Dancing Into the Apocalypse

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“The street prophet with the fateful warning is undeniably right: the end is near. I will die. Meanwhile, there is work to do, there are people who need help, tastes to savor. I hope that I may live ethically each moment until my personal apocalypse.”—William A. Balk, Jr.

Epicurus’ Porch

By William A. Balk, Jr.

Repent!

Repent!

William A. Balk, Jr.

ELKO South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—9/5/2016—REPENT, YE SINNERS, FOR THE END IS NIGH!

Well, I’m not one to refute the urgency of the sign’s warning, at least that part about “the end.” I’m not convinced by the biblical street prophet’s apocalyptic vision, but the scientists have now joined the theological eschatologists, and increasingly it appears there are only a few more decades left before cataclysmic forces bring about the next great extinction. Among the vast number of species whose end is nigh, they conclude, is our own.

Since before the biblical Book of Daniel was committed to papyrus, the traditional prophets of impending doom have regarded their warning cries and the coming of the end times in one of two ways. “Here’s a chance for the world to right its ways before the calamity comes.”

Or, perhaps, instead, “This is a call to join in triumph all those who have lived righteously, assuring their eternal reward over all the others who are to be annihilated or condemned to unspeakable misery.”

Despite differences over precisely who the Messiah is and just when he will return to complete the final conflagration, the three Abrahamic religious traditions seem in general to conform in understanding the apocalypse as a final sorting out of the good guys from the bad ones, an end to existence as it has been lived, and a new beginning for the select.

It’s not too different with other faiths. Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists all comprehend how the universe works, with concepts of destruction and renewal, death and rebirth, central to their understanding.

Final cataclysm is not specifically a religious tenet, however, nor only a theological one. We see the scientific method produce data which point to a catastrophic event which may prove as final as any prophesied for Armageddon.

Such natural forces as cycles in weather patterns and volcanic activity, solar flares and wayward comets, play a part in these calculations. It is human activity, however, which gets most of the blame for having precipitated the feed-back loop of environmental damage, fossil fuel burning, melting ice caps, rising seas, more powerful storms, extremes of drought and flooding, crop destruction, and extinction of species.

It is, frankly, too big for my little brain to fathom. Great thinkers are busy thinking right now, garnering evidence, collating studies, observing phenomena. They’re publishing detailed results of their work, which are widely read and intensely discussed. There may not be placards held aloft by scientists on street corners proclaiming the end of the human era, but the end times preachers are out there, nevertheless.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists are finding a growing clientele among people trying to cope with Doomsday stress. Whereas oil reserves once were furiously fought over, water resources are now being removed from public access and controlled by the large corporations. Money lenders are finding innovative ways to reap fortunes from the world’s misfortune.

Writers, especially those who specialize in milking the zeitgeist, find a ready market for quick pieces on discrete phenomena hinting at signs of doom.

I’m afraid I am just too simpleminded to engage meaningfully those doomsayers; my resources of energy are close to depletion with the consuming tasks of daily life. I’m certainly not blind to the damage wrought by our kind, nor to the radical changes to come in our weather, food, energy, and diseases, but my ability to cope seems limited to those contending forces within arms’ reach.

The larger questions—global climate change, extinction of species, the dying out of Homo sapiens—these eschatological issues are not ones I can affect. They are, however, essentially the issues I face—we each face—as we go about our lives under changing circumstances.

The street prophet with the fateful warning is undeniably right: the end is near. I will die. Meanwhile, there is work to do, there are people who need help, tastes to savor. I hope that I may live ethically each moment until my personal apocalypse.

 Sign of the times.

Sign of the times.

It is ultimately the human question, first asked when humankind initially became self-aware: What can it mean that even I will die, just as every other human being has either done or will do?

My friend Lois, who was brought up a firm Catholic, and who was just as firm a non-believer as long as I knew her, spent the last six months of her life profoundly mystified by, even consumed with trying to understand what not-being really meant. She fully grasped the imminence of her death,  that her living would cease. But after her death, how was it possible that something so rich and varied and full as her life, her being—how could that suddenly simply not-be? It was, quite literally, inconceivable.

I was incapable of coming up with a philosophically, or even a personally satisfactory answer to her question; she remained vexed by the mystery even as she died. I remain unable to answer her question, although I am not vexed with the mystery as Lois was, not yet. I have no great sense of my imminent demise, nor of the utter collapse of the world, and I expect that once either of those becomes immediate to me, I will, like Lois, deplore my existential erasure.

This late iteration of the Apocalypse, this scientific prophecy of climatic calamity and species elimination, at first seems different from all those traditional apocalyptic visions. Earlier, religious predictions of the End of Days were tied to a promise of rebirth or redemption, at least for a select portion of the population. This new scientific doomsday seems to offer no such redemption, merely obliteration.

I don’t take that view myself. It seems to me that the little matter of this brief instant of Time when some atoms came together in a unique way to be Life on Earth does not really make much difference in the Universe. I take comfort in that.

And, then, there are those eminent scientists who argue that there is a fifty-fifty chance that this entire creation we currently occupy is a computer simulation. In that case, I—like the late Emily Litella —say, “Never mind!”

Image Credits: Image 1: by Visitor7, via Wikimedia Commons; Image 2: Photo by Gregory F. Maxwell, Wikimedia Commons.

About William Balk

Born and reared in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, Will Balk was educated at the state's namesake university, became an activist confronting the power of the modern State and its military, and spent two years in a radical gay commune in the nation's capital. He has taught textile construction and design for the Smithsonian and Textile Museum in Washington, collected modern porcelain masters, and has submitted to a peculiar affinity for independent book stores. Balk returned to the South Carolina Low Country in middle age, as well as to his extended family, and a literary life lived largely out of doors. Book stores and gardening remain his perennial passions, as does writing. Like one of his heroes, Epicurus, whose philosophical school was called "The Garden," Balk's aim has long been "to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by "ataraxia"—peace and freedom from fear—and "aponia"—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends."
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4 Responses to Dancing Into the Apocalypse

  1. gary geboy says:

    Hi Will.
    Loved the article but I have to take on one thing, the fact that climate change, extinction of species, etc., is not something we can affect. Maybe I read that wrong but the simple cause and affect of our actions on a daily basis does have a profound effect. Those dead bees as an example. We spray for mosquitos and kill millions of bees. As individuals we may not have such a catastrophic event like this happen on a daily basis, but the simple act of not recycling or buying too many tomatoes to eat before they rot, over the course of a lifetime, multiplied by 6 billion does. Anyway, I hope all is well with you down there, come on up to DC, we’d love to see you.

  2. Will B says:

    Thanks, Gary. You’re right, of course – the smallest of actions have ramifications far beyond our immediate circumstance, both for positive and for negative effect. And we cannot even know the ultimate effects, so extended are those ramifications. My thought, when I wrote that bit, was sort of along the lines of: my capacity to conceive of the massive challenges posited as our future is tiny; they are genuinely beyond my comprehension in any meaningful way. I cannot decide to stop temperature rise at 1.5 degrees C; I cannot swear to block sea level rise at 2 or 8 or 15 feet; I cannot assign a sustainable level of human reproduction which matches new births to available resources and expiring productive population.
    I can, however, have some comprehension – albeit flawed and malleable – of the world “within arms reach”; I can, indeed, I am impelled by ethical responsibility, to take on those aspects of my surroundings which I can influence, which I can see some effects of my action, which seem most likely to result in improving the lot of my fellows or extending compassion in alleviating the suffering of another. I think that my be your point, as well; but if the world asks of me to save it, I’m afraid a cannot…I can only be and do the best my capabilities allow.
    I am often thinking of you two. I drove by your cottage the other day – just for old times sake. There’ll be a day, perhaps not too far in the future, when circumstances will change for me. Then, the world opens anew! I ‘d love to see you both. Hugs.

  3. Diana says:

    Will, wonderful as usual, the expression comes to mind: what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.

    BTW, I think our wonderful editor should consider publishing a collection of WH essays. All are excellent and getting better and better.

  4. Will B says:

    Thanks, Diana. And what a grand idea to occupy our editor’s concentration!

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