02/02/2011 02:15 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Apocalypse Not Now: Seeking a New Beginning ... before the End

Undertaking even a cursory review of the news queue evidences the apocalyptic overtones in our collective midst. In the most recent additions to the canon, 2010 ended with semi-sardonic coverage of the so-called "Snowpocalypse" and its aftermath, and 2011 began with perplexed musings over the "Aflockalypse" in which birds and fish seem to be dying in odd ways due to mystifying causes. Not long before, we had the perceptive invocation of the "Shopocalypse" by Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, and next year's 2012 allusions promise to spawn a new generation of nomenclatural evolutions.

While we may be tempted to dismiss the suffix "-ocalypse" being deployed much like "-gate" as an all-purpose distortion device, on another level we can also perceive that its very utilization as both a linguistic tool and interpretation of concrete outcomes is telling about the times in which we live. We're actually in good company on this, at least historically speaking, as the sense of looming apocalypse has been woven into the fabric of Western civilization since its earliest days of recorded reckoning. And there certainly has been no shortage of cataclysmic harbingers in the modern era, from the inception of cinema itself to the invocation of the "mushroom cloud" as part of political theater. This is, in short, our cultural talisman, and its influence upon us is palpable.

Today, the news cycle brings reports of "natural disasters" of perpetually escalating magnitude, and we are increasingly aware of the cataclysmic potential of "climate collapse" and its attendant ravages. Spanning the literal and metaphorical gamut from Genesis to Revelation, our very existence appears conditioned by the constant recollection of our impending nonexistence. The recent widespread deployment of the "-ocalypse" motif in the vernacular signifies a casual acceptance of the notion that signs of the "end times" are everywhere -- and perhaps likewise an urge to begin anew.

Even in the face of this history, the sudden appearance in locales around the world of birds falling from the sky and fish washing up on shores is particularly disturbing. Scientists for years have been tracking the increasing rate of species extinctions, correlating the surge with expanding human intervention into the planet's regenerative capacities. It is distinctly possible that these recent events are related to the larger phenomenon of habitat degradation, and furthermore that we might be experiencing a nascent "canary in the coalmine" moment on a global scale. Whatever the cause, the symbolic impact of this small item in itself is noteworthy, and seemingly indicates a convergence of fiction with reality.

Whereas the specter of nuclear annihilation dominated the popular consciousness for decades, perhaps the ultimate "doomsday scenario" in our midst today concerns the rapidly changing climate -- comprising a new paradigm in the lexicon that we might soon be calling the "Carbocalypse." Consider a recent report from the Inter Press Service titled "Climate Change: Driving Straight Into Catastrophe," which chronicled the sci-fi-sounding crises that are apparently at hand:

"Despite repeated warnings by environmental and climate experts that reduction of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is fundamental to forestalling global warming, disaster appears imminent. According to the latest statistics, unprecedented climate change has Earth hurtling down a path of catastrophic proportions.... These findings have prompted leading environmental experts to warn that humankind is racing towards destruction. 'The year 2010 was the hottest ever measured since the beginning of the recordings, 130 years ago,' Anders Levermann, professor of climate system dynamics at the Physics Institute of the Potsdam University told IPS.... He added that the rapid rising of global temperatures could provoke extreme weather catastrophes that humankind won't be able to survive.... 'Climate change would destroy drinking water supplies, agriculture, habitats, and provoke giant waves of migration and mass mortality,' he explained."

Another recent post that cogently analyzed the near-future tea leaves, this one from the respected author Michael T. Klare and titled "The Year of Living Dangerously," also reads like a desultory stroll through the Book of Revelation:

"Get ready for a rocky year. From now on, rising prices, powerful storms, severe droughts and floods, and other unexpected events are likely to play havoc with the fabric of global society, producing chaos and political unrest. Start with a simple fact: the prices of basic food staples are already approaching or exceeding their 2008 peaks, that year when deadly riots erupted in dozens of countries around the world.... Rising food prices leading to riots, protests, and revolts, mounting oil prices, mammoth worldwide unemployment, and a collapsed recovery -- it looks like the perfect set of preconditions for a global tsunami of instability and turmoil. Events in Algeria and Tunisia give us just an inkling of what this maelstrom might look like, but where and how it will next erupt, and in what form, is anyone's guess. A single guarantee: we haven't seen the last of resource revolts which, in the coming years, could reach an intensity we scarcely imagine today."

Scenarios of this sort seem to leap straight out from the pages of apocalyptic science fiction. Consider Phillip Wylie's 1973 tome The End of the Dream, in which he describes a series of baffling environmental calamities that at first seem relatively insignificant to all but a few individuals, yet in the final analysis result in the massive collapse of the biosphere. Those who warn of the potential consequences are dismissed at best as panicked "Chicken Littles" and at worst as dangerous heretics -- mirroring the real-life treatment of prescient writers like Rachel Carson in her landmark work Silent Spring, which was published a decade before Wylie's fictional work and seemed to inspire its basic thesis that humankind was blithely (and suicidally) toxifying its irreplaceable habitat.

An even earlier work of speculative fiction established the themes of "environmental sacrifice" and "doomsayer castigation" in a dramatic (and unfortunately prophetic) manner. Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's 1958 classic The Space Merchants depicts a near-future world controlled by corporations to such an extent that any pretense of governance "by the people" is dispensed with altogether (e.g., "The Senator from Alcoa has the floor..."), and those few remaining souls who raise even a whiff of environmental consciousness are persecuted as dangerous terrorists known as "Consies" (i.e., conservationists). In this parable, the sense of looming environmental apocalypse is papered over by corporate propaganda, faux food, somatic pharmacology, and virtual realities to such an extent that the populace's awareness of its plight is almost nonexistent.

A decade before, George Stewart's haunting and award-winning work Earth Abides portrayed a world surreptitiously decimated by a cataclysmic pox that leaves only small pockets of humankind left to pick up the pieces. In the process of describing this apocalypse and its aftermath, Stewart explores in a visionary manner the ways in which our relentless "will to power" vis-a-vis nature are implicitly responsible for the resultant calamity, and likewise how our fragile dependency on a system of production that alienates consumers from essential knowledge and basic resources sets the template for the collapse of civilization and the near-eradication of homo sapiens in the process. Still, despite these apocalyptic sensibilities, Earth Abides manages to present a tale of human dignity and resilient innovation in the midst of profound crisis.

Later works have extended these themes in ways that are equally instructive. Pat Murphy's brilliant 1989 book The City, Not Long After likewise depicts survivors of a self-inflicted plague struggling to maintain their humanity in the face of calamity. In this tale, peace-minded individuals band together in explicit reliance on a Gandhian nonviolent framework to stave off the ravages of militarists bent on asserting their control over the post-apocalyptic landscape. Similarly, in Starhawk's evocative The Fifth Sacred Thing, eco-spiritualists draw upon a reaffirmation of nature's power in confronting the domineering aims of a fascistic force trying to annihilate them. Ernest Callenbach's landmark work Ecotopia is perhaps less metaphysical in its musings, but is equally based on reclaiming the virtues of ecology and deploying its inherent lessons as a counter-balance to the forces of devastation.

There are many such cautionary tales in the annals of science fiction -- indeed, the cinematic depictions alone could fill a volume -- that seem ripped right from today's headlines. In most instances, the looming ecological collapse is foreshadowed by relatively minor (but in retrospect highly indicative) episodes such as those reflected in "Storm of the Century" and "Birds Fall from Sky" headlines. The characters in these speculative stories, much like ourselves perhaps, oftentimes tend to ignore the evidence in favor of official pronouncements that all is well and life should proceed as normal while the "experts" work diligently and altruistically on forthcoming solutions. What is omitted from this systemic propaganda, however, is precisely the sobering (and ultimately fateful) realization that it is actually our "normal" lives that are precipitating the onset of the apocalypse.

Oddly enough, we can take some hopeful inspiration from these fictional works. For one, their mere existence demonstrates a longstanding and sophisticated understanding of the issues we are grappling with today, and in this sense indicates a sociopolitical center from which to frame queries and guide actions. Fictional accounts allow a scathing critique of dominant norms to proliferate more widely than the mere ruminations of scholars and pundits, bringing an evocative sensibility and wider consciousness to bear on pressing concerns. They also portray the inner lives of thoughtful characters coping with breakneck changes in their world, overcoming ostracism and persecution upon raising their voices, and displaying dignified fortitude in meeting the challenges before them.

When science fiction writers suggest that "we are not alone," they usually have something otherworldly in mind. Yet another meaning is suggested by the texts noted above and similar works in the genre -- namely that we are also part of a demonstrable tradition in the post-WWII era, calling into question the consumer-oriented and profit-driven values that are largely responsible for pushing the world to the point where apocalyptic nonfictions jump out from the headlines nearly on a daily basis. Another positive revelation from these ostensible demise-themed works is the impetus of post-calamity characters to relearn basic skills of food production and capacities for social organization in the absence of nations and corporations -- something they generally lament not having done before disaster struck.

Here, then, is one more addition to the lexicon, this one meant to capture the "gift of time" sensibility that Jonathan Schell once powerfully invoked in confronting the nuclear crisis: Prepocalyse, to indicate our narrow interval of time in which to reclaim skills of sustenance and community. Indeed, the desire and capacity for this reclamation is already emerging as a bona fide phenomenon, with a resurgence of interest in values and practices including relocalization, small-scale agriculture, food sovereignty, renewable energy, and grassroots democracy found in cities and towns everywhere.

As it turns out, these are also the strategies implicitly urged by the speculative fiction writers (and explicitly by many current advocates) as ways to avoid a self-extinguishing "total collapse" in the first instance. And in this sense may we find an opportunity for a new beginning, well before the end. Indeed, this is the very essence of the notion of apocalypse, comprising in equal parts the "final battle" of Armageddon and a time for "lifting the veil" on a new vision undistorted by collective delusion. The steady convergence of fiction and reality points the way toward a potentially positive eschatology in which we get to help write the next chapter, rather than merely consuming its leading edge.