By some accounts, there have been at least 200 documented, date-specific end-of-world predictions in the last two millennia. Now, having just passed unscathed through the Mayan apocalypse and the fiscal cliff, we’re hearing that 2013’s solar flares will end the world as we know it,
Wouldn’t it be great if this were the year we finally stop narrowly missing Armageddons and using the suffix -ocalypse to describe everything from a big snowstorm to an epic pile of dirty laundry? Trouble is, our brains may be irrevocably wired to expect epochal catastrophe at any moment.
We are, after all, an entire generation limned by The End, starting with the nuclear doomsday we consumed along with our baby food, followed by looming global terrorism, suitcase nukes, climate change and bio-terror. All that fear is self-sustaining.
We cringe at the thought of the viral plagues from chickens and monkeys just waiting to destroy us at any time, or of messed-with Mother Nature’s vengeful superstorms. In New York, our metro savoir faire is the only thing that separates us from the Branch Davidians and other survivalists.
We suffer from such bouts of End of Days anxiety that our newspaper of record has seen fit to institute a column called “Age of Anxiety,” where correspondents—including lauded wordsmiths like Pico Iyer—vent their craven fears.
Doom is a huge federal contract business. Our government pays scientists to design computer models mapping the nuclear demise of Manhattan block by block, building by building. We have color-coded terror alerts and airports arranged for maximum paranoia, despite the fact that we are more likely to die on the LIE getting to JFK than on a plane.
Even our kids are being indoctrinated. The Mayan apocalypse was so well-covered last year that our children were already discussing it on the playground and at sleepovers last spring. As the date approached, my 9-year-old put on a brave face and asked me whether there had ever been another equally dire prediction.
I told her what I believe: whenever great change occurs, human beings see signs of the end of the world. And great change is underway. Just 100 years ago, when her great-grandfather was a young man, there were no planes, no telephones, hardly any cars or paved roads, not much electricity or indoor plumbing, certainly no laptops, cellphones, televisions or Xboxes. For him, the end of the world as he knew it happened before his eyes.
Our job is to face up to the challenges presented by the end of the world as we know it, rather than seeing The End of the World altogether. Lots of people are already engaged in this kind of work—for instance, the urban planners in Singapore and the Netherlands, featured in The New Yorker recently, who are helping coastal urban centers deal with rising water.
There are people who see a problem and get up and go at it, no matter how insurmountable it seems. People like Marcus Eriksen, a Gulf War vet who devoted his life to researching plastic pollution in the oceans. Mr. Eriksen sailed the world in a raft made of plastic bottles, founded 5 Gyres, named after the areas in the ocean where massive islands of plastic are accumulating, and is now documenting Japanese tsunami flotsam.
L.A.-based hedge funder Eyal Aronoff co-founded the Fuel Freedom Foundation to begin the long and slow process of reducing American dependence on petroleum. We can’t get rid of our oil addiction overnight or even in the next decades, but we have to start somewhere. Mr. Aronoff’s foundation promotes alternatives to gasoline, such as methanol, a renewable, American-made fuel, along with “flex-fuel” cars that could run on methanol or gasoline. Not surprisingly, the oil companies oppose this, but so too do many environmentalists, whose quest for a green world demands instant change, or, apparently, none at all.
In New Jersey, Kevin Ryan is president and CEO of Covenant House International, one of the largest charities in the world aimed at helping homeless, trafficked and exploited young people find homes. Speaking recently at Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side about his book, Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, Mr. Ryan described the tiny things regular people have done to help others.
The charitable act that stuck in my mind was a small one: various people bake a birthday cake every week and bring it to one of the group’s shelters for a kid who may have never had one before. That story motivated me to do something I have never done before. On a cold night in rush hour traffic, I went down to 41st and 10th and spent a few hours dishing out dinner to a couple hundred homeless teens who have called the Port Authority home. A deviation from my usually self-absorbed routine? You bet. Did that act change any lives? Probably not. But it felt like a step in the right direction.
There are people in the world who have never had a birthday cake, not to mention loving parents, a roof over their heads, or decent food, clothing or education. The massive waste of human potential happening in this country through ill-educated kids raised in poverty is the real and only apocalypse of our time. And it’s one we can actually do something about.
I would add our president to the post-apocalyptic thinker list, if only because he refuses to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and forges negotiated compromises that move the meter ever so slightly in the right direction. Did we get universal health care on his watch? No, but Obamacare is going to change millions of lives and, as the right feared, an entitlement has been wedged open. Did he wipe out all tax breaks for the rich last week? No, but the compromise he forged with Mitch McConnell shut down the House Republican extremists, a move toward returning some civility to our politics.
The worst part of millenarianism is the cop-out factor that goes with it, its adherents’ inclination to give up in despair. There’s also something deeply narcissistic in the belief that one’s own end will coincide with the entire world’s.
Maybe the doomsayers were right in one respect. Maybe we needed to be terrified to the core in order to confront and overcome fear. Our first order of business in these post-apocalyptic times: accept the fact that we are going to be here for a while. Then muster the courage and the will to do what we can do, taking small steps to attack big problems.