Thinking About the Apocalypse

I came up with the perfect first question for the “Essential Skills for the Coming Apocalypse” panel at WisCon 24 hours after the panel ended. I should have started with:

What does apocalypse mean?

It wasn’t that I hadn’t prepped for the panel. But it took doing the panel and then thinking about why it didn’t satisfy me to figure out that we needed to start by defining our terms.

So what does apocalypse mean?

The original Greek word means revelation. Biblical scholars tell us that apocalypse pieces were common in Jewish writings even before we get to the Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation. It was, essentially, a genre. And it was very metaphorical, as Revelation demonstrates.

Some of it, I think, was revolutionary in scope, though expressed in religious terms.

This obviously was not the focus of the panel. We were talking about the modern meaning, which is more along the lines of horrific catastrophe.

When I was young, the term meant the aftermath of nuclear war. That’s where all the bunkers and ideas about back to the Stone Age come from.

But while that is still possible today (too many extremist governments have nukes and of course the US already used some of ours), I suspect most of us are thinking about the multiple disasters coming from climate change aggravated by fascism and income inequality.

Also pandemics.

While those will cause great suffering, we aren’t all headed to the stone age or even hunter gatherer or subsistence farming lifestyles as a result.

I don’t even think we’re going back to a world where most people are farmers. Right now most of the people on the world live in cities.

Zombies may be entertaining but they are just another metaphor after all. And as for the chatbots becoming evil sentient AI, well, that makes for entertaining movies, but that’s not even close to the actual threat posed by large language models. They’re a problem but they’reĀ  not the apocalypse.

So what do we really mean?

Well, climate change, obviously. We already see that, which makes it obvious that this isn’t going to be evenly distributed.

The collapse of capitalism, probably. It’s hard not to root for that kind of apocalypse. I think that’s similar to what the early prophets and the John who wrote Revelation were after. It was the Roman government they had in mind, but the principle is similar.

I will point out that Rome fell. Slowly and in pieces. I suspect that’s what we’ll get with capitalism. Like climate disasters, it will crumble piecemeal and people will keep trying to fix it without solving real problems.

Everyone always talks about the end of Rome and maybe even the end of capitalism as a return to barbarism. It’s possible that for most of us barbarism beats Rome.

David Graeber and David Wengrow suggest in The Dawn of Everything that the collapse of the Mayan Empire was perhaps better for the average Mayan. The collapse of capitalism might turn out to be a blessing for many people.

The period of collapse could be a humdinger though.

We must also consider that bits of Rome are still with us. (Our property laws, for example.) Bits of capitalism might survive. Ugly bits.

We’re certainly going to have more climate refugees as well as war refugees. (War isn’t going away.)

Water will be a problem. Some places will get too much, some too little. Sometimes they’ll be the same places.

Sea level rise compounded by hurricanes and cyclones will wipe out some coastal cities.

Wildfires will continue to haunt us. We’ll have extreme winter storms and extreme heat waves.

And pandemics. Don’t forget pandemics.

The worst thing, though, is that despite knowing that these things will happen, we won’t do what’s necessary to mitigate them. We’ll keep trying for business as usual, cutting deals with the fossil fuel companies, moving to the fire-prone places, and favoring the economy over what people need.

That feels apocalyptic to me. And you can’t survive that by building bunkers or going back to the land.

Pretty sure community building and organizing to change our systems are the most important skills for the coming apocalypse.

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