It's the end of the world. Again.
If 3,000 years of history tell us anything, it's that December 21st, 2012 – a date associated by some with the Mayan apocalypse – will feel a lot like any other day of the year.
Human beings have never been very good at predicting the end of the world. Though one would never know given our current surge of enthusiasm for apocalyptic scenarios. Even firearms manufacturers today are marketing real-life (and deadly) weapons as "zombie apocalypse" guns. (We all know that zombies aren't real. Right? Right?). And just consider the last dozen years: Public interest has lurched from Y2K to 2012 to solar flares.
It's easy to make light of these attachments. But recent events reveal a contradictory and troubling attitude at the back of our fascination with The End.
TV viewership, radio banter, and online surfing reveal a perverse sense of wonder toward Armageddon. Yet at the same time, we as a society evince a peculiar denial toward predictable and increasingly frequent weather emergencies, such as Hurricane Sandy, which crippled power and left thousands homeless in parts of the northeast.
Why do we often balance between this odd fascination with fictitious apocalysm and a state of unpreparedness toward authentic urgencies?
Journalists, scholars, and social scientists regularly look for geopolitical or social causes to explain our fixation on end times: Anxiety over economic conditions, the pace of technological change, or fears of natural disasters or environmental havoc are often trotted out. Of those culprits, extreme weather is the most justifiable cause for anxiety. Yet entertainment and consumption claim far more resources in our culture than safeguarding everyday people from weather emergencies. By the fourth night of the Sandy blackout, all but two of New Jersey's Atlantic City casinos were up and running, while much of the city remained blanketed in darkness, shortages, and apprehension.
During the power outages in New York City my family – which fared better than most – lost power for about a week. We "fled" to a hotel in midtown Manhattan. We were the lucky ones. As I walked up Park Avenue looking at $25,000 wristwatches in boutique windows I wondered how much it would cost to provide better hurricane insulation at power plants; to install safer underground electrical lines; to purchase reliable generators for hospitals, nursing homes, and public housing; and to maintain a sound automated update system at our power companies. (Con Edison, which has no problem reaching us for interminable robo-calls, didn't recognize our phone number when I tried to log into or call its automated information system).
The uptick of extreme weather events – Sandy was the northeast's second hurricane in two years running – presents us with a "new normal" for which we're not quite prepared. It is neither unreasonable, nor a side effect from too many apocalyptic-themed cable TV documentaries, for people to question whether industrialized civilization is like an inverted pyramid, balancing on a tip, with too many of our priorities and resources loaded at the wrong end.
Some observers claim that we sublimate and vent these fears through our diet of zombie TV shows, apocalyptic video games, and day-after novels and movies. But look again. The screen entertainment that best captures our current mood consists of movies like The Truman Show, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, and Groundhog Day. Each of these films suggests that we not living the lives we think we are: that we are not making independent, thoughtful choices, but rather are following a conformist pattern of consumption and unawareness.
And that aspect of human nature exposes the real impetus behind our childlike fascination with end times. People everywhere yearn for inner change – for a way to detach from the cycle of routine daily existence, with its conflicts, habits, addictions, worries, and boredoms. We're surrounded by therapeutic and religious ideas – yet the wish for change and personal fulfillment is almost always unfulfilled. So, in our frustration, we look without. We hope that some kind of seismic shift will rescue us from the inability to alter ourselves. Scary as it may be, the end of what we know promises to rupture old patterns and push us toward something new.
Consider the much-hyped Y2K, when the calendar turnover to the new millennium was supposed to wreak havoc on our computer systems. A highly accomplished parenting author told me at the time that his wife insisted on their purchasing a gas-powered generator. As he related the story I detected no fear at all in him; rather he sounded like a guy planning for a vacation. The same attitude appeared in other adults: they sounded like kids who were hoping for a "snow day" to get out of school. The routine of work, the obligations to family, the anxieties of day-in-day-out existence – all of it can seem to grow lighter for people when they think, as some do every few years, that the end is near. Many people indulge in a semi-believable image of a future that, if nothing else, represents a radical departure from the present.
But neither fantasy nor denial will work anymore. We need to better understand what it is in ourselves that is so bored or disaffected with the present that we enjoy musing over imagined disasters – even while we as a society fail to sensibly prepare for altogether real and predictable ones.
In the coming year – and there will be one – we must trade "The End Is Near" for an older and more productive principle: "Know Thyself."