The Apocalypse Makes Us Dumb

by Alex Steffen

We came across the writing of Alex Steffen about three months ago. He's a brilliant futurist - according to the Vancouver Sun, "one of the world’s leading voices on sustainability and the future of the planet.” What we like here at Future Crunch is that unlike most futurists who try and identify trends or technologies that are shaping the world around us, he tries to unpack mindsets and gets into the psychology of how we often perceive the future. With his permission, we're reproducing his 2008 blog post on the Apocalypse here in full. Enjoy.


The Apocalypse Makes Us Dumb

or, Millennial Mistakes: Why the Apocalypse is a Bad Model for Understanding The Future


In thinking seriously about the negative trends in our future, we're severely hampered by the Hollywood idea of the Apocalypse. That idea, in turn, has deep roots in the millenarianism of monotheistic religions (in which there is an End of Days and it's coming soon) and of 19th Century social movements (there is a Dictatorship of the Proletariat and it's coming soon). Millenarianism has its own problems, not least of which is that people do horrible things to others in the name of clearing the way for their chosen perfect future. But for our discussion here, let's just confine our understanding of the credo to what it has done to our conception of the future.

Believing in a millennial future, or even frequently telling stories of such futures, blinds us both to what history teaches us about collapses and to what we know about our present moment. It makes us bad at thinking intelligently about the future.

This is a topic that could use careful consideration from a number of angles, but I have about 30 minutes to write today, so instead let's just list some of the futurist fallacies we tend to embrace because (whether we're consciously aware of it or not), we're applying a millennial lens to the events unfolding around us.

1) The Apocalypse is coming. There is a tendency to believe that big, catastrophic and singular events are going to come and destroy everything: that the Bird Flu or whatever is going to suddenly happen and immediately life will be hell. (The funniest example of this is climate change in The Day After Tomorrow, where sea level rise is so sudden that water rushes down the streets of New York in great rolling waves.)

2) The Apocalypse is forever. In disaster movies and such, people seem to lack the ability to regroup and rebuild. Sometimes a hero will -- usually by killing a monster/ warlord/ robot/Tina Turner -- win the chance for one small group to start over, but the implication is usually that the rest of the planet's a write off for the imaginable future.

3) The Apocalypse is everywhere. In the movies, collapse makes the whole world a wasteland. Everything crashes and burns; everyone dies; knowledge and law are driven entirely from the planet, or at very least confined to some very distant semi-mythical outpost paradise for which the survivors yearn. But generally, everything falls apart everywhere all at once (and never gets better).

4) The Elect will survive. Critical to the whole apocalyptic mindset is the narrative device of the survivor. An Apocalypse without survivors is not a story we tell (The World Without Us presumes an invisible human narrator, and even Wall-E [which, btw, I loved] has essentially a simple human in a robot suit). And when we choose who survives in our end-of-the-world stories, we generally choose a person or small group of people with whom we identify, and we generally assume they survive because they're like us. Somehow, no matter how sudden, total and perpetual the disaster, someone like us will always find a way to make it through.

4a) A subset of the rule that the Elect will survive is that survivalists survive, that bunkered individuals or remote farming communities or whatever have an edge, and that when the crazy starts, it'll be the people holed up in the hinterlands who will survive and that the rule we can observe all through history -- which is that these people are simply prey to larger, better-organized groups -- suspends itself for the duration (unless a savior is needed to fight off the Humungous and his mohawked thugs or something -- see #2 above).

5) The Apocalypse will be an adventure. It won't. Somehow when we tell stories of the end of the world, we tend to always leave out the most fundamental experience of life during a disaster, which is powerless suffering. Disasters, as I've written before are all about bad food and wet feet and sick babies and pointless pain.

But reality is quite different from this. In reality, even the worst large-scale disasters come in variable speeds; in even the worst disasters, effects are uneven, with some places devastated and others left only mildly scathed; and in almost all disasters, rebuilding begins almost immediately (even the Black Death killing a third to half of the population didn't put much of dent in Europe's evolution -- indeed some argue it accelerated trade and innovation).

In reality, in a disaster those with the largest stable group and the highest degree of cooperation come out on top, and, in fact, it is often those places which are best governed and most socially coherent that assist other places in the rebuilding... and those hard-hit places are generally quite receptive to good ideas for putting the pieces back together.

We make a mistake when we think about the catastrophes looming before us -- climate change, peak oil, pandemics, whatever -- in millenarianist terms.

For one thing, but overplaying their inevitability, we undercut our own will to stave off those disasters, to moderate their extent and to prepare resilient strategies for coming through in the best shape we can, with the ability to rebuild as quickly as possible.

Because the intelligent response to looming crisis is a mix of all-out efforts toward prevention and widespread societal preparation. It's foresight, planning and cooperation, good investments and strong public service capacities. It's anticipating limited collapses, and being ready to help restore order and livelihoods to people as quickly as possible. It's banking on humanity in the long run, and it's knowing that Really Bad Stuff has happened before, and when people stuck together and were tough, smart and hardworking, they got through it, and sometimes what they built in the ashes was better than what they had before.

The smart move, when you're worried about the end of the world end, is to change it.