When questioned, Jesus of Nazareth had this to say on the subject of the end of the world: “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” (Mark 13:32) We don’t seem to have improved on that forecast since and not all the research associates and interns toiling at Mead GHQ crunching all the computers that money can buy have been able to come up with anything more precise.
But whether or not we get the Big Bang or the Big Whimper, the new decade is going to be haunted by the specter of an approaching apocalypse; a lot of people will think the world is ending, or could end, and the mixture of hope, fear and apocalyptic energy unleashed by that perception will be affecting both national and international politics on an increasing scale as time goes by.
Some of this end-of-the-world feeling will be the good old fashioned religious kind, the type of movement that led the Millerites to expect the return of Jesus on a series of several dates ending with the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844. But one of the characteristics of our modern age is that you don’t have to be a religious fundamentalist anymore to believe in the end of the world.
It doesn’t take a miracle anymore to bring the world to its end: a simple nuclear holocaust will do the trick. So would a “runaway greenhouse” effect if a positive feedback loop developed to drive global warming into an acceleration that ultimately made life as we know it impossible on earth. There are many more ‘secular apocalypse’ scenarios out there: runaway nanotechnology experiments could cover the world in ‘grey goo’; either accidentally or on purpose genetically modified ‘superbugs’ could be released into the environment, seeding with world with a new and unsurvivable plague. Hollywood stands ready to bring these and other fears to life on the big screen; more alarmingly, the accelerating progress of technologically driven change that we identified as the core trend driving human history this decade, inexorably brings with it new possibilities for human self-destruction on a world or at least a civilization-ending scale.
The same driving trend of accelerating change that makes new horror movie scenarios possible also makes them feel likely. People turn to apocalyptic scenarios when it feels as if history is coming off the rails — when new and inexplicable phenomena threaten the security and stability of old ideas, institutions, habits and beliefs. Before the modern era, natural and social catastrophes led to bouts of apocalyptic thinking. The Jewish social crisis of the first century, for example, inspired many of Jesus’ disciples and other Jews to expect the end of the world; the end of the old Jewish world did in fact come as the Romans leveled Jerusalem in 70 AD; in this and two subsequent Jewish revolts, hundreds of thousands were slaughtered or enslaved, and most of Palestine’s Jews were driven out into an exile of 2000 years. It was against the background of these events and the Roman persecutions of Christians that the early church produced the Book of Revelations, still the chief source book for apocalyptic imagery in the Christian world today.
Over the next 1600 years, barbarian invasions, plagues and variations in the climate led many to conclude at various times that the end of the world was at hand. When Rome fell to the Goths, when Islamic armies swept through Egypt, the Holy Land, Spain, Sicily and ultimately captured Constantinople and besieged Vienna, Christians leafed feverishly through the books of prophecy to find insights for their times. When the Black Death depopulated Europe, when the Reformation set Protestants and Catholics at each others throats and convulsed half a continent in ruinous and universal war, it seemed that only the vocabulary and the imagery of the apocalyptic books could adequately express the fear and the devastation. In the Islamic world, events like the devastating Mongol invasions similarly led many people to believe that God was preparing to wind up the scrolls and bring human history to an end.
The apocalypse scares of past centuries were very real in their day, but we are heading into something much bigger and more consuming. The technological explosion through which we are living makes the end of the world increasingly probable from an intellectual point of view (nuclear proliferation, for example, makes nuclear war more likely); the era of rapid and often destabilizing change creates an emotional climate that is conducive to end-of-the-world thinking. Thus the rapid cultural, economic and demographic changes that are transforming the Islamic Middle East helped nurture the apocalyptic terror cults which see all world history coming down to a religio-military confrontation between the threatened true believers and a hostile world of infidels and apostates. The genocidaires of Rwanda believed they were soldiers in a struggle for the survival of everything they cared about against a shadowy conspiracy of absolute evil. The rational basis for concern about catastrophes like nuclear war is increasing; at the same time many people experience the cultures and beliefs that give their lives meaning are rapidly being destroyed by the unrelenting assault of a hostile world.
The end of the world scenarios that will increasingly influence culture and politics in the next decade come in four types. Malthusian catastrophes envision the collapse of human civilization or the environment as the result of the pressure of human population and consumption on the planet. From climate change to resource wars and mass famines in the overpopulated future, Malthusian catastrophe scenarios take many forms; at times prominent scientists have endorsed them. Faustian technology scenarios involve the destruction of human civilization by the fruits of our heedless technological advance. Global destruction by nuclear weapons is the most prominent (and probable) Faustian scenario, but there are many others. Cultural catastrophes involve the destruction of everything that makes life meaningful and worth living by a souless and/or godless cosmopolitan culture. Both fascism and communism in the twentieth century were nurtured on fears that the cold world of industrialized mass production would crush ordinary people. In the twenty first century radical Islam is the most violent such ideology, but it is likely that others will rise. Finally, the old fashioned religious apocalypse is still with us, energized both by the development of ‘hot religion’ (see Trend # 6) and a global situation which is broadly supportive of apocalyptic ideas.
At the beginning of this series on the top trends of the new decade, I pointed to the acceleration of technological change as the master trend driving many of the events of our time. From Henry Adams onward, observers have visualized the rate of technological progress as an exponential curve; as the curve turns sharply upward the rate of change approaches infinity. I think that throughout the world many people share this sense that the rate of change is making its move — that rollercoaster of world history is heading up a precipitious slope. One way to define the apocalypse is to say it is an era of infinite change; the apocalyptic intuitions and fears of our times are not the product of superstition or ignorance; they are a response to what seems to be happening around us.
There is a distinct danger that self-reinforcing ‘apocalyptic cycles’ will develop and spread in the next decade. Christians, Jews and Muslims, for example, may come to believe that events in and around Jerusalem presage an apocalyptic culmination of world history: the appearance of the Messiah, the return of Christ, or for some Muslims, the final struggle with infidelity. Radical religious groups influenced by these scenarios and prophecies may well take actions to advance their preferred scenario: the destruction of Islamic religious shrines, for example, to prepare the way for the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple. (Religious enthusiasts are already at work preparing for the reconstruction and dedication of the Third Temple.) Such actions (even if they fail) would raise the level of tension around Jerusalem and make it more of a focus for apocalyptic hopes and fears; more people will be drawn to religious sects that focus on Jerusalem in the end times. This in turn will increase the likelihood of further turmoil in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, giving additional credibility to apocalyptic sects and drawing yet more people into their networks.
That is an apocalyptic cycle in which the perceived likelihood of an apocalyptic turn in world history causes people to behave in ways that make such a turn more likely still; this brings more people into the movement and so on. We are also likely to see more of the “Chicken Little” phenomenon as generalized fears about where humanity is headed cause otherwise sensible people to lose their perspective on potential threats. Briefly during the bird flu epidemic it was front page news in the United States when chickens got sick in Indonesia. Assessing threats accurately and coping with them rationally in a world of limited resources becomes more difficult at times like these. When people believe that the sky is preparing to fall, any little acorn can set off a panic.
Civil society roiled by Faustian, Malthusian, cultural and religious disaster scenarios; religious extremists in apocalyptically-motivated conflicts; Chicken Littles left and right screaming that the sky is falling every time a duck sneezes somewhere; policy makers trying to keep the global ship on a steady course in increasingly turbulent waters: that is not a particularly pleasant or reassuring picture, but this seems to be where the world will be heading in the 2010s.
Ironically, while technology and religion will often be seen as the cause of the world’s problems in the 2010s, they will both rank among humanity’s most valuable assets. By creating new economic resources and offering new tools to analyze and address unwanted byproducts of human technological development, the rapid increase in technology and computing power of the next decade may offer humanity its greatest hope for managing the consequences of our technological advance.
In any case, developing the institutions, the ideas and the policies that can cope with our accelerating rate of change and its effects on the human heart will be the principle task of those in the next decade who seek to keep the world as stable and peaceful as possible in this revolutionary age. By providing the intellectual and spiritual tools to help people organize and work through their fears, and by promoting and fostering the kind of religious faith that can give meaning to change and guide both individuals and groups to constructive and ethical behavior under difficult circumstances, religion similarly will play a critical role in the efforts to manage and reduce the danger that irrational behavior can trigger one or more of the apocalyptic scenarios over which we are likely to lose increasing amounts of sleep as time marches on.