We are surrounded by visions of the end of time. The recent obsession about the “end” of the world when the Mayan calendar runs out is just one example of how our culture is fixated on apocalypse. Hollywood epics, enhanced by special effects, provide multiple visions of how our world will end, or what it will be like to live on after the destruction of civilization as we know it.
Earlier decades had similar preoccupations. Mutant monster movies thrived after World War II. Before that, mad scientists unleashed their Frankensteins on an unsuspecting world. In retrospect we can grasp what specific social realities such visions were responding to. Hiroshima explains the radioactive monsters, while the runaway effects of new technologies – planes, rockets, radios, electricity, drugs -- go far to explain the fears of science. Those discoveries simultaneously made us more powerful and more vulnerable. Our power over nature has not been an unmixed blessing.
But what lies behind our current fascination with the end of the world? Increasingly, we grasp that we have lost control over events. Global warming is making it clear that we lack the collective will to avert environmental disaster. Economic crises demonstrate that our politics are helpless in the face of the financial industry ability to pursue profit at any cost, while the gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening. Our international organizations are unable to contain rogue states that harbor terrorists and build nuclear weapons or, merely, decimate their own citizens. At home there are senseless out breaks of violence in schools, shopping malls, and subway platforms. Everywhere we look we see danger and looming catastrophes.