Doomsday Scenarios, The Problem With History's False Alarms
From ancient religions to contemporary ecology, dire warnings that the end of the world is upon us are not only false — they bring a damage of their own.
PARIS — Oh, to finally see it all disappear! Quick, let the world vanish, behold society's imminent collapse, watch everything be wiped away!
Whether an expression of unconcealed fear or a secret desire, this dream of destruction has long had religious roots: from ancient Indians to Native Americans, from Zoroastrians to Christians and Muslims, people from cultures around the world have envisioned the end of it all.
Some of these eschatological expectations are still very much alive, and they pop up here and there; ISIS and other groups have brought millenarianisms back to the foreground. But beliefs in a catastrophic end have also evolved, taking on unfamiliar new forms. Ecology, for instance, is shaped by recurring images of a "universal" collapse, of a soon-extinct humanity.
And, dare one say, political variations on the ultimate catastrophe have been resurfacing lately. We're being told, insistently, that "the system is going to collapse, capitalism is in its last days..." Even the old myth of a universal strike has been dusted off and trotted out: everything will finally come to a grinding halt!
Of course, such phantasmagoria is laughable. A multitude of millenarian ends of the world — announced, foretold and prophesied in detail — have come and gone without anyone noticing.
In the ecological sphere, a number of catastrophic predictions have long persisted, but in fact, we haven't run into these countless walls that were supposedly unavoidable. The general strike of anarchists and trade unionists and other new dawn fabulists has only ever existed on paper. And the latest whack-job theory, of the great economic and social earthquake that will bring the world to a standstill, is nothing but a joke. A bad one, obviously.
For in spite of everything, these ridiculous delusions are harmful. Not so much because of their practical effects, which are all more or less nonexistent, but rather because of the damage they inflict on our collective imagination. Because they prevent people from thinking about the world's continuity, about history as it occurred over time. Because they forbid notions of endurance and duration, substituting them with a single, radical, redeeming ordeal — flood, hell fire, revolution, etc. — that destroys everything to renew everything.
The virtue of this collapse is said to lie in the way it allows a different world to emerge, whether it's called paradise, celestial Jerusalem, communism or a sustainable planet. But the immediate action is always the violent destruction of the existing world. From fantasizing about chaos, one moves painlessly toward perpetrating vandalism, because lurking beneath the fear of seeing the world unravel is, in fact, a raging desire to do the disrupting oneself.
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Albert Goodwin's 1903 painting Apocalypse
Don't get me wrong. In criticizing these myths, I am not advocating resignation. I do not support Rene Descartes's idea that we should "change one's desires rather than the world." It would be vain to believe that what exists deserves to be preserved just because it exists, at the cost of perpetuating injustice so as not to upset the current order of things. Capitalism isn't eternal, our ways of life aren't immutable, and believing the contrary would be delusional. Doubtless both will eventually disappear just as many civilizations, social systems, and economic structures have done before. Still, this doesn't mean the world or the human race will end. Not any more than history, time or nature.
What we need to dismiss is the very idea of an ultimate disaster, be it a regenerative or an annihilative one. Indeed, these are only two sides of the same distorted notion of a climax, a final crisis, a radical destruction. Where does this idea come from? Probably from our difficulty in accepting that the world, and history, are infinite.
Still, infinite doesn't mean unalterable. We need to be able to conceive of a world with no end but in constant evolution. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that change was perpetual, the world's eternity intertwined with an endlessly fluctuating future. Nietzsche, 2,000 years later, picked up on this intuition and developed it. Both were able to stand the thought that even though everything changes, the world never collapses. They understood that even though nothing ever remains the same, you must not — and cannot — take a tabula rasa approach with the past.
Reconsidering these viewpoints would certainly spare us a great deal of unnecessary turmoil.