I WAS CHATTING with a friend of mine the other day about the prospects for the future of the country and the planet. He is in his sixties, something of a political radical from the days when that term actually had meaning, and his view of the days ahead is bleak.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a civilization in a hundred years,” he said. “Or if there is, it will look very different from the way it looks now.” Our lifestyle, he explained, is simply not sustainable: too many people, too much pollution, not enough water, not enough arable land—and, crucially, not nearly enough force mobilized to make a difference.
This lack of force—lack of fight, of urgency, of hope—is not to be confused with apathy. “The only way to cope with living under these conditions,” he said, “is to think about something else.” We joked that the process was a perverted Kübler-Ross model, a Bermuda Triangle of futility, which goes from denial, to anger, to depression, and right back to denial, ad infinitum, without closure, without resolution.
Just as it took a “new Pearl Harbor” to sway public opinion to accept war in Afghanistan and Iraq, so it will require a cataclysmic event to break us out of this holding pattern—for people to organize, mobilize, turn off their TV sets and iPhones and Macbooks long enough to take action (assuming that the cataclysmic event doesn’t render our species extinct immediately). We will sleepwalk until something loud rouses us. But what form will our wake-up call take?
In the Book of Revelation, the prophet John foresees four horsemen heralding the holocaust, representing Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. I know this is hard to fathom, but a canonized first-century lunatic managed to miss a few allegorical ponies (should not there have been a Green Horse, Johnny, for a catastrophic environmental event—especially in light of “Superstorm” Sandy?).
One of the great paradoxes of our age is that the same people who denounce the dire forecasts of climate change by professional scientists believe absolutely in prophesies espoused in a book written by God knows how many authors God knows how many centuries ago. Here, then, is an updated list of Horsemen of the Apocalypse, revised for our new century. Perhaps by framing it this way, the religious right—whose obstreperousness with regard to global warming is partially responsible for the government’s foot-dragging on the issue—will begin to pay attention.
I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death…
In the 1350s, the Black Death wiped out more than a third of Europe, and reduced the world population from 450 to 350 million. The re-population to pre-plague levels in Europe took 150 years. Researchers now believe that the Black Death originated in China—you know, like SARS and the avian flu—and was carried west via the Silk Road.
For all the advances in modern medicine, we can’t cure every disease. And even if we could, how to combat a bona fide pandemic, in an age of mass transit, global trade, and unprecedented population density? We’re overdue for a Spanish-flu-style outbreak, so much so that scientists have been busy helping the flu mutate.
The Black Death transfomed European society. Modern property law, for example, has its roots in this period, when generations of male heirs were routinely killed at once, forcing the law to grant women ownership privileges in certain situations. How would our world change if 2.33 billion of us perish in the space of a few years?
2. Catastrophic weather event
The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat…
The polar ice caps are melting. The faster they melt, the less ice there is no reflect sunlight, and the more heat is absorbed by the earth. The more heat absorbed by the earth, the faster the ice caps melt. It’s a vicious cycle, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to stop it. Not that anyone in a position of power has suggested we do so.
Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunderand a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed….Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found. From the sky huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, fell on people.
The spike in major weather events—hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes in places like Maine and New Jersey, and now Sandy’s widespread destruction—is directly related to the melting of the ice caps, to the gradual warming of the earth. A hurricane already laid waste to New Orleans; but, as my friend pointed out, Katrina affected mostly poor black people. What happens when a hurricane takes out more affluent Miami? When the rising sea level turns lower Manhattan into Venice? When an earthquake and subsequent tsunami destroy Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tokyo on the same apocalyptic afternoon?
Polar bears are canaries in our planetary coal mine; we ignore them at our peril.
3. Economic collapse
It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.
The global economic system is so complicated, I don’t know that anyone can accurately predict what might happen if certain financial levees were to break. But economists are in consensus that the economic outlook of the near future is not good. Four years after the big bailout, the Great Recession endures. Europe is a mess. China and India are weakening. What happens when even the central banks—the so-called lenders of last resort—are not strong enough to save the day? When a critical mass of people stop paying their credit card bills? When the United States devalues its currency to fuck China? When the Romney Administration forces through legislation to re-establish debtors’ prison? When a gallon of gas costs $25?
Our economy rewards the wrong people. We put a premium on vulture capitalists who game the system, who contribute nothing to our society beyond arbitrage. The teachers, the police officers, the nurses, even the doctors get screwed (to say nothing of the creative class). One thing I learned in New York on 9/11 is that in times of crisis, the cashier at a grocery store is infinitely more essential to our society than whatever Mitt Romney did at Bain Capital.
Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
For all the blood routinely shed in the name of war—and the lies used to spin it as necessary—the truth is, the last fifty years have been among the most pacific on record. The aftermath of Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria, our ill-advised forays into Afghanistan and Iraq, the fighting in certain anarchic spots in Africa and Central Asia—these conflicts, while horrible, pale in comparison to the wars that raged in the first half of the twentieth century, and the centuries before. War does not directly affect the lives of most Americans. It’s something we can, and do, blissfully ignore. War in Europe, between members of the EU, seems as remote, if not less so, as war in America between the Blue and Red states.
And yet nothing in the history of humankind suggests that this Pax Americana will last. Our new era of bonhomie will be short-lived, once two nations—or California and Nevada—begin fighting over the dwindling supply of food and potable water.
5. Nuclear annihiliation
…a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water—the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.
War might come as a by-product of another cataclysmic event—economic collapse, say—or at the hands of a lone despot with nuclear weapons. In this context, Benjamin Netanyahu’s bellicose stance toward Iran is more defensible. If someone really does authorize the unthinkable, it will be a religious fanatic, whether Muslim, Christian, Jew, or Hindu.
The miserable aftermath of nuclear holocaust has been well documented. Radiation will slowly destroy whatever the bomb doesn’t instantly obliterate. Everyone knows this, but that doesn’t make it any less likely to happen.
Biblical fun fact: the Russian word for Wormwood is Chernobyl.
I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
Famine is a lack—a lack of food, of water, of energy sources, of medicine, of shelter. There are some seven billion people on the planet; by the time my young son is my age, that number could exceed nine billion. By then, if not much sooner, there will not be enough fresh water or arable land to nourish all of us.
We throw around words like starving as hyperbole in our speech. But chances are, no one reading this has ever experienced anything like true famine, when crops fail for years in a row, where animals are sick, where there is not enough food to go around. At the beginning of the 17th century in Russia, for example, three consecutive years of famine killed off a third of the population. The societal ability to avoid mass starvation is a recent phenomenon in human history, a blip. There may well be a time in the not-too-distant future when our War on Obesity seems quaint.
There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.
Asteroid 2011 AG5 is on a collision course with our planet. It will crash into the earth in 2040 or so—right around the time I should begin to collect Social Security. An asteroid one mile long crashing into the earth has 10 million times the energy of the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima, and would wipe out most if not all life on earth. In fact, some have speculated that this is what killed off the dinosaurs.
I don’t happen to agree with my friend’s grim assessment, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I don’t think doom is inevitable. All of these seven horsemen are avoidable. Even an asteroid can be stopped—the only justifiable reason to keep a few nuclear missiles around. I’m of the opinion that human ingenuity can conquer anything that comes our way, if we put our collective mind to it. But perhaps I am in denial about our future, just as the GOP is in denial about climate change.