The History Channels, I and II, are relentlessly running their catalog of shows on end times prophecies, from Nostradamus, to the Mayans, to the Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible. The National Geographic channel is getting in on the act, with its own series on survivalists, and a series on what the world will look like without people. Then there are the doomsayer economists and political pundits, pointing to the inherent fragility of the developed world’s economic systems, all of which are delicately balanced at the moment, teetering on the precipice of a mountain of promises that can’t possibly be kept.
Except for that last part, it’s all bunk. Nostradamus understood how to get stupid, gullible people to believe he was a prophet by making predictions in nearly unintelligible gibberish that could be construed to mean pretty much anything. I bet if I were so inclined, I could make a colorable argument that Nostradamus predicted the rise to prominence in college football of the Alabama Crimson Tide, or of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, or of really anything else I would like to explain through the careful (and fraudulent, like Nostradamus) parsing and dissection of one of his quatrains. The Mayans didn’t predict anything by their calendar ending on or about December 21, 2012. They had to stop someplace, and that day happened to be it. Besides, if the Mayans were predicting the end of the world, they didn’t do such a good job, as they didn’t survive to see it. Their world, the only one which should have mattered to them, ended about 800 years ago. And Revelations is not a prophecy of anything except the fall of the Roman Empire and the ascendancy of Christianity. The Whore of Babylon of which John writes in his apocalyptic, slightly deranged, revelation is very simply Rome. John was writing to several churches that were suffering under Roman persecution, and had to disguise the purpose and gist of his writing by the use of outlandish metaphors and symbolism, to protect both him and them, from censors and persecutors.
And it is easy to say what the world will be like without people—it will cease to exist. Why? Because there won’t be any creatures around who understand and perceive of such a thing as “the world” in the manner that we do. A variously rocky and watery mass will likely still be circling in an elliptical orbit around what we know as the sun (unless the reason we are gone Is because the solar system is gone as well), but none of it will be perceived as we perceive it, so when we disappear, it will too.
It is true, however, that the developed world’s economic systems are teetering on a precipice of promises that can’t possibly be kept. But just because rich countries can’t and won’t be able to keep the promises they have made hardly foretells the crumbling of civilization. It simply means that the human denizens of their economic systems won’t live as outrageously luxurious as they once did. It won’t mean mass starvation—which is something only about two centuries removed from ranking first among human fears, including among the populations of those in the now developed areas of the world, where so many today struggle with obesity. Remember that the main reason there are so many people of Irish descent in the US is because remaining in Ireland during the potato famine meant a roughly one in five chance of dying from starvation, and the worst of the potato famine was in the late 1840’s, only about two and a half of today’s lifetimes ago. The decline of economic vigor and the end of growth in the developed world won’t destroy the essence of civilization, which is the ability to feed a great many with the efforts of only a few. Technological advances in agriculture will remain and people will be fed; they simply won’t be as otherwise pampered as before.
The collective psyche that succors the fear mongers seems outlandishly psychotic, always capable of whipsawing from hope to fear in a nanosecond, from euphoria to panic in the bat of an eye. Fear is instinctive and pervasive. The collective expression of panic and fear is derived from individual traits that have been hard-wired by natural selection to keep us alive. We are primed by nature to keep a diligent eye out for danger from whatever quarter. The amygdalae, thalamus and other neural hardware nesting at the core of the brain scans the environment for signs of danger, relying on a virtually uninterrupted stream of nearly raw information from sensory inputs, both within the body and external to it. When core neural facilities sense danger, they send the body and mind into hyper-aware mode, elevating the heart rate, flooding the neural circuits with epinephrine, cortisol, norepinephrine and other stimulating steroids, commanding immediate evasive or responsive action when the threat appears too imminent for reflection; directing the frontal cortex to investigate to more closely ascertain the danger level when time allows. It could, in fact, be reasonably argued that the whole purpose of mankind’s reasoning capacity is the calculus it performs in creating threat matrices for the core neural processors. To be sure, higher level reasoning also aids in exploiting opportunities that might enhance survivability and propagation. But the essential function of our big prefrontal lobes is to keep us alive by discounting danger perceptually sensed, and thereby protecting, us from harm.
With such an enormous system primed for responding to danger, it is little wonder that life seems dull and uninteresting without it. We are not designed to seek danger, but are exquisitely and intricately designed to sense it, and respond accordingly. Just as the immune system, which is designed to distinguish micro-biotic self from non-self, and destroy the dangerous portion of the latter, can turn on its own body in the face of sterile environments presenting not enough work for it to do, the neural faculties for sensing danger can be under tasked to the point of conjuring fear or panic when danger is not imminent. Both systems take their cues from their internal and external environments. The immune system warriors communicate the presence of an intruder through markers carried on the surfaces of their cells, and emitted in the blood and lymph of the tissues. The neurological system gathers sensory inputs from many sources, but often the most powerful clue it perceives arrives in the form of sensing fear and panic in others who are close by in proximity or situation, which is why fear and panic and hate, etc., can spread among a population like wildfire, just as an autoimmune assault on the body can quickly prove debilitating.
This is nothing new. The age of social media didn’t usher in the age of emotionally whipsawed crowds. Jesus was hailed as a prophet and savior when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey a little over 2,000 years ago. A week later he was crucified. A few centuries earlier, the wisdom of Socrates had held Athens in thrall for nearly half a century, until Athenian democracy turned against him, and he was forced to drink the hemlock. The only difference with the collective human psychosis today is the speed with which euphoria can turn to panic, love to hate, hope to fear, and the number of people who can be gathered en mass in the exercise. Detached objectivity, which is what our reasoning minds were designed for, but is so often lacking when the cue to be fearful infects one person and rapidly spreads, was no more prevalent in Aristotle, or even Buddha’s day, than ours. Aristotle counseled the need to seek the Golden Mean. Buddha spoke of the Middle Way. In effect, both counseled the tempering of emotions like fear and panic with reason, advice reiterated by Spinoza, among others, millennia later.
But men need fear. They are designed for it. Fear gives individual life purpose and meaning, and binds the society of men like nothing else. If life does not contain enough fear to make life meaningful, or to bind men to each other collectively, fear will be cooked up in the neural recesses of the individual or in the backwaters of the tribal psyche in a quantity sufficient to meet the innate need. So we dream of the end times. We concoct imaginary illnesses. We can’t seem to be individually or collectively happy without which fear blazes a path through our heart at every turn.
Contrived fear is driving the ongoing political negotiations on the “fiscal cliff”, a term pregnant with a fear of falling that everyone well understands. The propensity for mass mania to set in at the slightest hint of economic trouble drives the Fed to attempt to smooth over rough patches by attempting to create massive illusions of prosperity. Fear is the coin of the realm.
Without fear, and the conflict it engenders, there is ennui, a bleak sense of despair at having nothing to fear. The ultimate source of fear is the possibility of death. But death is not a possibility. It is a certainty, both individually and collectively. Probably long after humanity has finally breathed its last, and certainly long after everyone presently living has died, we know the earth will pass into the void. It will cease to exist just as surely as will we. What point then is there in fear when the outcome is certain? Our massive reasoning capacity should be capable of informing and modulating our instinctive impulse to fear, the very purpose for which it is designed. But the history of humanity, individually and collectively, counsels that it is a rare thing when an individual or a society learns to control its fear, rather than allowing fear to control it, the contemplation of which elicits its own sort of ennui.