How Apocalyptic Thinking Prevents Us from Taking Political Action

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While Americans take comfort in shows predicting disaster and myths about the end of the world, the real debate over climate change has stalled.

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The Day After Tomorrow.

Flip through the cable channels for long enough, and you'll inevitably find the apocalypse. On Discovery or National Geographic or History you'll find shows like MegaDisasters, Doomsday Preppers, or The Last Days on Earth chronicling, in an hour of programming, dozens of ways the world might end: a gamma ray burst from a nearby star peeling away the Earth's ozone layer like an onion; a mega-volcano erupting and plunging our planet into a new ice age; the magnetic poles reversing. Turn to a news channel, and the headlines appear equally apocalyptic, declaring that the "UN Warns of Rapid Decay in Environment" or that "Humanity's Very Survival" is at risk. On another station, you'll find people arguing that the true apocalyptic threat to our way of life is not the impending collapse of ecosystems and biodiversity but the collapse of the dollar as the world's global currency. Change the channel again, and you'll see still others insisting that malarial mosquitoes, drunk on West Nile virus, are the looming specter of apocalypse darkening our nation's horizon.

How to make sense of it all? After all, not every scenario can be an apocalyptic threat to our way of life -- can it? For many, the tendency is to dismiss all the potential crises we are facing as overblown: perhaps cap and trade is just a smoke screen designed to earn Al Gore billions from his clean-energy investments; perhaps terrorism is just an excuse to increase the power and reach of the government. For others, the panoply of potential disasters becomes overwhelming, leading to a distorted and paranoid vision of reality and the threats facing our world -- as seen on shows like Doomsday Preppers. Will an epidemic wipe out humanity, or could a meteor destroy all life on earth? By the time you're done watching Armageddon Week on the History Channel, even a rapid reversal of the world's magnetic poles might seem terrifyingly likely and imminent.

Dispatches About Planet Earth. See full coverage

The last time apocalyptic anxiety spilled into the mainstream to the extent that it altered the course of history -- during the Reformation -- it relied on a revolutionary new communications technology: the printing press. In a similar way, could the current surge in apocalyptic anxiety be attributed in part to our own revolution in communications technology?

The media, of course, have long mastered the formula of packaging remote possibilities as urgent threats, as sociologist Barry Glassner pointed out in his bestseller The Culture of Fear. We're all familiar with the formula: "It's worse than you think," the anchor intones before delivering an alarming report on date-rape drugs, stalking pedophiles, flesh-eating bacteria, the Ebola virus (née avian flu cum swine flu). You name it (or rename it): if a threat has even a remote chance of materializing, it is treated as an imminent inevitability by television news. It's not just that if it bleeds, it leads. If it might bleed, it still leads. Such sensationalist speculation attracts eyeballs and sells advertising, because fear sells -- and it can sell everything from pharmaceuticals to handguns to duct tape to insurance policies. "People react to fear, not love," Richard Nixon once said. "They don't teach that in Sunday school, but it's true."

Nothing inspires fear like the end of the world, and ever since Y2K, the media's tendency toward overwrought speculation has been increasingly married to the rhetoric of apocalypse. Today, nearly any event can be explained through apocalyptic language, from birds falling out of the sky (the Birdocalypse?) to a major nor'easter (Snowmageddon!) to a double-dip recession (Barackalypse! Obamageddon!). Armageddon is here at last -- and your local news team is live on the scene! We've seen the equivalent of grade inflation (A for Apocalypse!) for every social, political, or ecological challenge before us, an escalating game of one-upmanship to gain the public's attention. Why worry about global warming and rising sea levels when the collapse of the housing bubble has already put your mortgage underwater? Why worry that increasing droughts will threaten the supply of drinking water in America's major cities when a far greater threat lies in the possibility of an Arab terrorist poisoning that drinking supply, resulting in millions of casualties?

Yet not all of the crises or potential threats before us are equal, nor are they equally probable -- a fact that gets glossed over when the media equate the remote threat of a possible event, like epidemics, with real trends like global warming.

Over the last decade, the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of media channels has created ever-more apocalyptic content that is readily available to us, from images of the Twin Towers falling in 2001 to images of the Japanese tsunami in 2011. So, too, have cable channels like Discovery and History married advances in computer-generated imagery with emerging scientific understanding of our planet and universe to give visual validity to the rare and catastrophic events that have occurred in the past or that may take place in the distant future. Using dramatic, animated images and the language of apocalypse to peddle such varied scenarios, however, has the effect of leveling the apocalyptic playing field, leaving the viewer with the impression that terrorism, bird flu, global warming, and asteroids are all equally probable. But not all of these apocalyptic scenarios are equally likely, and they're certainly not equally likely to occur within our lifetimes -- or in our neighborhoods. For example, after millions of Americans witnessed the attacks of 9/11 on television, our collective fear of terrorism was much higher than its actual probability; in 2001, terrorists killed one-twelfth as many Americans as did the flu and one-fifteenth as many Americans as did car accidents. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the odds of an American being killed by a terrorist were about 1 in 88,000 -- compared to a 1 in 10,010 chance of dying from falling off a ladder. The fears of an outbreak of SARS, avian flu, or swine flu also never lived up to their media hype.

Over-reliance on the apocalyptic narrative causes us to fear the wrong things and to mistakenly equate potential future events with current and observable trends.

This over-reliance on the apocalyptic narrative causes us to fear the wrong things and to mistakenly equate potential future events with current and observable trends. How to discern the difference between so many apocalyptic options? If we ask ourselves three basic questions about the many threats portrayed apocalyptically in the media, we are able to separate the apocalyptic wheat from the chaff. Which scenarios are probable? Which are preventable? And what is the likely impact of the worst-case model of any given threat?

In answering these questions, it becomes clear that much of what the media portrays as apocalyptic is not. The apocalyptic scenarios involving global disaster -- from meteor impacts to supervolcanic eruptions -- are extraordinarily rare. An asteroid could hit the Earth and lead to the extinction of all mammals, including us, but the geologic record tells us that such massive strikes are unlikely, and logic tells us that there is little we can do to prevent one. Nor are terrorist attacks or an outbreak of avian flu likely to destroy humanity; their impact is relatively small and usually localized, because we can be prepared for such threats and can contain and mitigate their effects. The apocalyptic storyline tells us that most of these events are probable, largely unpreventable, and destined to be catastrophic. But none of this is true -- their probability is either low or can be made lower through preventive means, or their impact is containable.

The danger of the media's conflation of apocalyptic scenarios is that it leads us to believe that our existential threats come exclusively from events that are beyond our control and that await us in the future -- and that a moment of universal recognition of such threats will be obvious to everyone when they arrive. No one, after all, would ever confuse a meteor barreling toward Earth as anything other than apocalyptic. Yet tangled up in such Hollywood scenarios and sci-fi nightmares are actual threats like global warming that aren't arriving in an instant of universal recognition; instead, they are arriving amid much denial and continued partisan debate.

For example, annual climate-related disasters such as droughts, storms, and floods rose dramatically during the last decade, increasing an average 75 percent compared to the 1990s -- just as many climate models predicted they would if global warming were left unchecked. Yet this rise in natural disasters hasn't produced a moment of universal recognition of the dangers of climate change; instead, belief in climate change is actually on the decline as we adjust to the "new normal" of ever-weirder weather or convince ourselves that our perception of this increased frequency is a magnifying trick of more readily available cable and Internet coverage.

To understand why fewer people believe in climate change even as evidence mounts, we must look beyond the industry-funded movement to deny the reality and effects of climate change. Perhaps equally important -- if not quite equally culpable -- has been the extent to which both the proponents and opponents of human-made climate change have led us down a cul-de-sac of conversation by exploiting the apocalyptic metaphor to make their case.

Whether by design or by accident, the initial warnings of environmentalists -- of oceans rising to engulf our most beloved metropolises, of amber waves of grain scorched into a desert landscape -- activated the apocalyptic impulse. The focus on disastrous repercussions for our behavior at some point in the future echoed the warnings of the Israelite priests to wayward Jews in Babylon or, later, to those who submitted too willingly to Alexander's process of Hellenization. It was a familiar story: change, and change radically, or face hell on earth. Perhaps there was no other way to sound the alarm about the devastating threat presented by global climate change, but that echo of apocalyptic warning was quickly seized upon by the naysayers to dismiss the evidence out of hand.

We've heard this story before, the deniers insisted, and throughout history those who have declared the end of the world was near have always been proven wrong. As early as 1989, the industry front man Patrick Michaels, a climatologist and global warming skeptic, was warning in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post of this new brand of "apocalyptic environmentalism," which represented "the most popular new religion to come along since Marxism." That the solutions to global warming (a less carbon-intensive economy, a more localized trade system, a greater respect for nature's power) parallel so perfectly the dream of environmentalists, and that the causes of global warming (an unrestrained industrial capitalism reliant on the continued and accelerating consumption of fossil fuels) parallel the economic dream of conservatives, has simply exacerbated the fact that global warming has now become just another front in the culture wars. By seizing upon and mocking the apocalyptic imagery and rhetoric of those sounding the alarm, the industry front groups succeeded in framing the debate about global warming into a question about what one believes. Thus, entangled with the myth of apocalypse -- and its attendant hold on our own sense of belief and self-identity -- the debate about anthropogenic climate change has reached an impasse. You believe in the Rapture; I believe in global warming -- and so the conversation stops. But global climate change is not an apocalyptic event that will take place in the future; it is a human-caused trend that is occurring now. And as we expend more time either fearfully imagining or vehemently denying whether that trend will bring about a future apocalypse, scientists tell us that the trend is accelerating.

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Talking about climate change or peak oil through the rhetoric of apocalypse may make for good television and attention-grabbing editorials, but such apocalyptic framing hasn't mobilized the world into action. Most of us are familiar with the platitude "When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." In a similar way, our over-reliance on the apocalyptic storyline stands between us and our ability to properly assess the problems before us. Some see the looming crises of global warming and resource and energy depletion and conclude that inaction will bring about the end of civilization: only through a radical shift toward clean energy and conservation, those on the Left argue, can we continue the way of life that we have known. Those on the Right dismiss the apocalyptic threats altogether, because the proposed solutions to peak oil, global warming, and overpopulation conflict with core conservative beliefs about deregulation and the free-market economy, or with a religious worldview that believes humanity is not powerful enough to alter something as large as our climate. Still others dismiss the catalog of doom and gloom as mere apocalypticism itself. Surely, we convince ourselves, all the dire warnings about the effects of global warming aren't that different from the world-ending expectations of the Rapturists?

The result is that the energy we could expend addressing the problems before us is instead consumed by our efforts to either dismiss the threat of apocalypse or to prove it real. Ultimately, the question becomes not what to do about the threats before us but whether you believe in the threats before us.

By allowing the challenges of the 21st century to be hijacked by the apocalyptic storyline, we find ourselves awaiting a moment of clarity when the problems we must confront will become apparent to all -- or when those challenges will magically disappear, like other failed prophecies about the end of the world. Yet the real challenges we must face are not future events that we imagine or dismiss through apocalyptic scenarios of collapse -- they are existing trends. The evidence suggests that much of what we fear in the future -- the collapse of the economy, the arrival of peak oil and global warming and resource wars -- has already begun. We can wait forever, while the world unravels before our very eyes, for an apocalypse that won't come.

The apocalyptic storyline becomes a form of daydreaming escape: the threat of global warming becomes a fantasy to one day live off the grid, or buy a farm, or grow our own food; economic collapse becomes like a prison break from the drudgery of meaningless and increasingly underpaid work in a soul-crushing cubicle; peak oil promises the chance to finally form a community with the neighbors to whom you've never spoken. Yet despite the fantasia peddled by Hollywood and numerous writers, a world battered by natural disasters and global warming, facing declining natural resources and civic unrest, without adequate water or energy or food, with gross inequalities between the rich and the poor, is not a setting for a picaresque adventure, nor is it the ideal place to start living in accord with your dreams.

The deeper we entangle the challenges of the 21st century with apocalyptic fantasy, the more likely we are to paralyze ourselves with inaction -- or with the wrong course of action. We react to the idea of the apocalypse -- rather than to the underlying issues activating the apocalyptic storyline to begin with -- by either denying its reality ("global warming isn't real") or by despairing at its inevitability ("why bother recycling when the whole world is burning up?"). We react to apocalyptic threats by either partying (assuaging our apocalyptic anxiety through increased consumerism, reasoning that if it all may be gone tomorrow, we might as well enjoy it today), praying (in hopes that divine intervention or mere time will allow us to avoid confronting the challenges before us), or preparing (packing "bugout" packs for a quick escape or stocking up on gold, guns, and canned food, as though the transformative moment we anticipate will be but a brief interlude, a bad winter storm that might trap us indoors for a few days or weeks but that will eventually melt away).

None of these responses avert, nor even mitigate, the very threats that have elicited our apocalyptic anxiety in the first place. Buying an electric car doesn't solve the problem of a culture dependent on endless growth in a finite world; building a bunker to defend against the zombie hordes doesn't solve the growing inequities between the rich and poor; praying for deliverance from the trials of history doesn't change that we must live in the times in which we were born. Indeed, neither partying, nor preparing, nor praying achieves what should be the natural goal when we perceive a threat on the horizon: we should not seek to ignore it, or simply brace for it, but to avert it.

Adapted from The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America (Prometheus Books: March, 2012).

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Presented by

Mathew Barrett Gross & Mel Gilles

Mathew Barrett served as the Director of Internet Communications for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. Mel Gilles is the Director of Sol Kula Healing. Gross and Gilles are the authors of The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America (Prometheus Books). They live in Moab, Utah.

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