tribes had apocalyptic stories surrounding Kalki and Ragnarok so it would at first glance appear to be a common theme in agricultural societies as least.

Whether pre-agricultural societies have them was unclear. Julie Thomas says she hasn’t come across any in Aboriginal mythology, and I have not been able to find anything along those lines either (perhaps the Innuit?). But to be fair, no-one seems to be sure and its not easy to find out either because no hunter gatherer societies survive in their original form so it is hard to tell how ancient the stories we have been handed down about them really are. There appears more clarity about the idea that they have stories about ancient hardships (floods) and bad possibilities (evil spirits) but whether they had apocalyptic visions that would require penance on the part of the audience? Still hard to say.

Ideas about demand were varied. Ben mentioned that an apocalypse is basically a story-telling devise that overcomes free rider problems in that for everyone individually everything is at stake. It would then be every society that has public goods that would seem to give rise to them though this is in a sense more of a supply-side story. On the demand side there would then be some innate tendency to actually believe these things somewhat or at least to feel somewhat beholden to their logic if supplied by a whole group as the official reason to do something. One could summarise this by saying that it was incomplete power structures in which the demand for stories in which everyone is pivotal arises as a recognised means of coordinating on something.

Another option raised by Conrad and Ian again was that the demand came from an innate human inability to read true probabilities and an inability to arrive at reasonable theories about the world in which some things are plausible and others not (elephants yes, flying dragons no). Apocalyptic stories then have a role in that people’s irrationalities made them susceptible to them, after which it becomes a supply-side story as to which manipulator gets in first.

I must say there seems a lot of merit to this ‘we have an innate tendency to go along with anything’ answer. Hard to see why otherwise one story would end up foretelling the invasion of the aliens and another the emergence of flying birdmen. So surely some cognitive deficiencies are in the mix.

Of course there were also commentators peeved off that I would dare list their pet apocalypse as anything but a truly impending world disaster, paramount amongst which of course the climate change debate. Instances of indignant apocalypse yearners who react with great anger at people talking rationally about solutions were waved away as people reasonably outraged over whether or not one quotes current trends or trends predicted for the future. What can I say? I guess they should re-visit Al Gore’s video again and see whether they can maintain without blinking that there is no apocalyptic element to this debate.

I would also agree with Ian’s observation on this, which is that the apocalyptic are similar to the utopians in that “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”.” So true.

Another theory, put forward by the BBC commentator Quentin Cooper, is that the apocalypse is a story humans latch onto when they contemplate the enormity of time and the human insignificance of it all: it gives us the idea that we are the special generation, not merely one of millions of generations of animals but pivotal in world history. A way of feeling more important that we really are.

What I share with Cooper is the sense that the grandness of the apocalyptic story probably reflects the grandness of our imagination. A local flood simply would not cut it anymore and all-out destruction is needed to reflect our importance.

I do personally think there is another possibility though. From my history lessons I remember the stories of how in the middle ages people really would believe the end is nigh and this doom would hang like a sword of Damocles over everything. Planning ahead would be futile as the end of days could be tomorrow.

In contrast, the Dooms day stories of the Hindus, also a very long-run agricultural society is much more remote. Kalki the tenth avatar who will destroy everything is not due to come to earth for another 400,000 years or so. That really is a more benign version of the apocalypse, indeed almost irrelevant for any practical purposes. It is more a story of eternal cycles rather than of the final resolution coming soon.

So I do think there is something to the idea that the apocalypse is somewhat particular to particular societies. I think Julie Thomas is right about pointing out that the basic ‘stability’ story of the Aboriginals does not really allow Armageddons to emerge as an accepted story technique despite starting out with the same innate human tendencies and public good provisions inside small tribes. It probably also does not work well in societies where the mythology and daily experience is based on eternal cycles (of the moon, river, generations whatever) wherein there is neither progress nor regression. So I suspect the Chinese too are less afflicted by any of this. Still, in terms of actual dangers it is not fair to call the Hindus and Aboriginals any less dependent on volatile and uncertain systems than anyone else in other parts of history. So the answer that ‘we simply face more dangers’ is clearly not true. It would also be unfair to think of the Hindu societies as having had less supply and demand for public goods.

Hence I do accept the line that we should not confuse what is normal in the society we know so well for something innately human shared everywhere.

So if we proceed from the running hypothesis that the apocalypse is in fact particular to us, ie our Western society and is not a strong line of thought in all human societies at all, then I can ask the updated question: what is it about us that makes us so unusually open for these apocalyptic stories? If it is hence not an automatic outgrowth of our psychology but rather something that needs culturally specific dynamics to emerge, then what it is about our culture that makes us so unusually open to the idea that our Doom is nigh, whether through some breakdown in moral values, the end of the Climate as know it, the third coming of our Lord, or the nuclear winter.

Wrap-up on Wednesday.


Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

7 thoughts on “Yearning for the apocalypse, part II”

  1. Another way to think about it, maybe western civilization venerates apocalypses because we’re used to them. What percentage of the 3 millennia of western history have we not lived with plague, famine and war? Is for instance bird flu scenarios, which is dismissed as apocalyptic worse than the great plague, or the 1918 flu epidemic?


  2. I’m willing to look at the apocalyptic side of cimate change seriously. To me the three most apocalyptic potential consequences are plausible, because there is some level of evidence for precedent.

    There is decent evidence in the genetic studies of antarctic marine invertebrates that during the last interglacial there was no west antarctic ice sheet. Ice dynamics is one of the least understood aspects of climate change. We need to know more.

    There is decent evidence in the fossil and isotopic record that the Permian-Triassic extinction was greenhouse related. It wiped more than 95% of life on earth, and it took millions of years for diversity (or biomass for that matter) to recover.

    And in ‘Storms of my grandchildren’ James Hansen says bluntly that he thinks that if we burn all of our reserves of fossil fuels we will have a runaway greenhouse, similar to what happened to Venus at sometime in its past. It doesn’t get more apocalyptic than that, and it seems like something that should be shouted by a crazy man with a crazy beard wearing a board, but then James Hansen is a very clever physicist who has dedicated his life to the science of climate change. Regardless of your politics or your inclinations, his opinion shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand without taking the time to understand his reasoning.

    Obviously all of these things are outliers, and are probably unlikely, but as undesirable consequences with some precedent and high expected costs, they should all be a part of our risk analysis. I’m unlikely to crash my car, but I wear a seatbelt, and my house is unlikely to burn down, but I have insurance. Why should I not take these issues seriously?


  3. Obviously then there is an apocalyptic element to the debate. But the question isn’t whether catastrophic consequences are predicted, but rather whether these consequences are fantasies or valid risks, and if they are valid risks, how likely are they to occur and in what timeframe.


  4. Paul, my understanding is that a linear notion of time, dates in the West from 1200 BC or so (after the pivotal Battle of Kadesh and arrival of the sea peoples). I don’t think that in the West that either the Egyptians, Hittites or the Mycaneans had a linear notion of time. Time as a cycle is the dominant notion of time before the late agrarian era in every part of the world — I think that is correct. I am not sure what that means for apocalyptic tendencies, but there would seem to be less of a natural end to time if it is circular than if it is linear.


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