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SocietyMarch 14, 2017

I know the world seems pretty bad right now. But just round the corner comes the apocalypse!

kaleidoscopic image of forest with damaged tree in the foreground
kaleidoscopic image of forest with damaged tree in the foreground

Increasingly people are recognising that climate change is an enormous threat  – while at the same time talking about it less, and becoming less likely to let it affect the way they vote or behave. Why is that? And is the only sane response to a suddenly insane world to surrender to the void? Patrick Hunn considers the options.

For a time in 2012 the world became consumed with the (wilfully misinterpreted) implications of a clerical error on the part of the Maya that had produced a calendar unable to account for any date after December 21st. That year, it was claimed, would be our last. Supermassive black holes, solar flares, and an interplanetary collision were among the potential causes mooted for this species-level extinction event. The I Ching, the prophecies of medieval troll Nostradamus and the works of New Age gurus scratched into the back of cigarette packets were cited as evidence. Which all, of course, amounted to little more than a joke – to be taken as seriously as the Y2K Bug or this woman who thinks that Monster energy drinks are the product of a demonic compact between Satan and the Jewish Illuminati. But, among other reasons, “Mayan apocalypse” made for a good costume party theme, so it was hard not to indulge in it just a little bit.

Looking back through the spittle-flecked lens of 2017 this phenomenon seems beautifully naive as it becomes increasingly apparent that the apocalypse will probably not be the product of anything nearly as thrilling as an interstellar disaster or alien invasion. In 2017 we find ourselves being swallowed whole by the terminal spasm of American white supremacy and a global challenge to the assumptive victory of liberal democracy over nationalistic isolationism. A resuscitation of old forms of international manoeuvring, coupled with leaders intent on projecting a particularly rancid image of masculine obstinacy and bluster, looks set to unleash upon us all a new wave of nuclear escalation. The world’s oligarchs, magnates and billionaires, including President Trump’s favourite libertarian hematophage, have snapped up boltholes across New Zealand in preparation for a possible cataclysm.

illustration: Ross Murray

Most importantly, despite small victories and impressive innovations and the protesting screams of thousands of scientists, a climate change-skeptic is in the White House, milquetoast countries drag their heels and blame others on implementing meaningful climate policy, and New Zealand blunders about flabbily in the wake of larger nations, farting jets of methane into the atmosphere. All the while the world is on track to blithely skate past the blousy 2°C target set by the Paris Agreement – a generous target that, even if adhered to, will still change the planet in irreversible and unpredictable ways. 2016 saw record temperatures smashed all over the globe. The Great Barrier Reef was dyed a fashionable shade of bone white, Britain flooded, Canada burned, India struggled with a drought, and a 26% growth in the rate of ocean acidification continued to transform our seas into a sterile soup incapable of supporting life.

Also, those nerds with the big scary clock say we’re as close to The End as we have been since 1953. More specifically, the clock is set at two and a half minutes to midnight – which is actually worse than it was during the Reagan administration’s Able Archer exercises in 1983, when simulated attacks on the Soviet Union, coupled with aggressive military exercises over the Arctic, at one point set off automated missile attack detection systems in the USSR that almost prompted a response in kind. That we are still here is something we owe to a single Soviet officer who made the decision not to report the sensor readings to his superiors.

Which is to say we’re not so much standing close to the precipice as we are sitting on the edge, stone drunk, with our feet dangling over the edge.

If it helps, and in a perverse way I think it does, there’s a deadline to life on earth whatever we do with it. If we very charitably assume that we haven’t engineered our own extinction so completely quite yet, the sun will hit eventually balloon into a red dwarf, swallowing much of the solar system and irradiating whatever is left. The Andromeda galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in approximately four billion year’s time, although, remarkably, the solar system will probably survive this. We could be struck by a comet or a meteor (whatever the difference between the two is) at any moment, leaving Earth a tomb world valuable only as a site for archaeological analysis by aliens that probably don’t exist. Eventually, the universe itself will die – although there are several exciting forms this could take.

In the meantime, however, we’re here, contemplating the void.

The world has a lot on its plate, and addressing climate change in particular seems to have taken a back seat to just about everything else. In his drive to revert his country’s economy to a strange facsimile of a 20th century industrial state that can no longer really be resuscitated, concerns about climate change do not appear to at all be at the forefront of President Trump’s mind – and while it’s important not to let the American news cycle devour your attention entirely, it’s also true that America making the decision to remove itself from the battle to save the planet for at least four years will likely have very serious, even deadly consequences for millions of people.

Climate news does not dominate front pages or social media chatter like other news events. In part this can be explained by the fact that climate change tends not to produce punchy events but instead presents as one blubbery, nightmarish slide into darkness, terror and decay. Rigorous, proactive climate policy does not win elections or stimulate electorates, even where it once might have. Across the entirety of the most recent US Presidential election debate season, just five minutes and thirty five seconds were devoted to the topic, a decrease from the “relative highs” of the George W Bush / Al Gore election. In Australia, support for rigorous climate change policy has never recovered to the levels of the heady days of 2007.

kaleidoscopic image of forest with damaged tree in the foreground

And yet people seem to recognise that climate change is a big deal in increasingly large numbers – while at the same time talking about it less, and becoming less likely to identify it as an issue that will direct the way they vote or behave. A Yale study published in October 2016 found that a “spiral of silence” dictates the way people talk about climate issues. While two-thirds of those surveyed expressed interest in climate change, the vast majority refrained from broaching it as a topic of conversation because they so infrequently heard it being talked about to begin with. For some reason it doesn’t stimulate the same kind of hotly vibrating rage in some of us that a whole host of arguably less important issues does. Jobs make people mad. “The economy” makes people angry. Immigration makes people furious. Climate change – and the prospect of nuclear annihilation, for that matter – mainly stimulates a more maudlin collection of feelings that are less acceptably or easily expressed out loud. It’s much simpler to perform anger in a loud way than to be loudly afraid.

Perhaps fear is the thing. It is natural to fear the consequences of the state of the world, both in the personal sense and in a more pragmatic one. A couple deciding whether or not to have children, for instance, might question whether it is fair or sensible to bring someone into a world that may very well be be entirely different and more unfriendly by the time they themselves leave it. It’s been a while since any of us have had to contend with a existential threat, like people of a certain age did during the Cuban missile crisis (something Mikhail Gorbachov seemed keen to remind us all of in his recent essay for Time, where he politely reminded us all of the “Sword of Damocles” hanging over us all.)

In The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public, a document published several years ago by Columbia University, it’s noted that one of the reasons that climate change can be hard to discuss without either sounding hysterical or glum is that there’s very little that’s predictable about it. “Predictability offers survival value. It provides control, helps people avoid threats to their physical and material well-being, and frees them from fear and anxiety.” Climate change rarely falls within the bounds of predictability – no apocalyptic scenario does. The outcomes described by climate scientists range from “it’ll be bad but maybe we’ll pull through” to “we’ll all be ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”

Apocalyptic scenarios present a problem that is intrinsically difficult in terms of reconciling with the way people operate: it’s really fucking hard to plan for the end of the world. To plan and organise is what defines our species in many ways – human history could perhaps be best represented metaphorically as crisp pad of lined paper and a set of tidily arranged fountain pens. So, perhaps, a scenario that by definition is defined by potential and uncertainty is simply too hard to either accept or to talk about because even if the thought of the end causes you much sadness, it’s not a sadness that fits within the normal sadness schema. It’s not “I’m sad because my mother is dead” as much as it is “I’m sad because there will be nothing,” which is much harder to perform convincingly.

Shoko Asahara, founder of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth)

Of course there’s the fact that it’s hard to really, truly, ardently believe that the end of days will come during your lifetime. There have, however, been people who have embraced the apocalypse fully. The idea of an apocalypse has historically enjoyed much currency among highly unusual people who are terribly fond of mass suicide. There was Heaven’s Gate, with their still-maintained website an eerie reminder of the group suicides performed in the name of a Star Trek-influenced eschatology. Aum Shinrikyo was so committed to the idea of the apocalypse that they decided to make it happen themselves, a decision which resulted in the horrifying sarin attacks on the Tokyo metro. The last few members of the “true” Russian Orthodox Church, who hid themselves away in a cave system to await the apocalypse in 2007, left only when the funereal gases produced by the dead bodies of their deceased comrades threatened to suffocate them.

Their apocalypses, to be sure, are not the maddeningly pointless apocalypses born of inaction and cowardice that we find ourselves contemplating, but they were certainly committed to the idea in a way that very few of us ever will. Because while many of us recognise that the science behind climate change, for instance, is very real, it’s hard to truly believe that anything as serious as has been suggested will come to pass. For every massive cyclone or heatwave or fat chunk of the Antarctic snapping off, it’s hard not to think that things will work out somehow – things will sort themselves out through the aptitude for innovation and compromise that is so inherently human.

Which it won’t, of course.

There is a temptation to attempt to end any one thing on a positive note, but that hardly seems apt here. Maybe that’s the point – there aren’t many ways to spin something like this. We’ve sullied the environment to the point where it is rejecting us and we’ve built, with fantastic ingenuity and enterprise, a system by which we can remove ourselves from existence in just a few hours. And yet a wet duvet of fear and doubt stop us from fully addressing these issues with the urgency they require. That we are careening toward a particularly malevolent darkness is not really up for debate. Whether or not you choose to wallow in the void, however, is.

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