why the end times crowds’ buzz is wrong

March 23, 2011

If you listen to the perpetual End Times crowd that’s so persistent in Western culture, every major event in the news involving unrest, natural disasters, or disease is a sign that the world as we know it is about to end and any minute now, the war between angles and demons will descend on Meggido after they’ve been sent upwards to Heaven. And really, at first, their claims that we’re living in an ever more violent, tumultuous world seem hard to dispute. I mean after all, according to foreign policy wonks, there are about forty armed conflicts of various intensity going on around the world right now and three of them are constantly making international headlines. Though war is formally over in Iraq, tensions are still high, the country is still unstable, and there’s still a contingent of troops there. Afghanistan has been engulfed in wars for decades now and shows no sign of calming down, even as American involvement there nears its ten year anniversary. Libya plunged into a civil war, now with international involvement, as unrest sweeps the Middle East. And while all this is going on, the developing world is still ravaged by rampant poverty, ethnic strife, disease, and hunger, at the same time as a second enormous quake in two years rocked Japan and triggered a major nuclear crisis. Bad omens, huh?

Well, that’s actually all relative, especially when it comes to disease and war. What sends us into shock may have bored our ancestors who usually lived half as long as we do in conditions we would consider unfit for a human, and grappling with lethal diseases for which we have a wide arsenal of treatments. Today, having an infection won’t lead to death from septic shock nearly as often as it did even a few hundred years ago, and a case of tuberculosis is terribly unlikely to kill you if you have access to halfway decent medical care. And that’s not to mention the fact that the greatest infectious killer in human history responsible for snuffing out millions of lives over thousands of years, smallpox, has been driven to extinction, and polio seems to be slowly but oh so surely heading the same way. We’re living longer, healthier, and safer lives thanks to modern technology, science, and education, and we can see how well they work when we compare developed countries where a newborn is now expected to live into his or her 80s and spend nearly a decade and a half on formal learning, to nations where the same kind of educational, medical, and logistical infrastructures don’t exist. We do have much of the technology we need to extend the lives of the world’s poor and help lift them out of poverty, it’s just that the scale of the task and the political complications involved means that it will take many more decades to reach those in dire need and this technology will not be a panacea. But it would help quite a bit.

So what about all the wars and armed conflicts raging across the world? Well, believe it or not, in the days of the ancients, war was a pretty regular event. Emperors filled coffers with the spoils of war from the conquered territories they inherited and acquired, and often, the measure of a ruler was his success in the many military campaigns he would launch. You doubtlessly know Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and you’ve probably at least heard of Hannibal. Why? Because they were accomplished conquerors and lead the kinds of military campaigns that history books were invented to record. But I’m sure you know what that must mean for those they conquered. How many people as a percentage of the total global population died when a couple of empires brutally expanded their territory and demonstratively butchered thousands just to show the newly conquered populace who’s boss? I’m willing to bet that it was far more than when we’ve built weapons that allowed us to efficiently murder millions of people, since major wars occurred on a nearly constant basis and the conquerors were expected to rape, pillage, and exterminate much of the populace when they’d finally broken through enemy lines. The Mongols built entire pyramids out of human remains and marched armies of enslaved prisoners into their targets’ line of fire during an initial advance. Today, brutality on this scale is an international war crime which will immediately trigger nearly all of the world’s advanced militaries to descend on your head. Back then, it was the modus operandi, recorded in almost apathetic footnotes.

Still, why does it seem that we’re living in such a brutal and tumultuous world besieged by war, famine, death, and natural disasters while our ancestors lived in what many of us today would consider a world in which the unrelenting and horrific war crimes were set against entire city-sized cesspools of disease and desperately unsanitary conditions that couldn’t possibly exist outside the gates of Hell itself? Because we have the kind of communication tools that the ancients couldn’t even envision. When a massacre happened in 350 AD, all the people heard were news that someone just conquered someone else and that all those caught in the conflict were probably either dead or enslaved. Today, the death of a protester at the hands of an authoritarian thug is uploaded to the web and sent viral within minutes after it happened in shocking detail. Genghis Khan did not exactly sit on his horse and use his smartphone to Tweet: “sacking Beijing. guards fired all their arrows in my prisoner army, lol!” before uploading fresh pictures from the slaughter and his soldiers posing alongside the mutilated cadavers of those they indiscriminately butchered on his Flickr account and Facebook. Today, one soldier just posing with captured enemies in pictures available to the public causes a global PR uproar, and pictures of soldiers actually abusing prisoners triggers a media firestorm that lasts for months. Our access to instant information has given us unprecedented glimpses at the mechanics of war and drastically lowered our tolerance and acceptance of civilian casualties and violence, a very positive change for the world.

And the same information technology which lets us get up close and personal with the victims of war is also letting us communicate the scale and magnitude of disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2010 quake in Chile, and the recent tremor which severely wounded Japan. Even fifty years ago, we would’ve heard only a few statistics and a brief mention of a tsunami. Today, we’re almost immediately presented with a live feed to the unfolding disasters and kept up to date on what’s going on across the world in real time. We know more about the disasters and we know about them faster, which is why it seems like there are more of them. It’s easier to remember a video of a tsunami surging miles inland, carrying houses on fire and pictures of one, huge, crippled nuclear power plant on the verge of meltdown than it is the brief headline that a magnitude 9.0 quake killed 10,000 people and generated a 30 foot tsunami which is left at that for about a week. Nature will continue to function as it usually does and there’s nothing we can do about it but to be prepared. And while it seems like we’re living in constant decline thanks to how much misery we can now transmit through the net, the reality is that we’re actually much wealthier, much more peaceful, far healthier, and live much longer than we did in the past. Far from getting worse and more chaotic, the world is actually a better place to live now in the grand scheme of things, and I don’t remember the Tribulations implying a better world before the end…

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  • Bruce Coulson

    The speed of communications, as well as the fact that much of the news is immediately visual, may also have something to do with the appearance of doom and gloom.

    Even a century ago, the news on the East Coast that San Francisco had been destroyed by an earthquake and fire was mostly in written texts, with a few rare pictures making their way into the news days or weeks after the fact. Clean-up had already started by the time most people in the country were aware of the disaster.

    Now, we have live interviews with people just plucked from the rubble from an event halfway around the world. That gives a sense of immediacy to the disaster; it’s on-going, right now, not something that took place some time ago to people you don’t even know.

    The very inter-connections that have allowed modern societies to exist mean they’re also very fragile. In the West some decades ago, a medium-sized town rebuilt itself from scratch after being demolished by tornadoes, and the residents asked that aid being sent to them be passed on to those ‘truly in need’. This isn’t possible today, and each disaster reminds us just how dependent we are on those connections to maintain the lifestyles we are accustomed to. That nervousness and fear (‘it could happen here’) can lead to millenial fever.

  • Seth

    I really like that pic you used…. very beautiful. any idea where I can find a higher res one?

  • Greg Fish

    Seth, high resolution versions of this graphic are available here if you want to make a poster out of it, or something like that…

  • Seth

    awesome !! thanks immensely !

  • Howard Bucknam

    Nothing really bad or good either way, I just wish that, if we decide to write something in a public forum, at least take the time to learn how to spell! I mean, is it me or has anyone else noticed how many times words are mis-spelled now days. Not nearly so much BEFORE we had Spell Checker! I just don’t get it!