Apocalyptic thinking has been in the noosphere lately. I don’t mean headlines about the potentially devastating effects of climate change or another economic collapse. In the past week, I’ve seen a couple of blogs and articles online that take a very critical look at the extreme ways that we often tend to view the future: either naively utopian or cynically apocalyptic, and suggest that we need to find a more mature way to approach both the challenges and potentials facing humanity today. Right on!
First, I was very happy to see that the article “2013: Or, What to Do When the Apocalypse Doesn’t Arrive” by Gary Lachman—one of my all-time favorite EnlightenNext pieces—was featured on the hugely popular blog Boing Boing last week. Boing Boing co-editor David Pescovitz posted an excerpt from the article, including some of his own commentary, and a very funny picture (above). The piece, which was written for an issue we did in 2009 about the future, is all about the history of apocalyptic thinking—namely that the idea that humanity is approaching some kind of dramatic shift, towards utopia or disaster, has accompanied humanity since the beginning of time. And not one of these dire predictions has yet come true (think Jesus’ Second Coming, Y2K, or the Harmonic Convergence of 1987). Lachman makes the point that this kind of juvenile thinking actually lets us off the hook from having to take responsibility for the complex challenge of cultural evolution. It’s one of the more sophisticated and mature perspectives I’ve encountered on our collective trajectory.
The post has generated quite a thread of interesting comments, including stories from people who grew up as Jehovah’s Witnesses and remember being constantly reminded of the impending end times, commentary from people about Hale Bopp and Y2K, and even a link to a very funny cartoon about the perpetually impending date for the second coming of Christ. There’s also been a lot of traffic on Twitter, including one tweet that includes my favorite quote from the article: “No one rejects ideals more vigorously than a bruised romantic.”
Interestingly enough, a very similar article was recently posted on the site Big Questions Online called “The Power of Realistic Thinking: How can we avoid the pitfalls of too much optimism and too much pessimism?” by Sharon Astyk. In it, Astyk criticizes the tendency to view the future in terms too extreme, either naively positive or cynically pessimistic, making the argument that we need a more sober, mature middle path. Here’s an excerpt:
“This division between techno-utopia and apocalypse — a clash of extreme optimism with radical pessimism — is one of the most fundamental difficulties we face as a society. If there’s one thing opposing sides share, it’s a near-absolute faith that their opponents are utter fools who cannot be trusted, and who ought to be ignored. The problem with this either-or scenario is that it posits an all-or-nothing false choice, both of which are disempowering because they undermine our ability to deal realistically with the challenges before us. Without a language to speak of middle grounds, grey areas and real difficulties, we find ourselves struggling to make prudent, sensible adjustments in our way of life.”
Amen! It’s great to see big questions like this being tackled so thoughtfully in such popular forums. And it’s refreshing to hear some clear, rational arguments against the perils of apocalyptic thinking.