Ignore the Optimists: the World Isn’t About to End


SOME DAY the world’s going to end. No one knows the someday, nor the somehows. That hasn’t prevented speculation. For as long as there’ve been human brains able to theorize, there have been theories.

You can be sure that whatever is happening right now, someone somewhere has a theory that it’s a foreshadowing of the imminent end. Is the weather bad? Yep, that’s how it looks just before the end. Are two nations at war, and is there an earthquake some place? These, too, are signs. Also, behold the famine and rumours and eclipses and divorces and the economy and Israel and whatever President Obama is up to, or isn’t. Any day, maybe any hour, you’ll hear a trumpet and the rivers of blood will gush forth.

The preceding derive from Christian notions of the end. Christians have been expecting the apocalypse at any moment for over two thousand years. Every society, every culture and every religion has its own version of the apocalypse. A Norse doomsday called Ragnarok was supposed to have arrived in February, but fortunately for us the Vikings were wrong. In the same way, many thousands of others have been wrong, most recent and notorious the end-of-times prophet Harold Camping.

My theory about the end of the world is that it’s like the day the Pyramids were completed and that Michelangelo began his Sistine Chapel fresco and the Beatles formed. Those were big deal days to have been alive, but as luck had it most of us weren’t around. Ninety-nine percent of all human beings have missed out on every world-historical event, from the founding of the first human settlement to the first brewed beer to the birth of Jesus to the fall of Rome to the invention of the electric lightbulb. When I say missed out, I mean that you weren’t in the room when the inventor shouted Eureka! or when Paul met John. You weren’t born yet, or you were already long gone, or you were alive but in some other place, in your underwear heating tomato soup.

Because I’m remarkably gifted at thinking up ways to depress myself, I know that I’m very likely living in a time and a place when and where nothing especially important is going on. It’s a simple matter of statistical likelihood. There’s always a huge party going on somewhere while I’m at home washing the dishes. A dictator is falling or a nation is being midwifed, and I’m here in the powder room taking a dump. I say to myself, “Myself, how will the history of my brief time on Earth be taught five hundred years from now?”

I wonder if it will be like this:


Under this schema, the history books will say “The world was engulfed in World War II, but soon the war ended and unprecedented wealth, prosperity and cultural change ensued. This culminated in the exciting and heady spirit of the early 1960s. Then, as always happens in this world of ours, a burst of creative energy yielded to sudden exhaustion, cynicism and reaction: people got up-tight and conservative and repressed, roughly around December 8, 1965. (That would be my birthday.) So let’s skip ahead now, kids, ignoring the 1970s to the 2040s so we can talk instead about the amazing renaissance year, 2057.”

In 2057, Tyzaxion was invented. Can you believe that people once thought the Internet was cool? Can you believe they even used the Internet? Or thought that their music and movies and books and beliefs were takeable. No, they’ll all agree, everything is so much better today. And the worst thing is they could be right. Sometimes I think that’s how my time will sort out, as a dead pixel on the otherwise bright screen of life.

For this reason I think the end-of-the-worlders are wildly optimistic and self-important. They think they’re living in the most significant time of all-time – the pregnant and decisive moment when Thor or Jesus or Haley’s Comet announces, “Since the dawn of existence, here’s where it’s all been headed. These are the folks I’ve been waiting for all these millennia.” (I’ve no idea how a comet could “announce” this, but that it would is among the lesser puzzles in this business.) The more likely thought, that you’re on an insignificant patch of a drifting planet within an unremarkable solar system on the fringe of an average galaxy, doesn’t register. In this more likely world, the prospect of a confrontation with Russia is merely the prospect of yet another of many historical confrontations. Where’s the fun in that?

Maybe I’m wrong, and we’re about to finish off the planet with our Styrofoam cups and gas-burning automobiles and our hairspray. Maybe we’ve pissed the gods off so much that they can’t ignore us any longer. Maybe our impertinence and our potency and our swagger really are, in a real sense, Earth shattering. If that’s the case – if our generation is the one that finally learned how to party so hard that the house came down – it means we’ll also have been the least forgettable folks of all. I suppose it could happen, and wouldn’t it be a kind of tribute to our greatness if it did? What a pity, then, that there may be no one around to say how amazing we were.

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