Humans have often feared that the apocalypse is nigh. So why does
it feel like things are worse now than they’ve ever been? And
what, if anything, can we do about it?
Posted on June 25, 2017, 21:16 GMT
It’s hard not to consider the following events and
think, with horror, that they’re a sure sign that it’s
humanity’s third act: The United States has entered a period
of surprising isolation. Racial tensions and violence are at
an all-time high, and the president will neither comment on
it nor condemn it. The general public is concerned about the
ties between the US and Russia. The government has begun an
attack on suspected radicals and immigrants; consequently,
civil liberties are threatened. The president himself,
reflecting the national mood of worry and panic, has admitted
in private, “The world is on fire.”
2017 sure is crazy, amirite? Except none of that happened in
2017. It happened nearly 100 years ago, in 1919, shortly
after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, as Cameron
McWhirter described in Red Summer: The Summer
of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America.
Clearly, feeling like we’re speeding toward the end of the
world is a familiar place for us — aside from 1919 (which
also included widespread labor strikes and bombs sent to
members of US Congress), countless other bad years have
wreaked havoc on personal psyches and public systems. So, why
does it feel like things are worse now than they’ve ever
been? Are we actually in the worst of times? If we
are, what can we do about it? And if we aren’t, what does
that even mean?
I wanted to find out. So I tracked down some experts who
could say whether or not the end is nigh, and give some
context to this circus of chaos we’re living in.
I don’t have to tell you all of the things that are
adding fuel to our current trash fire of a planet; chances
are, you already know them too well. And they’re impossible
to ignore. So, first things first: Is this as bad as it gets?
Are we totally, completely screwed?
In short, no. “Americans live in one of the safest places and
safest periods in human history,” Barry Glassner, professor
of sociology at Lewis and Clark College and author of The
Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong
Things told me. “People are living longer, they’re
healthier, and they’re safer in general.”
Of course, “in general” is the operative phrase here.
Glassner, a straight white man, employs a privileged
viewpoint that brushes the daily struggles and fears of
minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community, and anyone living
in poverty so far under the rug that there’s a towering lump
in the middle. But even with everything that comprises our
dark reality, most individuals should feel relatively
“If you take any kind of historical view from 20, 30, or 50
years ago, we’re a heck of a lot less likely to die right
now,” Peter Stearns, professor of history at George Mason
University and author of American Fear: The Causes and
Consequences of High Anxiety, told me. “Although there
have been some hiccups in the past few years, and it’s
troubling, life expectancy has steadily gone up in the past
century. Not only that, but crime rates have gone massively
down since the ‘80s.”
Even knowing all of this, it’s difficult not to romanticize
the past. We, the people, fucking love nostalgia. Baby
boomers think millennials are ruining everything, millennials
are obsessed with memes about how awesome the ‘80s and ‘90s
were, and we recently elected a president whose campaign
slogan basically said, “Things suck now, so we should just go
back to the way we were.”
We, the people, fucking love nostalgia.
Just like we have a tendency to whitewash the past, we also
romanticize how people responded to bad shit. Unlike today’s
special snowflakes, they kept calm and carried on.
They walked 10 miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways,
during wars, while also being subjected to horrible racism
and sexism. I often try to calm myself down by thinking that
if they got through it, we’ll get through it too, right? But
that outlook ignores the fact that a lot of people died. A
lot of people didn’t get through it. Sure, humanity
technically carried on, but when more than 60 million
people died during World War II, it feels wrong to say they
“got through it.” This also conveniently glosses over just
how scared and anxious everyone was as earth-shaking events
Disaster and ensuing doomsday fears have been around
for basically as long as there have been humans, and they’ve
never been easy to deal with. In 1348, a truly shit year, the
Black Death unleashed a living hell on much of the Eastern
Hemisphere. People started dropping like flies and “a sense of impending
apocalypse” followed as roads became filled with dead
bodies. A Franciscan monk notably left space blank in his
diary “for continuing [my] work, in case anyone should still
be alive in the future.” The bubonic plague was as mysterious
as it was deadly; it’s estimated that it wiped out 30–60% of
Europe’s population. We know now how it spread and
that it wouldn’t last forever, but as it was happening,
people were convinced it was a sign that God was angry and
wanted them wiped off the planet.
Three hundred years later, 1666, a year in England that puts
2016 to shame, came ’round, armed with a whammy of plague,
the Great Fire of London, and a war with the Dutch. Much like
2012, it was predicted to be a doozy far in advance.
Religious scholars and astrologers dubbed it “the year of the
beast,” and many god-fearing folks saw “unmistakable” signs
that doomsday was just around the corner. Townspeople like
diarist Samuel Pepys bought magic number journals that
“explained” why 1666 was truly the end of the world as they
knew it. In the end, did the Antichrist descend upon the
planet, as predicted? No. Was it still an awful year? Yes.
But predicting the apocalypse was practically a cottage
industry; it was an inescapable part of life, even if the
predictions never came true.
Fototeca Storica Nazionale / Contributor / Getty
Doomsday predictions have a habit of popping up when politics
and/or technology move too quickly and unpredictably, Evan
Osnos writes in The New Yorker. Case in
point: In 1893, as the Chicago World’s Fair introduced
wonders like the lightbulb, other people protested low wages
and big corporations. Protesters were reacting to “a sense
that the political system had spun out of control, and was no
longer able to deal with society,” Richard White, a historian
at Stanford University, told Osnos. “There was a feeling that
America’s advance had stopped, and the whole thing was going
to break.” It was no coincidence that along with the
demonstrations came some of the earliest modern
Flash forward another 300 years from 1666 to the late 1940s,
and a new harbinger of the apocalypse had arrived: the
nuclear bomb. It was deployed to ensure Japan’s total
surrender, but the subsequent Pyrrhic victory left people
more terrified than happy. The civilians and soldiers
celebrating V-J Day in the
streets were tinged by an invisible existential dread,
Paul Boyer writes in By the Bomb’s Early
Light. The war may have been over, but the world was
arguably worse off. John Hersey’s wildly popular “Hiroshima”
essay, published in The New Yorker one year after the bombs
dropped, was a raw, unembellished account of what happened to
“regular” people — a young secretary, a widowed seamstress, a
Jesuit missionary, and more — during and after the bombings.
In printing the essay, the magazine heightened everyone’s
awareness and emotions, and made it all feel like a
distinctly human tragedy — and that made it even scarier.
swim ink 2 llc / Contributor / Getty
A culture of panic, later termed the “Great Fear,” blossomed,
and in the 1960s, it hit fever pitch after fever pitch. There
was John F. Kennedy publicly telling all “prudent families”
to have a bomb shelter. There was the Cuban missile crisis in
1962, arguably the closest the Cold War ever came to
devolving into a full-scale war. At the time, Stearns was
just beginning his teaching career. “My students all thought
they were going to die. They would all come into class
panicked it would be their last day on earth, and to be
honest, and it wasn’t unrealistic to think that way.”
The nuclear fears of the ‘60s were joined by other horrifying
events: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and
Robert F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive, and
bloody riots at the Democratic National Convention all
happened in 1968 alone. “By Dec. 31, I was literally too
pessimistic to say ‘Happy New Year,’” author Susan Strasser
wrote in Slate.
So, why does it feel like everything is so
unequivocally awful right this very second? Well, there two
big reasons: First, we’re basically hamsters in a wheel of
news (and reactions to that news) that never stops spinning.
Social media has intimately acquainted us with parts of the
world that felt unfathomably distant centuries and even
decades ago. And, look, being more aware of global issues and
problems certainly has its benefits — that is, if the
reaction is to reach out and help, not to freak the fuck out.
But thanks to the instant “why this is so terrible” analysis
that defines how we digest news now, everything feels
like it’s in our backyard.
This kind of candid, open panic is something of a
trend. “Currently, fear has become in some ways slightly
fashionable, so maybe people are even exaggerating a little
bit,” Stearns said. But behind the Twitter jokes are a lot
of people who are truly terrified of — or at least anxious
about — the world around them. Gun ownership is on the
rise, emergency shelters and bunkers are popping up across
the United States, and more than 3.7 million people in
the US identify as survivalists. All of this stems largely
from an eroding sense of
American invincibility, thanks to 9/11, devastating natural
disasters, and the 2008 economic collapse.
Gary Leonard / Contributor / Getty Images
So, ok. We’re more exposed to bad things. But the other
important factor at work, Glassner said, is that we are
literally being told to be scared. It’s being weaved into our
discourse and DNA at a rate more rapid than any time in the
past 10 years or so. Fear, as every presidential ad campaign
from Lyndon B. Johnson to Donald Trump has shown us, sells.
Take Johnson’s “Daisy” campaign
ad in 1964, which showed a little girl picking flowers
getting obliterated by a nuclear bomb as a way of telling the
electorate not to vote for Barry Goldwater. Not only did it
get more people to the voting booth, but it also got LBJ
elected. And so politicians started using this tactic more
Glassner conducted research into campaign ads and platforms
from the ‘80s through the 2016 election, and found that
fearmongering was ever-present, and that it won campaigns
more often than not. Ronald Reagan warned of the problems of
“big government” and said he’d make America great
again. Just last year, we were told, in vivid detail, of
all the bad hombres, immigrants, and others who wanted to do
our country harm.
The things people are afraid of have shifted over time, but
there’s always something.
That’s not to say that only Republican politicians practice
fearmongering, Glassner clarified. He said that Bill Clinton
was one of the most fearmongering presidents we’ve had in
decades. “He cited youth crime rates as one of the biggest
problems our country was facing, even though we were at a
time when the youth crime rate was going down,” Glassner
said. “He said, ‘The country is going to be living with
chaos.’” And Trump wasn’t the only 2016 candidate who sold
fear, either — part of Hillary Clinton’s platform rested on
telling voters to be scared of Trump.
The only president who did relatively little fearmongering in
the past 30 years, Glassner said, was Barack Obama. But just
because Obama wasn’t actively stoking personal fears doesn’t
mean people weren’t scared, or that other public figures
weren’t filling the fearmongering void. After all, how did
Obama critics react to his relatively optimistic campaign? By
purchasing copious amounts of
Evening Standard / Getty Images
There is a lot of danger out there — Glassner said
that auto accidents are what actually scare him — but, he
continued, “If you want to do something constructive, being
afraid is a big waste of your time and it makes you
vulnerable to people and organizations with quick fixes and
Since the ‘80s, Glassner said, “there have been very high
fear levels in the US continuously.” The things people are
afraid of have shifted over that time — from the Cold War to
computers to youth violence to teen pregnancy to school
shootings to terrorism — but there’s always something.
Meanwhile, as the years wore on, our collective faith in the
government or any of the powers that be to save us if things
are going to shit has practically vanished. “There’s been a
measurable decline of trust in the government, social
institutions, and groups since the ‘60s,” Stearns said. “Back
when the US entered World War II after Pearl Harbor, there
were fears about safety, but there was a widespread belief
that government was up to the task of responding.” These
days? Not so much, a result of trust-shattering events like
the Vietnam War and Watergate.
Frederic Lewis / Getty Images
A housewife model smiles while posing with a display of
bomb shelter supplies during the Cold War.
That lack of faith is why we find ourselves wanting to take
matters into our own hands. It’s why we’re building shelters,
why we bought guns and duct tape after 9/11. “Not long after
the Twin Towers fell, pop-ups around the city started selling
gas masks, in addition to ladders, parachutes to people who
thought they’d need a quick way to escape a burning
skyscraper,” Irwin Redlener, a disaster-preparedness expert,
told me. Thankfully, almost no one who bought those has
needed to use them.
It’s also why every time we hear something horrible on the
news, we hunker down and prepare for the worst. And it’s why,
when election days comes, many people vote for reactionary
politicians who play off those fears. They tell us to be
scared, and when disaster strikes, the cycle continues.
Over the years, there have been times of relative
calm. The early ‘90s, Stearns said, are a good example: The
Cold War ended, crime rates were dropping, the Doomsday Clock
was the furthest it’s ever been from midnight. Periods like
that, though, have an adverse effect of making us think
things are too good, that they can only get worse.
That’s part of the reason we get paranoid even when
statistics say we shouldn’t be worried at all. To all this,
Stearns said, “To the extent that part of our worries involve
worries about death, we should cool it.”
You hear that, sheeple? Even as the Doomsday Clock races
toward midnight, we should stay cool, just like the planet —
Even if I can accept the fact that crime rates are low and
the likelihood of drowning in my own
bathtub is much higher than being the victim of a terror
attack, climate change feels like the ultimate “No, but
seriously, we’re all gonna die” checkmate. How can anyone
deny the clear and present danger global warming is causing
the planet and, as a result, us?
Spoiler: You can’t. Climate change is real, Glassner reminded
me, as if I didn’t know. But instead of focusing on the fact
that our planet is dying and we all are, too, he said, “We
need to take personal actions, such as cutting down on our
individual contributions to carbon emissions, and more
importantly, support public efforts that are based on careful
science. That means putting aside our prejudices about what
can work and refusing the temptation to endorse simple
So, when everyone is freaking the fuck out, how can we get
them to chill?
Well, first, we can’t. There will always be people who
surrender to the fears being sold to them, and there will
always be people who actively make the world a worse place
and even bet on it ending in a glorious burst of flames.
Putting that aside, there are a few ways to have a modicum of
agency and even peace of mind, Stearns said.
In addition to studying history, we should focus on areas
where there have been — and will continue to be — progress.
While there is a glaring amount of work still to be done,
we’ve come a long way, and we can continue to build on that
That leads to Stearns’ next point: We all need to get more
involved. If you’re spending all your time on prepper boards
and stockpiling machetes but you haven’t gone to a City
Council meeting, called your senator, or knocked on doors
during an election, that’s…a problem. Stearns advocated for
joining grassroots organizations that work on local issues.
“Address clearly defined local problems, get people together
who aren’t in same political party or race, but acknowledge
we’ve got a problem,” he said. Things don’t get better on
their own; they get better when individual people get off
their asses and march and volunteer or even run for office. And
getting organized at the local level solves a bigger issue:
that we’re largely isolated as a population.
Things don’t get better on their own; they get better when
individual people get off their asses.
“We used to be a nation that joined things on a volunteer
basis, which helped us feel closer to people and the
solutions to problems,” he said. “We need to artificially
reinvent that, the way Robert Putnam suggests in Bowling Alone.”
That means rebuilding social capital and trust by joining
local organizations like League of Women Voters or the PTA.
Higher civic engagement like this has historically correlated
with higher voter turnout — and that is a surefire way
of feeling better about the world and who’s in charge.
Putnam was really onto something there, even if he was
writing a distant-feeling 16 years ago. If you’re not going
out and connecting with people, connecting with a cause, then
yeah, you’re going to lose faith in institutions — and the
world — pretty quickly. Being isolated creates perfect
conditions for building partisan echo
chambers and it makes all of the unpredictable tragedies
pile up and become so overwhelming that you’re staring into
And what’s at the bottom of it? Who’s to say? There are
dozens of ways experts have predicted the world could
end, from a killer asteroid to a
robot takeover. But
even the smartest, most creative experts are only guessing.
Our biggest threat may not even exist yet. Either way, as
history has taught us, whatever brings about the apocalypse
(or something resembling it) is probably not the thing you
think it’s going to be — it’s going to be the thing you never
saw coming. And if we don’t know what it’s going to be (or if
it will happen at all), why not just try to help
things get a little better, instead of cowering in fear?
Things are fine until they are not, and then they are
terrible until they are not.
Ultimately, there’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen
— if the world will end in a bang, a whimper, or not at all.
That’s what makes doomsday prophecies so appealing, what
keeps certain industries in business, and what keeps me up at
night. But the thing about disaster — actual, real, holy
fucking shit this is bad disaster — is that it’s so
rarely the thing you’ve spent months or years ruminating on.
Widespread panic about disease didn’t precede the Black Death
in the 1340s. In August 2001, you were likely to be more
afraid of a shark attack than of
a terrorist hijacking a plane and crashing it into a
building. But even if the catastrophe is the thing you
most feared, well… people who have had their actual worst
nightmares come true can tell you that none of the anxiety or
rumination really prepared them for that kind of trauma. You
may never be able to turn off that fear, so the best thing
you can do is to do the most that you can do: Change what you
can, take care of one another, and know that your fear is not
unusual. Things are fine until they are not, and then they
are terrible until they are not.
So our choices: Be scared of nothing, be scared of
everything, or be smart and take the sort of action that has,
historically, actually been pretty effective, even if it’s
not as sexy as stockpiling weapons or as easy as posting an
angry Facebook status. I don’t know about you, but I’ve tried
being scared of everything, and it doesn’t get you anywhere.
I’m certainly never going to be scared of nothing, so that
only leaves me with one option. And unless you’ve got any
better ideas, I’d love for you to join me.
This week, we’ve been
talking about preparing for and surviving the worst things
imaginable. See more Disaster Week posts here.