It’s The End of the World As We Know It

As you’ve probably heard, the world is going to end about 48 hours from now. Or the beginning of the end, or something. Or so says Harold Camping, an evangelical broadcaster who has been spending big bucks on newspaper and billboard ads to let us know so we can sort out our sock drawers in time. (I assume the newspapers and outdoor advertisers asked for up-front payment for the ads, just in case.) Camping’s calculations are based on complex arithmetic that sound a lot like Louis Farrakhan’s obsession with the number 19 back in his famous (half) Million Man March in the 1990s. No doubt if the end indeed comes to pass, the Washington Post will report “Women and Minorities Hardest Hit: Reagan Policies Blamed.” Of course, the good Mr. Camping predicted before that Judgment Day was at hand–September 6, 1994. This time he means it, and his math is better now. “It’s going to be a wonderful, wonderful day,” Camping told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter.
This last comment gets at the difference between religious apocalypticism and secular kinds, especially the environmental type. At least the religious versions of the end of the world come with a promise of redemption for man and nature. The secular apocalypse is usually without hope. Yet they share one larger thing in common: the deep, passionate commitment that the end is near. And when the end doesn’t come, instead of relief, there is disappointment. Fundamentalist preachers and environmental prophets-of-doom react the same way every time: they d go back over their math, and offer new predictions for the end. The preachers end up with dwindling congregations and radio audiences; the green prophets get appointed science adviser to the president.
People often ask me why environmentalists tend always to incline to apocalyptic conclusions about the state of the planet. “Because it makes them happy,” is my standard response. This is not tongue-in-cheek. There is something about certain kinds of personality types that derives a frisson of delight from contemplating the end of the world. And if you point out that the end of the world is not at hand, it makes environmentalists very unhappy, in part because it deprives them of the opportunity to play savior to the world.
The folks at have a nice piece up this week discussing this trait, featuring comments from Lorenzo DiTommaso, a Canadian academic working on a book entitled The Architecture of Apocalypticism. From the brief description here, it sounds like DiTommaso’s book will explore the way in which apocalyptic belief perversely reinforces the view some people have that “there is something dreadfully wrong with the world of human existence today.” He could be describing Al Gore, who liked to cloak his global warming worries inside a larger indictment of our “dysfunctional civilization.”
The deep strain of true belief is one reason why environmental arguments are seldom susceptible to factual argument or logical reasoning, and is also why people who hold such beliefs should be kept as far away from political power as possible. At least the preachers just want us to repent. The green prophets want to run our lives; they’ll start with light bulbs and toilets, but it won’t end there.