Economy

Why all the doomsday and gloomsday?

This is the third and final post in my series on America post-apocalypse.

This week a Wyoming representative introduced a bill to prepare Wyoming for the coming apocalypse. Seems like everyone thinks the apocalypse is right around the corner. There are survivalist magazines, books and TV shows. Indeed, bookstores have entire sections devoted to books about the end of times—fiction and non-fiction. In Dallas, bulk food stores have discovered a whole new market segment of people filling their basements with 50 lb. sacks of flour and enormous cans of baked beans.

It’s the one topic on which both far left and far right agree, although they are not together on the reasons.

 The right believes it’s because we have displeased God. The left believes it’s either because of politics (the demise of U.S. as a world power, Iranian nukes) or economics (scarcity of water and oil) or science (climate disruption) or some combination of the three. And those who don’t keep up with current events or science can still believe in doomsday because of the Mayan calendar or because the polarity of the earth could switch at any minute.

We’ve always had those who believed in the end of times. In the year 1000 A.D., thousands of people in England gave away all their possessions and assembled on hilltops to await Jesus’s return. And there’s no end of cults who have predicted the end of the world. But for the most part, doomsday beliefs were held by a small and not very sophisticated fringe. Today, if you believe the TV show Doomsday Preppers, then belief in a massive and catastrophic collapse of our way of life is an all time high. And many doomsday believers are both intelligent and thoughtful.

Which begs the question, “Why?” Why do so many believe things are so bad? And why now?

Of course, the most obvious reason is there’s a lot of very scary stuff out there. North Korean nukes. AIDs. Climate disruption. But throughout history there’s been scary stuff, and people were even less well prepared to deal with it. It’s hard to argue Armageddon is closer now than it was during the Bubonic Plague or the Hundred Years war or the rise of Hitler or the Cuban missile crisis.

The difference is now we know about it in excruciating, soul-crushing detail. Yes, there have always been massive earthquakes, deadly volcanic eruptions, killer cyclones and tsunamis. But a thousand years ago, a typical person could spend an entire lifetime without experiencing or even meeting anyone who had experienced such an event. Many of the great disasters of history—Tunguska, New Madrid, Krakatau — were virtually unknown at the time because they happened in remote places. There are no more remote places. Now we experience every single disaster that happens anywhere on earth vicariously. We get endless videos delivered right to our desktop. As Frank Balsinger has noted, how can you watch footage of New Orleans post-Katrina and not conclude that the end of civilized order is at hand?

Even worse, we get continuous coverage of catastrophes that haven’t even happened yet. In ancient times, it scared the dickens out of people when a comet swung too close to earth, but after a few days the scare was over. Now we track space objects for months in advance, including some invisible to the naked eye. We never knew stars could explode, but now we watch them do so. During the height of the AIDs epidemic, I saw an interview with a scientist from the CDC explaining that AIDs was bad, but it would be really, really bad if a virus sprung up that was as lethal as AIDs and as easily transmitted as Spanish influenza and as icky as Ebola and so on and so on. He sounded more than a little disappointed that such a thing had not yet appeared, but tried to make the best of it by noting that viruses evolve very fast and it still could happen.

There is also a reinforcement cycle going on. Two hundred years ago, a doomsdayer was more likely to be laughed at than taken seriously. Today any nutcase, however extreme his worldview, can find a thousand people on the internet with exactly the same vision. His or her view is distilled rather than diluted, becoming stronger and stronger. Even for those who don’t believe, the glut of movies on the subject makes apocalypse seem at least plausible. Note a recent column on this site which reviewed an award winning book that makes a scientific case for zombies. Really.

But the biggest single reason, I believe, is the Baby Boomer phenomenom. If the generation that came of age during WWII goes down as “The Greatest Generation,” those who came of age in the sixties will be known as the “Narcissistic Generation.” For Boomers, it’s all about us, and now that we are aging, we have to come to terms with it. (Even this blog post is all about us, in a mirror-looking-into-a-mirror sort of way.)

Baby Boomers have not aged well. We have desperately chased technology to make us younger. We have filled our car bumpers with stickers that that say “Age is a state or mind” or “Fifty is the new forty.” We insist that our experience compensates for any diminution of physical or mental abilities. We have adopted our children’s music and dress. We proudly tell each other that when our parents were sixty they seemed old, but we don’t. It’s nonsense of course. Our parents didn’t seem old to themselves either.

We Boomers are getting old, and at some level, no matter how much we deny it, we know it. As Warren Zevon said so beautifully, our ride is here. So will we go downstairs leave the party gracefully? Not a chance.

We have decided that if our time is finite, that must mean that civilization itself is finite, too. The end of the world and our end are contemporaneous. And who can blame us? We are so very wonderful that it’s hard to imagine the world without us. Or even why anyone might possibly want to live in a world without us. Nope, if we are leaving, might as well shut this whole thing down and start over.

I’m not articulating it very well, but I think I am onto something here. In a way, Boomers aren’t exactly expecting doomsday. It’s more like we are hoping for it.

2 replies »

  1. This. This. This.

    The Boomers also came of age in a doomsday time, what with your drills scrambling under school desks to protect yourselves from the Commie bomb. Some time ago, i started referring to you as The Duck and Cover Generation … maybe i was onto something. Your were trained to expect and be afraid of a possible doomsday, so maybe you’re just reverting to childhood complexes. I suppose the great terrorist threat of your later years dovetails nicely with the childhood complexes, and lo, it was brought to you by the same institutions.

    None-the-less, i agree with your thesis about narcissism hoping that your end is the same as The End.

  2. We’re doing the best we can, shit happens we can’t control, we’re not at fault, and we don’t know who the “they” could be. The old supports: family, religion, community are breaking down or not functioning. Until we find common agreement on what causes us to be blameless in this mess the bigger the cause, the more removed from our responsibility, the better.

    Remember, it took awhile for Hitler to get agreement on the Jews as the cause of Germany’s problems

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