Many of Stephen Hawking’s final written words presage doom. Clearly no amount of knowledge can resist a looming apocalypse. “We have two options for the future of humanity as I see it,” warns Hawking in Brief Answers to the Big Questions, “first: the exploration of space for alternative planets on which to live, and second, the positive use of artificial intelligence to improve our world.” He stresses positive use of AI, since he thinks it can still turn against humanity if negatively wielded. Ordinarily a refuge from tempestuous sentiments, science has now raised a ticket on the apocalyptic ark.
Many on top are heeding the call. Climate change, the threat of nuclear war, and a corporate-blighted system amplify fears of a piqued population no longer antiquely armed with pitch-forks. So are the fears of ‘preppers’ and ‘survivalists’ led by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos empirically genuine? As contemporary riches are assembling intangibly on digital platforms and as corporate dynasties become more automized, the doomsayer fears (and efforts to leverage the apocalypse into economic opportunities) become less surprising.
History has been disturbed by this type of alarm before. Seen more as a historical transition today, the fall of Rome was once depicted as an anthropoid crisis of absolute decline. Swallowing twenty-two percent of the world’s land mass and killing some sixty million people, the Mongol conquests spattered more harrowing sentiments. And just a hundred years ago, empires were raped and shattered in man’s little nook of the universe during WWI and WWII. Hours when humankind caught the worst of its bestial pongs, apocalyptic history records a long narrative.
Religion has of course kept the apocalypse alive for centuries. Christianity’s prototypical illustration appears in Revelation, where angels bard havoc on the world. “The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly, festering sores broke out on the people…The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead person…” Other religious cultures, with many leaders in disagreement, have transcribed their own macabre stories that band the wagon. Judaism’s book of Genesis, Taoism’s The Divine Incantations Scripture, Buddhism’s Kālacakra, and Islam, says David Cook in Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature, and not unlike other religions, “probably began as an apocalyptic movement.”
These apocalyptic constructions were anthropocentrically conceived by oracular mystics urging social reversion in their ruminations of fallen society. Scientists can’t use the same pretexts, but apocalyptic memoranda have nevertheless found authority in secular society. Is it something that we inherently identify with, engrained on the scrolls of our genetic memories as the Cretaceous extinction is written in stone?
For events so cataclysmic they’re apocalyptic, it seems possible, but ethics is interested in countermeasures, and there’s a moral truth in all this that can’t be ignored. One’s beliefs or disbeliefs in apocalyptic justifications can never morally supersede one’s existential relationship with nature and everything that composes it. If some kind of apocalypse that thwarts our species is indeed imminent, it would be wise to grasp its structure and plan ecologically to the scientific measurements, even risk a kind of environmental religiosity like that practiced by the Quechua. Pride must flee in desperate times, even if it means a sort of paradigmatic repetition of history.
Recorded in ancient Balinese Hindu texts, the Eka Dasa Rudra ritual must be performed every hundred years to purify the world and prevent disasters. In preparation for the ritual—culminating at the ‘mother temple’, Pura Besakih, on the slopes of Bali’s largest volcano, Mount Agung—thousands of Balinese carry offerings to the sea where around fifty buffaloes ornately decorated in gold and goods are drowned in perverse ritualistic silence.
Anticipating the ceremony back in 1963, Indonesian President Sukarno sent a convoy that, according to local priests, prematurely induced it, since Agung blew ash all the way to Jakarta shortly after the ceremony. Villages were dissolved, over a thousand people were killed, but the mother temple remained undamaged. It was a bad omen, indeed, further fixed in Balinese hearts when Indonesia ripped apart in civil war, where 500,000 people were massacred within two years.
As traumatic as these experiences were, the Balinese shouldn’t have ventured much further than phenomenological common sense. Misconstruing causal relationships only ignores, misdirects, or delays facts needed to serve justice, in this case, prohibit future animal sacrificing and expose murderers spared from justice. Moreover, when first principles are skirted and discussions aren’t set out Socratically by defining terms, a hairy mass of preconceptions eclipse clarity. For no other term is this truer than with apocalypse.
The word derives from the Greek ‘to uncover’ and represents a mythological revelation bequeathed from the supernatural to prophets and sages, people often of didactic empathy and spiritual exception. The apocalypse is not just a religious born sentiment of affected prophetic minds, however. Universally applied, apocalyptic memoranda unearth a manic response to inevitable extinction, individual and collective. Perhaps the fear of death is too personal to be tamed by logic. We are somehow briefly placated by it as we search for life’s conclusions. Some of our favorite entertainment, it often hosts us in our own living rooms, lifts us from the static swells of our routines.
Besides plain accuracy, the essential difference between religious apocalyptic intuitions and scientific urgencies like those relating to climate change is timing. Both are continued by belief harnessed by their predictions, but scientific urgencies made in virtue of measurements are mathematically predictive while religious intuitions are imaginatively predictive. People imagine all sorts of things that take some related shape in time and place. Mount Agung is prone to erupt again. Earth will turn into star stuff unsuitable for human life at some point. If they can live a bit past the fold, people will have predicted it. What’s presses are not so much the predictions but the upshots, which are being ignored. Chronic dangers are often eclipsed by conveniences.
On Climate Change
Seven years after his seminal paper on climate temperature, James Hansen sat before the U.S. Congress to testify that the climate was overall warming on June 23, 1988. Perhaps hung up on the 70s claim that the Earth could enter another ice age, the public met him with a damp response. The World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program nevertheless established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that same year, and Hansen’s data showed strong correlations in the years that followed.
The ‘97% consensus’ that Hansen symbolically leads today unfortunately isn’t processed much further than couched assumptions by the general public. (It’s good that Americans are eating less beef, but greenhouse gas emissions haven’t changed in thirty years.) What matters, again, are the upshots that support the consensus, though few consider or make palpable connections with nature that would afford environmental sensitivity. Still, some leaders are leading; some people are listening and doing things. The consensus has inspired world delegates to face the ‘critical point of no return’. Some scientists like NASA’s principal scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Eric Rignot, are ready to peace past the debate and tackle preventive action now. Others are calling for litigate-to-mitigate campaigns to hold carbon footprints to the fire.
The ignorance, neglect, and antipathy towards nature raises basic questions. Asking whether humans are omnicidal and intend to destroy everything, for example, is the apocalyptic question par excellence, but we’ll let sci-fi entertain that one. Straight questions involve considering what we kill, concomitantly destroy, and overconsume daily, needlessly and inevitably. Many routine-oriented folks may need incentives to realize environmental dispositions, but the youth will absorb it into their fashionable behavior of bohemian sexuality like beards and saisons.
There are more imminent threats than climate change—nuclear weapon technology, a perfect measure of human recklessness, the elimination of which is the “ultimate measure of our worth as a species,” says General Lee Butler. Without regimes, they wouldn’t exist. Regimes and cliques find it harder than individuals to morally adapt and model truth. It’s why Kierkegaard most often said, “the crowd is untruth.”
China’s regime is feeling its oats; it would be an anti-climactic time for fragmentation. It has many hooks in the behavioral spine of its people, besides, subtle and not. There are no republican reasons for China’s social credit system, but if there were, the Republic would purpose sustainable practices. The world’s largest workshop and factory is also the world’s largest scrapyard and landfill with the world’s largest population. As the CNSA gets their ‘civilian space program’ operating, one questions if China’s territory will be further neglected.
The answers are in the centripetal roots. If Americans still relate to the Emersonian spirit of self-reliance, through Taoism and Buddhism the Chinese have a traditional escape from degenerating society: Taoism by withdrawing to nature, Buddhism by forming communes, as Lao Tzu and Buddha respectively and famously did. Without clever methods of noncompliance, however, both peoples will incessantly define themselves by their fight against or acquiescence with the most powerful office, a serpentine effort that centrifugally works away from the free determinations of original development. Have we anything to fear?
Don’t Fear The Reaper
Grossing fourth last year, the horror genre made almost a billion domestic dollars. Some of our favorite stories are fear-driven ones. Fear arrests and entertains us across demographics. Perhaps that’s why the fearless are so intriguing.
Consider mountain climber phenomenon Alex Honnold. His MRI report reveals an unconcerned amygdala compared to other thrill-seekers and neurotypicals. It’s interesting to ask whether he fears death less than most because he free solos El Capitan and Half Dome, but his free soloing and MRI report don’t imply he’s devoid of fear. They’ve only shown he isn’t reactive to circumstances imagined or externally communicated by others; that is, Honnold doesn’t let neuroticism rout conscientiousness.
In Oscar-winning Free Solo, Honnold chronicles the art of the ‘warrior’ so central in Carlos Castaneda’s works. In A Separate Reality, Castaneda says, “A warrior never worries about his fear. Instead, he thinks about the wonders of seeing the flow of energy!” Death is regarded all the time: warriors take it as a witness to their acts so that they become impeccably deliberate and fearless, so that they penetrate a kind of Spinozistic infinity. “Death is the only wise adviser that a warrior has,” Castaneda says in Journey to Ixtlan. Focusing attention on the link between life and death, the warrior “must let each of his acts be his last battle on earth. Only under those conditions will his acts have their rightful power. Otherwise they will be, for as long as he lives, the acts of a fool.”
Channeling these sentiments, Honnold isn’t given to entertaining himself with fears when it comes to climbing. He proactively, move by move, masters his climbing ensembles until, “Every bit of knowledge that becomes power has death as its central force.”
Comparing the attitudes of death and self in Hindus, Westerners, and three Buddhist populations, the “Death and the Self” study (2018) is also revealing. Researchers expected to find that populations which strongly denied the continuity of self would reveal less fear of death and more generosity, but their surveys revealed the opposite.
What the researchers didn’t measure was loving association. The less we identify ourselves with the ego, or the more we love beyond the self, the more we associate with the greater meaning the self has with external things and the interconnectedness of life. (Freud discusses this in Civilization and Its Discontents.) The “Death and the Self” study’s utilitarian questions relating to hypothetically sacrificing one’s time to increase someone else’s have nothing to do with the prima facie decisions and deontological duties the subjects are faced with and daily exercise.
It’s therefore possible that the monastic Tibetan Buddhists, who train to think that self is an illusion, will, facing death, give their lives for the exponential good beyond themselves. In this regard, the study is ethically inconsequential. When one’s vitality is immediately at stake, no calculations, no consequentialist considerations are existentially relevant to him; and frankly, those who would calculate the offering of their time aren’t very sincere about giving it. The fear study could show that monks value their lives more by valuing more things beyond themselves.
True intrepid keepers, samurais were appraised by their willingness to give their lives up at any moment. This was the crucial difference between a samurai and an ordinary soldier. A worthy samurai didn’t offer himself the question between life or death, according to Zen Buddhist samurai philosopher Yamamoto Tsunetomo. “The Way of the Samurai is found in death,” he writes in Hagakure. “When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death.” In a way, samurais epitomize how inaccessible utilitarian calculations involving imminent death realistically are. Agential choice is immediately apparent in a samurai’s decision to kill, but algorithmic programs designed to minimize death from driverless cars, martial drones, and missiles perform utilitarian contingencies that represent the ethics of accountable beings. Replicated digitally, ethics become excised like useless flesh, mechanized like CAFOs and profit-driven war. Death therefore becomes an alien phenomenon when it is the most surefire phenomenon.
As people associate themselves more with digital identities, their fears will become further entangled with what happens in their digital worlds. This reverse transcendence, or digital subservience, pulls them away from themselves and multiplies their fears in the exponent of distant ‘experiences’. Asking whether their fears are genuine or vicarious is beyond general scope. People have the uncanny tendency to fear all sorts of trivial and irrelevant things, while some of the greatest threats are ignored.
Noam Chomsky’s basic question “Will organized human life survive?” points to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, which now stands at 2 minutes before midnight, the closest it’s been since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1953. The stakes are a bit higher today since the development of hydrogen bombs, bombs so large they’re ignited by smaller atomic bombs.
How are omnicidal weapons of mass destruction supported in ‘civilized’ times? Society has gone treacherously far from the warrior’s constructive idea of death, trading it for pomp and frivolous threats. Values and principles haven’t changed, through unwary consumerism and existential neglect, egotism has become a self-obsessive response to inferiority complexes. Apocalyptic reports, imminent and not, just heighten the fears of unsatisfied people evading deep fulfillment.
There are those who accept that telling lies is personally acceptable if they get what they want. The rest of us have to accept that the world is occupied by such people and not exclude them from the central plan: to live the good life. Everyone and everything are constituents. But the farther actions are purposed beyond egocentricity and homocentricity—drawing tighter bonds with nature—the more meaning actions will have for the self and species.
Unfortunately for everything else, the reverse has become the norm. The Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures global biodiversity abundance levels, reports an overall 60% decline in species population from 1974 to 2014. Though global extinction rates vary widely, LPI calculates it at 100 to 1,000 times higher than the ‘background rate’, the extinction rate before the Anthropocene (when humans weren’t the major factor).
To think that humans are immune to environmental destruction is suicidal; to ignore it is a bizarre kind of self-deception with a propeller hat. A symptom of exceptionalism not specific to Westerners, environmental destruction began as an agricultural necessity that peaked in corporate accumulation and waste and is being sordidly settled in an ethological reflux of the existential soul. Holistic consciousness cannot resist the spiritual elevations of responsibility.
There has been enough leeway for the environment to heal by fallow, but by making production operations rather seasonless and unsustainable, corporate networks—and their consumer patrons—have perhaps carved grooves too deep for life to pass through to new sustenance on the other side. Robotic automation, according to Hawking, can carry aspects of our species like intelligence through to humanless times, but it’s hopelessly nihilistic to look forward to that.
Today’s apocalyptic sentiments mirror the respective ethos. In an interview with Foreign Policy, zombie apocalypse writer Max Brooks said, “In the prosperous and stable 1990s, no one wanted zombies. When things are good, no one wants to see the world ending. When things are bad, Americans need a place to put all those apocalyptic anxieties.”
Much of the anxiety is sourced from economic insecurity, though few want to mollify it by ditching corporatocracy, kleptocracy, oligarchy and other corrupted forms of government that have conditioned the minds of common citizenry. It seems the invisible hand has turned against them. Some historians, like Yuval Noah Harari, are known to trace accumulative corruptions to the agricultural revolution, but, though perhaps less interesting, it makes more ethical sense to address agential factors. The breakdown can be clearly seen in the CEO-worker pay gap, which correlates inversely well with economic growth. None of the top fifteen nations where CEO pay-gap is highest make the top fifty-five GDP growth countries. The U.S. ranks 127th. Since China ranks 16th, the blame cannot be cast upon big polity.
Contextually the U.S. democratic-republican system of government fails economically, but Americans should resist adopting faux-populist authoritarian provocations or the kind of dynastic homogeneity that draconian nations employ. The former isn’t genuine enough—honest jurisprudence can’t give way to ideology in republican democracies lest, to use a Sartrean expression, it fold-in upon its reasons. The latter requires a sterilized kind of acquiescence unfit for the eclectic American spirit. Either way, the country would fragment, states would secede.
Many smaller economies have also adopted the mephitic corporate structure of governance and economy, but they, seeing money offshoring, and wishing to catch up to Western freedoms, conveniences, and status, find it counterproductive to wean themselves from natural resources like timber and oceanic foodstuff. At least the U.S. isn’t a hypocrite in this regard by demanding international reductions in environmental degradation; climate denial has been a trend for two decades and is related to the most prodigal aspects of American culture. An idiot who flaunts his idiocy is at least a tenacious idiot, and he may still have at least a narrow point. As George Santayana says in his essay “Americanism,” the Americans’ “own secret philosophy might not have been popular among them, if it had been expressed in brutal materialistic terms.” It has been wrapped quite wondrously in stars and stripes.
The election of Donald Trump tells many stories, but it clearly shows that the majority of Americans would rather be lied to from a non-politician than an established one. The binary system is scarcely democratic, and Trump is just a symptom, but what voters have so far guaranteed in Trump is that they would flutter their future rather than renounce a consumptive culture that dispossesses individualism for egotism and shamelessly discounts the environment. As Chomsky says, “Trump’s only ideology is me.” When political strategists like Roger Stone who’ve built their campaigns with lies and manipulation get politicians elected, it’s awfully clear that democracy has hit the floor, or croaked on the couch.
During the 18th century in Western Europe, we see the dusk of religious modes of thought and the dawn of nationalistic designs. It was religion that gave people the sympathy and imaginative response to overcome the crushing burden of grief and famine, says Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities; nevertheless, new communities were created from the steam of capitalism, print media, and the decline of linguistic diversity. Eventually, the tonic of nationalism outshone the opium of the people. Once people lugged their destinies; now they saddled chance.
But present times could soon uncover another picture. Via the Internet, globalization, cryptocurrency, the threat of nuclear warfare, and a ubiquitous revulsion of regimes—the state and the public are interring the new modern state from all sides. It thus becomes easy to imagine a new citizenry, since, in Anderson’s words, “No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind,” and the human nation has built its history with the stories that band it together. Despite the cyclical contradictions, the 21st century will likely see more people disassociating themselves with their national identities in the globalized world.
Call them witizens, they differ from world citizens in their indifference to establishing one intercontinental system of governance or to abandon their soil of birth. Through their seasoned or well-traveled eyes, they know the multipart political realm is too complex for total acquiescence, and though they may idealize it in the shade of their hearts, they still work to live autonomously above and below the system. True centrists, they seek to establish moral status based on mutual acknowledgement of human rights made fundamental in the ebb and flow of community and self-reliance. Their mantra will be principally Emersonian: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” They will employ their moral compasses over the law: “The only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it.” Ultimately their survival as a group will rest on camouflage, communion, independence, and international engagement.
Witizens might be composed of environmentalists, the ‘intelligentsia’, declared utilitarians, and individualists. They will struggle against a consortium of nationalists, the global oligarchy, pro-kleptocrats, undeclared utilitarians, and conformists to move past the dregs of corporate gimcrackery. The two camps, of course, would differ in how they associate themselves, and the ‘post-truth era’ points to a vacuum of existential characteristics. Whether they stake out a unified declaration or not, they will, and do, exist to some degree.
“We can ill afford to remain such a deadly mystery to ourselves,” says Paul Lawrence in Driven to Lead: Good, Bad, and Misguided Leadership. The public must disentangle honorable leaders from slipshod hacks. There’s a classic way of achieving this. By studying authentic historical leaders, people awaken the authentic leader in themselves, and through the sharpening of their own characters, they wouldn’t hazard electing anyone less than themselves. If they can have meaningful conversations about old leaders with new leaders, they’ll be prepared for the worst and equipped to deflate the chimerical.
Good leaders are important for making utilitarian decisions that affect the political structure, but it is a personal duty, a vital existential requirement of living in Sartrean ‘good faith’, to determine harmonious relationships within the natural environments and consumer-driven centers that we habitually occupy. Making natural connections doesn’t mean circulating Food Inc., demanding organic school lunches, or lobbying the G8. It means taking personal initiative to reduce and eliminate environmental damage. This includes the difficult decision (given a choice) of not bearing children if adults realize they will not be passing sustainable practice and the spirit of symbiosis onto their children.
This involves a certain level of wisdom, perhaps a series of shocking truths, found in relation to nature. “The less men know of nature, the more easily can they coin fictitious ideas,” says Spinoza in Improvement of the Understanding. Such ideas have been factiously designed to wage every war and every false hope in history. “Wisdom is given by nature,” said sculptor Stanislav Szukalski, “so that my species can survive.” But general wisdom is out of vogue today; it fails to entertain the uncultivated of our time, those gauche and detached from natural connections. “We are being destroyed from within,” says Szukalski, lacerations of the conscious self.
The way out of the apocalypse is simple: to live simply and be richly marveled by life. To take an active approach to joyful realization. Though some utilitarian calculations will eventually weigh in favor of biocentrism as a whole, the call of existential duty is always appealing our greater selves, that which connects to nature on the whole. For most this means leaving the cities and burbs for greater outdoors; for others it means becoming more human, more virtuous.
At the outset of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, he says all actions point towards the good. Something we can’t ignore, lost souls can still feel towards right reason, and the goal has always been the same no matter the era. “The chief good is that he should arrive,” says Spinoza, “together with other individuals if possible, at the possession of the aforesaid character…the knowledge of the union existing being the mind and the whole of nature.” The Greeks called this chief good telos. All the great pantheists—Spinoza, Emerson, Einstein—all of them understood it intimately.
Though Emerson’s austere truth, that “Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself,” has never been closer to the human condition, complaisance in consumerism, through manifest juxtaposition, highlights a self-reliant kind of pragmatism not entirely obsolete. Nature and wisdom have always fitted the keenest in the room with natural self-reliance. Will it catch on, or will Nietzsche’s prophecy—that “There will come a time when training will be the only thought”—align too well with the apocalyptic structure? Is apocalypse now? Not for humans, at least. Is apocalypse tomorrow? Perhaps, but fearing it won’t confer us any more control over our fate than we hold right now.