Prophecies of impending doom—based on hard science as well as Scripture—abound. Where does our appetite for retribution come from?
Times Square and Hollywood Boulevard, cleaned up in recent years, remain icons of depravity, modern Sodom and Gomorrahs full of drugs, prostitution, and pornography, which is why last spring they were among the places one was most likely to come across the billboards set up by ninety-year-old Family Radio personality, retired civil engineer, and end time prophet Harold Camping, announcing, Judgment Day: May 21, 2011… Cry mightily unto God. In 1958, he helped start Family Radio in San Francisco, and since 1961 he has hosted a daily call-in show, Open Forum, on which he answers questions about the Bible. By the time he had Judgment Day: May 21 plastered across the United States, in English and Spanish, Family Radio owned almost 150 radio stations and affiliates and was wealthy enough to invest millions of dollars into disseminating bad news.
Camping cobbled together his idiosyncratic eschatology from his own Biblical calendar, initially published in 1970 as The Biblical Calendar of History. According to him, the world was created in 11,013 BC; the Flood took place in 4,990 BC; and Christ was crucified on Friday, April 1, AD 33. In his most recent works, We Are Almost There! and To God Be the Glory!, he writes that the Rapture would take place on May 21, 2011, immediately transporting the righteous—approximately 3 percent or just over 200 million of the world’s nearly seven billion inhabitants—to heaven. The remainder would be completely annihilated, along with the earth itself, on October 21. When May 21 rolled around, Camping, a twiggish, rail-thin figure with long grey sideburns who looks like an old-time country preacher, retreated to his suburban home in Alameda, California. Meanwhile, clutches of his followers gathered at the Family Radio compound, waiting for the ultimate moment. When the Rapture did not occur and the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that would torment the earth for five months before its final destruction did not begin, he acknowledged in his folksy way that he was “flabbergasted,” suggesting that an “invisible judgment” had taken place, and anyway the real event was not until October.
While Camping may appear to be a nutty codger embarrassed by the ill-advised precision of his predictions (in June, he suffered a stroke and is still recovering at home, and his talk show has been cancelled), he has plenty of company, especially in the United States. In the nineteenth century, William Miller, an American Baptist preacher from upstate New York, predicted that Jesus Christ would return and the world would end on October 22, 1844. Like Camping, Miller arrived at his prophecy via an ad hoc mix of passages from the Hebrew prophets and a juggling of the Roman and Jewish calendars, but when the date finally arrived—thousands of his followers having sold all their possessions and gathered in fields, eyes turned to the heavens, to await the Rapture—nothing happened. After what has come to be called “the great disappointment,” excuses were made, calculations adjusted, new dates proposed.
Yet the disenchantment that follows unfulfilled predictions of the kind made by Miller, Camping, and others has by no means diminished the public appetite for the Apocalypse. New Age adherents of the 2012 prophecy, which has created an Internet frenzy and a small publishing industry, believe the end of the ancient Mayan calendar, on December 21, 2012, will coincide with the end of the world. Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), along with Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind series, which has sold more than 35 million books, eagerly anticipate the imminent conveyance of believers to heaven, and Armageddon for everyone else. Why all the doom? Why the persistent predictions of volcanic eruptions, mega-earthquakes, tidal waves, new ice ages, the obliteration of life as we know it, and even the annihilation of the earth itself?
Anyone who grew up in Europe or North America (and many who didn’t), whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu, or nothing at all, has in some way been shaped by the texts that comprise the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. If you’re North American, the version that secretly haunts you is most likely the translation commissioned by King James and published some 400 years ago. It’s what formed our literature, our philosophy, and even our science; it is literally in the air we breathe. It’s what created William Miller, Harold Camping, and the New Agers who prophesy that the world will end at the winter solstice in 2012. “Fear, and the pit, and the snare, are upon thee, O inhabitant of the Earth,” the prophet Isaiah intones… “The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall, and not rise again.” The text of the Revelation of St. John the Divine is even more vivid and emphatic: “And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth,” proclaims the great seer of Patmos. “And the first went, and poured out his vial upon the earth; and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men, which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image.” The passage continues, “And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead Man: and every living soul died in the sea.” For Isaiah and St. John, the wrath visited upon the world by God, the earthquakes and seas filled with blood, is a response to human failure and vice, but despite all the destruction and carnage there remains at least the possibility of redemption.
The ever-expanding cadre of bestselling science, strategic, political, and business writers who make a living prophesying the less-than-happy human future would not ally themselves with literal readings of Isaiah or the Revelation of St. John, much less with eccentrics like Harold Camping, but the stories they propose seem remarkably similar. Although they appear secular, they are Biblical tales of the pillaging of the earth by human greed and vice and the inevitable reckoning. Redemption will come, if it does, through contrition, humility, and moral soundness.
The last time there was this much anxiety about the end of the world was after the Second World War and the advent of the atomic age. When The New Yorker devoted its entire August 31, 1946, issue to John Hersey’s groundbreaking article “Hiroshima,” an intimate account of six survivors’ lives before and after the bombing a year earlier, it was the first time most people in the English-speaking world had become aware in a visceral way of the A-bomb’s destructive power. The harrowing scenes Hersey describes are, even now, sixty-five years later, impossible to get out of one’s head: the silent, blinding flash and then the literal erasure of the city; the soldiers with their melted eyes running down their cheeks wandering through the rubble. By the 1950s, it became clear that human beings had developed a technology capable of instantly destroying all life on earth. Countless novels, stories, and films that imagined nuclear apocalypse followed, and countless reinforced concrete bomb shelters were dug in the backyards of suburban homes.
The source of the anxiety is now different, if only because it isn’t focused on a single threat to the future of human life that might be defused by disarmament treaties. Our problems are vaguer and more systematic, not so much a matter of policy as of how we live, and seem to come from every direction at once.
Early in his 2007 book, The World without Us, Alan Weisman writes, “A generation ago, humans eluded nuclear annihilation; with luck, we’ll continue to dodge that and other mass terrors. But now we often find ourselves asking whether inadvertently we’ve poisoned or parboiled the planet, ourselves included. We’ve also used and abused water and soil so that there’s a lot less of each, and trampled thousands of species that probably aren’t coming back. Our world, some respected voices warn, could one day degenerate into something resembling a vacant lot, where crows and rats scuttle among weeds, preying on each other.” Weisman’s book seeks to imagine what the world was like before human beings evolved into the tool-wielding, city-building creatures that so monumentally sullied it, and what it would gradually become were we to disappear suddenly, leaving behind skyscrapers and oil refineries and highways. Weisman is a romantic, in awe of the natural world’s primordial sublimity, and while describing the last remnants of Europe’s primeval forest he reconstructs the ways in which nature will ultimately reclaim, weed by weed, tree by tree, rodent by rodent, the planet we have destroyed. He does not, however, long for human extinction. “The vision of a world relieved of our burden, with its flora and fauna blossoming wildly and wonderfully in every direction, is initially seductive,” he writes. “Yet it’s quickly followed by a stab of bereavement over the loss of all the wonder that humans have wrought amid our harm and excess.” For Weisman, the only likely solution is a “re-equilibrated ecosystem,” which would require, among other things, a dramatically smaller and less intrusive human population.
With Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (1997), Jared Diamond introduced the idea that if you want to understand the evolution and progress of civilizations, you need to examine the specifics of their resources and ecology rather than their philosophy and theology. In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2006), he used this methodology to explore why cultures from the Romans to the Pascuans went into decline. He remains disinclined to make wild predictions about the future of our society, though he clearly means the case studies in Collapse to make a more general point that applies to us as well. Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon, on the other hand, does not hesitate to gaze broadly into the future. In The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (2008), he takes Diamond’s ecological perspective and narrowly focuses it on energy consumption, showing that at least one factor that brought down the Roman Empire was the sheer energy required to maintain it. He goes on to argue that the effects of climate change and environmental degradation on our fossil fuel–dependent, globalized world will be disastrous. For Homer-Dixon, the only way to avert social chaos and mass famine is to build greater resilience into our systems, which will inevitably mean living on a smaller scale.
Lawrence E. Joseph, who has written on science and religion for the New York Times, takes the Mayan prophecy more seriously than most of his peers do. In Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation into Civilization’s End (2007) and its sequel, Aftermath: A Guide to Preparing For and Surviving Apocalypse 2012 (2010), he suggests that what the Mayans identified was a point of convergence between multiple catastrophes, including climate change and solar flares, that will destroy our critical infrastructure. Unlike Homer-Dixon, he does not suggest strategies for averting the Apocalypse, in part because there is nothing we can do about solar flares. In addition to securing reliable food, water, and shelter, and perhaps purchasing a satellite phone (the solar flares will knock out cell networks, but I’m unsure how they will affect the specially designed Apocalypse? and Aftermath iPhone and iPad apps), he recommends that we “pray, meditate, channel past lives, implore extraterrestrial intelligences, propitiate ancestors, make burnt offerings. Unless you are into void and oblivion, do anything and everything to prepare yourself for a happy transition to whatever dimension of existence might come next.”
The moralistic and even puritanical tone that runs through these secular prophecies—one can almost hear the jarring cadences of the King James Bible murmuring in the background—can become, well, a little tedious. We have to re-equilibrate ourselves with the ecosystem (Weisman); we have to develop more resilient communities and pursue more open, collaborative ways of making decisions (Homer-Dixon); we have to live more humble, spiritually attuned lives (Joseph). None of them seems to suggest that we find less destructive ways of leading totally indulgent lives, although Jeff Rubin, former chief economist at CIBC World Markets, comes close. He clearly appreciates the good things the executive class enjoys in the twenty-first century, such as fine wine, alpine skiing, and fishing at exclusive lodges in the Yukon. Nonetheless, in Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller (2009), he argues that the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels, especially oil, will drive up prices, and will have dramatic consequences for how even the wealthy live their lives. Much of our lifestyle, he points out regretfully, depends on a fuel-intensive transportation system that will fail once the price of oil goes through the ceiling, to $140 a barrel and beyond; we will have to rely on regional food in its proper season, and locally manufactured products.
But if Rubin seems only moderately outraged over the wastefulness of, say, an indoor ski hill in Dubai, former New York Times war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges can summon up enough prophetic rage to compete with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel combined. In the introduction to his latest book, The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress (2011), Hedges—who attended Harvard Divinity School and whose father was a minister—acknowledges that, freed from traditional journalism, he essentially writes sermons. And they are as passionate as they are blunt. “In the past, when civilizations went belly up through greed, mismanagement, and the exhaustion of natural resources,” he writes in Death of the Liberal Class (2010), “human beings migrated somewhere else to pillage anew. But this time the game is over. There is nowhere else to go… We will disintegrate together. The ten-thousand-year experiment of settled life is about to come crashing to a halt.” For Hedges, human survival will depend upon creating small, sustainable communities. He suggests that Canada will be a better place to do this than the United States (and, fortunately for him, he is married to a Canadian, the actress Eunice Wong), but he doesn’t expect it to be easy. Survival will require moral resolve and a willingness to defy those in power. “As distinct moral beings, we will endure only through these small, sometimes imperceptible acts of defiance,” he writes. “This defiance, this capacity to say no, is what mass culture and mass propaganda seek to eradicate. As long as we are willing to defy these forces, we have a chance, if not for ourselves then for those who follow.”
The prognosis offered by climate scientist and writer Tim Flannery in his new book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, is softer and more hopeful. For Flannery, the earth (including us) is a self-regulating, living system, or Gaia, that has evolved its own modes of co-operation and balance; the problem now is that human profligacy has radically disrupted it. But that need not be permanent. “If our civilization does survive this century,” he writes, “I believe its future prospects will be profoundly enhanced, for this is the moment of our greatest peril.” He imagines a mid-term future in which genetic differences have disappeared, a universal language is in place, and the much-reduced human population is united under a single government, thereby increasing the likelihood of good common decision making. The one thing he remains certain of, however, is that “if we do not strive to love one another, and to love our planet as much as we love ourselves, then no further human progress is possible here on earth.”
The difficulty with prophecies—whether based on passages from the Bible or ancient calendars, on solid climate science and economics or the visions of the Mongolian shamans Lawrence E. Joseph visited while researching his books—is that they are almost invariably wrong. Human beings are remarkably bad at predicting even relatively short-term, simple occurrences, such as the weather on Monday or the price of gold on Friday, much less something as vast and complex as the future of humanity. Many important events of the recent past came as a surprise to most people: World War I, the stock market crash of 1929, the Cold War, the computer age, the economic meltdown of 2008, the Arab Awakening, even the Occupy Wall Street movement. Part of the problem, as Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out in the eighteenth century, is that we are equipped with a concept of “cause” that constitutes little more than an association of things or events in the past—and projecting the patterns of the past onto the future is perilous. We read books of narrative history and biography and get the impression that what made things happen, what shaped the story, was always sharply defined and clear, when in fact it wasn’t and more likely still isn’t. The real problem with the future is that it doesn’t yet exist, and the forces that bring it into existence are too complicated, too subtle and volatile and fractal, for us to know in advance—or ever.
And yet we continue to try. Why? Because we need to have a sense that we control our fates, even if all that means is that we know our fates. And because we need to believe we are part of a story with a larger meaning, that vice is rewarded with punishment, that redemption is possible, that history is not random and empty, that a higher power (whether Isaiah’s wrathful God or simply the natural world) exacts the final judgment. The current proliferation of prophetic books and films and movements suggests an anxiety peculiar to this moment. In 1987, we could happily sing along with the REM anthem “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” believing the party would go on indefinitely in some form or other. But the mood going into 2012 is considerably darker, and we don’t feel fine. There are things we really don’t want to disappear—for instance, the King James Bible, Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes, sturdy country houses, huge roast turkeys with everyone we love gathered around—in the transition to what Joseph chirpily refers to as “whatever dimension of existence happens to come next,” and we may be on the road to losing all of them and more.
While we may be unable to reliably prophesy the future and the prospect of ruined cities, anarchy, and mass death still seems a remote, nightmarish vision (fodder for Hollywood producers and unhinged radio hosts), most of us sense that the huge, overcomplicated world we have created is unsustainable in the long run, and the practical solutions commonly proposed—smaller, self-contained communities; eco-friendly architecture; smart cars; banking regulations—pale before the encroaching tsunami of problems. It is easy to feel overwhelmed, confused, weary, and crushingly sad. In this context, the idea of the Apocalypse can be comforting. At least then, the human story, swinging unstably as it does between heights of imagination and bottomless depths of depravity, doesn’t end, as T. S. Eliot’s bleak The Hollow Men would have it, with a whimper. Yet amid all the fire and brimstone, all the prophecies of our ruin, there is almost always a glimmer of hope that we can right the misfortunes we have brought upon ourselves. “For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace,” Isaiah proclaims, speaking of the moment when human beings are brought back into accord with God’s word, and for many the same could be said for humanity’s reunion with the natural world: “The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
This appeared in the January/February 2012 issue.