Friday, December 21, 2012
The Wrong Doomsday????
Despite all the weird flourishes and theories, the Mayan calendar prediction of doomsday is an unusually short apocalyptic tale: one day (Dec. 21 or 23) the world ends. End of story. It’s not very satisfying.
We usually prefer our doomsday stories to be longer and more elaborate, with a hint of redemption and a happy ending. The oldest stories involved gods and human sins, with doom coming from nature, especially the sky (the Flood.) That changed in the early 20th century to humanity and its technologies as the predominant cause (according to W. Warren Wagar’s survey for his 1982 book Terminal Visions.)
In modern doomsday stories there’s usually a specific cause. It might be a violent end to civilization (thermonuclear war, pandemic) or the most subtle doomsday of dystopia: a Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Hunger Games, Brave New World-- the living death of an inhuman society.
These doomsdays, set in the future with a causal chain of events to get there, are often cautionary tales. The implication is that it’s in the power of the present to avoid them.
For example, the first modern doomsday story and cautionary tale was H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which took the growing distance between rich and poor in industrial England to the logical conclusion of a split into two human species, the effete Eloi and the marauding Morlocks. The future divided between rich and poor in The Hunger Games series seems a point between Wells’ 1890s and the far future of The Time Machine, as well as a little beyond our present.
These days there are also post-apocalyptic tales (from Mad Max to The Road, and arguably the fashionable zombie and vampire stories) that seem to articulate a feeling that avoidable apocalypse just isn’t going to be avoided.
Why not? Oddly common to Christian and other religious doctrines and their apparent arch-enemies, scientific evolutionists (from Social Darwinists to “selfish gene” adherents) is the basic take on human nature as predominantly selfish and sinful. Receptivity to scientists emphasizing the role of cooperation, empathy and altruism in animal and human behavior is only now becoming widespread.
So why are doomsday tales so popular? Here’s my theory. Animal intelligence is focused most basically on finding stuff to eat, while avoiding being eaten. More broadly, that translates as probing the environment for two categories of information: opportunities and dangers. Both of these get our attention, but dangers get very quick, intense and visceral attention, for obvious reasons—like a growling tiger. Doomsday is a very dramatic danger (particularly in IMAX 3D with special effects.)
Because a definite doomsday on a particular date is a clear-and-present danger, it’s the kind we respond to best. We don’t handle indefinite doomsdays as well. Much of humanity lived for decades with doomsday from thermonuclear holocaust as an everyday possibility. We still live with other indefinite doomsdays hanging over our heads, but the constant possibility plus its unpredictability leads to what Robert Jay Lifton called “numbing.” We can’t keep feeling it and stay sane.
A definite doomsday is a dramatic release. It permits feelings and expressions of dread, fright and regret, and focuses whatever ideas, faith or hope one has about a next world.
Why the Mayan calendar, though? Perhaps the doomsday we fear is no longer purely technological. We’ve returned to fearing doom from the skies (asteroids, aliens etc.) and from nature and the gods.
The most likely apocalypse is still that causal combination of technology and nature that is the climate crisis. Denial has been a remarkably strong response to its reality. But focusing on the Mayan doomsday exemplifies another psychological dodge called displacement. The numbed and repressed feelings in response to the future that is rapidly becoming the present can be released in what for most people is this slightly thrilling but mostly comic pretext. It’s a few days of social media buzz over a dubious interpretation of an ancient calendar’s non-prediction that conveniently displaces the indefinite doomsday of the climate crisis.
The climate crisis has been a test of the aggregate human intelligence of civilization: can we respond to a grave danger in the future that we can anticipate but isn’t actually growling at us? We’re not passing that test so far. Maybe any imaginary doomsday can eventually help focus our attention.