By Owen Lloyd / Deep Green Resistance News Service
Over the first dozen years of this century, Americans have experienced a particular thirst for the apocalypse. Whether the apocalypse is waged in ecological, political, religious, or economic terms, Matthew Gross and Mel Gilles suggest that “one single thought unites all Americans in these fiercely partisan times [is] the belief that the American way of life is heading rapidly toward the edge of a cliff– if we haven’t already gone over it” (10). In their book, The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America, these authors endeavor to explain why we’ve become fixated on apocalypse, and why we will need to shift our energies elsewhere in order to develop a more liveable future.
The History of Apocalypse
Although we are often inclined to believe that all people at all times have been fixated upon the appearance of apocalyptic events, this comes in large part from our difficulty understanding world views radically different from our own. As the authors point out, traditional societies, whose conception of the world was grounded in mythological narratives and a cyclical conception of time, “were as immune to worrying about or longing for the end times as they were incapable of it” (68). Although we often take it for granted that events are historical by nature, traditional societies believed that the world was shaped by events in the realm of mythology. Because an apocalyptic event is a historical event, in order to conceive it people first need to develop a “sense of history as the place where things happen” (47).
But simply seeing the world as shaped by historical events does not necessarily indicate a belief in an impending apocalypse either. The authors diligently trace the history of apocalypse from its origins in the Book of Daniel, to the 16th century Anabaptists who overran the city of Münster and “exiled all those who didn’t believe the end was nigh”, to Cyrus Scofield, the criminal-turned-Minister who popularized the idea of a Christian “Rapture” in 1909. And still further to the United States of the 21st century, where apocalyptic rhetoric seems to be coming from every direction.
Before jumping to the United States, it’s worth looking at an example of how people in the past have responded to conditions that could be called apocalyptic: the Norse settlement of Greenland that begun in the 10th century. For a time, the Norse were able to live well on the island, thanks in large part to a period now known as the Medieval Warm Period. They adopted a lifestyle similar in many respects to that lived by their forebears in Norway and Iceland, herding sheep and engaging in trade with Europe. Some time after their arrival, Inuit people returned to the island, where they were referred to as “skraelings”, meaning “wretches”, by the Norse settlers. By the early 14th century, climactic conditions had cooled, and Greenland entered into the period called the Little Ice Age.
Life became very bad for the settlers, who could not bear the cold winters and due to thick ice had difficulty obtaining the caribou, seals, and walruses that ordinarily supplemented their diet. Meanwhile, the Inuit, having developed technologies appropriate to the cold conditions, including harpoons, kayaks, and igloos, were able to thrive in plain sight of the Norse. And yet, although many people died every year to starvation, sickness, or cold weather, no effort was made to adopt the technologies of the Inuit. In a further example of the rigidity of their cultural worldview, the Norse also refused to eat the fish that were plentiful near their settlements, a taboo developed by earlier settlers to the island. Instead, they resorted to eating their calves and finally their dogs, until at last, by 1450, the last settlers had died. To the end, the Greenland Norse found total extinction easier to bear than the radical cultural changes that would have saved them.
Why did the Greenland Norse choose to cling to their culture rather than adapt to changing conditions? The authors begin their explanation by looking at research produced by social psychologists from the University of Kansas. These psychologists worked to test a theory they called Terror Management Theory, which posits that “to maintain psychological equanimity throughout their lives, people must sustain… faith in a culturally derived worldview that imbues reality with order, stability, meaning, and permanence; and… a belief that one is a significant contributor to this meaningful reality” (174). To put this another way, when people feel that their lives contribute to a cultural system, they cling to this system because it helps them to forget about their own mortality. In the most well-known test of this theory, the psychologists showed a group of Christian students the film Faces of Death, in order to bring attention to their mortality. A second group of Christians was shown a lighthearted comedy instead. The psychologists then asked both groups to provide feedback on essays that were written by Christian and Jewish students. Their findings corroborated the theory:
The students who had experienced reminders of their own mortality were significantly more critical of the essays written by the Jewish students; their criticisms at times bordered on the anti-Semitic. Just as worldview defense had predicted, the Christian students who had been reminded of death sought to bolster their own worldviews by denigrating the beliefs of others (175).
The theory has been further verified through numerous similar experiments:
To date, more than three hundred experiments in fifteen countries have demonstrated that regardless of one’s cultural or religious background, people, when reminded of death, will react negatively to those who threaten or differ from their worldview and will react more positively to those who uphold their worldview (175).
The Norse, confronted with death, followed this same pattern of events. The same threats that eventually brought about their demise also pressured them to sustain their cultural worldview, even after it became extremely apparent that it was no longer tenable. As the authors put it, “Worldview defense provides a psychological explanation for why, when faced with calamity, people don’t make the changes necessary to avert disaster: when faced with a mortal threat, we are more likely to cling to our cultural beliefs than to change them” (176).
The Role of Apocalyptic Thinking
Liberal or conservative, the vast majority of Americans share a common cultural purpose:“the pursuit of a continuously rising standard of living” (181). The reason people in the United States have become entranced by the apocalypse is because that cultural worldview has become fundamentally eroded. Despite abundant evidence that the age of perpetual economic progress is over, people grip hold of it to give their lives meaning.
The desire that we feel for an apocalyptic moment is the desire to vindicate our beliefs. Our faith in this culture has become so shaken that we crave some sort of indicator that will prove to ourselves and to others that we are right, and reveal beyond all doubt the path this culture needs to take in order to reach the foretold Golden Age– whether that Golden Age is a Kingdom of God or a solar-powered technotopia. This belief that some form of cataclysmic event will “inevitably reveal our new place in the world” and “illuminate the meaning of history” is the Last Myth of the book’s title.
Alternatives to Apocalypse
Having been backed against a wall, liberals and conservatives both strive for a way to preserve their cultural worldview, to sustain an unsustainable standard of living. It is as impossible for Americans to consider a world in economic decline as it would have been for the Norse to adopt igloos and start eating fish. At the same time that cultural worldview is just as impossible to sustain as the Norse worldview was in 1400. The reality is that:
Within our lifetimes, we’re not going to be building a society based on exponential growth, nor are we going to be able to build a “sustainable” society in a world of declining resources. We’re going to have to learn to create a society based on decline– decline in energy consumption, in available resources, and, eventually and inevitably, in human population (204-205).
However, that doesn’t mean we’re destined for a period of impossible bleakness either:
The rhetoric of the apocalypse gets it backward: this is not the most important time to be alive– being alive is the most important time. The world before us will still be marked by laughter and love and art and joy; a life is no less valuable or beloved if one lives in an age of decline, when the tides are running out, than in an age of progress (206).
An important first step will be to recognize the apocalypse for what it is: an indicator that the cultural worldview that we have lived within is no longer tenable. We need to find the strength to do what the Norse could not. We need to replace a dysfunctional culture with living, breathing ones that can prepare us for the difficult times to come. We need to stop treating climate change and environmental destruction as apocalyptic events situated in the future that will awaken humanity to a green future. We need to see these issues as dangers that are facing us right now, that need to be resolved through immediate action on our part.
As the authors of The Last Myth point out, “New worldviews begin with needs, not ideas” (191). In a world riddled with problems, needs are not hard to locate. And by helping to fill those needs, we can resist a dominant culture that prioritizes a system of economic growth over the continuing existence of life on this planet, and work to foster cultural worldviews that accept the reality of a world in decline.