The Apocalypse Makes Us Dumb

**From the archives. This piece was originally published on on July 15th, 2008.**

or, Millennial Mistakes: Why the Apocalypse is a Bad Model for Understanding The Future

Apocalypse makes us dumbIn thinking seriously about the negative trends in our future, we're severely hampered by the Hollywood idea of the Apocalypse. That idea, in turn, has deep roots in the millenarianism of monotheistic religions (in which there is an End of Days and it's coming soon) and of 19th Century social movements (there is a Dictatorship of the Proletariat and it's coming soon). Millenarianism has its own problems, not least of which is that people do horrible things to others in the name of clearing the way for their chosen perfect future. But for our discussion here, let's just confine our understanding of the credo to what it has done to our conception of the future.

Believing in a millennial future, or even frequently telling stories of such futures, blinds us both to what history teaches us about collapses and to what we know about our present moment. It makes us bad at thinking intelligently about the future.

This is a topic that could use careful consideration from a number of angles, but I have about 30 minutes to write today, so instead let's just list some of the futurist fallacies we tend to embrace because (whether we're consciously aware of it or not), we're applying a millennial lens to the events unfolding around us.

1) The Apocalypse is coming. There is a tendency to believe that big, catastrophic and singular events are going to come and destroy everything: that the Bird Flu or whatever is going to suddenly happen and immediately life will be hell. (The funniest example of this is climate change in The Day After Tomorrow, where sea level rise is so sudden that water rushes down the streets of New York in great rolling waves.)

2) The Apocalypse is forever. In disaster movies and such, people seem to lack the ability to regroup and rebuild. Sometimes a hero will -- usually by killing a monster/ warlord/ robot/Tina Turner -- win the chance for one small group to start over, but the implication is usually that the rest of the planet's a write off for the imaginable future.

3) The Apocalypse is everywhere. In the movies, collapse makes the whole world a wasteland. Everything crashes and burns; everyone dies; knowledge and law are driven entirely from the planet, or at very least confined to some very distant semi-mythical outpost paradise for which the survivors yearn. But generally, everything falls apart everywhere all at once (and never gets better).

4) The Elect will survive. Critical to the whole apocalyptic mindset is the narrative device of the survivor. An Apocalypse without survivors is not a story we tell (even The World Without Us presumes an invisible human narrator, and even Wall-E [which, btw, I loved] has essentially a simple human in a robot suit). And when we choose who survives in our end-of-the-world stories, we generally choose a person or small group of people with whom we identify, and we generally assume they survive because they're like us. Somehow, no matter how sudden, total and perpetual the disaster, someone like us will always find a way to make it through.

4a) A subset of the rule that the Elect will survive is that survivalists survive, that bunkered individuals or remote farming communities or whatever have an edge, and that when the crazy starts, it'll be the people holed up in the hinterlands who will survive and that the rule we can observe all through history -- which is that these people are simply prey to larger, better-organized groups -- suspends itself for the duration (unless a savior is needed to fight off the Humungous and his mohawked thugs or something -- see #2 above).

5) The Apocalypse will be an adventure. It won't. Somehow when we tell stories of the end of the world, we tend to always leave out the most fundamental experience of life during a disaster, which is powerless suffering. Disasters, as I've written before are all about bad food and wet feet and sick babies and pointless pain.

But reality is quite different from this. In reality, even the worst large-scale disasters come in variable speeds; in even the worst disasters, effects are uneven, with some places devastated and others left only mildly scathed; and in almost all disasters, rebuilding begins almost immediately (even the Black Death killing a third to half of the population didn't put much of dent in Europe's evolution -- indeed some argue it accelerated trade and innovation).

In reality, in a disaster those with the largest stable group and the highest degree of cooperation come out on top, and, in fact, it is often those places which are best governed and most socially coherent that assist other places in the rebuilding... and those hard-hit places are generally quite receptive to good ideas for putting the pieces back together.

We make a mistake when we think about the catastrophes looming before us -- climate change, peak oil, pandemics, whatever -- in millenarianist terms.

For one thing, but overplaying their inevitability, we undercut our own will to stave off those disasters, to moderate their extent and to prepare resilient strategies for coming through in the best shape we can, with the ability to rebuild as quickly as possible.

Because the intelligent response to looming crisis is a mix of all-out efforts toward prevention and widespread societal preparation. It's foresight, planning and cooperation, good investments and strong public service capacities. It's anticipating limited collapses, and being ready to help restore order and livelihoods to people as quickly as possible. It's banking on humanity in the long run, and it's knowing that Really Bad Stuff has happened before, and when people stuck together and were tough, smart and hardworking, they got through it, and sometimes what they built in the ashes was better than what they had before.

The smart move, when you're worried about the end of the world end, is to change it.

Image credit: Tambako, Creative Commons.




Great post! This is an important perspective on our times. I especially like #5 - "The Apocalypse will be an adventure". I think it is so tempting to think that there is some new enlightened era coming on, facilitated by the apocalypse, in which the Elect will finally have the world they want. I certainly have been guilty of those thoughts myself. Seeing the world in these black-and-white terms is tempting, but it is the worst kind of idealism. Being naive or idealistic are wonderful qualities, but they need to be applied through positive action. We won't get to a more enlightened society through apocalypse.

Posted by: Dave Sohigian on 15 Jul 08

Nice one. I enjoyed that read.
I think that fundamental changes have to be made at a much deeper level, our perception, to really change all around us. This post does this well.

Posted by: Jonas Marczy on 15 Jul 08

Excellent post, Alex. Apocalypse isn't adventure, but

... foresight, planning and cooperation, good investments and strong public service capacities. It's anticipating limited collapses, and being ready to help restore order and livelihoods to people as quickly as possible. It's banking on humanity in the long run...

will be an adventure.

Posted by: David Foley on 15 Jul 08

The apocalypse bug will be a very difficult one to eradicate, if what Frank Kermode says means anything. His book *The Sense of an Ending* is written for literary studies, but his arguments offer a connection between the way we tell stories generally and the apocalyptic mode which, as he says, puts any one of us "in the middest" - something close to a dramatic tipping point - in history's One Big Story. Although it's lit crit, I recommend it for anyone wanting to take the next step in figuring out this phenomenon. Because the sooner we let go of this dangerous paradigm, the better.

Posted by: P.J. Emery on 15 Jul 08

Geez. How many people here think scenarios like "The Day After Tomorrow" are even remotely possible?

"what history teaches us about collapses" is probably irrelevant this time, since very few of us have ANY of the survival skills people had in previous collapses. We all know there's several billion more people on the planet than we can keep alive unless we quickly solve a whole bunch of problems (most of which we have not only ignored, but continue to exacerbate). If that doesn't say apocalypse I'm not sure what does. No, this "apocalypse" won't happen overnight, but it will be an adventure and it won't be a good one. Get your lifeboats built for your community. Now.

And BTW, the apocalypse is not coming, it's going on right now:

The background level of extinction known from the fossil record is about one species per million species per year, or between 10 and 100 species per year (counting all organisms such as insects, bacteria, and fungi, not just the large vertebrates we are most familiar with). In contrast, estimates based on the rate at which the area of tropical forests is being reduced, and their large numbers of specialized species, are that we may now be losing 27,000 species per year to extinction from those habitats alone.

Posted by: Dave P. on 15 Jul 08

Good post.

A much shorter version of this would made a nice op-ed piece.

Regarding 4 & 5, there's a derisive term from writers'-workshop circles that can prove illuminating: Mary Sue. A Mary Sue (or Gary Sue) is a thinly disguised version of the writer, thrust into a difficult situation but in which she (or he) saves the day.

I suspect that there's a "Mary Sue" aspect to survivalist / apocalyptic thinking. Instead of a personal Mary Sue it is a cultural one. We can get through this if we (fill in the blank). Where (blank) is some exclusive, peculiar, and/or separatist belief.

I guess a really obvious example is the nutball cult that spread Sarin gas in Tokyo's subways last decade. The leader literally believed he would be leading the survivors after the crash.

I recall, before Y2K, and during the bird flu scare, earnest people talking about how the disaster offered an opportunity to reshape civilization. There was too much individually flavored crankiness in the mix to take these schemes as more than a Mary Sue scenario.

The Last Whole Earth Catalog (1971) has passage I adore, from a review by Stewart Brand. "We're down on utopian thinking around here, preferring a more fiasco by fiasco approach to perfection."

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 15 Jul 08

Apocalyptic thinking is a fascinating topic.

I think there is a probably a term for this, though I don't know what it is.... people seem to prefer certainty over uncertainty, the known over the unknown and simple explanations over complex ones, even if the certain, known and simple explanations are just plain wrong (certain politicians play this card well).

Reducing complexity and uncertainty to a simple idea - in this case the apocalypse - that can be easily grasped seems to give the illusion of control, and offers comfort and alleviates anxiety.

How much of this is about expiating our guilt and (unconsciously) wanting to be punished for our sins (in the case of environment apocalypse for mistreating the environment). Certainly the rhetoric of some environmental groups implies, or in some cases outright states, that the coming disasters are punishment for our abuse of the planet.

Also, how much wishful thinking is involved in apocalyptic thinking? How much of it - and we see this in the movies - is really about a desire to start anew, to refresh the world. After civilisation has been wiped away we have the opportunity to (hopefully) learn from our past mistakes and create a new Eden, a new Utopia.

I find it interesting that most apocalyptic scenarios occur in the lifetimes of those who believe in them - or at least in their children's lifetimes - so they are going to be personally affected. This makes me wonder - is the environmental apocalypse any different quantitatively or qualitatively than those we have gone through and survived before, like the Y2K bug or nuclear annihilation? (And yes, I know the nuclear threat hasn't really gone away, just the focus.)

Posted by: Sean FitzGerald on 15 Jul 08

This is apocalypse:

According to energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, global oil production is now declining, from 85 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015.

During this time the demand for oil will increase 14%. This is like a 45% drop in 7 years. No one can reverse this trend, nor can we conserve our way out of this catastrophe. Because the demand for oil is so high, it will always be higher than production; thus the depletion rate will continue at the same rate until all recoverable oil is extracted.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment.

We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.

This is documented in a free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed:
Anyone interested in relocating to a nice, pretty, sustainable area?

Posted by: Clifford J. Wirth on 15 Jul 08

Good post.

I'm not sure whether mentioning an Avian Influenza outbreak as an example is correct. It won't be apocolyptal, it won't leave the world as a wasteland, it will come, and it's something we should all prepare for.

Posted by: Nigel Thomas on 15 Jul 08

I agree with most everything you say, Alex, and yet ...

I've been involved with controversies about apocalyptic thinking in peak oil circles (aka doomers, collapsists, petrocollapsists, survivalists). These controversies become heated very quickly.

Here are some points at which I find myself in agreement with the collapsists:

1) If society continues in the current direction, there will be ecological and economic collapse, of a magnitude that is difficult to predict. The collapsists are wrong, I think, in underestimating our ability to change behavior in the face of disaster.

2. Many of the arguments used against collapsists are smug and superficial. Yes there are cultural predispositions to apocalyptic ideas, but that doesn't negate the fact that there are real dangers ahead of us. A recent post in the Freakonomics blog of the NY Times talks about deaths due to climate change in the range of hundreds of millions.

The main problem I have with collapsist thinking is that it leads to hysteria and ineffective action. It does not help us understand the real possibilities for the future.

There's a need for historical perspective, to look at how other civilizations dealt with challenges of this size. I notice that Dennis Meadows ("Limits to Growth") said in a recent interview that he is reading about the later stages of the Roman Empire.

Energy Bulletin

Posted by: Bart Anderson on 15 Jul 08

I don't see "apocalyptic" thinking any dumber than criticisms of localism, self-sufficiency, permaculture, or any other practical small-scale responses people can actually engage in at a level beyond praying for societal wide changes that involve the rapid ramping-up-and-deployment of yet-to-be-invented technologies and equitable delivery mechanisms.

I think the reason apocalyptic thought becomes tempting (aside from obvious cultural influences) is because unrealistic solutions such as Greenifying Civilization to be a teeming, hip, cool, culturally progressive, energetic and sustainable, Post-Hippie, organic iPhone-fest are seen as attainable ideals and more down-to-earth responses to crises that have actually happened -- think WWII "Victory Gardens", Cuba's post-Soviet-collapse agricultural overhaul, etc. -- are pooh-poohed upon by the sustainability "cultural elite".

Just check out Bruce Sterling's snarky response to Megan Quinn discussing the film "The Power of Community" moments after he waxes enthusiastic about Al Gore and his own move to a new city, Torino, an "artsy creative-class design metropolis.":

The pretension on display is enormous, which leads a lot of people to think, hey, if Techno-Design-Geeks' idea of sustainability is art-deco and a subway system, civilization is, indeed, screwed.

But to your point, yes, trying to prepare for the Apocalypse is stupid, in that it can't be done, and probably isn't something anyone would want to live through. But just as stupid is striking down much more mundane responses that stand a chance at being implemented on some small scale. Of course we're not going to "Victory Garden" our way out of this mess, and Cuba has a fair share of its problems, but diverse and replicable models is what we're looking for here, right? Or at least it's what I'm looking for. =)

Great post, though...recent posts are really getting at fundamental issues a lot of people are grappling with these days.

Posted by: Brad B on 15 Jul 08

Perhaps some of the Apocalyptic thinking is the result of the way governments, particularly the US government, have preferred to see citizens as fearful children who need to be protected rather than useful partners in handling disasters and crisis.

Former Green Beret and Rand terrorism Expert Brian Michael Jenkins puts it in an article (google True Grit Brian Michael Jenkins) like this:

“At home, we in America have spent the past five years scaring the hell out of ourselves. Terrorism is either violence or the threat of violence calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm. As we have seen, terrorism often works. Unfortunately, the unceasing public discussion of America’s vulnerabilities, the alarming alerts that followed 9/11, the proliferation of barricades and bollards, and the media reports of government officials holed up at secret sites have all added to the national anxiety.

Instead of puncturing the terror by educating and engaging the public in its own preparedness and response, Washington consigned citizens to the role of helpless and frightened passengers while it went after the bad guys. What else but fear can explain the readiness of Americans to tolerate tossing aside the very Geneva Convention agreements the United States had fought to implement? What else but fear could have led Americans to even entertain public arguments in favor of torture and against any restrictions on how we might treat those in custody?”

When people are scared they tend to go for Apocalypse scenarios and certainty. It either causes paralysis..."I'll just skip Mad Max and wait for the rapture." Or it causes the "I'll just get my bullets and beans and outlast all of you."

Unfortunately global elites seem to prefer an approach from Naomi Klein's book on disaster capitalism "The Shock Doctrine" They seem to want to do Mad Max but with them inside a bubble with servants and bodyguards and cafe latte's.

Posted by: Felix Dzerzhinsky on 16 Jul 08

Dear Alex,

Do you think the children will ask those in my not-so-great generation of elders, “When did you see the good scientific evidence of what everyone knew? Why did you not say anything, even though you did not know precisely what to do? How on Earth could you stand by, as if hysterically blind, willfully deaf and electively mute, and allow “…the greed.....of a thousand little kings…” who arrogantly see and proclaim themselves “masters of the universe” to precipitate the destruction of life as we know it and God’s Creation in the early years of Century XXI?"



Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 16 Jul 08

The New Testament has the Revelations book at the end. Revelations is snarky at best and has been counted out of the New Testament several times in its weird history. The apocalyptic event described in it took place in 130 or there abouts when the Roman Army tore down Jerusalem. So it is over already, has been. It wasn't wide spread. You could walk around it in a few hours. A bunch of mumbo jumbo later, it got picked up again by some jokers in England. They were trying to plaster over the cracks in religion at that time. But we got the distraction of the age of the oil wars (WWI to most curently being acted out in Iraq by our government with our money). Now why that makes this form of thinking attractive to anyone I can't guess.

The truth is that the world will last a really long time, with our without us. Physics is still the old physics yet if you will. So we have to figure out if we feel like going to the trouble to keep the climate from getting much more violent and unpredictible or not. For me that was easy because I really like to be outside and I would like for it to be nice instead of punishing. When other people decide how they feel about it, they can start doing things to make it one way or the other. It turns out, has been turning out, most of the folks around don't really like to be outside. So if they keep deciding that, more of the outside will be unpleasant. The only stuff that is going to make for a change is probably already at the ends of our arms and legs anyway, so folks can start doing something about it this afternoon. I think that is the most important thing, to start now. You don't have to wait. Just go on and be the change you want to see.

Posted by: Joe Bell on 16 Jul 08

The choice that the New Testament ofers is on the one hand a cooperative society that is based on the values of love: Compassion empathy tolerance forgiveness helpfulness generosity or on the other selfishness greed judgement self righteousness hatred and war. Obviously we have the latter type of society and the result will be what we all see coming and have seen coming for centuries as our collective numbers and consequent power to do harm increases daily. The battle has always been, for those who chose love, to continue to hope that Jesus's promise of outside interference will come to pass and that the meek will inherit the earth. If that is not true then I would advise people to become very rich since in a material world without a Just and loving God it is and historically has been the rich who survive.

Posted by: another bob on 16 Jul 08

Very though provoking column Alex!

Steve: That's an interesting quote you left: “…the greed.....of a thousand little kings…”

It led me to discover a short story by Don Marquis called "What the ants are saying". Interestingly enough, the topic of the story relates to the destruction of the environment. It was written in 1935.

Posted by: Al P. on 17 Jul 08

Just a short response to Another Bob and an observation.

The rich are never the ones who survive. The poor are who always make it. The house of cards that great wealth always comes to is intensely dependent of government services. Things like money and armies. They are the ones who implode when things get unstable.

Do ya'll notice what a stultifying effect on reasonable discourse the introduction of religion has had on this discusssion? So I suggest that in future we give the moderator the decision to kill them like all the troll posts. Thanks for participating in this great discussion and social experiment.

Posted by: Joe Bell on 17 Jul 08

Joe, Since there are far more poor than rich it is true that in gross numbers more poor survive but among the rich a far far higher percentage survive. E.g. German Jews escaping the Nazis or Poles escaping Nazis or Vietnamese during the American withdrawal or current Iraqi refugees in Syria. Escaping war and deadly genocides takes money and connections that the poor simply don't have. Also to take religion out of the discussion is to take ethics, morality, and values out of the discussion - besides the post was about religion i.e. the Apocalyspe.

Posted by: another bob on 17 Jul 08

A genocide is different from a societal collapse. The Nazis weren't everywhere, the rich could use their resources to escape. With globalization, however, when the balloon goes up it goes up everywhere.
And the starving poor of all the nations are going to know deep down that it wasn't their fault. It's never their fault. The only way for a rich man to move amongst them without the spectre of Judge Lynch would be to join them, the poor.
The rich always buy it.
There are still thousands of nukes.
Would we use them in a resource war if things went worst-to-worst?
Maybe not.
But remember that they are automated: at least twice already a computer glitch has nearly caused the Apocolypse. If the budgets dip too low, the repair cycles end... glitchy, glitchy, boom. Goodbye Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. It's very retro end of the world nobody seems to be talking about.

Posted by: Tyler August on 18 Jul 08

Great points, and great contributions. However:
1. apocalypses have come, are coming, and will come;
2. they are permanent;
3. they are everywhere:

I wonder how the survivors of the many "apocal-itos" (think New Orleans, Sichuan province, Iraq, Swaziland--33% of people have AIDS, etc.) would feel regarding the Millennial/Apocalyptic mindset that you refer to as a sort of religio-cultural artifact and an over-reaction?

Seems apocalypses are personal at times, and telling someone they don't need to fear the apocalypse does little to appease them when they have been, are, or could be participants in one of the "little" apocalypses noted above--or any of the more Grand Apocalypses that our approach to the planet has enabled.


Regarding peak oil and global warming as potential apocalpyses: as the biologist Edward O. Wilson alluded to in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), the social fabric of the planet has/will become--and more so each day--like an organism, each part dependent upon the healthy functioning of the others--to some extent; for a world population of 6.5 billion people and a just-in-time supply chain, it's not hard to imagine a critical part of the "organism" being "injured" or killed, leaving the rest of the organism in dire straits--or at least substantial parts of it.

Apocalypse is Personal; what a Revelation...

Posted by: Lee Grove on 20 Jul 08

Here's a link to "What The Ants Are Saying", written in 1935. I know this not because I memorized it, but because I read it Friday when I bought the 1970 Earth Day Handbook (already in it's third printing by April 1970).

One of the best writers I have read on the rhetoric of apocalypse is John Michael Greer, at

Posted by: smc on 20 Jul 08


The idea "End Times," which every generation
warns about, has to do with Earth and solar
system cycles that effect mass extinctions,
in which, say, a high-culture civilization
is brought to its knees, forced to revert to
savagery, in order to survive, and living in
caves and other primitive shelters.

That's what the Mayan calender date 2012
may be be about--about another turning,
or solar-system cycle, such as PRECESSION

[[ Note: It's extremely rare that both
events occur simultaneously, as is
happening right now. ]]

In other words, there may be a deeply
embedded genetic alarm-system, which keeps
Mankind ever-wedded to the idea "End Times"
--out of sheer terror of what always comes
around, over and over and over again.

Read these three books:

"Forbidden Knowledge," by Cremo and Thompson

"Not by Fire but by Ice," by Robert Felix


"Fingerprints of the Gods," by Graham Hancock

The first book provides archeological
evidence that many civilization have
met their End Time by either PRECESSION

The other two books provide
near-irrefutable proof that
Mankind is not responsible
that astronomical cycles
are!, which fact makes
spending ourselves do death
on environmentalism is a
MISTAKE in itself.



Posted by: Deacon on 20 Jul 08

Lovely read. I find myself getting caught up in a paranoid 'the apocalypse could happen at any moment' mindset. One day last month I heard sirens for twenty minutes and saw a helicopter go over head (I'm in Seattle) and had an hour long freakout, looking at news sites and trying to get answers. My partner and I discuss where we'll high-tail it to if 'shit goes down', which is our code for, well, you know. I swing from imagining mushroom clouds in the distance and imagining the scenario from Brenner's 'The Sheep Look Up.'

It's posts like this and sites like yours that are teaching me to breathe slowly and work it out. Thanks.

Posted by: Glasses on 20 Jul 08

Lee Grove wrote:

"I wonder how the survivors of the many "apocal-itos" (think New Orleans, Sichuan province, Iraq, Swaziland--33% of people have AIDS, etc.) would feel regarding the Millennial/Apocalyptic mindset that you refer to as a sort of religio-cultural artifact and an over-reaction?

Seems apocalypses are personal at times, and telling someone they don't need to fear the apocalypse does little to appease them when they have been, are, or could be participants in one of the "little" apocalypses noted above--or any of the more Grand Apocalypses that our approach to the planet has enabled. "

I think that people in that situation would want other people to actually help them as best they could. Not tell them that their suffering was inevitable. Not just shrug and say that it had to happen to someone and that there was nothing that anyone could do about it. Not be told that it was their fault when they had comparatively little responsibility for the situation in which they found themselves.

I think they'd be frustrated far more than I am by the approach that a lot of apocalyptic thinking has engendered-which in my observation has spawned a lot of places where not only are people disinterested in helping anyone else out outside of very constrained limitations that mostly aid people that already have a good bit of resources, both monetarily and societally-but they seem to be more interested in shouting down anyone who might be interested in helping anyone outside of these limits.

Posted by: LB on 20 Jul 08


The two books you say offer "near-irrefutable proof that
Mankind is not responsible
for GLOBAL WARMING" are from the mid-90s.

For a discussion of why we SHOULD be going into a new ice age--and aren't--you might want to read the 2007 book __Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate__ by paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman. For another more recent view of the climate situation, you might try __Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future__ by paleontologist Peter Ward of the University of Washington. The acidification of the ocean is, for me, terribly alarming.

On a more general note, this was a fine assessment by Alex Steffen. I especially liked these lines:

>Because the intelligent response to >looming crisis is a mix of all-out >efforts toward prevention and >widespread societal preparation. It's >foresight, planning and cooperation, >good investments and strong public >service capacities. It's anticipating >limited collapses, and being ready to >help restore order and livelihoods to >people as quickly as possible.

I'm just not sure any human society is doing what it could/would/should for the future. Fish--soon to be gone. Fossil fuels--demand outstripping supply. One and on.

I try not to be swept up with THE apocalypse. In fact, I've said, "And what makes YOU so special?" to people who were sure they were somehow important enough to be living in the End Times. However, I do fear that things are not headed in a direction humans are going to enjoy.

I'm going to go water my garden.




Posted by: Ducksouper on 20 Jul 08

Bart Anderson mentioned an important point. You need to explain the collapse of Rome. You write as though the Roman Empire never fell. I assure you, it did. The results were fairly catastrophic to those in the former western empire, though they played out over centuries.

The fall of Rome is not the only example of advanced civilizations collapsing, either. Bad stuff really could happen, and it usually comes as war, famine, disease, or a combination of those. It's a little glib to gloss over real potential problems, particularly when you can look around you and see early stages, and pretend that it's all in other people's heads.

Posted by: kjmclark on 21 Jul 08

Regarding the Roman Empire: from what I've read recently, a number of historians are questioning the whole idea of the Dark Ages.

Peter S. Wells in particular has documented a set of cultures with high achievement and relative prosperity.

While it is true that certain aspects of Rome, especially its intellectual achievements, disappeared for centuries, or held on barely in Ireland, that doesn't mean that Europe as a whole experienced nothing but centuries of darkness. People recovered, rebuilt, made something new.

"... what has so often excited wonder, the great rapidity with which countries recover from a state of devastation; the disappearance, in a short time, of all traces of the mischiefs done by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and the ravages of war. An enemy lays waste a country by fire and sword, and destroys or carries away nearly all the moveable wealth existing in it: all the inhabitants are ruined, and yet in a few years after, everything is much as it was before." (See Principles of Political Economy, John Stuart Mill, Book I, Chap. 5, par. I.5.19.)

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 21 Jul 08

My point, in case it isn't clear, is not that bad things don't happen, nor that we shouldn't do everything in our power to avoid them, but that thinking in all-or-nothing terms, expecting the end of the world, tends to enervate our will to prepare, to plan for recovery and to be ready to help others recover.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 21 Jul 08

I agree for the most part with all of your sentiments. In most discussions I've had on the subject, I've found that peoples' apocalypse theories tend to closely mirror the hollywood archetypes. In particular I've found that there is a prevailing belief in a reversion to survival of the fittest mentality wherein only the best armed and strongest will survive. By embracing such a view we not only limit our capacity to prepare for disasters in a rational sense, but we feed into contemporary threats to civil society such as lax gun control laws, xenophobia, or security driven threats to civil liberties. For after all, why should we give up our handguns and assault weapons when we might need them in the coming apocalypse.

However, I also feel that it may be a bit problematic to conclude that just because a sweeping, civilization ending disaster didn't befall humanity in the past that we can conclude that such a catastrophe will not befall us in the future. The disasters that we are facing from climate change, other ecological crises, nuclear war, terrorism, disease, bioengineering, and so on are unprecedented in human history in terms of scale and destructive capacity. So while it is important not to get caught up in apocalyptic myth, it may be equally important to seriously consider the possibility that these catastrophes could pose a real existential threat to our civilization, on par with the archetypal apocalypse scenarios.

Posted by: Keith on 21 Jul 08

I'm wondering if this topic is called collapse fetishism?

I'd like to think there will be a sustainable world in the future I get overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges we face and instead try and imagine how I could survive.

Also some of the other posts allude to the fact that the apocalypse is here but just isnt equally distributed yet. I dont think they saw it coming either.


Posted by: Peadar Lynch on 21 Jul 08

Yes, agreed apocalyptic, "end of world" thinking is related to paralysis and, as Alex notes, "enervates our will."

But what makes us dumb is fear. Fear is related, in some form or another, to impaired cognition, fight-or-flight biochemical responses, heightened stress and anxiety, etc. Fear leads to mis-perception, makes it harder to build trust and goodwill.

Yet, objectively, we are in a place where James Hansen, head of NASA's climate change program, in his June 2008 address to Congress, spoke about:

* "...defusing the climate change time bomb"
* the potential for "disastrous climate changes spiraling dynamically out of humanity's control"
* the potential for "no stable shoreline [being] established IN ANY TIME FRAME THAT HUMANITY CAN CONCEIVE [my caps]."

For Hansen to speak of unstable shorelines for time frames that we cannot conceive is to say that we haven't developed far-sighted thinking on a large, almost geological scale. This insight goes some way in explaining why our leaders have not to date taken actions of the kind Hansen, Worldchanging and others believe are necessary to prevent building climatic forces from taking a huge toll.

In this context, I think we'll need to work hard at encouraging trust and goodwill. And--in case fear and greed (a.k.a, "business as usual") dominate global economic behavior--we'll have to support people to perceive well so that they can know what they need to do as individuals, as friends, as members of communities, etc. to prepare wisely for what lies ahead.

Posted by: Sanjay Khanna on 21 Jul 08