Tired of waiting for the barbarians

The Last Myth book cover

The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America by Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles, Prometheus Books, 254pp, $18.

Ever since the dawn of the Nuclear Age, Hollywood has fed movie audiences on a steady diet of end-of-the-world thrillers. And from The Time Machine and The Planet of the Apes to The Road and The Hunger Games, for half a century moviegoers have hungrily gobbled up this fare like so many baskets of greasy apocalpytic curly fries.

It may seem that people always and everywhere have thrilled to dramatic stories of the end-times. After all, the mother of all apocalypses comes not from Armageddon producer Jerry Bruckheimer but from that Biblical blockbuster, the Book of Revelation.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

Not necessarily, claim Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles in The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America. Gross and Gilles write that the apocalypse is a relatively new obsession in human history, dating back not to the dawn of culture but instead originating only about 500 years before Christ.

Next year in Jerusalem

Nor are all cultures around the world equally fascinated with the end-times. It turns out that it was really the Israelites and their Revelation that set the stage for Western culture to start telling itself stories about its own demise.

At that point, the West started to shift from a sense of time as cyclical and repetitive to a new view of time as linear and progressive. Previously, history had been an endless repetition of golden ages followed by decline, fall and rebirth. Now, it was a one-way street pointing towards an ultimate moment of completion, whether the Coming of the Messiah or a more secular end-point such as the collapse of industrial civilization in nuclear war, pandemic bird flu or Y2K.

For the Western mind, the end of time promised plenty of suffering for the wicked and a grand redemption for the wise in a cosmic I Told You So that would answer the big questions once and for all — in Greek, “apocalypse” means lifting of the veil or revelation. But this idea was not shared by other cultures, which continued to believe in an endless cycling of good and bad eras and thus failed to embrace the Western idea of progress as well as its dark side, the final battle between good and evil.

But didn’t the Mayans also believe in the end of the world? Like anybody else who seems to know what they’re talking about, Gross and Gilles quickly dispense with the Mayan Long Count Calendar, busting the New Age 2012 myth that ancient Mesoamerican astrologers accurately predicted that the final curtain would fall on earthly civilization in December of this year.

Made in USA

After offering lots of history on the apocalpyse as a concept, Gross and Gilles explain why it matters that the idea of history jangling its spurs towards a final showdown at the Not-OK Corral found its high noon in the land of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan.

It was a steadfast belief in progress that enabled the Puritans’ City on a Hill to realize its manifest destiny and usher in The End of History — as Francis Fukuyama put it, the triumph of the final form of human civilization, liberal capitalist democracy, over Communism and any other possible alternative. But the dark side of thinking that things are getting better every day and in every way is to also believe that the apocalypse is just around the corner.

And if this belief governs the most powerful country on Earth, then Houston, we have a problem.

It’s not that reasonable people shouldn’t be scared of things today. Indeed, there are plenty of real worries that need to be urgently addressed, particularly climate change and peak oil.

But activists who see themselves as Cassandras, Noahs or other prophets crying in the wilderness who must deliver their warnings with as much drama as possible in order to get the attention of a decadent and complacent world are courting failure on two fronts.

First, if we sound like chicken littles, squawking as loudly as we can that the sky is falling, we give people an excuse to lump the real problems we decry with the dozens of goofy fake problems that get way too much air time in the media on a regular basis.

Gross and Gilles write that invoking colorful images and the language of apocalypse has the effect of “leveling the apocalyptic playing field,” conveying the impression that “terrorism, bird flu, global warming, and asteroids are all equally probable.”

And at least all those things are matters of science. But what if you try to talk apocalypse to the more than 40% of Americans who think that the Second Coming will happen in their lifetimes?

You might as well start singing “I say tomato, you say tomahto.”

Or, as Gross and Gilles put it, “You believe in the Rapture; I believe in global warming — and so the conversation stops.”

“This overreliance on the apocalyptic narrative causes us to fear the wrong things and to mistakenly equate potential future events with current and observable trends,” they continue while offering three questions to evaluate which threats we should really fear: “Which scenarios are probable? Which are preventable? And what is the likely impact of the worst-case model of any threat?”

Learning to fear accurately

There’s a second problem with framing real problems with the story of the apocalypse. If society is convinced at some point to forget about asteroids and the Rapture so that we can focus on the real task of getting off of oil, we still should keep calm and carry on even as we make preparations both important and urgent. Things could be bad — but probably not that bad.

As Gross and Gilles point out, even one of the worst catastrophes in history, the Black Death, had its upside. The bubonic plague outbreak did kill four out of every ten Europeans at the time. But those who were left behind found higher wages and plenty of cheap, empty land. And pretty soon, the beginning of the Renaissance.

So while the end-times will certainly continue to sell seats at the multiplex and fill pews at Pentecostal churches, we should remember that, as a story line, the apocalypse is less about enlightenment than it is about entertainment.

Only the most sour kind of killjoy would want to deny moviegoers the good clean fun of watching the White House explode or Manhattan disappear under a tsunami up on screen.

But holding out for the real-life cataclysm big enough to prove that James Hansen was right about climate, that Ron Paul was right about gold and that people who live in the suburbs were wrong about nearly everything will make us into cranks with little to offer the world but bitter self-righteousness. That’s no way to win friends and influence people. And it’s no way to develop the calm clarity we need now more than ever to build a worthwhile future.

If we leave the end of the world to the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer and find a more mature way to think about politics, culture and the economy than TEOTWAWKI or the peak-ocalypse, we will need to reconcile ourselves to never Knowing All the Answers. Maybe things will never really become much clearer than they are now.

Which means that the future we’ve been fearing and hoping for is already here.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    “That’s no way to win friends and influence people. ”
    You say that as if it’s a BAD thing. You just laid out all of the reasons people are ignorant, oblivious, and self-righteous while believing things that have no basis in fact, and I’m supposed to want to make FRIENDS with them?
    No thanks.
    Nobody expects the barbarians: that’s why they are barbarians. Civilization is the yin to the barbarian yang. When civilization spends all of its time working to avoid the reality of its animal side, building towers of Babel upon foundations of desire and fantasy, then of course it will eventually be shaved off and return to its natural roots of diverse action in a random environment, even if the barbarism has to come from inside civilization itself.
    Trying to save civilization is quixotic. Civilization itself is mindless and doesn’t need to be saved.
    Civilization for its own sake has no purpose: it’s just the result of collective action by people seeking comfort and convenience through common desires (even if those desires are instilled through marketing or propaganda). The barbarians are simply Reality making itself known in the hallucination of human hubris.
    Yes, we CAN cooperate, be wise and useful in our behaviors as a species and even use organized society to do so.
    But we don’t. You are thinking of the species that might come after Homo imaginis: Homo diversicans (depopulated and scattered around the world).
    Homo imaginis is too busy making movies to care about the logistics of being alive without cheap energy.

    • says

      Glad to see you bring in the barbarians, Auntiegrav. For my title, I was thinking of Greek Alexandrian poet CP Cavafy’s (1863-1933) “Waiting for the Barbarians.” It starts like this:

      “What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum? / The barbarians are due here today. / Why isn’t anything happening in the senate? / Why do the senators sit there without legislating? / Because the barbarians are coming today. / What laws can the senators make now? / Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”

      And ends like this…

      “Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion? / (How serious people’s faces have become.) / Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, / everyone going home so lost in thought? / Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come. / And some who have just returned / from the border say there are no barbarians any longer. / And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? / They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

      • Auntiegrav says

        Yup. Thanks Eric. I heard the music in my head when I read the lines. Sort of a Heavy Metal beginning with a symphonic Star Trek ending. The problem for our Consumer/Spectacle society is that the sequel’s Amish/Malthus script isn’t nearly as effective at selling crap.

  2. says

    I was looking at the book. He seems to be framing is argument rather oddly.

    It would seem more natural to say: When a religion that had the end of the world as a central component to its believe system became one of the major religions/philosophies of the word, the world naturally became a bit more apocalyptic in its viewpoint.

    If the Norse myths, also rather apocalyptic, had become the dominant religion/philosophy of the world, we would say much the same thing.

  3. Mark N says

    I do not care if I am perceived as Chicken Little or worse. The ship of industrial civilization is about to sink. As soon as the plateau of global oil production ends things will get a lot clearer. I am sorry there appears to be no solution to overpopulation, climate change, the mass extinction event that’s underway or peak oil. But I am not going to go against my logical interpretation of reality for a more palatable view of dire circumstances. More magical thinking will not save one single person.

    Picture ourselves upon the sinking Titanic. Instead of getting to lifeboats and dealing with the fact of limited room, which is unpleasant, we redefine the sinking in a more popular light so that passengers will head the message. You will draw a larger crowd and reach more people. The ship however will still sink, regardless of the tone of the message.

    The sky is not falling yet, but it is getting ready to. Industrial civilization is mortally wounded. The economic system requires growth that has largely been replaced with debt. Soon the servicing of the debts of industrialized nations will be as large as wars. Credit shrinks just as we need credit like never before to shift to lower density energy sources. When the industrial economic system blows, it will be hard to transition to anything. Maybe a long stair step fall is what we will get. I believe Liebig’s Law of the Minimum will probably ensures us a straight down good old fashioned apocalyptic crash. No one will listen to me, so I am heading over to the rail by the lifeboats. There will be pushing and shoving, it will be quite unpleasant. I am prepared for that, distasteful though it may be.

    I do not want to end on a negative note; I am fan of your writing Erik and I think your work is admirable. I just felt compelled to give you my take on this thought provoking article. I am also in the Staunton area, if you ever want to start thinking about life boats just drop me a line.
    Mark N

  4. says

    I’m right there with you Mark. It feels true in my heart and mind that the Titanic is ALREADY holed beneath the water line and inevitably going down. It’s simply a question of when and exactly how (I note the Titantic went down in stages). You can look at it from so many angles: climate change, over consumption, over population, financial collapse, collapse of our eco-systems, natural earth changes, pole shifts and solar storms. The universe is aligning itself perfectly to unravel a disharmony in the flow.

    So why not be brave, confront reality as it really is, and shine a positive path to the life boats. Speaking from experience, if you share with people the truth of what’s really going on, but help them stay positive and motivated, many find they can overcome fear.

  5. Maggie says

    I think I love you, Auntie Grav! Thanks for speaking your truth so plainly, something I always appreciate in you.

    It’s funny–or it would be, if not for it being so awful–that the author of this book talks about ‘the upside’ of the Black Plague. Free land! The Renaissance! The real upside to the Black Plague would have been humanity seeing the starkly obvious sign of the times: urban based civilization is bad for our health. Such an epidemic (then and now, and all times in between) arises to such a damaging degree explicitly *because* of conditions existing within cities: high population density, issues with food/water delivery for health and sanitation, waste management problems that invite the rats that carry the fleas that become the vector, etc. All of it about human choices.

    But then, as now and all times in between, instead humanity struggled harder for dominance over nature via more/better ‘science’ (psuedo-science that seeks to override natural law in the face of the inherent possibility of success). And we work hard to create more and better technologies, in complete disregard for the fact–facts arising from incontrovertible, non-override-able natural law–that it is our over-reliance on industrial technology that has caused and is causing all the dire problems we and the rest of Earth face.

    Suddenly I’m reminded of something that occurred years ago in my life: at the time, we feminists were practicing Menstrual Extraction (google it, I don’t have a handy link) on each other as a form of birth control and general body-ownership. One of my friends was particularly irresponsible for using birth control, and tended to rely upon Menstrual Extraction to a dangerous degree, to rid herself of her numerous unwanted pregnancies. So, the group performed an ME on her that was not successful–she remained pregnant and wanted to try again a few weeks later. The night we gathered for this purpose, I napped while waiting for the group to arrive. While I slept, I had a terrible and very lucid dream of seeing her die in a river of blood–I awoke in a sweat, knowing it to be a true seeing. As I was a student midwife at the time with quite a bit of knowledge about pregnancy, birth, miscarriage, etc, as well as being well-bonded with my friend at an emotional level, I assumed all things had come together to give me this intuition.

    So, when I woke up and found the group gathered, I told her of my dream and implored her not to proceed, but to get a medical D&C instead. She refused, and we proceeded with the ME. Whereupon she did indeed begin to bleed uncontrollably, which I was finally able to bring under control. But she spotted and bled daily for weeks, and refused to see a doctor about it. Finally, she started bleeding so heavily that she passed out, and nearly died of blood loss before EMS got her to a hospital where a D&C was performed along with blood transfusion.

    But this is what she said to me, that night I told her about my dream, as best I can recall: “You shouldn’t be saying that to me. It’s not very feminist of you at all! We are supposed to support each other’s decisions, not tell each other what to do, not try to alarm each other in that way. It’s so unfair of you to try to persuade me with such an emotional appeal based on your fear.”

    Well, I didn’t regret trying to persuade my friend then, of the extreme peril looming close–and I won’t pull any punches now, either. The author is using a clever argument by appealing to our rationality, trying to make us believe that fantasies of the end of the world as we know it is simply based in religious balderdash. But he shows how enamored he is of industrial civilization, how deeply religious is his OWN belief and trust in human dominance and folly, against a more staggering degree of evidence growing every day. He just wants more followers to help bolster his own mythos, so desperately clung to while the ship sinks anyway. While I can certainly agree that hysteria helps no one in delivering the message, I stand with Chris Bourne’s comment:

    “So why not be brave, confront reality as it really is, and shine a positive path to the life boats. Speaking from experience, if you share with people the truth of what’s really going on, but help them stay positive and motivated, many find they can overcome fear.”

    There is reason to fear. To deny that is…to be in denial. The fear drives the denial, and this cannot be mistaken for a more considered, rational approach to what we face right now. Only facing that fear and it’s reality basis, and finding courage to move into another way of living, will save any of us or any other part of life.

    • says

      Maggie, even as I see the book’s point, I also share your deeper questioning of the whole project of civilization for many reasons. Take food, for example. I’ve just started reading Weston Price’s classic “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” which is all about how indigenous peoples of the world — whether in Alaska or the Alps or the South Pacific — have better diets than any of us civilized folks, as evidenced by their straight healthy teeth and their immunity to diseases common to the modern world. It’s controversial — some people don’t like Price because the diets he found healthy all include animal products and even fat. Anyway, I look forward to writing a review.

  6. Maggie says

    oops–should have proofread: in paragraph 3, I should have said: “the inherent IMpossibility of success”

  7. says

    I appreciate AuntieGrav’s perspective: Those barbarians, often, were peoples living more harmoniously and sustainably within their environment for thousands of years. Like the indigenous in the Americas exploited, overrun and destroyed by western civilization looking for paradise. Perhaps a prevailing apocalyptic myth DRIVES the kind of one-way tunnel vision of relentless progress that is destroying the planet.

    I agree that we’ll see so-called barbarism coming from inside civilization, and wherever else…tho’ I’m not sure we have in hiding the great animals that won against civilization in the film “Avatar.” Derrick Jensen ponders getting help from “the other sides” in his new book Dreams.

    Appreciating Maggie too. Urban based civilization is bad for not only human health, but the health of the planet and all who live here.

    John Michael Greer explores the end-times apocalyptic myth in Ecotechnic Future We’re for sure needing a new story that returns humans to living within ecological limits. One that includes how humans reduce population massively and quickly, while planetary restoration is possible (perhaps other than the four horsemen of war, disease, etc.). Population reduction seems an absolutely taboo topic in this culture, but overshoot is exacerbating (or causing) everything going parabolic (resource use, etc.). I’m looking for someone who’ll join me on Peak Moment TV to talk about it directly and honestly. Suggestions welcome.

    • says

      As to barbarians, in addition to the Cavafy poem mentioned in response to Auntiegrav, I might also recommend South African writer JM Coetzee’s novel of the same name, “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1980). There, in a Kafka-esque archetypal setting that may or may not be an allegory for the author’s own nation under apartheid, the true barbarians turn out to be us, the civilizers and imperialists.

  8. Craig Travis says

    There’s just something about a good zombie apocalypse. It’s like the proper revenge against all those in control. Things will always get worse & worse & better & better. See what you wanna see.

    • says

      You’re so right, Craig. And maybe if we could let go the understandable but unhelpful desire for revenge and vindication, maybe we’d be able to see reality more clearly beyond our own mental blockages.

  9. VyseLegendaire says

    I think this book is simply a less tasteful or well-informed variant on John Michael Greer’s ‘Apocalypse Not.’

    This book fails to to take into account the reasons why we should want and be thankful for a collapse in industrial civilization – some of which have been mentioned in these comments.

    Namely, industrial civilization is inimical to human health and happiness, is not robust to disruption, and is not sustainable – especially when equipped with the philosophy of the enlightenment and infinite growth.

    Some of us are not calling for the apocalypse OR trying to ‘reform the system’ or simply ‘lie low’ during this period of great uncertainty. Instead we will take our humanity by the reigns and proclaim to all those who would listen that humanity will benefit from throwing off the morally, spiritually, and physically repugnant chains of modern teleological civilization… Bring on the collapse!

  10. Jack Sol-Church says

    This is about the 4th time I have heard of Weston Price in the last week, so perhaps I should look at his book. However, there is a theme that I guess is central to is book that goes something like “if we eat the right natural foods we will have straight teeth”. If that isn’t a theme, it seems to be a message that people take away and it is absurd. The food we eat effects our tooth straightness about as much as it effect our hair color. Eating a lot of yellow corn makes me blond?? give me a break. I am not an anthropologist but think a more likely assumption is that our science (medicine) has allowed us to propagate deficient people. This can apply to both intelligence as well as teeth, eyes (do indigenous people wear glasses?), immune systems, etc.
    I, as an individual, may have an immune system that I can help based on what I eat, but I can NOT pass that trait on to my kids. I can only pass on my genetic immune system. My stronger immune system (supported by good food) may allow me to live longer and have kids but that is the extent of it. Good food may allow me to keep all my teeth so that they don’t go crooked, but I can’t pass on those crooked teeth anymore than I can pass on the missing teeth.
    This is the thought process that I had hoped died out with the “genetic” experiments during WWII. I can’t make a physical change to me and expect a genetic change.

    • says

      Not sure if you meant to comment on my review of Price’s book, found here: http://transitionvoice.com/2012/04/factory-food-is-making-us-dumber-and-dumber/.

      Price’s theory of inheritance is subtle. It’s not Lamarckian evolution, which I was always taught had been disproven — eg, that if a giraffe stretches its neck, then its kids will have longer necks. That’s false. But that’s not what Price is saying. Instead, he’s claiming that what your parents ate only during the very limited time before you were conceived will determine whether their sperm and egg are healthy or not. That in turn will help determine the presence or absence of birth defects such as crooked teeth (but not cavities, which is based on your own diet, not your parents’).

      His theory is certainly different than what modern genetics will tell you, basically, that you can blame genes for almost everything. Also different than the nurture only school of parenting, that your environment causes everything. It’s somewhere in between. And the many indigenous cultures that provide special food not only to pregnant women but also to parents before conceiving was evidence for Price that traditional wisdom recognized this limited but important physical determinism by parents of their children’s health at birth.

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