Who yearns for the apocalypse?

Ever since the middle ages, apocalyptic visions have been a staple of Western thought. With every minor or major upheaval that came along, whether it would be the plague, Communism, or climate change, there was a large constituency receptive to the idea that the end of times was near and only repentance would avoid oblivion. The mystery for you to solve is where the demand for these stories comes from?

The list of apocalyptic visions currently on offer is enormous, ranging from the killer meteorite to the end of the Mayan Calendar, to the second (or third) coming of Christ, to pandemics and global jihad. No end of potential supply in sight to apocalyptic visions. There is a veritable horde of Doom Sayers ready to mobilise us all towards averting this or that threat.

If I were to take only one in a hundred of the idiots telling me to repent seriously, I would be whipping myself to scourge my soul, minimize my carbon footprint by shitting on my vegetable patch and thus saving on fertiliser, read books of a zillion prophets to learn how to avoid being dragged to the pits of hell for my many sins, wear face masks to avoid inhaling germs, stay inside with my kids to avoid them being abused by any man who wears a priest’s collar, vote for more taxes to go to our military to kill everyone who might become an enemy (which is virtually everyone), and scan the night sky for the rock that is coming to wipe us out.

Now of course, just because most Doom Sayers are paranoid attention seekers doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong. There are people you should not trust your kids with, the climate is most likely changing, meteorites have probably done damage to us in the past, germs picked up by others can make you sick, and only the religious stories of hell and brimstone most probably have absolutely no probability of coming true.

But quietly, most of us don’t really buy into the next Doom story, not even if we declare ourselves devout believers in heaven and hell. We hear about acidifying oceans, lower sperm counts, philandering priests, melting glaciers, disappearing reefs, fanatical enemies, etc.. But we nevertheless lead happy and productive lives, mainly ignoring all these pending catastrophes as if they were not there. Every now and then, like on a Sunday morning, we get our fix of Dooms Day stories, reflect upon how the world is undoubtedly going to end soon as a result of our sinful ways, and then pour ourselves another beer and have a good time with friends, to the great chagrin of the Doom Sayers who want us mobilised 24/7 around their pet fear.

The deeper question in this is not really the veracity of the latest batch of apocalyptic stories but the inner source of demand: why are stories of impending doom so successful in capturing our imagination and in mobilising us as societies? Did we use to have an appetite for these stories even before modern societies or did we then not have them (i.e. did the Australian Aborigines have stories of the future apocalypse?). If they are new to us humans and hence an outgrowth of modern societies, what is it about them that gives rise to this yearning for the apocalypse?

As usual, your thoughts are very much appreciated on the comment thread, particularly on whether or not apocalyptic stories are universal to all cultures or specific to a few. To be continued on Monday.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Who yearns for the apocalypse?

  1. michaelfstanley says:

    Did we use to have an appetite for these stories even before modern societies or did we then not have them (i.e. did the Australian Aborigines have stories of the future apocalypse?)

    Don’t know about the Aborigines but doomsday cults go way back in time, certainly to the start of agriculture. Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam all had prominent (often intrinsic) ‘end-is-nigh” threads from the get go.

    There’s also a long history of Jewish apocalypticism.as well.

    As for the reasons there’s lots often given – avoidance of death or escaping the humdrum of the everyday both stand out for me.

  2. Tim Macknay says:

    The deeper question in this is not really the veracity of the latest batch of apocalyptic stories but the inner source of demand: why are stories of impending doom so successful in capturing our imagination and in mobilising us as societies?

    I’m not sure they are particularly successful at mobilising us as societies. How many people are seriously preparing for the end of civilisation? A hell of a lot fewer than the number of people queuing up for the latest Apple i-products.

    But aside from that, why do I get the feeling that your last few pieces have all been a thinly veiled indulgence of your prejudice against environmentalists?

  3. conrad says:

    You could reverse this question and wonder why people don’t worry about potentially bad events. Pandemics (e.g., influenza, HIV), for example, are pretty common, often especially nasty, and if you happen to live your life without encountering one, you are probably lucky. Yet most of us are too lazy to buy anti-virals to stick in a medical kit for things like influenza where you can, even when going to areas where outbreaks are more likely (indeed, the government will try and stop you for influenza). Some people are even too lazy to get easily available vaccinations. Similarly, even for mundane things, there is lots of literature showing that if you are, for example, obese, you are going to get lots of nasty side effects (the chance of dieing would be more than pandemics), but a decent chunk of the obese population does nothing about it.

    Also, I think there were lots of pretty bad-ass gods that people worried about as far as you can go in documented history, but I doubt people could really differentiate reality from obvious fiction for a lot of history, so comparisons between older times and now are not necessarily valid. Indeed, I think that if you are interested in things at the level of the individual, you really need to break your categories down further (there is lots of stuff on this in the false-belief literature in psychology if you are interested — people don’t even agree on exactly what a false-belief is across the spectrum of possible beliefs). How about:
    1) Bad things that really might happen with low but not almost zero possibility (e.g., pandemics);
    2) Bad things that are obvious fiction (religious stuff) but where people are telling you they are true when it is obvious they are not;
    3) Bad things that might be fiction but where it is difficult to tell whether this is the case;
    4) Really weird things that people invent spontaneously by themselves (this occurs with some mental health disorders).

    If these groups have some psychological reality, then it shows that finding comparable examples from history might be hard– if you were born in 4000BC, for example, you might well believe something that would seem really odd now and there would be no obvious way of disproving it (most religious stuff throughout history would be similar), so they would really be like (3) in the list, even though they would fall into (2) for people born today. So to be historically comparable, you really need to think of examples of (2).

  4. cbp says:

    The plague killed half the population of Europe. I would say that a little bit of concern was justified, wouldn’t you?

    And I must have missed the IPCC report chapter on “repentance”. Maybe you could point me to it?

    Some people don’t “buy into” scary stories because they are scared of them and don’t want to think about them. If you’ve ever experienced the slow death of a family member or friend you may have witnessed a similar mindset. Luckily these idiots are looked after by the people who are brave enough to confront the challenges of civilization and take action.

  5. Paul Frijters says:

    Michael,

    interesting. Yes, come to think of it lots of agricultural societies had end-of-day myths. Ragnarok and Kalkan the Destroyer to name the Germanic and the Hindus.
    Agriculture goes back way before the Zoroastrians though. What about the earlier ones? Did the ancient Sumerians worry about this sort of thing?

    Conrad,

    yes, I suppose you could call all this a form of false belief. You are not really giving me a demand-side story though. Do the psychologists in this area basically take all this as unrelated to characteristics of society? Or is it all put in the ‘basic human tendencies’ box?

    Tim,
    I am a pragmatic pro-environmentalist. Indeed, reflecting on recent posts, would an anti-environmentalist bother to talk about the optimal index of Nature?

  6. cbp says:

    I think Tim is worried that you might be concern trolling with your last couple of posts, Paul.

    Would an anti-environmentalist lump climate change activitists in the same basket as Mayanists? Hell, yes.

    • cpb,

      some supposed ‘climate activists’ indeed in my reckoning would be ‘apocalypse yearners’. I don’t know if that includes you.
      As to examples, I remember writing last year about how we should prepare for and adapt to climate change, a position that is about as pro-environmentalist as you can get and that now is being advocated much more generally as the realisation becomes more widespread that the world coalition needed to reverse fossil fuel usage is a mirage, and the reaction of several supposed environmentalists was almost foaming at the mouth with indignation at my unwillingness to toe the ‘thy doom is nigh so stop sinning now’ line. If they were true environmentalists they should have been delighted at the attempt to think about practical ways forward, but all they could do was nit-pick and be angry. I do recall thinking they must probably get a personal kick out of the apocalypse story and thus be upset if people refuse to react with extreme distress and instead calmly try to think of optimal responses that might actually be possible in our political systems.
      As to yourself, enlighten me: how do you react do people trying to argue for pragmatism in environmental debates?

      The discussion I refer to was at http://clubtroppo.com.au/2011/09/06/climate-change-how-can-we-adapt/

      • cbp says:

        No apocalypse yearning here. And I’m all for practical solutions. I’m just reading between the lines of your posts and calling bs when i see it. In this particular case one could say, shorter Paul Frijters: “Why are some people such idiots?”

        If I look at the article you wrote last year I see pretty quickly people pulling you up on the fact that your numbers were out by a factor of 3. I would hardly call that nitpicking.

        So you’ve had a bad experience with people on the internet? No need to take it out on the composters.

      • Tim Macknay says:

        I just read the thread you’ve linked there, Paul. On my reading of it, there seems to be a quite bit of stereotyping on your part.

        The overall point of your piece, on the low (or in your actual view, zero) probability of substantial emissions reductions occurring and the need to plan for adaptation, was perfectly reasonable. I doubt any rational person concerned about the issue at this point in time would dispute that adaptation will be necessary, and that the prospects for adequate emissions reductions are very poor.

        But I don’t really think it helped that in the piece you repeatedly used quasi-religious language to characterise people calling for (any kind of) emissions reductions. You then characterised the commenters who disagreed with you as being fundamentalists. Disagreeing with you doesn’t make someone a fundamentalist, Paul. That’s just your prejudice. You evidently don’t think global warming is an overwhelmingly significant problem, and that we should be able to muddle through with some adaptation and perhaps some geoengineering. Fair enough. Some other people disagree with you, of course, and think adaptation alone may not be sufficient. But that doesn’t make them doomsday cultists. That’s just your prejudice. There actually are some environmentalists who are doomsday cultists, of course. There the ones you occasionally get who compare humanity with a plague of microbes. But to characterise everyone who advocates emissions reductions, or who disagrees with you on the severity of the global warming issue, as doomsday cultists, as you are so clearly prone to do, is just prejudice. Clearly, on the available scientific information, there is a range of possible projected outcomes, ranging from the relatively mild to the catastrophic. You seem inclined to rule out the possibility of catastrophic outcomes. I don’t see why that is necessarily more rational than ruling out the mild possibilities. Either approach involves the use of blinkers.

        Your own apparently very strong conviction that any kind of emissions reduction is “impossible” is also evidence that your own position on this issue is not really entirely rational or objective. I take the view that any blanket claim that some future development is “impossible” (barring developments that contradict known scientifc laws) is evidence that the person making the claim has some blinkers on. The future just ain’t that certain.

        So in short, you’re perfectly entitled to your own views on the issue of climate change, but quit pretending that every who thinks it’s more serious than you do is a “doomsday cultist”.

      • Paul Frijters says:

        Tim, cpb,

        I think you are being too kind to the vehemence with which some people were nitpicking about facts. If you quote the Royal Society on current trends and people get incredibly uptight that you didnt quote a particular predicted trend for the future (the 3 times higher one), I do think it fair to say that they are being over-the-top. That is not ‘calling up on the facts’ but shooting the messenger for his basic message.

        Apart from that Tim, you seem to agree there are doomsday alarmists amongst the climate alarmists. That is all I was claiming. Of course not all advocates of emission reductions are doomsday sayers, though in my reckoning most are guilty of wishful thinking and I am less forgiving than you are of their apparent unwillingness to face up to political realities.Still, wishful thinking is not the same as apocalyptic yearning. we can of course discuss again the arguments for why I think they are politically naive, but this is not the thread for that. Simply look at my many prior blogs on the topic!

        • Apocalypse Yearner says:

          If you quote the Royal Society on current trends and people get incredibly uptight that you didnt quote a particular predicted trend for the future (the 3 times higher one), I do think it fair to say that they are being over-the-top.

          Paul, the premise of one of your arguments rested on presuming a past trend would continue into the future, when in fact it is predicted that the future trend will increase rapidly. You were wrong, and you were called up on it. In response you started calling people names.

          Apart from that Tim, you seem to agree there are doomsday alarmists amongst the climate alarmists. That is all I was claiming.

          You were lumping climate change (and fear of the plague, wtf?) into the same category as Mayanism, which is completely absurd. One is an observable phenomenon, based on the laws of physics, of which a vast number of serious, well-respected scientists are extremely worried. The other is based on esoteric metaphysics and ancient scripture.

          You don’t seem to be that worried about climate change yourself, but when you quote figures to support your nonchalance you get them wrong by a factor of 3. And instead of defending the figures you start calling people names.

  7. conrad says:

    Paul,

    the specific manifestations of false/illogical beliefs are often culturally specific. Alternatively, there are arguments that false-beliefs may be evolutionarily adaptive and that some of our false-beliefs might be due to side effects of a non-perfect system. If you’re interested, you could do worse than to look at e.g., this, where some discussion of beliefs about religion are made. From this paper, a possible reason for your example would be because it helps people convince other people and possibly themselves of their own worth, which is psychologically adaptive. It is also the case that having the incorrect belief often comes at essentially no cost (see 14. Ungrounded Beliefs).

  8. Alan says:

    Zoroastrianism is very, very old. The dates for Zoroaster range upwards from 1100 BCE. The religion is certainly older than Judaism and probably older than Akhnaten’s alleged invention of solar monotheism. The three ‘Abrahamic’ religions may be better thought of as Zarathustric. Rather than being inherent, end-time myths may just be a diffusion from Zoroastrianism, along with inspired prophets, angels, souls, written scriptures, heaven, hell, redeemers, etc etc.

  9. michaelfstanley says:

    What about the earlier ones? Did the ancient Sumerians worry about this sort of thing?

    The Sumerians were into deluge mythology with Gilgamesh, and the cross over between eschatological narratives and renewal narratives is significant. Religious narratives of the end of the world are almost always describing the end of this world and the transition to a new one, not an end of all things.

    I don’t know of specific examples of the Sumerians being beset by ‘end is nigh’ panics specifically. A quick google doesn’t help.

  10. michaelfstanley says:

    I just realised the specific mistake in the second last sentence, apologies.

  11. michaelfstanley says:

    Rather than being inherent, end-time myths may just be a diffusion from Zoroastrianism,

    There’s significant Hindu end time myths and a little more googling turned this up

    http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/Pawnee-Acopalyptic-Myth-Pawnee.html

  12. Paul Frijters says:

    conrad,

    yes, economists have similar theories about false beliefs (there is a well-known paper called ‘rational irrationality’ that toes the no-cost-to-being-wrong line), but there is no real historical awareness in these theories. They could rationalise any belief but are not predictive of particular beliefs in particular cultures.

    Alan,
    the advent of agriculture is usually dated around 10,000 years ago, way before the Zoroastrians. Admittedly, there wont be much in writing about those earlier agricultural times but maybe historians have deduced things from pictures or something?

    Michael,

    yes, stories of great disasters in the past are probably very common. I seem to recall something about stories of times of great famines and hardships in Aboriginal mythology too? It is different though from the rallying cries so characteristic of the ‘thy doom is nigh so repent now’ variety.

  13. Alan says:

    michaelfstanley

    The oldest Zoroastrian books are written in Avestan, a language contemporary with (indeed almost identical with) the Sanskrit of the Vedas. Hinduism is not necessarily immune to the diffusion argument. Indeed for some reason best known to themselves the authors of the Vedas and the Gathas used the same words for god and demon but demonised each others’ gods and divinised each others’ demons.

    Note I’m not proposing a Zoroastrian origin as the source of all known destruction of the world myths, just a lot of them.

  14. mIchaelfstanley says:

    Note I’m not proposing a Zoroastrian origin as the source of all known destruction of the world myths, just a lot of them.

    thanks for clarifying, my gut feeling is you’re right on this point.

    My point earlier was more that you see these cosmologies of destruction and renewal in most human cultures, going back a very long way. Whether they always resulted in ‘ end is nigh panics’ recognisable like we see today I’m not sure, but I think they are definitely interrelated phenomena.

  15. mIchaelfstanley says:

    Note I’m not proposing a Zoroastrian origin as the source of all known destruction of the world myths, just a lot of them.

    thanks for clarifying, my gut feeling is you’re right on this point.

    My point earlier was more that you see these cosmologies of destruction and renewal in most human cultures, going back a very long way. Whether they always resulted in ‘ end is nigh panics’ recognisable like we see today I’m not sure, but I think they are definitely interrelated phenomena.

  16. Jim Rose says:

    how people forget: see http://birdflubook.org/resources/brainerd1.pdf The 1918-19 influenza epidemic killed at least 40 million people worldwide. 3% of the world’s population

    the writers of the linked paper found that search of EconLit found only two journal articles relating to the 1918 influenza epidemic, and none of the leading economic history textbooks even mention the epidemic.

  17. Julie Thomas says:

    Paul I’ve read a lot about traditional Aboriginal culture and I’ve not come across any apocalyptic myths. But it seems to me that even if these do exist they are used in a different way to the way that most other cultures used them.

    Traditional Aboriginal culture emphasised stasis and reciprocity, not growth and progress. I understand that there is anthropological evidence that there were times when new technology – new ways of making a certain tool – were rejected and the group went back to the old ways of doing things.

    This suggests to me that there is a cultural ‘philosophy’ that determines the ‘nature’ that the humans in a particular culture develop, with the rest of the world developing a philosophy that led to technological innovation whereas the Aborigines, perhaps because of the unique geographical niche this continent provided, developed a different philosophy in which they avoided disasters by not innovating, not changing rather than overcoming problems with more technology.

    Which is not to say that they are less intelligent or anything stupidly racist like that, they innovated in the areas of ‘social’ and ‘artistic’ activities. They maintained a stable society through creating complex and intellectually satisfying categories of belonging, and developed abilities in story telling and visual imagery and rhythm that are way beyond our understanding.

    I think that if societies or cultures or whatever we want to call them were on a continuum, our Aborigines would be the least likely to be worried that the end was nigh. Perhaps the South American civilizations would be at the other end? Always striving for the sun and ending in disaster but creating so much wealth in the process.

  18. Mick says:

    I think we went very close to the “end” this year; several times.

    And, if the political trends continue, then we will most certainly see the world’s end as depicted by this cartoon.

    http://cartoonmick.wordpress.com/editorial-political/#jp-carousel-205

    Cheers

    Mick

Comments are closed.