Monday, April 2, 2012

Apocalyptic Thinking

Eric Curren recently reviewed The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America by by Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles for the Energy Bulletin detailing the author's history of the apocalypse as a recent phenomenon that has been largely a matter of entertainment rather than correct, scientific thinking. The authors say that “This overreliance on the apocalyptic narrative causes us to fear the wrong things and to mistakenly equate potential future events with current and observable trends.” They offer three common sense questions to test the apocalypse waters: “Which scenarios are probable? Which are preventable? And what is the likely impact of the worst-case model of any threat?”

The thing is, despite the definitions offered by the authors, any event, such as global climate change that has the potential to destroy the current human friendly environment, may seem a trifle apocalyptic. The trouble is that many people who wish to lessen the potential impact of evolving threats, without denying the scientific accuracy, seem to latch upon the idea that humans will likely survive in some numbers even in a worst case scenario. The presumption seems to be that all of humanity must die off for an apocalypse to be declared.

If we look at typical definitions of the term, there are two basic meanings: the complete destruction of all human life, also known as the biblical version of apocalypse, and the lesser apocalypse definition which seems so...ummm...inferior in scope. I am not a religious man, so though the biblical definition is something that I can appreciate in its finality, I cannot take it seriously due to its requirement of a higher power as instigator. The need for an invisible sky god's input before it can be called THE APOCALYPSE makes it harder to judge. The second sense is the definition that I am more comfortable with. It merely claims a disaster on a very large scale. I think we all can agree that peak oil and climate change will be disasters on a very large scale.

There are a few issues I want to point out here. I am always amused by the intractable vanity of humanity. What is important is always us. Humans. Not the other multiple billions of species out there. We could give a damn about the 200 species going extinct every single day on average. As long as some of our destructive little group manages to pull through, then everything will be just hunky-dory. Hell, Curren even goes so far as to note, "As Gross and Gilles point out, even one of the worst catastrophes in history, the Black Death, had its upside. The bubonic plague outbreak did kill four out of every ten Europeans at the time. But those who were left behind found higher wages and plenty of cheap, empty land. And pretty soon, the beginning of the Renaissance." Golly gosh, all those millions upon millions were wrong to see the crumbling world as an apocalypse! The ones who survived got a really cool new outlook on the world! Hooray! It seems that if any people survive, say seven hardy, half-crazed scientists from McMurdo Sound, how can you call it an apocalypse? For those seven survivors, it is hardly an apocalypse, they seem to say. In order to better measure our species' personal apocalypse, I've come up with an Apocalypse Scale (For convenience I've color coded it for public dissemination):

Twin Towers of 9/11 Apocalypse: .00000926 percent of the world's population. Pink.
Second U.S./Iraq War Apocalypse: .00169 percent of the world's population. Lime Green.
Spanish Flu Apocalypse: 3 percent of the world's population. Dark Ultramarine Blue.
Mongol Conquest Apocalypse: 17 percent of the world's population. Murky Brown with Yellow Swirls.
Black Plague Apocalypse: 30 to 60 percent of the world's population. Black (what else?).
Mount Toba Bottleneck Apocalypse: ~90-95 percent of the world's population. Blinding White Light.

The next issue relates back to the 200 species a day that are going extinct. Isn't that pretty much an apocalypse right there? At the very least, it is an extinction event!! And that is not the only evidence pointing to a current apocalypse. In the United States, eighty percent of sampled streams contained drugs, hormones, pesticides, or other chemicals. Three-quarters of those streams contained more than one chemical. And, of course, we see the shifting growing zones indicating ongoing climate collapse. I know it's no blinding white light scenario, but the destruction of our one and only habitat seems a bit apocalypse flavored.

Next, there is the western-centric outlook evinced by so many who would put the deny in denial. You see, what is important to these people is not human culture or simple existence, it is the stuff, the machinery, the cars, and the freaking entertainment. Their mission is largely to save the car. Should we have to return to a pre-industrial world, then THAT they would announce as an apocalypse. 

Which brings me to my final point. What about those people who believe we need a good house cleaning? That what we really need is a swift crippling of the planet killing machine? What if you do not believe in the great science fairy and its claim to the constant mainline fix? Sure science invented asbestos insulation, but those boffins can clean that up. So what if science created estrogen mimics that permeate the ecosystem, we don't need all that wildlife. For the other species on the planet who are frantically dodging their own 200 species a day apocalypse, I'm sure the survivors will applaud heartily if we manage to bring on a human apocalypse.

I am no fan of equivocating oneself into a cul de sac of death. Let's be real here. If you render the planet, or even a large part of it, uninhabitable in the name of science, religion, or even human vanity, then you will have an apocalypse. But, the cry out there from the "level-headed" seems to be, let's wait and see which of this is really deadly and which is just so-so deadly. Let's get science on the case. Maybe they can fix it with more technology. Remember what Albert Einstein said, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." 

So, I think what we need is a better name for the ongoing downgrade of "civilization." The word "apocalypse" has too much baggage. How about Bobo the Wonder Collapse? Or, HOLY FUCK THEY ARE TRYING TO KILL US ALL!! Or, I'll Believe It When I See It?

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