I’ve been waiting for the apocalypse for a long time. Ever since I discovered peak oil somewhere around my sophomore year of high school, I’ve been waiting – eagerly. Nothing could be more satisfying to me than to experience the decline of Western Civilization, and especially of the United States, through a disastrous cataclysm of our own making, whether economic or environmental. I always assumed this was probably pretty unusual. Yes, I’ve had friends with whom I’ve had elaborate discussions about the specific nature of the coming apocalypse and the ideal response. But I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who really wanted it as badly as I do.
Until recently, the only way I could explain it to myself was it was partly schadenfreude writ large, and partly the knowledge that the sooner Western Civilization fizzles out, the more plant and animal species will survive it.
Then I read this excerpt from Robert Heilbroner’s 1974 book, An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect, in Adbusters.
“Some of Promethean spirit may still serve us in good stead in the years of transition. But it is not a spirit that conforms easily with the shape of future society as I have imagined it; worse, within that impatient spirit lurks one final danger of the years during which we must watch the approach of an unwanted future. This is the danger that can be glimpsed in our deep consciousness when we take stock of things as they now are; the wish that the drama run its full tragic course, bringing man, like the Greek hero, to the fearful end that he has, however unwittingly, arranged for himself. For it is not only with dismay that Promethean man regards the future, it is also with a kind of anger. If after so much effort, so little has been accomplished; if before such vast challenges, so little is apt to be done – then let the drama proceed to its finale, let mankind suffer the end it deserves.”
He goes on to theorize that this outlook is a natural outgrowth of our prevailing attitudes toward each other: if we allow poverty and misery to persist among the majority of us now living, how could we possibly have any compassion for those yet to be born?
That made me wonder if I should feel bad about pining for motorcycle gangs and mushroom clouds. Could I only want those things because of my callousness? Was I a sadist?
So I felt a little weird about it for a while. I started to wonder if I was no better than all my civilized peers blithely hogging the resources of the planet at viscerally disgusting ratios to the dispossessed.
I certainly can’t deny the wish to see the upper tax brackets of our society reduced to wandering the wastes and raiding abandoned gas stations for canned soup. It’s one of my biggest fantasies. But there is, I believe, more to my apocalyptic obsession than that. There’s more to it than the desire for narrative closure – to see the Greek tragedy played out.
A video on the NPR website recently reminded me of this. It depicts a small ad hoc town that has arisen on the coast of Haiti, a year after an earthquake destroyed most of its inhabitants’ homes. Independent grocery stores, hardware stores, and dentists have sprung up. Perhaps the perspective tilt lens with which it’s shot, which makes the shacks look like tiny models, paints an idealized picture of the town. But it is undeniably beautiful. The ingenuity the Haitians display is largely lost to us in our comfortable lives.
This is the real crux of my apocalyptic fascination. The pioneering anarchist Mikhail Bakunin said that “the passion for destruction is also a creative passion.” When I look around in this country, wherever I am, and ask myself, Is this better than what was here 500 years ago?, the answer is invariably no. One hundred years ago? No.
Is any aspect of our national government particularly worth keeping? It’s just not working that well anymore. The Senate is a pointless and undemocratic institution. The federal government is polarized, ossified, moribund, and almost any other adjective with a negative connotation. Hell, the United States is probably too big to be governed effectively and reliably into the 21st century. It’s time to stop worrying about what state our country is in, and start worrying about what country our states are in.
So if one believes, as I do, that our political institutions are beyond repair, and that our cities, our agricultural practices, and our very lifestyles are a blight on the land – then of course it makes sense to await the end of civilization; in other words, a new beginning. Clinging to an outmoded political entity like the United States of America would be a tragic failure of imagination.
I’ve taken to giving any high school-aged people I run into a two-part piece of advice: don’t go to college, and don’t vote. I’m only being a little bit sarcastic when I say it. I believe a large part of my generation is becoming conscious of the diminishing quality of the places they live, the increasing futility of our government, and the crimes of the wealthy.
I sense, but can’t prove, that they are getting ready to disconnect; that over time, they will become increasingly independent from any of the prevailing cultural and governmental institutions we are familiar with. More and more people I meet agree that collapse is possible. Why not embrace it?
Admit it. You hate Western Civilization too. You live in an ugly house on an ugly street.
And you know one of these days one group of politicians is going to call the other’s bluff, they’re not going to raise the debt limit, and the US dollar will be instantly devalued. Or maybe the price of gasoline will start rising exponentially, destroying the middle class and impoverishing millions. In any case, our national politicians will be revealed as a uniform caste of smarmy assholes with no real power or ideas, and you’ll be left wondering how you let yourself get burned so badly by them.
Waiting will only make the inevitable more painful. So let’s give up on this civilization before it’s too late, and get to work on a better one.