Apocalypse Soon

Yes, it’s time to start panicking

Henry Wismayer
Jun 16, 2017 · 8 min read
Photo: pexels

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It took me a while to reach the conclusion that the world might be going to hell in a handcart. Fear of the apocalypse just isn’t the sort of thing you dwell on when you’re a kid, with all the sense of innocence and immortality a western upbringing affords.

It wasn’t that I remained ignorant to the tragedies that have bedeviled the human story. Over time, I came to learn about a world shaped by blood and conquest, discovered the countless times that people were led astray by dissembling leaders, of wars, violence, and atrocity unbound.

But for my generation — who learned their history and geopolitics in the years following the end of the Cold War — such turbulence belonged to a different time. Most of my life, I’ve adhered to the idea that for all the kinks and imperfections of the capitalist status quo, the present order of deeply interconnected trading nation-states has ensured a measure of stability unprecedented in our history.

And yet, over the past couple of years, with Trump, with Brexit, with the rise in temperatures both political and meteorological, that old complacency has begun to evaporate with alarming speed. Suddenly, everywhere, people from both sides of the political spectrum have found themselves gripped by the same anxiety, albeit for different reasons, of a chaotic world spinning out of control. That dusty history now feels more proximate, its mistakes eminently repeatable.

Looking on as old certainties have been trampled, my confidence has been supplanted by an inchoate sense of dread about the road to come. I have found myself becoming a secret prophet of doom, one of a million Cassandras forecasting The End. Expectations for my children’s future have turned dystopian at best, apocalyptic at worst. It occurred to me the other day that I’ve stopped making long-term plans. Mushroom clouds invade my dreams.

In January, the keepers of the Doomsday clock moved the minute hand 30 seconds closer to midnight. Like them, I’m worried that we might be edging toward some massive Malthusian disaster of our own making.

Am I just being hysterical?

The Sense of an Ending

Perhaps the fact that there have always been alarmist soothsayers should offer some solace for those of us who have become convinced that some reckoning is at hand.

But there is a difference between these oracles, with their messages relayed from vengeful gods, and those ringing alarm bells today. Instead of being divined from spilled entrails and crystal balls, pessimism about the future has become the position of objective reason. The person who recently wrote that “we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity” wasn’t a swivel-eyed guy with a sandwich board. It was Steven fucking Hawking.

Let’s recap. In Europe and America, the people in political ascendancy are bullies, charlatans, opportunists, and liars. An amoral huckster occupies the White House, while a millenarian Rasputin, driven by the conviction that we are bound for a cataclysmic struggle between good and evil, whispers in his ear. Humans have started to be labeled and reclassified: refugees as parasites, neighbors as traitors, the intelligentsia denounced as “enemies of the people.”

Majority-identarian politics is on the march. Political volatility has become the norm. While moderates unplug from politics in apathy and confusion, social media has provided a megaphone for fallacy, fantasy, and fear. The supposedly sceptical, rational postmodern world has become post-fact. No wonder its millionaire architects have started to build bunkers.

You don’t need a history degree to recognize the myriad ways in which this picture mirrors the preconditions of past disasters. Because wherever you derive your value system, it’s clear that some universal axioms of peace and stability are being overridden. What worries me, then, is not merely the instability of the here and now. It’s the trajectory, the sense that these are early warning signs for some greater upheaval. History tells us with near-empirical certainty that economic anxiety, multiplied by tribal division, exposes the ugliest face of society every single time. We know where this goes.

But perhaps I’m just being hysterical.

Unlearning History

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The words of Spanish philosopher George Santayana have rarely felt as pertinent as they do today. But by the time you can get an aphorism printed on a T-shirt, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that its potency may have waned through overuse.

One of the reasons we have become so polarized on the subject of historical precedent plays into concerns about our modern age. Remembrance is no substitute for direct experience, but the World War II generation is dead or dying. People in the West have become experientially divorced from the conflict and episodic madness that shaped our world.

The expectation of catastrophe is, in many ways, the only sensible conclusion to be drawn from even the most cursory examination of the human story. Yet no amount of historical perspective makes it easier to imagine what it is to live in a city where bombs rain down from the skies, to see men and boys lined up beside a mass grave to be shot, to see colonists ransack your village to make slaves of your children. Sitting in our Ikea living rooms, cosseted for so many decades from the Darwinian struggle to survive, we can no longer understand how such things could ever come to pass. We are unlearning the true portent of that Santayana line every day.

Instead we spend Sunday afternoons nodding glibly as we scan articles about what to do if a nuclear bomb is dropped on our city, and then settle onto the sofa to watch Game of Thrones, thrilling at the blood, the flying severed limbs, forgetting that for much of history, young men have trod sodden moors to kill and be killed at the behest of kings.

Assaulted daily by 24-hour news, the misery that humans are capable of inflicting on others has ceased to resonate as much as the single memeable image. We live in an era where a tearful emoji marks compassion, and where the photo of a dead child on a beach, his doll-like body face-down in the surf, provokes condemnation, but another report of indiscriminate carpet-bombing in the Middle East leaves us numb. When Trump dropped the “mother of all bombs” on an ISIS bunker in Afghanistan last month, Fox News made a music video. The brutal realities of conflict have become abstractions, war just another form of entertainment.

We have become inured to scale and blinded to the stakes, unable to process the idea that thousands of innocent children in Syria once played on the streets that would become their tomb. They didn’t think it would happen either.

I know, I’m sorry, I’m being hysterical.

*Fingers in Ears* “Lalalalalalalalalalalalala…”

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” — Primo Levi

It’s no mystery why so many have drawn parallels between the social and economic forces at work today and those that triggered the Second World War.

The degradations of Nazi Germany — millions dead, a whole continent of scorched earth — will forever be a yardstick by which future atrocities are judged. We have a tendency to reach for the Hitler comparison because the Third Reich marked an apotheosis of our capacity to hate and scapegoat and blame — arguably the furthest that humanity has ventured into the dark. We are each a member of a species that created a machinery of extermination that extracted its victims’ gold teeth, wove their hair into socks. We are separated from that era by a blink in history’s eye.

Critics of the supposedly hyperbolic predictions that have begun to proliferate in the wake of a tumultuous 2016 would say this doesn’t matter. They will point out, quite rightly, that we continue to live through a period of exquisite comfort. The hardships that pushed a previous generation to the brink of mutual annihilation no longer undermine and imperil the system. According to this line of thinking, a tendency to catastrophize is either paranoid (the product of an overactive imagination ) or self-serving — another irritating weapon in consensus liberals’ arsenal of virtue signaling.

However, such bromides, with their implied faith in the resilience of Western stability, have started to feel symptomatic of a massive denial. A quick glance over the timeline of the 20th century, or across the continents to Syria, Darfur, or Yemen, reminds us that fighting is codified in our genes. There is no inviolable law to state that our political and aggressive species, capable of sinking so deep into the mire, should never sink there again. We are the creature of apartheid, of concentration camps, of atomic bombs incinerating Japanese towns, of a Rwandan genocide committed with machetes and farm tools and hand drills.

Only a fool would claim that the human condition is any different now to that which precipitated the horrors of the past. Western society has not evolved since the end of Nazism, it just temporarily recoiled.

And I think most of us know it. Deep down, many of us sense that the assumptions which have sustained Western peace are fragmenting. I am losing count of how many people, in conversation over a springtime beer, in a pub garden soaked in sun, flowers blossoming all around, have said that humanity is fucked and that a sense of impending doom is a fatalistic backdrop to their every waking day.

As we survey the scene today and wonder whether we should resist or acquiesce to the forces currently despoiling the stable world we thought we knew, this knowledge of what we are capable of should be foremost in our minds. History tells us that peace hangs by a thread, that empires fall and civilizations end. This civilization is global and interdependent. If Rome falls today, everything goes with it.

It feels like the epitaph is already on the wall: Perhaps we could have stopped it, if only we’d tried.

But tell me again: Am I being hysterical?

Henry Wismayer

Written by

Essays, features and assorted ramblings for over 80 publications, inc. NYT Magazine, WaPo, NYT, The Atlantic, WSJ, Nat Geo, and TIME: www.henry-wismayer.com.


About this Collection


The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'jeremiad' as 'a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes.' Following a tumultuous few months in global politics, our collective list of woes grows longer by the day. Henry Wismayer's jeremiad offers some theories on how we got here, and why the succession of political tremors that have left people screaming "this is not normal" are in fact nothing other than a return to business as usual.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'jeremiad' as 'a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes.' Following a tumultuous few months in global politics, our collective list of woes grows longer by the day. Henry Wismayer's jeremiad offers some theories on how we got here, and why the succession of political tremors that have left people screaming "this is not normal" are in fact nothing other than a return to business as usual.

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