Apocalypse days are here again

Philosophers are doom-mongering. Film-makers are at it too. Even pop stars are forecasting the end of the world. Forget the season of good will, says Johann Hari, here come the new horsemen of the apocalypse

A funny thing is happening since the millennium: the apocalypse is back. In the mid-1980s, sweaty people across the globe lay awake at nights thinking of a nuclear holocaust. As Reagan denounced his enemy as "an evil empire", popular culture became dominated by visions of destruction. Sting hit the charts with a prayer that "the Russians love their children too", cinemas showed the apocalyptic cartoon
When The Wind Blows, and two of the most controversial TV films of the decade were the USA's
The Day After, about a Hiroshima-style catastrophe in Kansas City, and our own
Threads about a nuke hitting Sheffield. But then, for a decade-and-a-half, radio silence set in. The earth – refracted through the lens of movies, plays and songs – became safe again. Droughts, floods and AIDS ravaged much of the developing world, but the destruction of humanity disappeared from the Western popular imagination.

A funny thing is happening since the millennium: the apocalypse is back. In the mid-1980s, sweaty people across the globe lay awake at nights thinking of a nuclear holocaust. As Reagan denounced his enemy as "an evil empire", popular culture became dominated by visions of destruction. Sting hit the charts with a prayer that "the Russians love their children too", cinemas showed the apocalyptic cartoon When The Wind Blows, and two of the most controversial TV films of the decade were the USA's The Day After, about a Hiroshima-style catastrophe in Kansas City, and our own Threads about a nuke hitting Sheffield. But then, for a decade-and-a-half, radio silence set in. The earth – refracted through the lens of movies, plays and songs – became safe again. Droughts, floods and AIDS ravaged much of the developing world, but the destruction of humanity disappeared from the Western popular imagination.

And then, and then... This year's surprise hit at the cinemas, 28 Days Later shows a Britain – and, it seems for much of the film, a world – destroyed by an apocalyptic disease. The wildly popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends each season with a narrowly averted apocalypse. In one episode, Buffy asks her mentor Giles, "How many apocalypses is this now?" "Oh, six at least," he replies. The best-selling fiction of Michel Houllebecq and Chuck Palahniuk is haunted by Revelation-style visions of mass destruction. One of the most popular US bands, Slipknot, has whole stadia screeching along to numbers which evoke the apocalypse. This list could go on. The lazy explanation for the recent sudden recurrence of these visions is 9/11. The Daily Mail headline on 12 September 2001, after all, was simply "Apocalypse". To be sure, the West was suddenly revealed that day to be vulnerable to attacks which seemed random and designed to cause as many deaths as possible. Tony Blair asserted – almost certainly correctly – that if Al Qaeda could have nuked, smallpoxed or poison-gassed Manhattan, they would have. But, curiously, most of the current apocalypse narratives were written or in production before the attack on America, and indeed the trend towards art-works about the ultimate disaster story was already underway. The under-rated Spielberg movie AI, for example, was withdrawn from circulation in US cinemas on the day of the tragedy, not least because it features, in a horrible irony, a post-apocalyptic New York City in which the only surviving human artefact is the World Trade Centre.

So what has caused this new wave of nightmares? Perhaps the answer lies not in a geo-political event but in a more nebulous philosophical trend. The new wave of end-of-the-world scenarios is markedly different to the 1980s variety, because there is now an attitude towards the end which is at best ambiguous and at worst openly welcomes mass destruction. The satirist-songwriter Tom Lehrer wrote a number in the 1960s looking on the positive side of a nuclear exchange. It was called "We Will All Go Together When We Go." We are humming his tune again, but this time without the irony. In the striking arthouse hit Donnie Darko currently playing in UK cinemas, the eponymous central character says of his apocalyptic visions, "When the world comes to an end, I can only breathe a sigh of relief." The Tears for Fears song played later in the movie says, "The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had." A significant chunk of Westerners are afflicted by this new, trendy nihilism which sees the death of humanity as a blessed relief.

French novelist Michel Houllebecq is the most extreme example. His break-through second novel Atomised argued that the only solution to humanity's unbearably bleak existence is the total extinction of human life, or, as he coldly puts it, our "metaphysical mutation" into total nothingness. His novel Platform, published earlier this year, extends this philosophy.

His narrator says at one point, "faced with danger, even death, I feel nothing in particular." He later says he is "unworthy of life." Later still, as a character lies dying, he is described as seeming "very happy" – and it is no wonder, given that he exists in a world where human connection other than vaginal penetration is impossible, where death comes randomly, meaninglessly and without remark, and where there is no hope, ever, of things getting better. Death and destruction are to be welcomed as, at least, a distraction from the utter misery of life.

Those who resist death have, a central character argues, simply "become attached to a delusive existence." One of his characters, Valerie, says, "I'm trapped in a system from which I get so little, which I know is futile; but I don't know how to get out." When the narrator sees "immense flocks of starlings formed over Gentilly in the late afternoon," he is "quite tempted to ascribe meaning to them, to interpret them as the heralds of an apocalypse." This offers, at least and at last, a way out.

There are even more respectable and unabashedly highbrow sources of apocalyptic nihilism than this, however. No less an authority than John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, has written the Nihilist Manifesto (and shown that such a thing is not a contradiction in terms) in his extraordinary new work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. Gray is undeniably a force to be reckoned with. He is the most lucid and compelling writer about political theory since Isaiah Berlin, and he was understandably hailed by Will Self as "the most important living philosopher". The book opens with a quote from Jaques Monod, one of the founders of molecular biology: "All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency." Gray not only seeks to give up that effort; he seeks to question whether we should bother – indeed, whether we can for much longer – carry on.

Gray declares that all the Enlightenment values on which our world is built are utterly bankrupt. The greatest Enlightenment delusion was the ideas that we humans could collectively determine our own fate; that we could shape our world and our destiny as we wished.

We cling to "an irrational faith in human progress" as "the only antidote to nihilism". Gray seeks to strip us of that faith and leave us waiting for the apocalypse. He asks, "Once we switch off the soundtrack – the babble of God and immortality, progress and humanity – what sense can we make of our lives?" He then spends over 100 pages giving us the answer: none.

It is but a small step from here to welcoming the death of humanity, and Gray teeters close. He approvingly quotes James Lovelock, the environmentalist thinker, who says that Gaia (the earth and all the species which live on it) "is suffering from ... a plague of people." A species of "exceptionally rapacious primate" – us – is destroying the globe.

This "homo rapiens" has become too numerous, and the looming global population of eight billion people "can only be maintained by desolating the earth." The movie Starship Troopers depicts a species of beetle-monsters who go from planet to planet, exhausting all the natural resources and killing all indigenous life before moving onto their next victim. For Gray, this is precisely the effect we are having on planet Earth, except we don't have the ability to skip over to Mars – so he quite calmly predicts a natural mass culling of humanity as Gaia moves to defend itself. Within 100 years, he predicts, the human population will fall to between 0.5 and one billion people, an apocalypse which will wipe out 7-7.5 billion lives. He sees this as not only inevitable but actually a desirable situation. It's the end of the world as we know it, and he feels fine.

This body of thought is tempting, intoxicating – but terrifyingly dangerous. The last time the apocalypse dominated popular imagination, there was not a constituency willing it on. This nihilism infects a wider political agenda too. Gray and Houllebecq have made a foolish leap from acknowledging that there are no longer any absolute values of good or bad – an assessment which I share – to concluding that, therefore, there is no better or worse. They have become profoundly reactionary political forces who dedicate most of their energies to sneering at any progressive movement which tries to tackle human suffering. Houllebecq constantly denounces the legacy of 1968, France's last great burst of progressivism.

He longs for a pre-feminist stereotype of pathetic, submissive women, and he derides any notion of guaranteeing human rights as part of a misguided Enlightenment heritage. One of his characters says, "Humanitarians disgust me, the fate of others is generally a matter of indifference to me, nor have I any memory of ever having felt any sense of solidarity with other human beings." It serves as an accurate summary of the philosophy of the new horsemen of the apocalypse.

News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the iWatch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
News
Astronauts could be kept asleep for days or even weeks
scienceScientists are looking for a way to keep astronauts in a sleeplike state for days or weeks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own