The air is full of gloomy predictions for 2025—and that's if we make it that long. In today's pop culture, it seems the future ain't what it used to be.
When the lights didn't go out on January 1, 2000, we all breathed a sigh of relief, and thought the millennium was over. The moment had passed, the disaster—whether sociological or theological—was averted. The world could move on. But nine years later, the world has not moved on. In fact, the tone of discourse has grown progressively more apocalyptic. The millennium may have been more a whimper than a bang, but millennialism is alive and well.
In November 2008, the U.S. intelligence community released its latest set of predictions for the coming two decades. It would be fair to call them gloomy, if not quite the Revelation to John.
For one thing, the American Century is definitely over—and this is according to the American government. U.S. power will decline, as will that of Europe, and the replacement is less likely to be a new internationalism than a second era of mercantile competition among regional blocs. Environmental concerns can be expected to go by the wayside in the struggle for new energy sources—unless something suitably apocalyptic happens, and forces us to reduce fuel consumption. "Resource conflicts" will be the order of the day, probably military ones. And though terrorism will lose much of its luster, surviving dissidents will find their ability to do harm augmented by an array of increasingly deadly technologies.
Created by an international group of policy and security experts under the auspices of the NIC (National Intelligence Council), Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World is intended to "stimulate strategic thinking about the future by identifying key trends, the factors that drive them, where they seem to be headed, and how they might interact."
Based on the idea that a "small number of variables" will have "a disproportionate influence on future events," the report hopes to "help readers recognize signposts indicating where events are headed." A "Rough Guide" to the future.
"If you like where events seem to be headed, you may want to take timely action to preserve their positive trajectory. If you do not like where they appear to be going, you will have to develop and implement policies to change their trajectory."
In a way, these periodic reports can seem laughable: trying to predict the future is a business that seems better suited to caped fortune-tellers or science fiction writers than government-funded think tanks. But in a world where the future is often held hostage to politics, and where millennial frenzy mixes and melds with a variety of real threats to humanity's peace and prosperity (if not existence), the desire to know what's coming has taken an unprecedented pride of place in our culture.
And in some sense, the NIC's predictions are optimistic, in that they allow us to survive. (For the alternative, just Google the year "2012.")
Against such a gloomy backdrop, events like the election of U.S. President Barack Obama can take on a Manichean significance (particularly, in Obama's case, when viewed in the context of the apocalyptic "good" and "evil" rhetoric used by his predecessor). "Change" becomes good, an election is a transformational event, which will radically restructure society and avert the grim future that has been foreseen.
"Historical events are often portrayed apocalyptically—as absolute breaks from the past," writes literary scholar James Berger in his book After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, which deals with the role of millennial rhetoric in twentieth-century popular culture.
Apocalypse does suit political and national movements' need for a discourse of uniqueness and radical change from the status quo. On nearly the same day as the launch of the NIC report, an American progressive group promulgated a satirical version of the New York Times. Dated in 2009, the paper portrayed Obama transforming the world order and ushering in a sort of socialist Earthly Paradise of high wages and fair trade.
So if we are to understand that the need for apocalypse is as much about our psychology as anything else, why should we worry?
The Coming Apocalypse?
Any list of the most-talked-about books of recent years will sport titles like Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Jared Diamond's Collapse, Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, and of course the ubiquitous An Inconvenient Truth, all of which paint a dire picture of a coming (mostly ecological) catastrophe. Other harbingers include a legion of darkly tinted stories of war and the decline of American power (The Dark Side, The Forever War, The Post-American World), as well as the flourishing bouquet of books chronicling the excesses of our time, both economic (The Shock Doctrine, Traders, Guns and Money) and environmental (The Revenge of Gaia, The Future of Life, and even the documentary series Planet Earth).
The end may or may not be nigh—but it's certainly big business. Of course, people have always harbored a desire to predict the future. Prophecy was one of the oldest responsibilities of our priests and leaders, and has fueled concurrent trends in popular culture. Alongside the presumably well-meaning and well-informed attempts to extrapolate from current trends, there exists a legion of fortune-tellers, interpreters and imitators of Nostradamus, and other charlatans for whom our desire to know what's coming is nothing more than a predictable market. Like the need for another cookbook, the appetite for prophecy never dims.
We are fragile creatures, short-lived, but we seem to like to take a long view of history. Perhaps this comes from the way most of us are educated—taught history as if it were all prelude to the present, and our civilization is the end product of human endeavor. (This is, I understand, about as true in China as it is in the United States or Europe or Jordan.)
"It seems significant that in the late twentieth century we have had the opportunity, previously enjoyed only by means of theology and fiction, to see after the end of our civilization—to see in a strange prospective retrospect what the end would actually look like," Berger writes.
Fueled by information technology that allows us to see and learn more about the world than any generation before us, this unique viewpoint allows us to feel uniquely privileged as observers. Equipped with the Internet, every human is an Übermensch: we ought to be able to see the future.
And to know what's coming is the ultimate denial of our own ephemeral nature. (Are we worried that the world is coming to an end—or just that we are?)
Of course, there is an alternate argument: that civilization really is approaching a cataclysmic turning point, or is already in the midst of one. Looking back at that list of gloomy best sellers, there are plenty of reasons to suspect that all is not well.
Climate change, of course, is the villain of the hour, and is even more enticing because of its unpredictability. No one is really sure what the effects will be, or how long they will take to reach a level at which they affect human life, or what will happen then. But the consensus seems to be growing ever stronger that there will be effects, and that they could be very serious indeed, if we don't act quickly to mitigate them. As apocalypses go, give this one four stars (or question marks).
There are a million other ecological crises that various interest groups are calling to our attention: pollution, deforestation and habitat destruction, droughts, and other consequences of resource overuse. Perhaps the most compelling, though, is the crisis of biodiversity being caused by the confluence of all these factors. The extinction of species is proceeding at a pace never before seen, except in the geologic records of cataclysmic die-offs. Not only does this represent a huge loss of beauty and potential knowledge, but if too much of the Earth's biodiversity is lost, the ecological systems that recycle the planet's waste, filter its water, and clean its air could begin to break down, seriously reducing its capacity to support life. The possibility of a biodiversity crisis is being seriously discussed in scientific work, most prominently in the writings of the myrmecologist Edward O. Wilson and most fantastically in those of futurist James Lovelock. Give it three stars.
(And by the way, if you want to know whose planet this really is, spend some time with a myrmecologist: the ants have us outnumbered, and quite possibly outsmarted.)
It's also getting more credible that we could bring about our own end. First, through the unsustainable use of resources (as Jared Diamond has amply described in Collapse), and second, through the conflicts that emerge from the desire to control and monopolize those resources. Our increasingly deadly and multifarious array of weapons only makes those conflicts more dangerous and unpredictable, as the NIC has outlined. On its own, each of these could rate two and a half stars; together, they probably get five.
Then, of course, there are the numerous things that could cause our end over which we have virtually no control: bursts of solar radiation, asteroid impacts, exploding supervolcanoes, and novel pandemics, to name a few. In the book Apocalypse 2012, former New York Times science writer Lawrence E. Joseph sums up many of these dangers, in prose that leaps nimbly from millennial dread to scientific skepticism, and then back again.
The 2012 date is clearly nonsense: there's just no way of predicting when a supervolcano might blow or an asteroid might come streaking towards the Yucatan. These events recur on time scales ranging from hundreds of years to tens of millions. But looking at the sheer number of things that could bring civilization to a screeching halt is a humbling reminder of how transitory our presence on this globe is. One star.
Perhaps there is reason to worry after all.
Forty years ago, the go-to guy on the end of civilization was probably Paul R. Ehrlich, author of the hoary old 1960s classic The Population Bomb. It predicted that overpopulation would cause massive famines in the 1970s and '80s, leading to infrastructure collapse and the End of Civilization as They Knew It.
Today, Ehrlich's book is most commonly cited by opponents of environmental causes, as evidence that predictions of coming disaster are just alarmist doom and gloom. Like the Y2K bug, it's become a cautionary tale.
Predicting the future is by its nature an uncertain business—in part, perhaps, because we seem to have an appetite for such predictions. There will be false alarms.
But the uncomfortable possibility about "false" predictions is the one embedded in our modern concept of time, and can be summed up by the phrase "it isn't over yet"—though we often seem to feel it is.
"Modernity is often said to be preoccupied with a sense of crisis," Berger writes. "But in the late twentieth century it exists together with another sense, that the conclusive catastrophe has already occurred, the crisis is over . . . and the ceaseless activity of our time . . . is only a complex form of stasis."
We see ourselves as at the end of history, and a few of us even write books about it. But we're not; we're right in the middle of it. And cataclysm doesn't happen overnight. By some accounts, it took the Roman Republic (later, Empire) more than five hundred years to decline and fall. Who knows how that decline looked to the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean coast?
To us, with our Übermensch view of history, five hundred years doesn't seem like a terribly long time—unless we compare it to how long we have actually lived, or even expect to. If we use human history as a backdrop, rather than contemporary politics, the idea that a catastrophe has been averted because it has taken more than forty years to play out is simply laughable.
So while the dates cited in The Population Bomb were clearly wrong (the authors used the wrong mathematical model for human population growth), the problem of growing populations and their impact on the Earth's environment and resources remains on every radar. These days, the 2050 date, when the Earth's population is widely expected to reach nine billion, is commonly held up as a point by which we had better have some solutions. Maybe we should add "overpopulation" to the list of apocalypses above. Give it two stars.
More recently—say ten years ago—the apocalypse guy would have been Robert Kaplan, author of such Atlantic Monthly essays as "The Coming Anarchy" and "Was Democracy Just a Moment?" In the former, he describes how "disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms and international drug cartels" were all slowly eating away at society, ushering in a period of "demographic, environmental and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real 'strategic' danger."
The NIC report could be a contemporary sequel to Kaplan: it describes many of the same problems, potentially made worse by nationalist struggles among nation states. Amid the "coulds" and the "mights," we get the picture of a very different kind of "end of civilization," one that much more resembles the fall of the Roman Empire described above. Not cataclysmic and final, but slow, perhaps almost imperceptible, and offering plenty of room for considered reflection.
International institutions don't break all at once, but fragment, reducing their ability to deal with crisis. Already thin resources are stretched ever thinner as climate change and drought reduce the productivity of many areas. Wars multiply, and probably also natural disasters (again because of climate change). These trends swell the already growing numbers of global migrants and refugees. Cities blister with slums. Security apparatuses give way to more literal fortifications, and the rich are increasingly willing to cede certain areas to the growing anarchy, as long as they can stay safe behind their walls. Resurgent fundamentalism takes root inside those walls, as well as beyond.
Nation states lose traction against private armies and criminal organizations, which become the providers of security. Communication and transportation, once the hallmarks of modernity, get harder and harder to maintain, and as they decline the rate of technological innovation slows, and the knowledge lost to ever more frequent disasters is recovered more slowly, if at all. And one day our descendants wake up in world where tiny, feudal enclaves of heavily armed Holy Warriors struggle to guard what is left of the repositories of "learning" and "culture," against a world that has by-and-large been ceded to chaos.
That's history seen as a cycle, leading almost inevitably to a new Dark Age (prior, one hopes, to a new Renaissance). Of course, it is only one of many possible futures.
Facing the Future
In the 1970s, the sociologist Alvin Toffler coined the term "Future Shock," in a book of the same title. He described a society where people were completely disconnected from anything they could perceive as the primal force that made things work: surrounded by machines they did not understand, living in a world run by ideas beyond their ability to comprehend. In this situation, who could help but see disaster around the corner?
More ancient worldviews have nearly always had the opposite effect: to instill a sense of order, to create primal forces that we could understand, and that, perhaps, humanity might influence or at least communicate with. We have tried to talk to the world.
Perhaps the world didn't listen. Or perhaps it did, but the answers to our ruthless interrogation quickly became more than we could understand: relativity, quantum theory, the flow of electrons, and the insulating properties of silicate materials. Whichever it is, we have come to a point where we indeed feel overwhelmed by history.
Millennialism can be seen as a strategy for coping with future shock: creating an imagined transition, which allows us to situate ourselves both at the end of history and outside it. We no longer understand our own story, so it's time to tear the page out and start again. In the imagined transition, we play a pivotal role in the apocalypse by "observing" it in what Brewer calls "prospective retrospect." To those who feel able to prophesy, understanding of the end of our world allows us to transcend it.
For many people, it seems likely the imagined transition is just a coping strategy. It provides us with somewhere to place ourselves, in a vision of history that has a beginning and an end like any good story. At the extreme, some may even take pleasure from it, as Joseph describes in Apocalypse 2012: "Doomsday has a profound if unspeakable allure for those who are unhappy with themselves, their society, their Maker ... it's a form of vicarious revenge that anyone can take on life's unfairness."
Defined this way, a contrast appears between the millennial understanding of end times and the dark predictions of some of our strategists.
There is one small section in the NIC report that is titled "Strategic Implications of an Opening Arctic"—"opening," of course, referring to the melting of significant portions of the polar ice caps. Melting ice caps are, according to many hypotheses, the touchstone for the most devastating potential effects of global climate change: a rise in sea levels that could engulf coastal cities, massive changes in ocean currents that could cause storms and disrupt food supplies, and even an increased potential for massive earthquakes, as the reduced weight of ice allows continental plates to drift more freely.
In other words, if the Arctic "opens," then we are really in trouble. But if the NIC sees any irony here, it doesn't let on. There may be a strategic advantage to be gained by the destruction of huge chunks of human civilization. It could even pave the way for more fossil fuel exploration, the NIC suggests. After all, the end of the world isn't really the end of the world. It remains something we can strategize, something we can manage. And someone, if not us, will be around to start drilling for oil in the soon-to-be-warm polar seas.
This is the opposite pole, a managed transition, which maintains an illusion of control over probably uncontrollable events. (Remember the NIC's helpful advice to change the trajectory of history?)
But the managed transition is perhaps only possible because of the other, imagined apocalypse. If we have seen the end, then we can face what is coming, without fear or sentimentality. We can cope with living a complicated, ongoing end of days, in a world where history has not ended, and we, shorn of our position as omniscient observers, have to be part of making it.
Though in the end, perhaps looking at things apocalyptically is not such a bad thing. Viewing historical events as "absolute breaks from the past" is part of what gives us our ability to change, to reinvent ourselves: to become something new, and previously unthinkable. It is, after all, a new year. America has a new president—one who is definitely not George W. Bush. If we work for it, maybe we can have our apocalypse now. And a new world wouldn't be such a bad thing.
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