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A Yankee Notebook

March 3,  2014


MONTPELIER – It seems odd when you think about it, but the end of the world occurred last month, and almost nobody noticed it. In case you missed it yourself, followers of old Norse myths had computed that the long-foretold day of Ragnarök would be February 22, 2014. The earth would split open, releasing all the demons, giants, and trolls in Hell. The giant wolf Fenrir would also attack the Aesir – the pantheon of Norse gods. The battle would end unhappily for the gods – Fenrir would kill Odin, the All-Father – and the earth and its inhabitants would be drowned. Later, the few surviving gods would restart the earth with two human beings, naturally of Norse descent. It’s an old story, derived from 13th-century Icelandic eddas, and retold interminably by Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, which features a great deal of Teutonic sighing, posturing, and heroic self-immolation. The Ring Cycle operas were Hitler’s favorites.

Apparently, Ragnarök didn’t happen as predicted. Though it’s pretty certain we’d have noticed it, there’s been no news of it in the media. So we’re left to ponder three things: the multitude of apocalyptic predictions that haven’t come true; the ones that are pending; and the possible reasons that so many folks are so consumed by an interest in the end of the world.

It seems that every year or two we become aware of a new forecast of so-called end-times. The Mayans’ Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar, when interpreted, regarded December 21, 2012, about 15 months before the Norse cataclysm, as the date for a series of important transformations to occur: everything from a worldwide spiritual awakening, or a solar maximum, or the earth disappearing into its neighborhood black hole. Scholars, predictably, pooh-poohed such notions, and were proven right. The date passed without a ripple, and the Mayan calendar is now as little regarded as the jungle vines climbing over the ruins of its creators’ cities.

Has it really been 14 years since the so-called Y2K bug was going to cripple the world when computers everywhere failed to register the new millennium and would instead date everything current back to 1900? This technological bugbear, which turned out to be not even a speed bump, had reinforced the expectation of many folks that two millennia from the birth of Christ were all we were going to get. Never mind that the date of Christ’s birth is undetermined, or that the Western world has changed calendars two or three times since then, whenever it was. Unsurprisingly, whatever power may govern us declined to play our game.

There’s no doubt, scientifically speaking, that the earth will come to an end. In five or six billion years, our sun will have largely depleted its fuel; its internal gravity will diminish,; it will expand into a red giant; and eventually it will engulf our planet, from which all forms of life – beginning with plant life - will long have vanished. This scenario assumes that the earth will have been spared any major asteroid collisions, like the one that scientists posit occurred during the Cretaceous Period in what’s now the Gulf of Mexico, wiping out species from the dinosaurs down to “everything larger than a cat.” It also ignores the possibility, described by Elizabeth Kolbert in her new best-selling book The Sixth Extinction, that during the current Anthropocene Age human activity will succeed in denuding the earth of the necessities for our survival. If that should occur, we won’t need to worry about what solar phenomena are coming next. That’s the scientific view of the end of the world: It’s inevitable, but in human terms, not necessarily imminent.

I have two friends, one a history professor who confesses himself deeply pessimistic about the future of humanity; and an engineer who’s fairly certain we can invent ourselves out of our coming crises of population, agriculture, and energy. In between those two positions are environmentalists, warning of the long-term results of our current rates and inefficiencies of consumption, and the means we employ to extract and refine fossil fuels. It’s hard, given current political realities, not to agree with the professor; we’re so much like Shakespeare’s “two spent swimmers that do cling together and choke their art.” That’s the problematic end of the world.

Finally there’s the religious. Hard times, insecurity, and anxiety inevitably trigger the apocalyptic impulse in us. American slaves often sang hymns of salvation and the coming paradise. The Millerites of New England divested themselves of worldly goods and several times awaited an end that has yet to come. Many of our contemporaries think us in the end-times. They anticipate eagerly the coming Rapture, comb Scripture to try to pin down its date, and seek comfort in Jenkins and LaHaye’s “Left Behind Series” describing the ineffable joys of the end of time for the faithful and the sufferings of those of us who fail the test and are left here on earth. To each his own.

My favorite description of the end of the world is “The Nine Billion Names of God,” a 1953 short story by Arthur C. Clarke. The monks of a Tibetan monastery believe that the universe will come to an end when they have written all the 9 billion names of God. To get it done in less than 15,000 years, they rent a computer and hire a pair of Westerners to print out all the possible permutations. The experts do their job well; but as the run is approaching its end, they decide to duck out while it’s just finishing, in order to avoid the lamas’ inevitable disappointment. They’re riding ponies down the mountain on the way to the little Himalayan airport and their waiting plane.

They pause for a moment on the trail to reflect that just about that time the monks are pasting the final sheets of the printout into their holy books. They congratulate themselves on a job well done and paid for. And just then, glancing upward, they notice that “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

Photo by Willem lange