End-times report

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What’s with this whole “end of the world” thing people have going on? “World War Z” made half a billion dollars worldwide in a week and a half. The Discovery Channel is netting an average of 3 million viewers a week by dumping two strangers naked and wholly unequipped into various harsh climates. Two apocalypse comedies are slated for this summer, both chock full of stars.

What’s with this whole “end of the world” thing people have going on? “World War Z” made half a billion dollars worldwide in a week and a half. The Discovery Channel is netting an average of 3 million viewers a week by dumping two strangers naked and wholly unequipped into various harsh climates. Two apocalypse comedies are slated for this summer, both chock full of stars.

This trend isn’t new. The zombie apocalypse has been in vogue since 2008. Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic films have sold big since 1996′s Independence Day. There’s been a focus on surviving the end, too; almost everyone has a friend who has put together a “bug-out bag” for when a crisis hits, and most are enthusiastic about sharing what’s in it.

Even outside of film, it’s been big. How many millions were made from the Y2K panic? What about 2012 and the end of the Mayan calendar? Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping said the world would end in 2011.

Every news report on the government’s action or inaction verges on the apocalyptic. The Supreme Court’s declaration that DOMA was unconstitutional marks the end of family. Obama’s re-election marks the end of white America (Bill O’Reilly). The prosecution of Edward Snowden and the conviction of Brianna (formerly Bradley) Manning are the end of government transparency. Every moment the world doesn’t cap its emissions is the end of the world by global warming.

So what’s with all this apocalypse fixation? Why has eschatology – the study or emphasis of the end of days – gone popular?

Times are hard in the U.S. Despite unemployment decreasing, poverty is increasing. The government is spying on its own citizens and foreign nationals with little discrimination. Gestating conflicts over religion, race, sexuality and corporate rights are coming to a head all over the place. Congress’ approval rating is lower than that of shark attacks and North Korea. Everything is pretty awful, and it’s going to take a lot of time and massive effort to fix that.

The little things people used to do to feel like they’re having an effect are disappearing. Big hacktivism is being met with major government prosecution – see Snowden, the late Aaron Schwartz and Julian Assange. The U.S. petition website Change.org increased the threshold for a response from 30,000 to 100,000 – very few petitions are actually making it to the White House. Occupy Wall Street is effectively dead.

Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher, said something relevant: “It’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.” Is it really true, though? Has it become easier to imagine the apocalypse than the changes in government, capitalism, and public attitude required to fix our problems?

For a lot of people, this seems to be the case. And it’s a problem. It breeds a culture of cynicism and despair. Whether or not it’s possible to change anything becomes irrelevant. Nobody with that mindset can change anything.

That’s the problem with the apocalypse media and the survivalist culture,which are so intwined. It assumes the end times are imminent. It’s preparing for the next problem instead of fixing this one. This cynicism toward the possibility of change is counterproductive.

David Foster Wallace once said that “Irony is the song of the bird who has come to love its cage.” The same applies to this apocalyptic attitude and the cynicism it implies. Perhaps we haven’t come to love it, but it is comfortable and easy. Fantasizing about tomorrow’s problems is easier than addressing today’s. “It’s the end of the world,” wrote Michael Stipe, “and I feel fine.”

So here we stand, fascinated with the idea that tomorrow may be our last. Before that sun rises (or doesn’t) ask yourself, what did you do with today?