Where should I start when writing about the end of the world? Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut is a good place to begin.
You see, in the last decade of the Cold War, the 1980s, I was a teenager. One of my favourite cousins was an English teacher then, and hence influenced a lot of my reading. In the summer limbo at the end of 1986 and early in 1987 after my HSC exams, whilst I was anxiously waiting to find out whether I had passed my HSC and then whether I was accepted into university (the odds at my school tended to be rather long on either outcome), I borrowed an omnibus collection of Kurt Vonnegut novels from my cousin and voraciously consumed them. Mother Night. Slaughterhouse 5. Player Piano. Breakfast of Champions. The Sirens of Titan. And finally, Cat’s Cradle.
My relationship with the writings of Vonnegut is an ambivalent one. I am both compelled and repelled by his stated ideas. He seems to be both more pessimistic and misanthropic than I am, but then, I could be misunderstanding him. He had a very dark and ironic sense of humour.
Cat’s Cradle is the first of his novels (I was eventually to read most of his works, although it took a few years) which has overt eschatological themes to it. [His later work Galapagos arguably is a post-apocalyptic novel narrated by a ghost, so the eschatological themes are past tense.]
The doomsday device, inadvertently developed by an absent minded but equally selfish and amoral scientist, in Cat’s Cradle is Ice Nine. This is a reverse entropy water molecule that freezes all liquid water it comes into contact with, converting them into Ice Nine, which then freezes further liquid water into Ice Nine, and so on exponentially until the entire world’s liquid water is frozen and life can no longer continue.
And so too, we see the latest plague which threatens humanity, Coronavirus, something which it is feared will breach quarantine barriers through the difficulty of detection and spread exponentially, until everyone is infected and dies. Five years ago, Ebola was our big fear, and ten or fifteen years ago, it was SARS and bird flu. Seven hundred years ago, with a lot more grounds for concern (it did wipe out a third of Europe’s population after all), it was the Black Death.
Whilst this new plague is looming, we are beset by bushfires and an angry sixteen year old Scandinavian girl as emissary of climate doom, North Korea continuing to build bombs, Putin apparently building high megaton yield cobalt bombs and the Doomsday clock has been set closer to midnight than at any other time in its history (one hundred seconds to midnight).
I am not going to cry Fake News or Fake Science. The Cold War was a reality to me from when I was ten in late 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the same time as China skirmished with Vietnam whilst Iran held US diplomats hostage, right up til the Berlin wall came down in 1989 and I went the following year to a German reunification party (long before I developed my fondness for copious amounts of fine red wine). The 1980s was a far scarier time than now.
What I do want to observe is that we, in Western Civilisation, are long hard wired to expect Doomsday, and have been ever since the Emperor Theodosius imposed Christianity as the mandatory state religion on our pagan ancestors some 1640 or so years ago. Eschatology, the reasoning behind the coming end times, entered our collective consciousness and our thinking alongside the Book of Revelation.
How our ancestors felt about history before then was different. Pagan religion (unless you were Norse, and I doubt that many of my ancestors were that) did not have an end time, or eschatology. The Gods would frolic along in their hedonistic, rapacious and adulterous ways with nary a worry in the world. Ancient historians were interested in recording the past, as a way of keeping the memory of the great deeds of the mighty dead alive (think Herodotus), and perhaps of glorifying the living (Livy, whose patron was Augustus, springs to mind).
History gained its sense of progress from Christianity. In Christian doctrine, there is a sense of continuous progress from the time of creation and the fall from grace through to the first coming of the Messiah and then the end times, when, thanks to the nightmarish visions of St John, the Anti-Christ arises and then the final battle is fought, and then the Day of Judgement comes.
This sense of progress, or eschatological hard wiring, affects us both intellectually and psychologically in inescapable ways.
Intellectually, ideas expressed first by Hegel and then in modified form by Marx, present theories of human development and progress as iron laws of history, independent of God and religion, as if history is a force which is sweeping mankind along to an inevitable final state of being. The ideas of Marxist dialectical progress were countered in the 1960s with the End of Ideology argument advanced by Julien Benda and other intellectuals. Then, in 1989, those ideas were dusted off and represented by neo-Hegelian Frances Fukuyama as the End of History – that liberal-democracy was finally triumphant over all lesser political systems, and that now we had reached the end state of human development. (Well, how is that working out for you?)
Psychologically, and perhaps anthropologically, the foreboding of doom has been prevalent amongst the Hoi polloi a very long time, and with good reason. Soon after the imposition of Christianity Western Civilisation experienced the barbarian invasions which marked the fall of Rome, and then the dark ages, where they were constantly preached to about the end times and the Day of Judgement. And they were conditioned to expect it at any moment. With barbarian invasions, plagues, holy wars, and more invaders, the average villager in medieval Europe had much evidence to expect the end of the world at any moment.
We 21st century first worlders are, unsurprisingly, no different. We are more educated and informed (although we use our computing technology mostly to transmit or watch cat videos rather than for any more useful purpose), and far more materially prosperous than any preceding generations. But with over sixteen centuries of cultural indoctrination into believing that Doom is coming, we are going to believe it.
It might not be the Anti-Christ, although many (most?) Americans believe it will be. But it might be climate change, or an asteroid strike, or a cobalt bomb, or a more full scale nuclear war, or the exhaustion of our resources before human ingenuity has found a way to work around that.
I doubt very much that it will be coronavirus.
But in any event, we are conditioned culturally over a period of fifty consecutive generations to believe in Doomsday. And the lifting of our ignorance does not bring enlightenment. It just brings more threats to our existence, more potential sources of fear.
Fear is a crippling way to exist. I prefer to live in hope – I hope that we are able to find a way out of the various messes we have stumbled into as a species over the course of history. Whether that means I believe in human progress is debatable, but I expect it does. Escaping 1600 plus years of cultural hard wiring is as impossible as converting the world to speak Esperanto.