A Google search of the word “apocalypse” brings up just over 250 million hits. Human beings have been obsessed with predicting a theoretical end of days ever since we began to comprehend our individual mortality.
Zealots of every denomination have crafted elaborate fictions about the wrath of some almighty force for ages, filling people with constant insecurity about their choices, faiths, relationships and how they will fare when the the sun goes super-nova, the seas boil and humanity goes the way of the dinosaur.
In the middle of the 20th century, nuclear weaponization gave human beings the ability to bring about our own destruction, creating a brand new hubris about the end of days. Popular culture of the Cold War period was enthralled with the coming onset of nuclear winter. To date, we have managed to avoid bombing ourselves into oblivion, but that has not stopped a readily available stream of entertainment, filed under the subheading “post-apocalyptic,” from carving out a sizable chunk of our mental real-estate. As we inch closer to the Mayan date of our destruction, film, television and literature industries have successfully continued to capitalize on our addiction to the apocalypse. But is our fetishizing of the end of the world actually standing in the way of dealing with real, modern crises?
Climate change is fast becoming defined as the next real threat to human civilization, inching its way into the doomsday narrative. A recent poll by the Innovative Research Group, Inc. found that nearly half of Canadians view climate change as a “critical threat,” with less than a quarter feeling the same thing about terrorism. Using apocalyptic terminology to call attention to the realities of environmental changes is nothing new, exemplified by the titling of Guardian columnist George Monbiot’s 2008 collection of works, Bring on the Apocalypse: Essays on Self Destruction. The 2004 movie, The Day After Tomorrow was one of the first mainstream fictional depictions of a climate driven apocalypse, drowning New York City and sending tornadoes down Hollywood Boulevard. One problem with creating heroic narratives in world-ending scenarios, or post apocalyptic stories of redemption, is we risk trivializing the reality of changes in our global ecosystem when juxtaposed against the Hollywood depiction.
There is an emerging discourse of desperation, that global issues are simply “too big to fail.” The so-called “average person” is meant to feel lost and alone, with no recourse for grand action; playing a small part is deemed insignificant. A few scientists and writers have even moved past examining the effects of climate change on people and have begun to ask: what will happen to the planet after we have brought the human race to extinction?
There has even been a question of whether humans are destined for extinction, so we may as well get what we can while the the getting is still good. Combining negative, threatening world events, and phenomena like the drying Tigris and Euphrates rivers, religious extremists have ramped up their Armageddon campaign, predicting the Messiah’s return in our lifetime.
Distraction industries, such as television and film are a reflection of real issues, and over the past decade, terrorism and climate change have become the popular horsemen of our apocalypse. While Tom Clancy novels and John Cusak movies may not be the most scholarly way to understand our culture, when they start talking about Armageddon and global petro-wars in the Canadian arctic, it’s time to take note. These are real issues, that require real responses. We cannot be drawn into creative fictions about our destruction at the cost of failing to alleviate modern suffering. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “We are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.”