Good news! If you’re reading this, the world hasn’t ended.
But it certainly feels like it might at any moment. Australia’s on fire, this country’s flooding, New Zealand’s erupting, The West Indies are quaking, locusts plague East Africa, land- slides in Myanmar, Ciara, Dennis and Jorge etc. batter Europe, corona-pestilence spreads around the world, democracies crumble to madmen and demagogues. Surely we haven’t got long to go? The end is nigh or near or now.
It’s all pretty biblical. But maybe that’s the point. In the back of our minds, this is how the world’s supposed to end, not with a bang or a whimper, but presaged with augurs, omens and portent. So even if we might think of ourselves as well beyond scripture, it’s hard to witness the earth shrugging like this without a sense of dread. It didn’t take a bible scholar to note that the four coaches carrying ‘corona virus’ evacuees from Wuhan, were called “Horseman”: like the prophesied Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Even if few have read it, Revelations (originally in Greek: “αποκάλυψη” Apokalupsis), the last book of the New Testament, is embedded in the western psyche. It predicts a host of natural disasters before God eventually kills everyone and ushers in his new kingdom of righteous bores: “and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;” (Rev 6.12) sort of thing. Mind you, it also goes on about, “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny;” (Rev 6. 6) which are way out at present crop values, so you take your pick as far as accuracy goes. Judaism hand-wrings about “the Day of the Lord” in which God causes death, destruction, and a war between Gog and Magog; which is only settled when Gog and his Ma go for family counselling. In Hinduism, Vishnu returns to battle evil on a white horse and who can forget the Mayan clock predicting the end of the world in 2012 that, as things are going, only got the last two digits confused.
If you believe in such things, the omens don’t look good. But to believe there is meaning in the world’s current chaos takes something deeply human: a massive ego.
Even in our world creation stories we stick ourselves slap bang in the middle; created in God’s image, our planet the centre of the solar system, and so forth. Which may be why we find it harder to conceive that the world might just as easily end in a millisecond of senseless whimsy from a disinterested universe. Somehow, we’re so important we’re owed warnings, we’re so significant we’re worthy of messages from a higher power telling us of our coming doom; despite the fact that we’ll be able to do sweet far call about it.
On the one hand our human-centric sense of self-importance knows few bounds and, on the other, we’re aware of how vulnerable we are. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is the most recent movement to swell its numbers by tapping directly into the fear of an Apocalypse and the role of man in both creating and preventing it. At the end of February their young prophet, unafraid of a bit of hell and damnation rhetoric, told a crowd in Bristol that, “the world is on fire” while a fug of spliff smoke rose above the student activists. XR follows the CND( Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) “Action or Armageddon” principle in the 70s and, earlier C20th campaigns, driven by a fear of overpopulation and faith in genetics: the Eugenics and Nazi movements. And before that, for millennia, the church had the last word on the “End of Days” and man’s role in it. Repent repent!
When you stop to listen to so called “Climate Change deniers” you find that a fair number are, in fact, “the-responsibility-of-man-in-creating-climate-change deniers”, which may be equally wrong but a little harder to provide conclusive evidence to challenge. And not nearly as pithy. The fact that they are lumped in with the swivel-eyed who struggle to read their own thermometers, and the corporate interest in continuing pollution and deforestation, is, I suspect, because their point is a harder one to bear. Because if, say, we didn’t cause this mess, or all we did was perhaps accelerate it, what hope have we of clearing it up? Would changing human behaviour really change anything in any significant way? Even if we all became net-zero, bovine-free, vegan, cyclists would that really be enough to halt the coming reckoning? Or, are we just inconsequential parasites tickling the surface of the planet?
Douglas Adams, in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, speculated on the effects of a “Total Perspective Vortex” machine in which ‘you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.”’ This would, Adams suggested, immediately destroy the human brain. Our significance, in the big scheme of things, is so minimal we wouldn’t even be able to comprehend a big scheme of things even if there were one.
But if we’re not important, and our actions have little or no consequence, why should we feel guilty about them? And if we don’t feel shame, if we don’t feel bad about stuff, how can we be inspired to act well? The Judeo-Christian solution was simple: we’re all guilty. We’re all tainted by Adam and Eve’s original sin; “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death into the world, and all our woe” as Milton put it. Buddhism is more direct, its first two truths are that life consists of suffering, pain, and misery and that this suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.
So here’s the paradox. If we are important, then we’re responsible, and guilty, and that makes us unhappy. If we’re inconsequential, there’s no meaning to anything we do, and our pointlessness also makes us unhappy. Unhappiness, despair, anxiety, stress, fear, morbidness and self-absorption… or as a doctor would diagnose it: depression.
Maybe the old religions were on to something. Roughly 20% of people in the UK are diagnosed with depression, if we double that number for those too depressed to see their doctors and add some more for those who just try to pretend they’re ok; we might start to think Buddha got it right, the natural state of man is pain. The abnormal ones, the people who really have mental health issues, the people we perhaps should be trying to cure, are the deluded few who are happy in life, who fail to see their black dogs or take them for walkies.
Coronavirus has tapped into our universal dread perfectly. Every action the Government fails to make to prevent it fulfils our tendency for despair. At once we are fulfilled because we are right and crushed by the horror of it. At the time of writing, South Korea is testing thousands every day, they have drive-thru testing centres which provide results in 10 minutes. In the UK, the tiny few that are getting tested currently have to wait 72 hours for results. Think how many people you can infect in 72 hours.
But consider this, the fact that we are doing so little may have less to do with Government incompetance and more to do with the fact that a proudly “out-of-box” thinker like Dominic Cummings is in 10 Downing Street. For a chap who likes to think the unthinkable, a disease that disproportionately kills Boomers and spares the young, annihilates the generation that are blocking up the job market with their damned experience and health and not retiring and sitting on all those properties – it is a disease made in heaven. “Thanks for voting Brexit now just die.”
Apocalypse now? It may not be the end of the world, but it will be for many. There are mad, surreal, prophesies in Revelations, but the world ending because someone in China fancied a bit of bat in their soup? Not even the Nostradamus went there.