That traditional religious kind of apocalypse has also been part and parcel of American political life since, in Common Sense, Tom Paine urged the colonies to revolt by promising, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
When World War II -- itself now sometimes called an apocalypse -- ushered in the nuclear age, it brought a radical transformation to the idea. Just as novelist Kurt Vonnegut lamented that the threat of nuclear war had robbed us of "plain old death" (each of us dying individually, mourned by those who survived us), the theologically educated lamented the fate of religion's plain old apocalypse.
After this country's "victory weapon" obliterated two Japanese cities in August 1945, most Americans sighed with relief that World War II was finally over. Few, however, believed that a permanently better world would arise from the radioactive ashes of that war. In the 1950s, even as the good times rolled economically, America's nuclear fear created something historically new and ominous -- a thoroughly secular image of the apocalypse. That's the one you'll get first if you type "define apocalypse" into Google's search engine: "the complete final destruction of the world." In other words, one big "whoosh" and then... nothing. Total annihilation. The End.
Apocalypse as utter extinction was a new idea. Surprisingly soon, though, most Americans were (to adapt the famous phrase of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick) learning how to stop worrying and get used to the threat of "the big whoosh." With the end of the Cold War, concern over a world-ending global nuclear exchange essentially evaporated, even if the nuclear arsenals of that era were left ominously in place.
Meanwhile, another kind of apocalypse was gradually arising: environmental destruction so complete that it, too, would spell the end of all life.
This would prove to be brand new in a different way. It is, as Todd Gitlin has so aptly termed it, history's first "slow-motion apocalypse." Climate change, as it came to be called, had been creeping up on us "in fits and starts," largely unnoticed, for two centuries. Since it was so different from what Gitlin calls "suddenly surging Genesis-style flood" or the familiar "attack out of the blue," it presented a baffling challenge. After all, the word apocalypse had been around for a couple of thousand years or more without ever being associated in any meaningful way with the word gradual.
The eminent historian of religions Mircea Eliade once speculated that people could grasp nuclear apocalypse because it resembled Act I in humanity's huge stock of apocalypse myths, where the end comes in a blinding instant -- even if Act II wasn't going to follow. This mythic heritage, he suggested, remains lodged in everyone's unconscious, and so feels familiar.
But in a half-century of studying the world's myths, past and present, he had never found a single one that depicted the end of the world coming slowly. This means we have no unconscious imaginings to pair it with, nor any cultural tropes or traditions that would help us in our struggle to grasp it.
That makes it so much harder for most of us even to imagine an environmentally caused end to life. The very category of "apocalypse" doesn't seem to apply. Without those apocalyptic images and fears to motivate us, a sense of the urgent action needed to avert such a slowly emerging global catastrophe lessens.
All of that (plus of course the power of the interests arrayed against regulating the fossil fuel industry) might be reason enough to explain the widespread passivity that puts the environmental peril so far down on the American political agenda. But as Dr. Seuss would have said, that is not all! Oh no, that is not all.
When you do that Google search on apocalypse, you'll also get the most fashionable current meaning of the word: "Any event involving destruction on an awesome scale; [for example] 'a stock market apocalypse.'" Welcome to the age of apocalypses everywhere.
With so many constantly crying apocalyptic wolf or selling apocalyptic thrills, it's much harder now to distinguish between genuine threats of extinction and the cheap imitations. The urgency, indeed the very meaning, of apocalypse continues to be watered down in such a way that the word stands in danger of becoming virtually meaningless. As a result, we find ourselves living in an era that constantly reflects premonitions of doom, yet teaches us to look away from the genuine threats of world-ending catastrophe.
Oh, America still worries about the Bomb -- but only when it's in the hands of some "bad" nation. Once that meant Iraq (even if that country, under Saddam Hussein, never had a bomb and in 2003, when the Bush administration invaded, didn't even have a bomb program). Now, it means Iran -- another country without a bomb or any known plan to build one, but with the apocalyptic stare focused on it as if it already had an arsenal of such weapons -- and North Korea.
These days, in fact, it's easy enough to pin the label "apocalyptic peril" on just about any country one loathes, even while ignoring friends, allies, and oneself. We're used to new apocalyptic threats emerging at a moment's notice, with little (or no) scrutiny of whether the A-word really applies.
What's more, the Cold War era fixed a simple equation in American public discourse: bad nation + nuclear weapon = our total destruction. So it's easy to buy the platitude that Iran must never get a nuclear weapon or it's curtains. That leaves little pressure on top policymakers and pundits to explain exactly how a few nuclear weapons held by Iran could actually harm Americans.
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