Apocalypse: Now… or Never?

On Good Friday, I joined a fervent crowd at London’s Natural History Museum for an After Hours discussion entitled “Apocalypse Now… or Never?” The event tied in with their current exhibition “Extinction: Not the End of the World?” and explored scenarios and themes associated with doomsday from a scientific, literary, and sociological perspective.

One glance at the Fourth Horseman Press back catalogue should suffice to explain my interest in the subject matter: Revelation magazine concerns itself exclusively with apocalyptic art and literature, The Final Curtain examines human relationships tested by end-of-the-world scenarios across a pair of single act dramas, and Back to Frank Black explores Chris Carter’s Millennium, a series that delved into the cultural and social fears of a looming apocalyptic threat with an unparalleled depth of vision. Even Columbia & Britannia has its genre links—what, after all, is alternate history if not the tearing down of one reality to replace it with a brave new parallel world?

The speakers for this event were uniformly excellent: astrobiologist Dr. Lewis Dartnell, social psychologist Dr. Robbie Sutton, and Leila Abu el Hawa, founder and organiser of the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club. (Leila has shared a version of her introduction from the event at their website, including a photo in which you can just about glimpse me on the opposite edge of the frame to dictionary-devouring author Will Self!)

The literary references were naturally an area of particular interest, with the sheer breadth of the genre—extending into dystopian fiction—described, and familiar names such as Cormac McCarthy, John Wyndham, and Richard Matheson all quite rightly earning repeat mentions. The modern literary origins of apocalyptic fiction were traced to the nineteenth century via Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and the lesser-known Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s Le Dernier Homme that preceded it.

The “last man” as an anti-hero of sorts, the themes of such stories, and our identification as individuals with such characterisations of survival against the odds were all touched upon. So, too, was a recommendation for a book that was new to me: Night Work by Austrian-born author Thomas Glavinic. In addition to the likes of genre favourites The Road, I Am Legend, The Day of the Triffids and On the Beach, I was also pleased to hear a recommendation for John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, a copy of which nestles towards the top of my own mountainous to-read pile.

The erudite Dr. Dartnell is also planning his own book release: Aftermath, a survivor’s guide to living in a post-apocalyptic world. His answers to questions fielded by the audience were often as humorous as they were informative. Asked to define the threshold an apocalyptic event he quoted a colleague who would “not get out of bed for anything less than a one per cent mortality rate”, whilst also noting that—as such complex biological entities—humans are far more prone to changes in our environment than are extremophiles and bacteria, organisms the like of which might even be able to survive the harsh environment of space. He also speculated how the role of chance would likely influence society to be rebuilt differently in the wake of an apocalyptic event that fell short of wiping out human civilisation. He berated the dinosaurs’ “rubbish space program” as a factor in their extinction—albeit thankfully clearing the way for the rise of the mammalian lineage—whilst acknowledging that “even ten Bruce Willis-es” would prove ineffective against the threat of a comet impact with the Earth.

Asked to name the most likely cause of our collective demise, though, Dr. Dartnell hinted towards the ever-increasing perils of over-population as being the perfect breeding ground for a global pandemic. Cautioning that the Black Death was the closest humankind has yet come to a total collapse of civilisation, he noted that people were formerly more connected with the land than we typically are today, and that hence everyday survival skills—such as how to grow and cultivate crops—are now in short supply. Unless an apocalyptic event came with enough warning for them to prepare and to recruit resources, the survival of the rich and powerful would therefore not necessarily be favoured. A fundamental shift in the social order would result, with skills as the new currency. Those with social support and psychological would be the ultimate survivors.

The looming antibiotic apocalypse was also referenced during this part of the discussion, and there was mention, too, of the very real prospect of technology developing beyond our control, as evidenced by the fact that no one person has the complete knowledge required to build an iPhone, whilst even computers designed the chip in the iPhone 5. Not, he hastily added, that we need fear “The Rise of the iPhones” just yet.

Of most interest of all to me were the insights offered by Dr. Sutton of the University of Kent, which focussed upon the psychology underlying our preoccupation with the apocalypse, our potential reactions to such doomsday scenarios, and the strength of the human spirit to rebuild society in their wake. He postulated that the apocalypse offers the promise of a simpler way of life, and of recreating society in a more idealised form free of the mistakes many perceive we have wrought collectively upon our world.

He explained how belief in either a religious or secular apocalypse speaks to an inherent sense of fairness to our existence, or immanent justice reasoning, in which the cosmos intervenes to reset the balance. Thus, some come to incorrectly ascribe the fall of the Roman Empire to a perception of its sexual immorality, whilst the debate on climate change becomes allied to discourse on how we ravage the Earth’s natural resources. Our ambivalence for a cleansing sees destructive impulses enshrined in an apocalyptic ideal. I was put in mind of a view to which I subscribe: that our fascination with the apocalypse speaks to an existential need to add or describe shape and meaning to our own mortality.

Dr. Sutton pointed to the riots in England during the summer of 2011 and the ongoing global recession as examples where studies have demonstrated that individuals’ reactions to extreme scenarios are more likely to be selfish than altruistic. We are prone to becoming less communal, more hedonistic, and suffering from a loss of meaning and a threat to our ambitions, even as chaos and anarchism are granted meaning in the pursuance of a better, fairer society. This is arguably evidenced by the existence of at least two million “preppers” in the United States alone, bolstering themselves for self-defence in remote locations in case the social contract snaps. A more positive response to an apocalyptic scenario would be forthcoming only by uniting us in a common purpose to resist an alternative meaning, as evidenced by the Allied response to the Nazi threat in World War Two.

Conspiracy theories were also given a mention, and parallels drawn between the belief systems inherent to both them and to apocalyptic prophecy. Both are often delusional and incoherent in nature, whilst studies in this area have proven that subscribers to conspiracy theories are more prone than others to hold two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. Dr. Sutton also expressed an interest in what happens when doomsday predictions fail—as explored in the latest and landmark issue of Fortean Times, no less—and is working on a book that explores such topics. I will most definitely be seeking out a copy when it is published.

Dr. Sutton was firm in his belief that the most likely cause of the apocalypse is, simply, “us” given that we keep producing new mechanisms for the infliction of mass death. Setting aside talk of man-made pathogens and the increasing importance of biosecurity, he was also asked if the very preoccupation of popular culture with apocalyptic scenarios could in any way be self-fulfilling. He appeared to reject such a notion, pointing to the fact that the power of the concept is more fundamental even than its realisation in Biblical prophecy. He also recommended the work of author Richard Landes, former director of the Center for Millennial Studies, whose work explores “normal time” and “apocalyptic time”: the linear progress of society until a period of threat or crisis, followed by a denouement. (For Millennium fans reading this, Landes has written at length about the concepts behind the “Owls” and “Roosters”, terms that he coined.)

In sum total, this event was a fascinating discussion on actual and imagined threats to human civilisation, their cultural expression, and the psychological basis for our fascination therewith. It proffered evidence that an interest in the apocalyptic is fundamental to the human condition, and that such preoccupations have and continue to inspire us to plough deep and varied creative furrows. I was duly inspired by a wonderful couple of hours spent surrounded by the atmospheric architecture of the Natural History Museum, a building that itself resonates with the rich, fascinating multitude of life that has inhabited our planet throughout its history.

For our part, Revelation is set to make its long overdue return this year as it looks to close out its fourth and final volume. You can rest assured that evenings such as this inspire us to make those final issues cram-packed with the very best in apocalyptic art and literature that we can find.

–Adam Chamberlain

(Featured image “Apocalypse” by Josée Holland Eclipse)

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