“The Earth is degenerating these days. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer mind their parents, every man wants to write a book, and it is evident that the end of the world is fast approaching.”
– Assyrian Stone Tablet, c.2800BC
The Y2K Bug infused the media with warnings of impending doom for the new millennium. Before that there was Nostrodamus’ prediction of catastrophe in July of 1999. Before that two Astronomers predicted the 1982 planetary alignment would cause catastrophic earthquakes and solar flares. Pat Robertson also predicted that the world would end in the fall of that same year.
The list goes on and on. As a civilization, we are fascinated by end times predictions. There is something fantastically romantic about the idea of a post-apocalyptic environment, whether you are one of the “chosen,” who will be whisked away into the arms of some deity, or one of the survivalists, left to rebuild the world your way. Romanticizing the end times is very popular indulgence, as we find in the success of books like the “Left Behind” series, Stephen King’s “The Stand,” and films like “Independence Day,” the “Mad Max” films, “The Terminator,” and “The Matrix.”
I must confess that I have indulged in post-apocalypse fantasizing. In the real world where the only two remaining frontiers, the ocean and space, require incredible monetary investments for only the most elite to explore, the best route to adventure is for the “frontier” to take the Earth back. Let civilization crumble under a super-virus or nuclear holocaust, freeing up space for the survivors to pursue survival. I find the idea of running around a desolate landscape with a shotgun, blowing away mutants, like Mad Max in “Thunderdome,” very appealing.
But then reality comes down oppressively. Try going just one day without eating. Try sleeping outside in the middle of February. Try starting a fire with two sticks of wood. Try figuring out what your chances are of surviving any apocalypse scenario that would wipe out most human life. What makes us think we’ll be in that small-percentage of survivors? What quality of life then, if our teeth and hair are falling out and we are covered in sores from radiation poisoning? Why is that little bit of realism lacking in the epic battles between humans and robots in the “Terminator” and “Matrix” movies?
What about the Abraham religions? Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all look forward to that great day prophesied in their various books, when the Messiah will return and carry them away to heaven, while life is turned into absolute misery for everyone left behind as the Antichrist reigns.
Of course, the problem with this belief in a religion’s exceptionalism completely ignores the exceptionalism of all other religions. While there are some more liberalized versions of the Abraham Religions, most hold their distinct interpretation of the scripture as the only path to salvation. Many versions of Christianity believe that only a miniscule percentage of Jews will make it into heaven and no Muslims. Religious leaders, such as Pat Robertson, have preached that only a few versions of Christianity will qualify for salvation. With hundreds of religious sects claiming a monopoly on the one road to salvation, the chances of actually being saved when the apocalypse happens are quickly reduced to less than one percent.
Then there are all of the end-times predictions, where religious leaders draw interpretations of modern events into exhaustive metaphors to match the predictions of scriptures and thus fulfill the prophecies. Other religious leaders take a less cerebrally-taxing route and relay the signals they believe to recieve from the almighty directly. Interestingly enough, the Old Testament provides a pretty good methodology for determining if a “Prophet” is truly hearing the word of God:
“…when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him.”
Pretty simple huh? If what they say doesn’t come true, then they are not speaking the word of God. How empirical.
The Bible also tells us what to do with people who lie in the name of God:
“But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.”
This seems pretty harsh, and I’m certainly not going to advocate the execution of people who may simply be mistaken, but there are severely detrimental consequences to False Prophecy. In situations such as Jonestown, hundreds of Jim Jone’s followers were either murdered or committed suicide as a result of one man’s claim of hearing the word of God.
There are even worse ramifications as well. When a religion’s followers believe the end times are fast approaching, they percieve the Earth as merely a rest stop on the way to paradise. It becomes a condemned house, where responsibility to the community and stewardship of the property are no longer of consequence. Instead we can do with it as we like, wreck the place, destroy the environment, because the apocalypse lies just around the next bend and there will be no more future generations to curse our irresponsibility.
In his play “Waiting for Godot”, Samuel Beckett presents two characters waiting for someone who never comes. It is a tragic tale of false hope that lasts eternally. Waiting for the end of the world is like that, wasting the time we have here while yearning on a fantasy is a terrible tragedy. It is irresponsible to the present and forsakes our roles as stewards of this planet, preserving it for our offspring.
The world, our Earth, will end one day. Astronomers predict Asteroid 1950DA may collide with our planet on March 16th, 2880. If this does not manifest, then the Earth’s water and atmosphere will be evaporated off the planet five billion years from now, when our sun expands into a red giant.
The problem with realistic predictions of the end times such as these is that they aren’t particularly romantic. No savior is predicted to come down from the heavens to whisk away its fortunate chosen. No apocalyptic wasteland will be left for survivalists to run around in fantasized superiority. There simply won’t be anything left of our little world, and if we don’t get our act together we’ll go down with it.
There are also the more uncertain methods of destruction, uncertain because we have the power to control them. Green House Gases could render the planet uninhabitable to human life. Pollution could poison us out of the biosphere. In the second half of the 20th century we developed the power to kill the entire human race in a flash with the proliferation of nuclear arms.
Why not romanticize stewardship of the Earth? The shear effort of intelligence, foresight, honorability and integrity required to keep this planet and our civilization safe are Herculean. Why not romanticize that sort of heroism instead of wishing for some horrible catastrophe to make things even more difficult?
Want to see what survivalism is like? See the film Quest for Fire, about ancient cavemen seeking a spark to bring home for their tribe. It is what life without all our modern conveniences would really be like. It is a world of parasites, open sores, bad smells, matted hair, grunting and nibbling on leaves and grubs.
That is what life without civilization is like.