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The trouble with apocalypse

Although for us the End has perhaps lost its naive imminence, its shadow still lies on the crises of our fictions.

When you read, as you must almost every passing day, that ours is the great age of crisis–technological, military, cultural–you may well simply nod and proceed calmly to your business; for this assertion, upon which a multitude of important books is founded, is nowadays no more surprising than the opinion that the earth is round.

–Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending


The trouble with apocalypse is that most people have already seen it at the movie theater, watched it on television, read it in a book, or heard all about it from the pulpit. So inundated with the language of crisis are we that we have become immune to it. From the perspective of the historian our age has been chock full of “great transformations.” And, it is, after all, the historian’s business to write about great change even if he or she has to invent some.

The great energy crisis of the 1970s passes and is followed by an era of cheap energy lasting more than 20 years. The great run-up in energy prices in recent years is followed by a collapse in prices, and then another run-up (and perhaps another collapse?). The “worst economic downturn since the Great Depression” is followed by a ceaselessly heralded recovery. The much feared Y2K computer bug was either fixed or of little consequence on January 1, 2000. A modern plague has been in the wings for years, first as SARS and then as avian flu. Now that the H1N1 virus is here, it doesn’t seem like the civilization-destroying event it was advertised to be. Even such events, despite the drama they propagate, create a certain cyclical continuity making them seem not all that remarkable. Once the worst is over or the predicted crisis fails to materialize, the fear that most people felt fades from memory.

Yet, the “cultural crisis,” the “economic crisis,” the “health care crisis,” the “education crisis,” and the “national security crisis” somehow continue. We momentarily look away from our computers, cellphones and flat screen TVs. Then, we are back again to our routine. Yesterday we had email, today we have email, tomorrow we will have email. On the short view, nothing much seems to have changed. The world appears to be moving closer to the technological utopia we have been promised.

For human beings, the apocalypse in its many forms “is a figure for their own deaths,” Frank Kermode remarks in his classic of literary criticism, The Sense of an Ending. He adds, “[W]hat human need could be more profound than to humanize the common death?” And, so we are wired to listen, at least temporarily, whenever a storyteller of any type on television, on radio, on the Internet, in movies, and on the printed page hoists the flag of crisis. Any reference to crisis improves ratings and book sales. If what you’re telling me isn’t a crisis that requires my immediate attention, perhaps it can wait until later when I’m through looking at my email or watching my favorite spinoff of Law and Order.

Such is the environment in which those concerned about sustainability for human society find themselves. Peak oil, climate change, an impending food crisis, a water crisis, none of these truly captures the imagination of the broader public and rouses it to action. Perhaps the public is suffering from apocalypse fatigue. But that would be an incorrect assumption. The movie 2012, a series of visual explosions based on various disaster scenarios and end time prophecies, was a runaway hit. The movie trailer tells us that one particular day in 2012 will be a moment that unites us all, very much “the common death” that Kermode discusses. And, the movie is not a cultural one-off. The same director gave us the climate change thriller, The Day After Tomorrow, which has grossed nearly $200 million at the box office. Even now the blockbuster Contagion about a deadly worldwide epidemic is hitting screens across the country. The appetite for apocalypse is endless and perennial. When I was in seventh grade (a long time ago), Alas, Babylon, a novel about a small town that survives after a nuclear war, was actually required reading.

What apocalyptic narratives do is elevate the importance of the trajectory of every person’s life regardless of his or her station in society. If we’re all in this together, then we can share in a great destiny no matter who we are. But destiny sounds like fate. What can one do if one is headed toward a great apocalypse? Pray, perhaps. Repent, maybe. But responding to such a gargantuan event calls more for attaining the right relationship with one’s god than engaging in constructive social and political action.

While apocalyptic stories may seem as if they are about our collective path, for the individual they are really about an inward journey. That is why they are quite good at filling movie theaters, bookstores, and churches. And, that is why any appeal to the apocalyptic strain in culture is a wrongheaded strategy when attempting to move people toward actual concrete steps that can improve our collective prospects amid the unfolding calamities of the 21st century.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. He is a new member of the ASPO-USA Board of Directors. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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