It’s hard to watch the news lately. The pictures of a devestated New Orleans and its Gulf Coast neighbours are bad enough, but what gives the whole situation an apocalyptic air are the reports coming from the aftermath – looting, abandonment, refuge camps, failure to respond, the breakdown of civilisation’s fragile mask. You start wondering what would happen should it affect your town, your home. You start thinking about the end of the world, or at least the end of the little worlds we build up around us.
I think deep down within humanity there’s a sense in which we’d like the End to happen on our watch – sure, science reckons the universe will die gazillions of years after we’ve all passed on, but we keep on coming up with cataclysmic scenarios that will hasten our passing from this life.
So Christianity has the Second Coming. Science has a bunch of theories; the heat death of the universe, for instance, or the Big Crunch. And then there’s climate change, be it part of a natural cycle or accelerated by the activities of mankind. A meteor strike, like the one that took out the dinosaurs. Or maybe we’ll face a real technopocalypse, like the panicked frenzies surrounding the Y2K bug, or nanotechnologists’ theorising about the Grey Goo scenario.
Then there are comets. In 1066 Halley’s comet hung in the sky, four times the size of Venus, signalling the Battle of Hastings and the death of Anglo-Saxon England. When Halley made its 1910 tour of Earth, there were fearful newspaper reports about the possibility of millions dying of cyanogen poisoning as the result of passing through the tail of the comet. And when Hale-Bopp turned up in 1997, the Heaven’s Gate cult took a mass-suicide assisted trip to the spaceship they believed was following it.
And then there’s plague. I think I’ve been around for the latest wave of death-by-scary-diseases frights – Salmonelle, Ebola, BSE, now its Bird ‘flu, and let’s face it, if the AIDS crisis in Africa doesn’t have apocalyptic overtones to it, I don’t know what does. Estimates put the European death toil of the Black Death of 1347-50 as up to a third of the population, with more worldwide – and this was on top of the little Ice Age, which had major effects on the human population for the following 400 years. The Spanish ‘Flu of 1918 wiped out between 25 and 50 million people worldwide – right on top of World War I, the war that saw the end of the 19th century world and that lead directly to World War II, which pretty much put a stake through the corpse of the old Europe.
Yeah. World War II. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Aushwitz. Dresden. The rape of Nanking. Japanese prison camps. Suddenly industrialised genocide and nuclear weapons emphasised the possibility that carnage on a grand, even worldwide scale, were possible. We entered the nuclear age, culminating in such reassuring events as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, and Ronnie Reagan’s laser-beams-from-space ideas. I remember when they said they were developing a Star Wars program. That sounds a lot cooler than it was when you’re the type of kid who wanted to grow up to be Han Solo.
It’s late, and so I’ll continue this tomorrow. Some would say that this is all very maudlin, and it makes me feel very small in the face of it all. On the other hand…Well, that’s tomorrow’s post… 🙂