I decided to try to pinpoint at what point in history the idea of the end of the world came about. Theology in every religion often has somewhere in its writings the end of days in some sense or another. But these writings tend to focus on judgments of mortal man, separating good from evil in the universe by the acts of divinity, not random nature or human destruction.
And so when I focus on the more modern sense of the apocalypse as separate from divine intervention, the first writings of the more science fiction idea of it all start appearing after the 1800’s. Mary Shelly’s “The Last Man” in 1826 is about disease ravaging the populations of earth.
As science and technology developed over the next century and a half from then, fiction and culture began to pick up more on this notion of a catastrophe disrupting the way of life as it was known. Our economies developed to incredible wealth, and life expectancy shot higher and higher. An old world in which a disease epidemic killed off half of the population no longer existed when we had vaccines, antibiotics, and penicillin. New technology in agriculture meant we could produce huge quantities of food, enough to feed the world twice over for those who had the means to acquire it. Even water scarcity can be dealt with and overcome. Each year into the 19th and 20th centuries brought a constantly advancing society with brighter prospects to solve the problems of existence.
Where does a dystopia fit into a society in which the needs of the many are mostly satisfied in terms of existence and material desire?
One could worry about how we increased our warring abilities against one another. We developed better guns and bigger bombs, culminating to nuclear technology with the capacity to wipe nations off the map. The Cold War dilemma continues to grip an older generation who believe we are on the edge of chaos this way. They look at ISIS and declare that the Middle East is at its end, with the U.S. soon to be in the crosshairs, despite the fact that ISIS is already being shrunk by international pressures, and that no “caliphate” of fighters has existed for more than a decade in our world because of internal incapacity. And so to these war hawks, war is always leading to the brink of oblivion. This in turn inspires a generation of thought about post nuclear apocalypse in books, television, and digital media. The seeds of the dystopia are sewn into us because in a not so far-fetched mindset, the world could be ended by the pettiness of global power struggles. History is full of examples of how bad things can get.
Despite these thoughts, today’s world is the safest by any measurable standard. Sure, there are little struggles and civil wars always happening, but by the numbers, even with the world growing population, there are fewer people dying from crime and war than ever. But because we are in the 21st century now with global media access, the conflicts that do exist are put under a microscope and magnified in the public eye. We rightly have a perception of zero tolerance for chaos and death, but forget that human nature demands the struggle we see day-to-day, and that there is little we can do to wipe it out entirely.
Today’s media is saturated with films and entertainment focusing on disease destroying the civilized world. Putting aside the zombie stuff, this terrifies the living hell out of just about everyone. Ebola is sensationalized in the news today because it is rightly a very serious matter, but it is entirely overblown because of the battle for ratings and relevance. Unfortunately what officials can’t come out and rightly say is for everyone to calm down and shut up, because Ebola, while serious, is currently affecting 2 or 3 people in the U.S., with several already treated successfully. Even in Africa, where the disease has hit a few poor nations the worst, the death toll is about 5,000.
To put that in perspective, the worst viral outbreak the modern world has seen, the 1918 Spanish flu, killed an estimated 50-100 million people worldwide, and that was about 3% of the world’s population. The thing about disease is that because of the immense human diversity, the advent of 21st century medicine, and simple hygienic measures, disease in nature isn’t going to kill off anywhere close to the majority of the world’s population. Disease doesn’t mutate to destroy the world’s population, because then it has no host to live on in. That’s suicidal biology. Ebola may have a deadly mortality rate, but it’s hard to contract, and it’s been shown to be treatable even without a vaccine. It’s just sensationalized because it’s an exotic disease the common person knows nothing about, including its geographic origin.
Fear is the heart of the obsession with chaos. Millions of people die and live shortened lives in this very country because of preventable things like hunger, obesity, lack of healthcare, lack of clean water, car crashes, alcoholism, gun violence, tobacco, etc. etc. etc. Even in West Africa, Ebola will never even break the top 10 list of most common causes of death. But these most common preventable ailments aren’t as sexy as Ebola or ISIS to the public.
Terrorism has killed maybe a few thousand in the U.S., but we spend trillions on wars and security which end up killing and wounding more of our own around the world despite the fact that pretty much any angry schmuck can go out and blow himself up without having a single connection to a terror cell, because the prospect of terrorism is by design intended to attract disproportional publicity from its suffering by lone wolfs; that’s why it’s called terrorism.
The chaos of dystopian apocalypse is by and large the products of the imaginations of secure people who don’t have to worry about death until they are well past their life expectancy. They are tales of the “what if” of human survival and nature. It’s undoubtedly fascinating to contemplate a breakdown of the complexity of human civilization to a primitive state, be it from a nuclear warhead, disease outbreak, a comet, or a changing planet. But if we allow ourselves to live in a world where we believe the end is always near, we will be nothing but over-anxious wrecks that could have spent their time better in the present where things can be accomplished and enjoyed. We can put preparedness into our policy, be it for global warming or disease, but we cannot know the unknowable. We cannot dwell on what could be when we can work with what is.
By nature we fear the inevitability of death in its variety of forms. It is the narcissistic, however, to focus and demand disproportionate reaction to every exotic sounding disease or jihadist, which will end up decaying and falling apart on its own. We can save a lot more of each other as a collective if we focus on the truly preventable forms of dysfunction that will always plague society. It’s pointless to obsess over the prospect of any natural or human tragedy when so much about the future is impossible to figure accurately. Do as much as possible in the present to secure the future, but then enjoy the present because it is by far the most peacefully secure so far in human existence. And that’s something to kick back and relish over.