The religious right anticipates the Rapture; the political left awaits the global warming-ogeddon; and the Mayan calendar has everyone spooked. So, why do we all seem to agree that the end is near?
In their fascinating, often deeply disturbing book The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America, Moab-based authors Mathew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles explore both the history of the way humans have thought about the end of the world, and the way the evolution of that thinking has manifested itself in the 21st-century zeitgeist as a pervasive sense that we’re all heading over a cliff. What they find is an idea that’s surprisingly new in human culture, and one that threatens us with its ubiquity more than it prepares us.
In a well-researched study of eschatology over time, Gross and Gilles reveal that only within a fraction of humanity’s history have cultures even considered such a thing as “the end of the world,” a concept connected specifically to viewing history as linear rather than as cyclical. Through the intersection of the ancient Israelites and the Zoroastrians, the authors discover the birth of a worldview that included a final climactic battle between good and evil, one that would culminate in the rise of Christianity—the world’s first specifically apocalyptic religion. Yet they also deal with the effect of the Renaissance/Enlightenment celebration of infinite human progress, and how the more contemporary recognition that technology can be just as dangerous as it is ennobling changed the game.
The upshot is three equally dangerous contemporary phenomena: the reduction of thinking about potential catastrophe to a war of competing belief systems; the radical (false) equivalency of all potential catastrophes as equally likely and/or deserving of skepticism, specifically in the wake of the “Y2K” non-event; and the inability to recognize the difference between apocalypse as “event” and apocalypse as “trend.” More frightening still are the historical anecdotes that suggest humans aren’t more likely to engage in radical perspective shift when their cultural worldview is threatened, but instead more likely to cling fiercely to those beliefs, even at the risk of their own physical survival.
Like many documentaries and books addressing terrifying scenarios, the authors try to offer some hope in the final analysis so we don’t all feel like hanging ourselves in utter despair. But the picture isn’t pretty. The longer we dither over real trends like climate change and vanishing petroleum reserves, The Last Myth argues—turning them into “events” that one can dismiss as potential over-reaction, or mere act of faith—the more likely they are to become real disasters. By turning everything into the end of the world, we’re losing the ability to discern what might actually result in the end of the world as we know it.