The last few years have begun with predictions of the Apocalypse hanging over us.
2011 was supposed to bring the Rapture with US preacher Harold Camping first saying it would come in May then readjusting his sights to October. Last year, of course, brought us the Mayan Apocalypse, which passed with lots of parties but no lasting fireworks just before Christmas.
With solar activity expected to reach a cyclical peak in 2013 this year was shaping up as another big year for apocalyptic fears however NASA have recently downgraded their predictions for solar storms. So does this mean that we can have a year off apocalyptic frenzies?
A look at Hollywood’s release list for this year tells us that 2013 will be anything but apocalypse free.
Diabolo Cody’s remake of the Sam Rami classic The Evil Dead continues the zombie explosion of recent years while Brad Pitt also gets to run from a zombie apocalypse and go all out to protect his family in World War Z
Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Tom Cruise, Will and Jaden Smith and Guillermo Toro all have post-apocalyptic blockbusters scheduled and this year we even get apocalyptic comedy. The Shaun of the Dead team are back with Worlds End where five mates unite for a pub crawl that could literally end all pub crawls.
Closer to home the National Geographic Channel’s new season of Doomsday Preppers begins this week. Their episode guide promises stories of a tornado-fearing farmer building an underground Noah’s Ark for his animals and a family man preparing for a nuclear-powered terrorist attack. The series brings us weekly stories from the survivalist movement who are going all out to prepare for the worst.
When Doomsday Prepper’s first season launched last year it fitted the 2012 zeitgeist but the new season has a more eerie resonance with the widely reported news that the Sandy Hook school shooter’s mother, Nancy Lanza, was a prepper.
As J. M Berger pointed out in Foreign Policy it is far too easy to blame either his mother’s enthusiasm for guns or her survivalist beliefs for the horrific events in Newtown. However survivalist doomsday beliefs have been associated with a number of other terrorist and shooting deaths. Berger points out that there is very little research about the mental state of preppers. However he believes “anecdotal observations” point to a higher incidence of mental illness among hardcore preppers than in the general population. He adds:
The nature of their beliefs and social networks may create obstacles to diagnosis and treatment. There can be fine lines between reasonable fear, intense fear, and irrational fear, and some preppers subscribe to conspiracy theories that are completely nuts, focused on supposed threats from sinister “chemtrails” to the Illuminati (or both and then some). World ending, conspiratorial beliefs are easy to dismiss as symptoms of possible mental illness but sociologists, psychologists, theologians and literary scholars who have studied apocalyptic narratives and beliefs are more inclined to speak of them as a form of sense making. We do after all live in a nerve wrecking unstable world where in fact preparation for disaster is anything but crazy.
Apocalypse is the Greek name of the last book of the Christian Bible and colloquially it has come to mean a world-ending catastrophe because of that book’s fiery visions of plaques, famines, earthquakes, wars and global slaughter. But the word is Greek for “revelation” or “unveiling”. The proliferation of apocalyptic myths are in fact trying to tell us something, trying to reveal something. And their message is just as much about a possible golden future as it is about a gloomy end. The apocalyptic myth is uniquely associated with the utopian: they are two sides of the one coin. The bible’s Book of Revelation is filled with horrible world-ending visions but it ends with the promise of 1000 years of peace.
Even Hollywood’s slate of apocalyptic disaster films aren’t as black and white as they seem. Western Australian academic Mick Broderick has suggested that rather than analyse these films, which undoubtedly celebrate a dazzling array of cataclysmic moments, under the rubric of the “aesthetics of disaster,” as Sontag famously did, they ought more rightly be seen as being primarily about survival.
The apocalyptic myth, which seems to exist in one form or another in all cultures, is doing what all classic myth does. It is trying to hold in tension two opposite possibilities and imagine what might emerge.
American writer Rebecca Solnit might be described as an archetypal apocalyptic writer. She first came to fame with a book that contrasted the disaster impregnated landscape of the Nevada nuclear test site and the paradisiacal Yosemite National Park. In her latest book A Paradise Built in Hell she has written about how communities come together and surprise with their resourcefulness in times of disaster. Just before Christmas last year Solnit issued a call to arms claiming 2013 was “Year Zero” for the planet. Like other activists Solnit is concerned that we are reaching a tipping point in the ongoing environmental crisis, perhaps a point of no return. But Solnit like a true apocalypticist uses this grave fact to point towards a revelation:
The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope, your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of victories also to come. But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole new scale as the news worsens.
She spends the rest of her article outlining the proliferation of creative grassroots responses to climate change rather than the standard list of worsening indicators.
Theologian Catherine Keller calls this attitude “counter-apocalyptic”. It is not ignoring the disaster to come nor is it merely anti-apocalyptic, which runs the risk of buying into easy black and white posturing of its own. It is a posture of hope that stands firmly in the swirl of apocalyptic omens predicting bad endings and dreams a future. A future that Solnit reminds us is only built through imagination, hope and hard work.
A shorter version of this was published in The Conversation