Last week’s discussion of failed predictions in the peak oil movement inevitably touched on the latest round of claims that the world as we know it is going to come to a full stop sometime very soon. That was inevitable partly because these claims account for a fairly large fraction of the predictions made by peak oil writers each year, and partly because those same claims flop so reliably. Still, there’s another factor, which is that this sort of apocalypse fandom has become increasingly popular of late—as well as increasingly detached from the world the rest of us inhabit.
Late last year, for example, I was contacted by a person who claimed to be a media professional and wanted to consult with me about an apocalypse-themed video he was preparing to make. As I think most of my readers know, I make my living as a writer, editor, and occasional consultant, and so—as one professional to another—my wife, who is also my business manager, sent him back a polite note asking what sort of time commitment he was interested in and how much he was offering to pay. We got back a tirade accusing me of being too cheap to save the world, followed not long thereafter by another email in which he insisted that he couldn’t afford to pay anyone because his project would inevitably be the least popular video in history; after all, he claimed, nobody wants to hear about how the world as we know it is about to crash into ruin.
That was when I sat back on the couch and very nearly laughed myself into hiccups, because there’s nothing Americans like better than a good loud prediction of imminent doom. From Jonathan Edwards’ famous 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” right through to today’s zombie apocalypse craze, a good number of the biggest pop-culture phenomena in American history have focused on the end of the world in one way or another. A first-rate example is the 2012 furore, which turned a nonexistent Mayan prophecy of doom into one of the most successful media cash cows in recent times. I can testify from personal experience that toward the end of the last decade, every publisher I know of with a presence in the New Age market was soliciting 2012-themed books from all their regular authors because that was the hottest market going.
The 2012 prophecy may have been a predictive failure, in other words, but it was a whopping financial success. With that in mind, among other things, I predicted shortly after December 21, 2012 that a new date for the end of everything would soon be selected, and would promptly attract the same enthusiasm as its predecessor. As noted in a post last May, that was one of my more successful predictions; the new date is 2030, and it’s already picking up the same eager attention that made 2012 such a lucrative gimmick.
One of the great innovations of the runup to 2012, which will probably continue to shape apocalyptic fads for some time to come, is that you don’t actually have to propose a specific mechanism of doom; all you need is a date. The architect of the 2012 phenomenon, the late Jose Arguelles, seems to have been the marketing genius who first realized this. His 1984 book The Mayan Factor, which launched the furore on its way, insisted that something really, truly amazing was going to happen on December 21, 2012, without offering more than vague hints about what that amazing event might be. Those who piled onto the bandwagon he set in motion more than made up for Arguelles’ reticence, coming up with a flurry of predictions about what was going to happen on that day.
It didn’t matter that most of these predictions contradicted one another, and none of them rested on any logic more solid than, hey, we know something amazing is going to happen on that day, so here’s some speculation, with or without cherrypicked data, about what the amazing event might be. The pileup of predictions, all by itself, made the date itself sound more convincing to a great many people. Far from incidentally, it also offered believers a convenient source of shelter from skepticism: if a nonbeliever succeeded in disproving a hundred different claims about what was supposed to happen on the big day, a hundred and first claim would inevitably pop up as soon as he turned his back, so that the believers could keep on believing that the world as we know it was indeed going to end as scheduled.
The same logic is already being deployed with equal verve on behalf of a 2030 doomsday. So far, without making any particular effort to find them, I’ve fielded claims that on or by that year, global warming will spin out of control, driving humanity into extinction; oceanic acidification will kill off all the phytoplankton, crashing oxygen levels in the atmosphere and driving humanity into extinction; the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone Park will erupt, plunging the planet into a volcanic winter and driving humanity into extinction; an asteroid will come spinning out of space and driving humanity into extinction, and so on. I haven’t yet seen anyone proclaim that 2030 will see the Earth swallowed whole by a gigantic space walrus with photon flippers, but no doubt it’s simply a matter of time.
Now of course it’s possible to raise hard questions about each of these claims—well, in fact, it’s more than possible, it’s easy, since none of them rely on more than a few fringe studies on the far end of scientific opinion, if that, and most of them quietly ignore the fact that greenhouse-gas spikes, oceanic acidification, and nearly everything else but the aforementioned space walrus have occurred before in the planet’s history without producing the results that are being expected from them this time around. I’ll be taking the time to raise some of those questions, and offer some answers for them grounded in solid science, in a series of posts I’ll start later this year. Still, fans and promoters of the 2030 fad have nothing to fear from such exercises; like the legendary hydra, a good apocalypse fad can sprout additional heads at will to replace those that are chopped off by critics.
Thus it’s pretty much baked into the cake at this point that 2030 will be the new 2012, and that we can count on another sixteen years of increasingly overheated claims clustering around that date before it, too, slips by and a new date has to be found. We’ll be discussing the trajectory of the resulting furore from time to time on this blog, if only because there’s a certain wry amusement to be gained from watching people make epic fools of themselves. Still, the point I want to raise this week is a little different. Granted that apocalypse fandom is an enduring feature of American pop culture, that very few people ever lost money or failed to attract an audience by insisting that the end is nigh, that a huge and well-oiled marketing machine lost its cash cow when 2012 passed without incident and thus has every reason to pile into the next apocalypse fad with redoubled enthusiasm: even so, why should fantasies of imminent doom attract so much larger an audience now than ever before, and play so much more central a role in the contemporary imagination of the future?
There are, as I see it, at least four factors involved.
The first is a habit of collective thought I spent much of last year discussing—the widespread popular conviction, amounting to religious faith, that today’s industrial civilization is an unstoppable juggernaut that will keep rolling onwards forever unless some even more gargantuan catastrophe mashes it flat to the dust. That conviction, as I’ve noted in previous posts, is not confined to those who are cheering the march of progress. Plenty of people who claim that they hate industrial civilization and all its works are as convinced as any cornucopian that it’s certain to keep moving along its current trajectory, until it finally vanishes on the horizon of whatever grand or dreadful destiny it’s supposed to have this week.
As a heretic and a dissenter from that secular faith, I’ve repeatedly watched otherwise thoughtful people engage in the most spectacular mental backflips to avoid noticing that perpetual progress and overnight annihilation aren’t the only possible futures for the modern industrial world. What’s more, a great many people seem to be getting more fervent in their faith in progress, not less so, as the onward march of progress just mentioned shows increasing signs of grinding to a halt. That’s a common feature in social psychology; it’s precisely when a popular belief system starts failing to explain everyday experiences that people get most passionate about treating it as unquestionable fact and shouting down those who challenge it. Believing that our civilization and our species will be gone by 2030 feeds into this, since that belief makes it much easier to brush aside the uncomfortable awareness that progress is over and faith in industrial society’s omnipotence has turned out to be utterly misplaced.
That’s one reason why apocalyptic fantasies are so popular these days. A second reason, which I’ve also discussed at some length in this blog, is the role such fantasies have in justifying inaction, when action involves significant personal costs. One of the hard facts of our present predicament is that the steps that have to be taken to get ready for the future bearing down on us all require letting go of the privileges and perquisites that most Americans consider theirs by right. A few years ago, I coined the acronym LESS—Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation—to summarize the changes that we’re all going to have to make as things proceed, and began pointing out that any response to our predicament that doesn’t start with using LESS simply isn’t serious.
I’m pleased to say that a certain fraction of my readers have taken that advice seriously, and tackled the uncomfortable job of downsizing their dependence on the absurd amounts of energy, stuff, and artificial stimulation that are involved in an ordinary American lifestyle these days. I’m equally pleased to say that an even larger number of people who don’t read The Archdruid Report and don’t know me from Hu Gadarn’s off ox have gotten to work doing the same thing. Those people are going to be in a much better position not merely to weather the crises ahead, but to help their loved ones, friends and neighbors do the same thing, and potentially also contribute to the preservation of the more useful achievements of the last few centuries. Still, it’s hard work, and it also requires a willingness to step outside the conventional wisdom of our society, which claims to be open to new and innovative ideas but in practice tolerates only endless rehashings of the same old notions.
Inevitably, a good many people who sense the necessity of change won’t act on that awareness because they realize the personal costs involved. Fantasies of imminent doom provide an escape hatch from the resulting cognitive dissonance. If the world is going to crash into ruin soon anyway, the reasoning runs, it’s easy to excuse further wallowing in the benefits the American system currently gives to its more privileged inmates, and any remaining sense that something is wrong can be redirected onto whatever cataclysm du jour the true believer in apocalypse happens to fancy. Believing that the end is nigh thus allows people to have their planet and eat it too—or, more to the point, to convince themselves that they can keep on chomping away on what’s left of the planet for just a little while longer.
The third factor, which relates to the second one, unfolds from the historical tragedy of the Baby Boom generation, which is massively overrepresented in apocalypse fandom just now. The Boomers were among the most idealistic generations in US history, but they were also far and away the most privileged, and the conflict between those two influences has defined much of their trajectory through time. Starting when the Sixties youth culture crashed and burned, the Boomers have repeatedly faced forced choices between their ideals and their privileges. Each time, the majority of Boomers—there have always been noble exceptions—chose to cling to their privileges, and then spent the next decade or so insisting at the top of their lungs that their ideals hadn’t been compromised by that choice.
Thus the early 1970s were enlivened by the loud insistence of former hippies, as they cut their hair and donned office clothing to take up the corporate jobs they’d vowed never to accept, that they were going to change the system from within. (Even at the time, that was generally recognized as a copout, but it was a convenient one and saw plenty of use.) By the 1980s, many of these same former hippies were quietly voting for Ronald Reagan and his allies because the financial benefits of Reagan’s borrow-and-spend policies were just too tempting to pass up, though they insisted all the while that they would put part of the windfall into worthy causes. Rinse and repeat, and today you’ve got people who used to be in the environmental movement pimping for nuclear power and GMOs, because the conserver lifestyles they were praising to the skies forty years ago have become unthinkable for them today.
One consequence of these repeated evasions has been an ongoing drumbeat of books and other media proclaiming as loudly as possible that that the Baby Boom generation would change the world just by existing, without having to accept the hard work and sacrifices that changing the world actually entails. From 1972’s The Greening of America right on down to the present, this sort of literature has been lucrative and lavishly praised, but the great change never quite got around to happening and, as the Boomers head step by step toward history’s exit door, there’s no reason to think it ever will.
Perhaps the saddest of all these works came from the once-fiery pen of the late Theodore Roszak, whose 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture played a significant role in shaping the Boomer generation’s self-image. His last book, The Making of an Elder Culture, expressed a wistful hope that once the Boomers retired, they would finally get around to fulfilling the expectations he’d loaded on them all those years ago. Of course they haven’t, and they won’t, because doing so would put their pensions and comfortable retirements at risk. Mutatis mutandis, that’s why the Age of Aquarius turned out to be a flash in the pan: “Let’s change the system, but keep the privileges we get from it” reliably works out in practice to “Let’s not change the system.”
The expectation of imminent apocalypse is the despairing counterpoint to the literature just described. Instead of insisting that the world would shortly become Utopia (and no action on the part of Boomers is needed to cause this), it insists that the world will shortly become the opposite of Utopia (and no action on the part of Boomers is capable of preventing this). This serves the purpose of legitimizing inaction at a time when action would involve serious personal costs, but there’s more to it than that; it also feeds into the Boomer habit of insisting on the cosmic importance of their own experiences. Just as normal adolescent unruliness got redefined in Boomer eyes as a revolution that was going to change the world, the ordinary experience of approaching mortality is being redefined as the end of everything—after all, the universe can’t just go on existing after the Boomers are gone, can it? It’s thus surely no accident that 2030 is about the time the middle of the Baby Boom generation will be approaching the end of its statistically likely lifespan.
The three factors just listed all have a major role in fostering the apocalypse fandom that plays so large a part in today’s popular culture and collective imagination. Still, I’ve come to think that a fourth factor may actually be the most significant of all.
To grasp that fourth factor, I’d like to encourage my readers to engage in a brief thought experiment. Most people these days have noticed that for the last decade or so, each passing year has seen a broad worsening of conditions on a great many fronts. Here in America, certainly, jobs are becoming scarcer, and decent jobs with decent pay scarcer still, while costs for education, health care, and scores of other basic social goods are climbing steadily out of reach of an ever-larger fraction of the population. State and local governments are becoming less and less able to provide even essential services, while the federal government sinks ever further into partisan gridlock and bureaucratic paralysis, punctuated by outbursts of ineffectual violence flung petulantly outward at an ever more hostile world. The human and financial toll of natural disasters keeps going up while the capacity to do anything about the consequences keeps going down—and all the while, resource depletion and environmental disruption impose a rising toll on every human activity.
That’s the shape of the recent past. The thought experiment I’d like to recommend to my readers is to imagine that things just keep going the same way, year after year, decade after decade, without any of the breakthroughs or breakdowns in which so many of us like to put our faith.
Imagine a future in which all the trends I’ve just sketched out just keep on getting worse, a tunnel growing slowly darker without any light at the far end—not even the lamp of an oncoming train. More to the point, imagine that this is your future: that you, personally, will have to meet ever-increasing costs with an income that has less purchasing power each year; that you will spend each year you still have left as an employee hoping that it won’t be your job’s turn to go away forever, until that finally happens; that you will have to figure out how to cope as health care and dozens of other basic goods and services stop being available at a price you can afford, or at any price at all; that you will spend the rest of your life in the conditions I’ve just sketched out, and know as you die that the challenges waiting for your grandchildren will be quite a bit worse than the ones you faced.
I’ve found that most people these days, asked to imagine such a future, will flatly refuse to do it, and get furiously angry if pressed on the topic. I want to encourage my readers to push past that reaction, though, and take a few minutes to imagine themselves, in detail, spending the rest of their lives in the conditions I’ve just outlined. Those who do that will realize something about apocalyptic fantasies that most believers in such fantasies never mention: even the gaudiest earth-splattering cataclysm is less frightening than the future I’ve described—and the future I’ve described, or one very like it, is where current trends driven by current choices are taking us at their own implacable pace.
My guess is that that’s the most important factor behind the popularity of apocalyptic thinking these days. After so many promised breakthroughs have failed to materialize, cataclysmic mass death is the one option many people can still believe in that’s less frightening than the future toward which we’re actually headed, and which our choices and actions are helping to create. I suggest that this, more than anything else, is why 2030 is going to be the next 2012, why promoters of the it’s-all-over-in-2030 fad will find huge and eager audiences for their sales pitches, and why some other date will take 2030’s place in short order once the promised catastrophes fail to appear on schedule and the future nobody wants to think about continues to take shape around them.
Mind you, there are less delusional and less self-defeating ways to face the challenging times ahead—ways that might actually accomplish something positive in a harsh future. We’ll talk about one of those next week.