February 1524, Autumn 1982, May 2011 and December 2012: points in human history when a significant number of people believed the world would end. As you may have noticed, they were very wrong. Not to worry though, there’s a list of dates in the near future when various soothsayers tell us it will happen. I’d hazard they’re all wrong too.
In truth, there’s something deeply pessimistic in the human psyche, which assumes utter catastrophe is just a few heartbeats away, and the tendency for the odd crackpot to point to a nearing apocalypse is very common. It’s understandable, I suppose. Scanning the planet in this second decade of the 21st century, it’s not hard to spot huddled masses, suffering the most appalling depravations. Conflict seems rife; oppression and starvation hold sway over swathes of the land mass, as refugees flee horror in fear for their lives. In Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and dozens of other places, suffering and misery radiate, while earthquakes, floods and disease add themselves to the foul mix. Closer to home, unemployment, penury, disillusionment and social breakdown have become the order of the day. And as we saw in Paris, exported terror is a lengthening shadow across our western ‘civilisation’.
Yes, it’s a grim picture alright. So grim, we find some religious and philosophical folk regarding all this disaster and inferring we are living through the ‘end of days’, the precursor to the elimination of the Earth and all her inhabitants.
We’re not, though. That catalogue of cataclysm is certainly true, but the doom-mongers are lacking a frame of reference. We obviously do not live in a global utopia, but neither are we in a universal state of grinding despair. Indeed, things are pretty good. It may not immediately look that way, but we need to think in relative terms.
Were we not living in 2015AD but in 1015AD, we’d see how rough life can really be. Watching your friends and family perish from wretched infections, without the slightest possibility of medical intervention, would be fairly commonplace. Unless you were ennobled, your income would be largely dependent on the faltering generosity of a feudal landlord, who wouldn’t be averse to taxing your pittance for good measure. Winters would freeze you in your unglazed shack, and rats would be your constant companions. Your short life would be spent in a solitary location and entertainment would arrive in the form of beer and a dogmatic church, all too ready to convince you of the doomed status of your mortal soul. Also, I hope you like turnips.
Or picture yourself in northern continental Europe in 1916. If you were a young man, it’s likely you’d have volunteered to serve your country in its argument with Germany. Knee-deep in mud, your feet would be rotting and your mates’ bodies would lie like stepping-stones in the mire of your trench. With the opposing bombardment assaulting your senses, and fear tearing at your nerves, a periodic missive from home would be your best hope of comfort. Rats again, would be there for nocturnal company.
If either of these experiences were your present, wouldn’t it feel as though the world were ending?
Humankind tends towards advancement. Medicine and technology are particular markers. The Black Death couldn’t claim 100 million lives today. A welcome combination of hospitals, doctors and antibiotics would halt its progress rapidly. In recent months, Ebola has killed a shocking number of people, but modern hygiene management, and a deep understanding of viruses, has mitigated its potential to become a global epidemic.
Never before have so many citizens, of so many nations, enjoyed the opportunity to choose their government – and democracy is a realistic aspiration for those who don’t. What’s more, reasonably priced and easy to access aeroplanes stand ready to take us to them. Phones, tablets, laptops and digital boxes which power the dissemination of news, debate and information, would look like sorcery to our great, great grandparents. Even in the developing world, satellite dishes and mobile handsets aren’t unusual. We are in the midst of an astonishing time, continually growing more astonishing.
Presented with this accelerated evolution, why would we imagine the termination of existence had its hand on our shoulder? Well, this heavy dread does dwell naturally in the collective psyche, but I’d also point to a couple of external forces.
Through a mesh of communications networks, the modern human is exposed to a unending fusillade of messages. In the information age, we should expect nothing less. However, those generating this data (ourselves included) are constantly trawling for more and better messages to transmit. Something as mundane as ‘I just cooked a kipper’ might suffice (and often does), but the pressure to produce something dramatic and compelling is immense. Bad news ticks both those boxes.
I’ve never bought into the conspiracy theory, recently emphasised by the film-maker Adam Curtis, that the media is in league with government, in a sinister pact to keep the populace in a state of anxious paralysis. But I do recognise the need for stories to be delivered with the level of tension and jeopardy set to maximum, in an effort break through the noise. As a consequence, our outlook becomes distorted. Our own lives may not be beset by disastrous events, but we begin to feel they are surrounded by peril and threatened by darkness. The contemporary obsession with child sexual abuse illustrates this perfectly. Undeniably, children are safer now than ever before, but our fear for their wellbeing has never been more pronounced. This can only be ascribed to a persistently broadcast suggestion that our offspring are the permanent targets of a powerfully evil subset.
Religious orthodoxy also has a part to play in this. The Abrahamic faiths carry a similar narrative: that mankind is on a flawed journey away from sin and towards salvation, bestowed by an overseeing deity. For this idea to hold any credibility, the leaders of these belief systems must point to examples of our propensity for increasing wickedness and the parlous state of the planet. Therefore, every instance of tragedy is played up and amplified, the better to assure followers of the dangers from which their religion protects them. When New Orleans was devastated by a massive storm, more than one commentator announced this to be the result of God’s wrath. Likewise, a devout politician explained that flooding in England had been sent to punish us for legalising gay marriages. Religion rarely balks at the chance to retrofit dreadful occurrences with significance – raising our apprehension and convincing us we are in a measurable, downward spiral. ‘The end is nigh’ as a famous banner once had it.
Although, in a way, the end is nigh. With every passing minute, we come closer to the point when our sun will burn out, expand and absorb our solar system. If your interpretation of the ‘end of days’ encompasses the ten billion years which sit between the present and the expiration of our star, then I’ll allow your dire warnings. Otherwise – although war and hunger bring death on a daily basis, and Dr F. Kenton Beshore predicts the world will shudder to a halt between 2018 and 2028 – this is still the best of times. With any luck, there’s better still to come.
Magnus Shaw – January 2015