imes Square and Hollywood Boulevard, cleaned up in recent years, remain icons of depravity, modern Sodom and Gomorrahs full of drugs, prostitution, and pornography, which is why last spring they were among the places one was most likely to come across the billboards set up by ninety-year-old Family Radio personality, retired civil engineer, and end time prophet Harold Camping, announcing, Judgment Day: May 21, 2011… Cry mightily unto God. In 1958, he helped start Family Radio in San Francisco, and since 1961 he has hosted a daily call-in show, Open Forum, on which he answers questions about the Bible. By the time he had Judgment Day: May 21 plastered across the United States, in English and Spanish, Family Radio owned almost 150 radio stations and affiliates and was wealthy enough to invest millions of dollars into disseminating bad news.
Camping cobbled together his idiosyncratic eschatology from his own Biblical calendar, initially published in 1970 as The Biblical Calendar of History . According to him, the world was created in 11,013 BC; the Flood took place in 4,990 BC; and Christ was crucified on Friday, April 1, AD 33. In his most recent works, We Are Almost There! and To God Be the Glory! , he writes that the Rapture would take place on May 21, 2011, immediately transporting the righteous — approximately 3 percent or just over 200 million of the world’s nearly seven billion inhabitants — to heaven. The remainder would be completely annihilated, along with the earth itself, on October 21. When May 21 rolled around, Camping, a twiggish, rail-thin figure with long grey sideburns who looks like an old-time country preacher, retreated to his suburban home in Alameda, California. Meanwhile, clutches of his followers gathered at the Family Radio compound, waiting for the ultimate moment. When the Rapture did not occur and the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that would torment the earth for five months before its final destruction did not begin, he acknowledged in his folksy way that he was “flabbergasted,” suggesting that an “invisible judgment” had taken place, and anyway the real event was not until October.
While Camping may appear to be a nutty codger embarrassed by the ill-advised precision of his predictions (in June, he suffered a stroke and is still recovering at home, and his talk show has been cancelled), he has plenty of company, especially in the United States. In the nineteenth century, William Miller, an American Baptist preacher from upstate New York, predicted that Jesus Christ would return and the world would end on October 22, 1844. Like Camping, Miller arrived at his prophecy via an ad hoc mix of passages from the Hebrew prophets and a juggling of the Roman and Jewish calendars, but when the date finally arrived — thousands of his followers having sold all their possessions and gathered in fields, eyes turned to the heavens, to await the Rapture — nothing happened. After what has come to be called “the great disappointment,” excuses were made, calculations adjusted, new dates proposed.
Yet the disenchantment that follows unfulfilled predictions of the kind made by Miller, Camping, and others has by no means diminished the public appetite for the Apocalypse. New Age adherents of the 2012 prophecy, which has created an Internet frenzy and a small publishing industry, believe the end of the ancient Mayan calendar, on December 21, 2012, will coincide with the end of the world. Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), along with Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind series, which has sold more than 35 million books, eagerly anticipate the imminent conveyance of believers to heaven, and Armageddon for everyone else. Why all the doom? Why the persistent predictions of volcanic eruptions, mega-earthquakes, tidal waves, new ice ages, the obliteration of life as we know it, and even the annihilation of the earth itself?
nyone who grew up in Europe or North America (and many who didn’t), whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu, or nothing at all, has in some way been shaped by the texts that comprise the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. If you’re North American, the version that secretly haunts you is most likely the translation commissioned by King James and published some 400 years ago. It’s what formed our literature, our philosophy, and even our science; it is literally in the air we breathe. It’s what created William Miller, Harold Camping, and the New Agers who prophesy that the world will end at the winter solstice in 2012. “Fear, and the pit, and the snare, are upon thee, O inhabitant of the Earth,” the prophet Isaiah intones… “The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall, and not rise again.” The text of the Revelation of St. John the Divine is even more vivid and emphatic: “And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth,” proclaims the great seer of Patmos. “And the first went, and poured out his vial upon the earth; and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men, which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image.” The passage continues, “And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead Man: and every living soul died in the sea.” For Isaiah and St. John, the wrath visited upon the world by God, the earthquakes and seas filled with blood, is a response to human failure and vice, but despite all the destruction and carnage there remains at least the possibility of redemption.
The ever-expanding cadre of bestselling science, strategic, political, and business writers who make a living prophesying the less-than-happy human future would not ally themselves with literal readings of Isaiah or the Revelation of St. John, much less with eccentrics like Harold Camping, but the stories they propose seem remarkably similar. Although they appear secular, they are Biblical tales of the pillaging of the earth by human greed and vice and the inevitable reckoning. Redemption will come, if it does, through contrition, humility, and moral soundness.
The last time there was this much anxiety about the end of the world was after the Second World War and the advent of the atomic age. When The New Yorker devoted its entire August 31, 1946, issue to John Hersey’s groundbreaking article “Hiroshima,” an intimate account of six survivors’ lives before and after the bombing a year earlier, it was the first time most people in the English-speaking world had become aware in a visceral way of the A-bomb’s destructive power. The harrowing scenes Hersey describes are, even now, sixty-five years later, impossible to get out of one’s head: the silent, blinding flash and then the literal erasure of the city; the soldiers with their melted eyes running down their cheeks wandering through the rubble. By the 1950s, it became clear that human beings had developed a technology capable of instantly destroying all life on earth. Countless novels, stories, and films that imagined nuclear apocalypse followed, and countless reinforced concrete bomb shelters were dug in the backyards of suburban homes.
he source of the anxiety is now different, if only because it isn’t focused on a single threat to the future of human life that might be defused by disarmament treaties. Our problems are vaguer and more systematic, not so much a matter of policy as of how we live, and seem to come from every direction at once.
Early in his 2007 book, The World Without Us , Alan Weisman writes, “A generation ago, humans eluded nuclear annihilation; with luck, we’ll continue to dodge that and other mass terrors. But now we often find ourselves asking whether inadvertently we’ve poisoned or parboiled the planet, ourselves included. We’ve also used and abused water and soil so that there’s a lot less of each, and trampled thousands of species that probably aren’t coming back. Our world, some respected voices warn, could one day degenerate into something resembling a vacant lot, where crows and rats scuttle among weeds, preying on each other.” Weisman’s book seeks to imagine what the world was like before human beings evolved into the tool-wielding, city-building creatures that so monumentally sullied it, and what it would gradually become were we to disappear suddenly, leaving behind skyscrapers and oil refineries and highways. Weisman is a romantic, in awe of the natural world’s primordial sublimity, and while describing the last remnants of Europe’s primeval forest he reconstructs the ways in which nature will ultimately reclaim, weed by weed, tree by tree, rodent by rodent, the planet we have destroyed. He does not, however, long for human extinction. “The vision of a world relieved of our burden, with its flora and fauna blossoming wildly and wonderfully in every direction, is initially seductive,” he writes. “Yet it’s quickly followed by a stab of bereavement over the loss of all the wonder that humans have wrought amid our harm and excess.” For Weisman, the only likely solution is a “re-equilibrated ecosystem,” which would require, among other things, a dramatically smaller and less intrusive human population.
With Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (1997), Jared Diamond introduced the idea that if you want to understand the evolution and progress of civilizations, you need to examine the specifics of their resources and ecology rather than their philosophy and theology. In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2006), he used this methodology to explore why cultures from the Romans to the Pascuans went into decline. He remains disinclined to make wild predictions about the future of our society, though he clearly means the case studies in Collapse to make a more general point that applies to us as well. Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon, on the other hand, does not hesitate to gaze broadly into the future. In The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (2008), he takes Diamond’s ecological perspective and narrowly focuses it on energy consumption, showing that at least one factor that brought down the Roman Empire was the sheer energy required to maintain it. He goes on to argue that the effects of climate change and environmental degradation on our fossil fuel–dependent, globalized world will be disastrous. For Homer-Dixon, the only way to avert social chaos and mass famine is to build greater resilience into our systems, which will inevitably mean living on a smaller scale.
Lawrence E. Joseph, who has written on science and religion for the New York Times , takes the Mayan prophecy more seriously than most of his peers do. In Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation into Civilization’s End (2007) and its sequel, Aftermath: A Guide to Preparing For and Surviving Apocalypse 2012 (2010), he suggests that what the Mayans identified was a point of convergence between multiple catastrophes, including climate change and solar flares, that will destroy our critical infrastructure. Unlike Homer-Dixon, he does not suggest strategies for averting the Apocalypse, in part because there is nothing we can do about solar flares. In addition to securing reliable food, water, and shelter, and perhaps purchasing a satellite phone (the solar flares will knock out cell networks, but I’m unsure how they will affect the specially designed Apocalypse? and Aftermath iPhone and iPad apps), he recommends that we “pray, meditate, channel past lives, implore extraterrestrial intelligences, propitiate ancestors, make burnt offerings. Unless you are into void and oblivion, do anything and everything to prepare yourself for a happy transition to whatever dimension of existence might come next.”