The Last Myth book cover

The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America by Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles, Prometheus Books, 254pp, $18.

Ever since the dawn of the Nuclear Age, Hollywood has fed movie audiences on a steady diet of end-of-the-world thrillers. And from The Time Machine and The Planet of the Apes to The Road and The Hunger Games, for half a century audiences have hungrily gobbled up this fare like so many baskets of greasy apocalpytic curly fries.

It may seem that people always and everywhere have thrilled to dramatic stories of the end-times. After all, the mother of all apocalypses comes not from Armageddon producer Jerry Bruckheimer but from that Biblical blockbuster, the Book of Revelation.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

Not necessarily, claim Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles in The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America. Gross and Gilles write that the apocalypse is a relatively new obsession in human history, dating back not to the dawn of culture but instead originating only about 500 years before Christ.

Next year in Jerusalem

Nor are all cultures around the world equally fascinated with the end-times. It turns out that it was really the Israelites and their Revelation that set the stage for Western culture to start telling itself stories about its own demise.

At that point, the West started to shift from a sense of time as cyclical and repetitive to a new view of time as linear and progressive. Previously, history had been an endless repetition of golden ages followed by decline, fall and rebirth. Now, it was a one-way street pointing towards an ultimate moment of completion, whether the Coming of the Messiah or a more secular end-point such as the collapse of industrial civilization in nuclear war, pandemic bird flu or Y2K.

For the Western mind, the end of time promised plenty of suffering for the wicked and a grand redemption for the wise in a cosmic I Told You So that would answer the big questions once and for all — in Greek, “apocalypse” means lifting of the veil or revelation. But this idea was not shared by other cultures, which continued to believe in an endless cycling of good and bad eras and thus failed to embrace the Western idea of progress as well as its dark side, the final battle between good and evil.

But didn’t the Mayans also believe in the end of the world? Like anybody else who seems to know what they’re talking about, Gross and Gilles quickly dispense with the Mayan Long Count Calendar, busting the New Age 2012 myth that ancient Mesoamerican astrologers accurately predicted that the final curtain would fall on earthly civilization in December of this year.

Made in USA

After offering lots of history on the apocalpyse as a concept, Gross and Gilles explain why it matters that the idea of history jangling its spurs towards a final showdown at the Not-OK Corral found its high noon in the land of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan.

It was a steadfast belief in progress that enabled the Puritans’ City on a Hill to realize its manifest destiny and usher in The End of Historyas Francis Fukuyama put it, the triumph of the final form of human civilization, liberal capitalist democracy, over Communism and any other possible alternative. But the dark side of thinking that things are getting better every day and in every way is to also believe that the apocalypse is just around the corner.

And if this belief governs the most powerful country on Earth, then Houston, we have a problem.

It’s not that reasonable people shouldn’t be scared of things today. Indeed, there are plenty of real worries that need to be urgently addressed, particularly climate change and peak oil.

But activists who see themselves as Cassandras, Noahs or other prophets crying in the wilderness who must deliver their warnings with as much drama as possible in order to get the attention of a decadent and complacent world are courting failure on two fronts.

First, if we sound like chicken littles, squawking as loudly as we can that the sky is falling, we give people an excuse to lump the real problems we decry with the dozens of goofy fake problems that get way too much air time in the media on a regular basis.

Gross and Gilles write that invoking colorful images and the language of apocalypse has the effect of “leveling the apocalyptic playing field,” conveying the impression that “terrorism, bird flu, global warming, and asteroids are all equally probable.”

And at least all those things are matters of science. But what if you try to talk apocalypse to the more than 40% of Americans who think that the Second Coming will happen in their lifetimes?

You might as well start singing “I say tomato, you say tomahto.”

Or, as Gross and Gilles put it, “You believe in the Rapture; I believe in global warming — and so the conversation stops.”

“This overreliance on the apocalyptic narrative causes us to fear the wrong things and to mistakenly equate potential future events with current and observable trends,” they continue while offering three questions to evaluate which threats we should really fear: “Which scenarios are probable? Which are preventable? And what is the likely impact of the worst-case model of any threat?”

Learning to fear accurately

Second, if society is convinced at some point to forget about asteroids and the Rapture so that we can focus on the real task of getting off of oil, we still should keep calm and carry on even as we make preparations both important and urgent. Things could be bad — but probably not that bad.

As Gross and Gilles point out, even one of the worst catastrophes in history, the Black Death, had its upside. The bubonic plague outbreak did kill four out of every ten Europeans at the time. But those who were left behind found higher wages and plenty of cheap, empty land. And pretty soon, the beginning of the Renaissance.

So while the end-times will certainly continue to sell seats at the multiplex and fill pews at Pentecostal churches, we should remember that, as a story line, the apocalypse is less about enlightenment than it is about entertainment.

Only the most sour kind of killjoy would want to deny moviegoers the good clean fun of watching the White House explode or Manhattan disappear under a tsunami up on screen.

But holding out for the real-life cataclysm big enough to prove that James Hansen was right about climate, that Ron Paul was right about gold and that people who live in the suburbs were wrong about nearly everything will make us into cranks with little to offer the world but bitter self-righteousness. That’s no way to win friends and influence people. And it’s no way to develop the calm clarity we need now more than ever to build a worthwhile future.

If we leave the end of the world to the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer and find a more mature way to think about politics, culture and the economy than TEOTWAWKI or the peak-ocalypse, we will need to reconcile ourselves to never Knowing All the Answers. Maybe things will never really become much clearer than they are now.

Which means that the future we’ve been fearing and hoping for is already here.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice