The apocalypse is among the most powerful of modern myths. But we hedge our bets on its severity. We never envision the complete annihilation of the human race. We imagine a dramatic reduction of our numbers, but paint a personal narrative of survival amongst the noble and capable few who entrust themselves with carrying forward the best humanity has to offer. In our perfect apocalypse we see not death and the end of the human era, but an opportunity for rebirth wherein like the phoenix we rise to new life and new potential. In our wildest fantasies, the apocalypse never means the end of times, it means a new beginning. Struck with denial about the consequences of human behavior since the industrial revolution, we choose to romanticize the end of life as we know it. Rather than behave differently to mitigate catastrophe, we persuade ourselves that we’re prepared to deal with the worst possible outcome. The reality, however, will not be anything of the sort. That the apocalypse could mean anything good for humanity, personally or collectively, is no less a fantasy than the myth of progress from which popular apocalypticism originally stems.
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The popular apocalypse
Western culture today—-traditionally and in the popular sense—-is rife with apocalyptic narratives. Our fascination with end-times is, on one hand, couched in a history of Manichean religious conviction, and on the other, a new symptom of our growing disillusionment with modernity. Democracy, capitalism, globalization, science, and technology—-the many arms of the project of progress—-have failed to rid the world of evil as we imagined they would. Fairness, equality, standing, mastery over nature, control over our destinies—-all were promised, but delivered only piecemeal if at all.
Now we begin to taste the bitter fruit: that “modern” social orders are no more immune to the undesirable aspects of human nature than those of our “ancient” counterparts. Modernity has, in many ways, served only to amplify the human capacity for evil and to exacerbate the very problems we sought modernization to remedy.
In our disillusionment with modernity we revert to an older faith—-a religious solidarity grounded not in messy reality, but in the irrational belief that beneath the chaos of nature there exists a greater universal order to which human beings are specially attuned, giving us status above and above the rest of the natural world—-that it rests upon our shoulders to change the course of history.
The grand scheme to bring paradise to all, while successful in privileging a few with enormous wealth, has meant and continues to mean poverty and geo-political subjugation for many—-many of whom reside in the third world or global south and never stood to benefit from modernization in the first place. The immediate social impacts of economic exploitation in tandem with the long-term environmental effects of resource extraction, including local pollution and non-local consequences such as climate change and all that climate change entails for sea-level, food production, and habitability, amounts to a paradox of sorts: our pursuit of progress—-our forward-looking idealism—-has condemned the very future we sought to enrich to lives of hardship.
And so in our shock, in our dissatisfaction, we reflex to eschatology. We foretell and therein help to ensure a prophesy of inevitable conflict. A great war between Good and Evil to accomplish through violence what progress could not. The apocalyptic genre is popular not arbitrarily, but because we sense, and in some sadistic cases, likely expect, that something of the sort will play out because we believe that without a dramatic purifying event—-an epic triumphant narrative—-history is destined to repeat itself without any hope of breaking free from our Sisyphean condition. The truth is that the former is far more likely than than the latter. Good will never triumph over Evil because both are essential to what it means to be human. Both are a matter of perspective and construction, culture and habit, perception and preconception, all of which further ensures the longevity of both ideas so long as humans are around.
The fate of the world does not rest on human shoulders. Life will continue long after the human animal is gone, regardless of our footprint. Albeit, we may render the planet entirely inhospitable to ourselves and other sensitive creatures, but life will go on in some form. To suppose that life on Earth somehow depends on the human struggle between Good and Evil is simply an irrational and self-aggrandizing exercise of humanistic narcissism. While we may view our role in nature through dichotomous lenses, one side destined to win out over the other, in reality ours is but one of many animal cycles that will culminate not in glorious victory, but in gradual speciation and extinction.
Continue reading: The popular apocalypse, ctd.