It’s a theory of mine that life in most societies involves being keenly aware that the end is coming. Your own individual end, yes, but also the end of this, the entire experience that is life as you’ve known it. The mass of our collective canon is littered with stories about the world’s end, where the death of mankind and the death of the universe can be seen as linked or interchangeable. It’s almost as if the second humans evolved enough to contemplate that we each must someday die, those early people immediately assumed that when we go, we all go, the entire world coming along for the ride, an unwritten murder-suicide pact between species and planet.
There’s a certain similarity in the way across the years that people have resigned themselves to meeting the end, often to the to the point of welcoming it with open arms. The exact beliefs of a new age group awaiting our planet’s collision with another in 2012 or a sect devoted to the numerology contained in the book of Eli or whatever don’t ultimately matter. Each of them decided that whatever doctrine was their truth, they felt it with every fiber of their being, they were convinced: “This is it, this is the time, the signs are all aligned for us, the universe, the whole mess of reality to call it quits. Make what preparations you can, cast off your worldly goods, the next awaits us! And it will be even more beautiful and peaceful than you’ve ever dreamed and the ills and suffering of this mortal plane shall trouble you no longer.” Death in the end is just a big temporary road bump before the next version of the world or humanity or both can come to pass.
I find myself thinking about doomsday cults fairly often as I wander the aisles inside the Target near the apartment I share with my girlfriend and our dog. This happened most recently during New York’s first heatwave of the year, the air doing its best to convince you it’s nearing 110 degrees, a preview of what’s to come. It’s impossible to tell from the inside, an almost pathological level of self-deception. Every minute spent inside that artificial oasis is another ticked away before our contract with the Earth runs out. The plentiful “Live, Laugh, Love” decor shapeshifts from a directive for your kooky aunt into a taunt.
It feels intensely unfair that after all the false starts and failed predictions that have stacked up throughout humanity’s run of things, each doled out with the utmost confidence, there’s finally honest proof that our finale is fast approaching. Maybe it’s a case of too many disappointments causing us to become more cynical. But while The Seekers’ UFO never came to transport them to another planet, Christ didn’t actually return in 1844, and Y2K preppers found themselves with a surplus of canned goods, climate change’s increasing impact on our lives can be felt daily and are only slated to get worse.
We’re just trying to get through the next day or week as we suffer through the early throes of our collective demise, hoping that we might be wrong about the whole thing.
We have a preponderance of evidence at this point and yet the very existence of anthropogenic climate change is still considered something to debate. Meanwhile, we — you, me, the other New Yorkers shuffling through the Target around me, your neighbors wherever you’re reading this — are somehow not stockpiling non-perishables and fleeing the coasts in search of high ground ahead of the looming end like you’d expect in a proper End Times. Instead, we’re just trying to get through the next day or week as we suffer through the early throes of our collective demise, hoping that we might be wrong about the whole thing.
We don’t have to wait long for the worst to arrive. Come 2050, civilization as we know it will start to tap out thanks to climate change, if a report from earlier this year is to be believed. Drawing on existing research and modeling, authors David Spratt and Ian Dunlop make a case that more than a billion people will be displaced as melting ice caps and glaciers raises the sea levels and the increased heat becomes lethal for huge swathes of the population for multiple days out of the year. It’s not conclusive — but it’s convincing.
Compare the works informing Spratt and Dunlop — including last year’s United Nations-backed report that warned of severe changes coming even sooner, in 2040 — to those at the fingertips of the men two thousand-odd years ago who foretold of the impending Second Kingdom. They had no precise models for when these crude forms would melt away, but their zeal, their conviction that it was just around the corner, helped win them their first converts. Many others since, most lost to history, have spent thir lives trying to predict Judgement Day’s arrival. Countless other people in turn followed them and their message. It was hard times for most of those years with even the privileged classes living in what would be considered squalor by modern standards. You could see why the promise of better days just around the corner, even if it meant the destruction of all that ever was, sounded appealing to the masses.
In the 21st century, we have raised the bar in terms of comfort. Under Target’s glaring fluorescent lights, assorted goods line the gleaming shelves, each full to bursting as if mocking the very idea of want. Ten varieties and scents of what’s basically the same laundry detergent which may or may not linger in the water supply fill my line of sight. In the grocery section, produce is picked over and left to spoil at the hint of a bruise. Life for the few — the massively wealthy on a global scale, the powerless compared to the truly rich in this world, the average human in the United States of America — is more convenient than it has ever been in human history. Small wonder that we aren’t exactly keen on imagining it all going away, either by choice or at the whims of a planet that feels as vengeful as an ancient god, and justifiably so.
Of course, unlike proponents of the Mayan calendar’s supposed prophecies or Nostradamus’s writings, the augurs of the climate movement come armed with science — repeatable and verifiable and very sure we’re on the edge of disaster. "This scenario provides a glimpse into a world of 'outright chaos' on a path to the end of human civilization and modern society as we have known it," Spratt and Dunlop wrote in exceedingly clear terms, "in which the challenges to global security are simply overwhelming and political panic becomes the norm." One of the authors of the UN’s report told the New York Times the evidence is “telling us we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime.”
What kind of devotee secretly hopes that their principles of faith are wrong?
Climate scientists have a body of evidence that no other sibyl has ever produced and yet it’s still falling on deaf ears. And in the U.S. and in growing numbers abroad, powerful people have used a small fraction of their resources to stifle that message further. They deliver sermons of their own, telling the gathered throngs that the prophets are liars and the stars are being read wrong and Cassandra is a woman and a fool. It’s a scheme, a plot, a drive to take away your rights and their taxes and profits. The “political will” to avert Ragnarok just isn’t there.
Even without their efforts, the Church of Climate Change’s weakness is clear in its followers. Once you’re convinced that the Earth is rapidly heating and there’s only a little time left to stop it, then you’re in, you believe. You’re Paul on the road from Damascus, ready to spread the Word and call out the sinners who dare doubt the Newest Testament. But what kind of devotee secretly hopes that their principles of faith are wrong? What true believer wishes deep down inside that things will actually be fine in the end, so let’s just go back to not worrying about it and enjoying things exactly as they are now. “Here’s hoping what we’re predicting doesn’t come true after all” isn’t exactly a religion likely to retain members, let alone gain apostles.
After the recession placed a new cap on what milestones we can ever hope to achieve — owning a home, starting a family, planning our retirement, all former givens that now feel impossible to many of us — people in their thirties today are unlikely to see it that get much easier. Not given the trajectory of everything, not absent massive changes across the board societally — the kind of changes on a scale that manage to trouble both the fabulously wealthy and the merely comfortable. Even the most unshakeable in their worship of the dogma that climate change is our certain doom, the most committed vegans and environmentalists and ecologists and politicians living in the U.S. and Europe, are left hoping that surely it can’t be all that bad, can it? How much sacrifice will actually be necessary to keep us all alive? Isn’t not living through the Mad Max series worth the ignomimity that comes with being wrong?
We’re left wondering what we could possibly do as we turn up the air conditioning. Corporations continue to avoid paying additional taxes to help reverse the harm they’ve caused all while individuals are left to fret about whether their plastic straw is to blame for the ocean’s collapse and billionaires race to send people to space. Meanwhile, Anchorage, Alaska hit 90 degrees for the first time ever last month. Part of the Arctic is apparently on fire, spilling even more captured carbon into the air, a striking example of how self-reinforcing this is going to become, a perpetual motion machine but for environmental decay. Greenland’s ice is melting at a rate we weren’t supposed to see for another few decades, reading the waters to push higher than we’ve come to expect.
And yet when people actually have rushed into the streets with signs — begging that something, anything be done to stop this — they’ve been told sorry, it would be quite expensive and your plans would never work anyway. This from the same trustworthy visionaries who launched a Forever War and tanked the global economy. We won’t even touch on the sixth great extinction occurring all around us or the rapid depletion of non-renewable resources, we only have the capacity to consider one facet of our annihilation at a time.
Generation Z, bless them, seems to be determined to not go down without a fight as they’ve shown in the climate marches taking place around the globe. Even their more conservative members are pushing for climate change to be taken seriously. And who knows? Maybe the Green New Deal or the Paris Climate Accord or Extinction Rebellion or some other Proper Noun Yet To Come is the thing that saves us all. I still want to hope that someone or something big swoops in last second, a secular messiah, some deus ex machina of world-altering proportions. But it’s getting harder to see that happening as the days tick away.
Maybe it’s the whole rebirth thing that this particular looming doomsday is missing. There’s no better place awaiting us in the gospel according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Only struggle and suffering and the seven seals opening make an appearance in their Revelation. That could be why it’s so difficult to convert true zealots from the casual climate believer, let alone the entirely unconvinced — what’s the point of an apocalypse without a Rapture? The IPCC should consider adding one, shifting focus to the new utopia that could arise if only we repent from our sinful ways.
We’re about due for a new major religion in any case, historically speaking. Maybe the scientists of today will wind up becoming the oracles of the post-apocalypse tomorrow, seen as warning against the wrath of the new gods that have taken root during whatever comes next. Neo-priests could someday be poring over the documents that have survived as they attempt to piece together how the last era ended and the gods of the water and the sun chose to punish us our hubris. I reflect on this as I grab another plastic box of fruit imported from Latin America and grown using a massive amount of resources that I may or may not get around to actually eating.
The weight of knowing, this time really knowing, our future is taking its toll. It can’t not — the crush of bad news is unavoidable lately and the climate going haywire manages to be just one of another dozen issues that demands our attention at any given moment, even as it towers over them in terms of potential long-term impact. We’re clearly not the first generation to be sure ours is the last, but we’re definitely the first to have overburdened the field of psychology with our rising dread. Still, it’s amazing how much the human mind can compartmentalize when faced with something as vast as extinction. The headlines and news alerts and marches and panels get filed in the mental Pocket folder marked “for later” that you have absolutely intention of ever going back to but gives you the satisfaction of having been interested in the article in the first place. We do our best to go about our days, filling them with a constant stream of distractions.
I’m right there with them, making my way home from the store, arms laden with groceries, sweat forcing my T-shirt to cling to my back, yet already pondering whether my craving for a chopped cheese from the bodega is more important to me in this moment than using up the fresh vegetables already in my refrigerator before they rot. But then my phone vibrates and there’s another push alert imploring that I read a fellow journalist’s new report on the fate rushing towards us.
There’s a moment’s hesitation before I swipe up, sending it into oblivion, forgotten as so many other divinations before it.