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Trend #7: The Age of the Apocalypse

Updating the Age of Apocalypse trend in 2012 seems fitting considering this is the year that believers in Nostradamus or the Mayan calendar doomsday scenario think will be our last. Of course, 2011 was also supposed to be our last, according to fringe Christian fundamentalist Harold Camping, whose creative Biblical tinkering yielded May 21, 2011 as the definitive date of the Rapture.

In our original post, we delineated four types of contemporary apocalyptic thinking:

Malthusian catastrophes envision the collapse of human civilization or the environment as the result of the pressure of human population and consumption on the planet…

Faustian technology scenarios involve the destruction of human civilization by the fruits of our heedless technological advance…

Cultural catastrophes involve the destruction of everything that makes life meaningful and worth living by a souless and/or godless cosmopolitan culture…

Finally, the old fashioned religious apocalypse is still with us, energized both by the development of ‘hot religion’ and a global situation which is broadly supportive of apocalyptic ideas.

The past year brought a plethora of real world stimuli for such dark premonitions, from the specter of loose nukes in an increasingly destabilizing Pakistan to the continuing Iranian drive for nuclear weapons.

While most Camping-style doomsday predictions are harmless entertainment except for the gullible few who believe them, the prospect of religio-political apocalypse is no laughing matter. Today, mainstream columnists are imagining how a nuclear war might break out in the Middle East along these lines. When it comes to the combustible combination of Iranian leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Shi’a Islam’s apocalyptic scenarios, one can be forgiven for thinking the unthinkable, even if the mullahs are unlikely to allow their unpopular and illegitimate president to carry out his threats against the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, over the past year, technological Faustian visions of the end times have found expression not just in heightened fears of nuclear war, but of global pandemics, as exemplified in recent popular films like Contagion. At the same time, visions of cultural cataclysm have penetrated our politics, with many conservatives obsessing over what they perceive as President Obama’s Kenyan socialist agenda, and their liberal counterparts ruminating about the ever-forthcoming advent of American theocracy.

Malthusian apocalyptic scenarios have seen some reevaluation over the past two years, with a shift of focus from overpopulation to demographic winter, as population growth is projected to plateau and decline as fertility rates fall in developing countries like Brazil. Nonetheless, some Malthusians insist that populations outstripping their capacity to produce, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, pose an urgent problem. And of course, the more hysterical greens continue to trumpet sweeping predictions for the destruction of our civilization as they chase utterly impractical means for mitigating them.

The frightening thing about apocalyptic thinking is that it tends to feed off itself and breed the conditions for its own fulfillment. Paranoia, ill-advised overreaction to perceived threats, and a general climate of fear all contribute to a more unstable world. This is a reality; the world is on a wild and unsettling ride in our times, and even sober and level headed people can have a hard time distinguishing between rational concern and hysterical fear. The Age of Apocalypse isn’t going away anytime soon; the prospect of some kind of ultimate catastrophe will remain an element in our politics and culture.

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  • Anthony

    “The frightening thing about apocalyptic thinking is that it tends to feed off itself and breed the conditions….” Your categories(Malthusian, Frustian, Cultural clashes, and Apocalyptic ideas) taken together WRM brings to mind the power of cognitive bias (Gaia principle looks fragile given Trend #7: Age of the Apocalypse).

  • Jon Boone

    Given the media hype of weather extremes and the pervasiveness of the Internet, combined with the chilling fact that a stopped clocked is right twice a day, the apocalypse will grow many heads, continuing to provide frisson for those geared up for melodrama.

  • Andrew Hamilton

    A fascination with huge scale disasters was also characteristic of the 1840s in England, a nation undergoing rapid social and economic change. Tate Britain has just taken down “Apocalypse,” a brilliant retrospective of the Victorian painter John Martin, the centerpiece of which was three huge canvases depicting in the center Christ separating the saved from the damned, flanked by the destruction of earth (with a city, its buildings upside down, falling into the abyss and huge boulders flying through the air) and the Elysian Fields. The Tate hired son-et-lumiere specialists to animate the paintings very effectively. Martin, the most popular artist of his day, did other disaster paintings, and the newly rehung Victorian galleries nearby show other artists of the time, including Turner, treating the same theme.

  • Eric

    They always forget Deut 7:9. Only about 800 more generations to go.

    Here is a line I happened to read last night:

    “…and the public was always ready to believe any news, provided it was bad.”
    – Tacitus, Histories

    I think it is safe to say reporting has not changed!

  • Michael Martin-Smith

    Mother Nature thoughtfully provides various possible extinction/civilisation wrecking scenarios for us- asteroid/comet impact, supervolcanic eruptions, Gamma Ray Bursters in our “local” neighbourhood, pandemics, and extreme solar eruptions being some of the candidates.
    None of these would apply to a human civilisation well dispersed in Space beforehand; the final answer to Apocalypse for Humankind,as with the Holocaust for the Jews, lies in Diaspora.

    For Jewry, this was transcontinental; for the human species, it will be cosmic. Our Destiny is the Humanisation of Space, or decay followed by extinction. We do have a choice – and a rather hopeful and positive one at that…
    “Earth is the Cradle of Mind- but one does not live in the Cradle forever!”

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