What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America

How Apocalyptic Thinking Prevents Us from Taking Political Action

By allowing the challenges of the 21st century to be hijacked by the apocalyptic storyline, we find ourselves awaiting a moment of clarity when the problems we must confront will become apparent to all — or when those challenges will magically disappear, like other failed prophecies about the end of the world. Yet the real challenges we must face are not future events that we imagine or dismiss through apocalyptic scenarios of collapse — they are existing trends. The evidence suggests that much of what we fear in the future — the collapse of the economy, the arrival of peak oil and global warming and resource wars — has already begun. We can wait forever, while the world unravels before our very eyes, for an apocalypse that won’t come.

The apocalyptic storyline becomes a form of daydreaming escape: the threat of global warming becomes a fantasy to one day live off the grid, or buy a farm, or grow our own food; economic collapse becomes like a prison break from the drudgery of meaningless and increasingly underpaid work in a soul-crushing cubicle; peak oil promises the chance to finally form a community with the neighbors to whom you’ve never spoken. Yet despite the fantasia peddled by Hollywood and numerous writers, a world battered by natural disasters and global warming, facing declining natural resources and civic unrest, without adequate water or energy or food, with gross inequalities between the rich and the poor, is not a setting for a picaresque adventure, nor is it the ideal place to start living in accord with your dreams.

The deeper we entangle the challenges of the 21st century with apocalyptic fantasy, the more likely we are to paralyze ourselves with inaction — or with the wrong course of action. We react to the idea of the apocalypse — rather than to the underlying issues activating the apocalyptic storyline to begin with — by either denying its reality (“global warming isn’t real”) or by despairing at its inevitability (“why bother recycling when the whole world is burning up?”). We react to apocalyptic threats by either partying (assuaging our apocalyptic anxiety through increased consumerism, reasoning that if it all may be gone tomorrow, we might as well enjoy it today), praying (in hopes that divine intervention or mere time will allow us to avoid confronting the challenges before us), or preparing (packing “bugout” packs for a quick escape or stocking up on gold, guns, and canned food, as though the transformative moment we anticipate will be but a brief interlude, a bad winter storm that might trap us indoors for a few days or weeks but that will eventually melt away).

None of these responses avert, nor even mitigate, the very threats that have elicited our apocalyptic anxiety in the first place. Buying an electric car doesn’t solve the problem of a culture dependent on endless growth in a finite world; building a bunker to defend against the zombie hordes doesn’t solve the growing inequities between the rich and poor; praying for deliverance from the trials of history doesn’t change that we must live in the times in which we were born. Indeed, neither partying, nor preparing, nor praying achieves what should be the natural goal when we perceive a threat on the horizon: we should not seek to ignore it, or simply brace for it, but to avert it.

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