News and entertainment media revel in end-times fantasy and foreboding. But what if the Apocalypse already happened?
By John Strausbaugh
In 1947, when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists introduced its Doomsday Clock, it was set at a symbolic seven minutes to midnight. It is currently at two. In the gloom that now pervades so much news and entertainment media, that can seem downright hopeful.
When Ted Turner founded CNN in 1980, he had a short “doomsday video” produced and stored. He instructed senior staff to hold it “till end of the world [is] confirmed.” It’s a brass band playing “Nearer My God to Thee,” the Titanic song. The manufactured panic of Y2K in 1999 suggested that the video’s time had come, but no one would be able to see it.
Two decades later, the way the news reports climate change has made doomsday cultists of us all. The arctic is burning, the seas rising, the extinction rate is, as one online headline just screamed, “10 Times Worse Than Previously Thought” and 1,000 times higher than pre-human levels. TV weather ballyhoos each approaching rain storm as a biblical flood, each new snow as The Blizzard of the Century. If you pay attention, the sky is perpetually falling. Every new plague, from AIDS to Zika, is forecast to be the one that will wipe out all humanity. If the rising seas don’t get us first.
Popular culture, too, is obsessed with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios. Science fiction, once fecklessly optimistic about the future, is dominated by dystopian visions now. Zombie hordes and robot armies march across our movies, tv shows and games. Alien invaders annihilate our cities. Killer asteroids end civilization as we know it. Angels and demons use us as cannon fodder in their eternal battle. We’re collateral damage to superheroes and their villains. The Rapture has sucked all the good people up to heaven, leaving us sinners to mope around down here. In The Happening, even the wind in the willows turns genocidal. Whatever the hell Bird Box was about. Plus, those perennial favorites, Godzilla and nuclear holocaust.
Why? Maybe we’re unconsciously but very publicly acknowledging the fact that the apocalypse isn’t coming, it already happened. The world ended in the 20th century. This is the world after the end of the world.
Can there be any question that the 20th century was the lowest point in recorded history? Or, as Satan exulted in The Devil’s Advocate, “Who in their right mind… could possibly deny the twentieth century was entirely mine?” It began with the concentration camps and scorched earth of the Boer War and went out with genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans. It was a century of global destruction on a scale never before dreamed of, let alone seen. A century of atrocities, a century of savages. The century that killed more people than were alive when Jesus walked the earth, and brutalized many millions more. The century when the terms genocide, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, gulag, crimes against humanity, totalitarianism, fascism, mutual assured destruction, nuclear winter, and Orwellian were all coined.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they’re appalling on their own. The Great War left at least 50 million people dead or maimed and large swaths of Europe in desolate ruin. Meanwhile the Ottomans were massacring a million and a half Armenians. The Great War was followed directly by the Great Influenza Pandemic, which killed up to 40 million more people. (“Great” was often applied to the century’s most horrific disasters. A state of denial was already setting in.) Maybe as many as 100 million died in Stalin’s Great Famine. World War II killed up to 85 million more humans, including some 25 million in the Soviet Union alone, and an estimated three million people who starved to death in India when the British padlocked grain supplies to keep them from the Japanese. With that war came the techno-barbarism of Hitler’s death camps, the firestorm, and the atomic bomb. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were relatively trivial events in terms of the numbers slaughtered, but those boiling fireballs couldn’t have been more apt symbols for the End Times.
And on and on, into the second half of the last century, atrocity after atrocity, millions of corpses piled on millions of corpses — in Asia, Africa, and again in Europe. The majority were non-combatants, collateral damage. Humans had always recognized our capacity for mistreating one another in the vilest ways, but this was a global, species-wide, 100 years of holocaust.
Along with those hundreds of millions of humans, the 20th century killed something else: the dream of progress and hope for the future. Since the Enlightenment, optimists had been able to point to the steady increases in scientific knowledge, technological innovation, and humane culture as evolutionary trends leading inexorably to the perfection of the human race.
In the 20th century those hopes were permanently dashed. Already by the 1930s, people were beginning to speak of “the myth of progress.” Writing of H. G. Wells, the early 20th century’s most prolific and influential prophet of progress, George Orwell pointed out that “unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good.” He cited the airplane, “which was looked forward to as a civilizing influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs.” The most “modern” nation in Orwell’s time, Nazi Germany, put science and technology “in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age.”
By the end of World War II, even Wells was moaning, “A series of events has forced upon the intelligent observer the realization that the human story has already come to an end and that Homo sapiens, as he has been pleased to call himself, is in his present form played out.” (Emphasis added.)
When even H. G. Wells had declared humanity played out, maybe the atomic scientists should have started their Doomsday Clock and some point after midnight.
Is it any wonder we still can’t consciously process the enormous horror of it all? Yet it haunts us. We sublimate. What is the zombie apocalypse but a distorted reflection of the 20th century’s emaciated hundreds of millions, whose memory we prefer not to face openly? Maybe we fear the walking dead because we know we are the walking dead. What are alien invaders and robot armies if not funhouse reminders of the high-tech barbarians we became? If Godzilla is obviously a metaphor for nuclear destruction, who is Thanos but a comic-book echo of all the last century’s genocidal monsters? In its way, the Left Behind franchise, almost universally panned as the lowest sort of religious pandering, may come closest to the truth: The End came, scooped large numbers of humans off the planet, and left the rest in a shell-shocked daze. The only false note is that no divine intervention was required.
In the era of Darwin, Freud, and the young H. G. Wells, it was common to see humanity as steadily marching forward to an ever-brighter future. Then we spent a century demoralizing and disabusing ourselves of that notion over and over. Now we wander in a postmodern, post-apocalyptic fog, like the shades of the dead in Hades. A faint, vestigial memory of what progress felt like is expressed through phased incremental improvements to the devices we carry in our palms to maintain a state of timeless distraction. Maybe that’s what Bird Box is, an allegory for the way we all stumble blindly through a world of encompassing menace. Which might make A Quiet Place and The Silence metaphors for the earbuds and Airpods we use to block out even the sound of reality.
We do sometimes summon a bit of gallows humor about it all. In The World’s End, civilization goes out with a pub crawl. In 2015, John Oliver offered CNN an updated version of Turner’s doomsday video. In this one, Martin Sheen amiably narrates a blooper reel of humanity’s epic fails and humble achievements, including peanut butter and comical cat videos.
Rather than looking ahead, we torture ourselves with a version of what Germans call Ostalgie, a seemingly irrational nostalgia for the bad old days of East Germany. The only futures we can envision rehash the past. Political cultures in many places around the globe are re-embracing the death cults of Fascism and Nazism. Who can count all the articles of the last three years comparing Trump to Hitler and Mussolini? Boris Johnson had not yet served his first day as prime minister when news outlets started comparing him to Hitler and Trump. The left warns that we’re in a “new Cold War” and a “new arms race,” and wants a “Green New Deal.”
Besides Wells, a few other visionaries tried to set us straight. Johnny Rotten told us almost forty years ago that there was no future. But it was Sun Ra, in 1972, who put it most straightforwardly: “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?”
Yes, we do, but we still can’t quite face it. We prefer to stare at the dystopian entertainments on the tiny screens in our palms.
John Strausbaugh is the author of The Village, City of Sedition, and most recently, Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers During World War II.
Production DetailsV. 1.0.0
Last edited: August 18, 2019
Author: John Strausbaugh
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Screenshot courtesy of VideoWORX