So the world didn’t end after all and the ‘Mayan apocalypse’ turned out to be another in a long line of doomsday-related tall tales and hoaxes. No doubt a hard-core of Armageddon enthusiasts who really did believe — or wanted to believe — that the ‘Mayan prophecy’ was anything other than a load of cobblers will look suitably sheepish for a decent interval between emerging from their bunkers and beginning the search for their next apocalypse-fix. But, of course, the ‘prophecy’ spoke in some way to a much broader range of people than the tiny minority who took it at all seriously. How else do we explain the intense media interest? Even if the tone of this coverage was heavily tongue-in-cheek, an amused form of fascination is still fascination. The truth is that the idea of apocalypse is powerfully attractive.
As Frank Kermode suggested in his study of apocalyptic narrative, The Sense of an Ending, the notion of the end of the world performs a comforting psychological function. As story-telling creatures humans crave narrative order — we want to identify a beginning, a middle and an end in (and to) our lives and the world around us. Above all, we desire a sense of meaning which is dependent on this narrative coherence. The idea of apocalypse — a literal end of history — for Kermode was one of the most ancient versions of these age-old attempts to construct a narrative coherence, and thus impose an apparent meaning, in relation to human existence.
Kermode’s argument suggests that since it helps to satisfy deep-rooted existential needs, apocalypticism is probably a permanent feature of the human psyche. Indeed, Kermode argued that Nazi and Communist ideology represented secularised forms of apocalyptic myth — both of them positing an overarching meaning to history which would culminate in a final armageddon-type showdown followed by the arrival of a politicised variant of Heaven on Earth. This sort of analysis has been taken up more recently by the philosopher John Gray for whom most modern political ideologies — socialism particularly, but also (interestingly) many forms of liberalism — are disguised, sublimated forms of millenarian Christianity. Both Kermode and Gray warn of the dangers of apocalyptic belief — particularly in its modern forms — since it carries with it a utopian impulse which, they argue, produced the holocaust and the gulag and further, for Gray, the misery and malnutrition stemming from neoliberal ‘shock therapy’.
It may well be that the most dangerous thing today, however, isn’t apocalyptic thinking but precisely to dismiss the notion of world-wide catastrophe out of hand. In the last few decades it has become increasingly clear, indeed, that we are heading toward an ecological disaster. We could say, in fact, that belief in impending apocalypse has today become perfectly rational. The scientific consensus on climate change is a consensus on the imminence of global catastrophe.
You don’t need to go to any crazed, wild-eyed mystic these days to encounter apocalyptic visions. You can get them from impeccably mainstream organisations such as the World Bank. Given the scientific consensus on climate change and the threats it poses, the most irresponsible fantasists today are not those predicting catastrophe, but climate change deniers and, equally, the neoliberal faithful confidently expecting market forces, left to their own devices, to come up with some last minute ‘technological fix’.
Unlike the traditional form of dramatic ‘big bang’ apocalypse envisaged in various myths, however, climate disaster is likely to unfold in a gradual, insidious way — a process in which conditions become steadily more and more intolerable as heatwaves, droughts, flooding and pressure on food supplies become worse and worse. This is apocalypse as imagined by T S Eliot: ‘This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper’.
Slavoj Žižek has argued that society generally is in a state of denial in relation to climate change: ‘We know the ecological catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen.’ As he suggests elsewhere our half-submerged anxieties are displaced — we find more acceptable and comforting substitutes to stand in for and obscure the real source of our fears. Indeed it seems highly plausible that current fascination with the ‘Mayan apocalypse’ is itself an instance of this process of displacement.
One of the major reasons we find it hard to face up to the reality of ecological crisis is that it is a systemic crisis rooted in the logic of the capitalist economy. This is a difficult thought for many to accept because it implies that environmental disaster cannot be averted without moving beyond capitalism. This is a daunting prospect — but the incompatibility of capitalism with environmental sustainability is clear. Capitalism is driven by an insatiable need for growth. The logic of perpetual accumulation for accumulation’s sake compels capitalism to plunder more and more of the planet’s resources, burn greater quantities of fossil fuels and fill the atmosphere with more and more CO2. The ecological crisis stems from the contradiction between, on the one hand, a system predicated on the logic of perpetual and infinite growth and, on the other, a planet with finite resources and a finite ‘carrying capacity’ in terms of the amount of consumption it can support, and the amount of greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution it can absorb.
The looming environmental crisis, then, demands radical solutions. It necessitates the construction of democratically planned economy based on the logic of sustainable production for need. But what about the objections of people such as Gray — isn’t the very idea of socialist change a dangerous form of millenarian thinking? Gray’s argument however rests on a caricature of socialist thought. As Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Front de Gauche has argued, socialism is best understood as a series of practical responses to concrete problems. Far from demanding paradise on Earth, socialist aspirations are actually rather modest. They are that everyone should have enough to eat, and have access to decent housing, healthcare and education; that people should exert democratic control over the workplace and the economy as a whole; that everyone should have access to the resources they need in order to live fulfilling lives and that the economy should be geared towards human wellbeing rather than the unsustainable pursuit of infinite accumulation. These aren’t outlandish, utopian aims. They’re perfectly sensible.
The biggest obstacle to the transformation of the system and the averting of ecological catastrophe is psychological and ideological. It’s what Mark Fisher terms ‘capitalist realism’ — ‘the widespread idea that capitalism is the only “realistic” political economic system’. Indeed we live at a time in which (in Žižek’s phrase) ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’. Mayan apocalypse-mania is perhaps a direct reflection of this condition. But as this mania passes and is forgotten, the real catastrophe looms ever larger. While it may be easier for now to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, we must accept and act on the truth that if we don’t put an end to capitalism, capitalism will eventually put an end to us.
Ed Rooksby is Tutor in Politics at Ruskin College, Oxford.