Occupy Wall Street has entered into its second month of civil disobedience, and as a movement it has spread far beyond the boundaries of one small island on the Hudson River. As a movement, I support much of what OWS stands for, even as I am extremely cognizant of just where the trail they are blazing could lead. Every time the police start beating protestors, which has been all too often, visions of Kent State University and protests of a previous generation flash through my mind.
The truth though is that, while the charge that there hasn’t yet been accountability for the financial calamity that continues to threaten the stability of the United States and the Eurozone, or for that matter for the social, political, and regulatory circumstances that made that calamity possible, has strong merit, I would argue that the final responsibility lies with a cultural artifact that underpins every aspect of our modern culture:
You see, The World Is Coming To An End
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Now Wintersong, you know that every generation thinks that theirs is going to be the one that sees the world ‘come to an end.’” But you know something, that’s a load of crap. What is true is that every living generation experienced that belief, but it is hardly universal to the American or human experience.
I am thirty-one years old, my grandfather is eighty-six. His generation fought in WWII, but even at the height of the War, global nihilism may have posed a real threat the American way of life, but global extinction was not yet on the table. That concept would only come into the public consciousness in the post war decades as weapons of unimaginable power made the planet itself a game board on which a wealthy playboy and a once-poor metalworker could find themselves playing the highest stakes round of chess in history.
In the post war years my grandfather worked long hours to provide a very comfortable life for his family. They owned a series of progressively large boats, a vacation house in the Hamptons, and a new Caddy every two years. The quarter century following the end of WWII were years of prosperity, not only for my family, but for the nation as a whole. Although the gods know that GDP numbers alone don’t reflect the racial and gender inequalities that drove the engine of social change that roiled and remade the cultural landscape into a place where, if the world could hold off on nuking itself long enough, maybe “The American Dream” could be within anyone’s grasp. No matter whether one was living the dream already or fighting for a shot at it, that specter of destruction hung over everyone during “golden” fifties and sixties. It was not merely global annihilation that haunted people’s nightmares either, but personal, as families anxiously awaited the decisions of the draft board and telegrams from Uncle Sam.
The shiny of the fifties and sixties was well tarnished by the time the seventies rolled around, with fuel shortages, Global Stagflation, and an escalation of a bloody and hopeless war on the other side of the globe. Not to mention the ugliest era in automotive aesthetics in history. Moreover, the first generation to grow up with the ever present threat of imminent death, not only of themselves, but of their entire species, was coming of age.
Is it any wonder this this would become the generation of “greed is good?” They grew up believing that they wouldn’t see their senior years because the odds were just too good that an American GI would mistake a black bear for a foreign saboteur or that there wouldn’t be a Stanislav Petrov handy the next time the Soviets had a false nuclear missile alarm. Having survived this long, it makes fatalistic sense, in a terminal cancer sort of way, to indulge and enjoy the now as much as possible.
By the time my generation came on the scene, the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation was diminishing, if never completely gone. The Soviets were still the bad guys of my childhood, but hating and fearing the USSR felt more like a tradition, passed down three generations, than something that actually effected my life. I’m old enough to remember the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, but I’m young enough to remember not really understanding what the fuss was all about.
That same year the Cold War came to an end, I first heard about my generation’s great threat. I still remember in fifth grade science class learning about PCBs, the Hole in the Ozone Layer, recycling, and Global Warming (now Global Climate Change). Interestingly, that was also the first year that my school district’s science curriculum changed to reflect the only recently accepted theory of Plate Tectonics. We’d learned the “shrinking Earth” theory of mountain formation the year before.
I remember the whole idea of Global Warming being terribly exciting to my young self. I’d grown up on my mom’s stories of watching the moon landing, and at eleven, the idea that my actions could play a role, no matter how small, in changing the course of our world’s environment felt empowering. My mother had watched Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon, my generation would act to save our world.
The incremental and inadequate changes in sustainability and environmental resource management that have occurred over the intervening twenty years would shock the young SeaQuest watching boy I was. Collapsing marine life populations, unchecked climate change, and the rapid consumption of irreplaceable resources like hydrocarbons, and the rare earth elements needed to maintain and replace short lived electronics like smart phones and computers, all conspire to make the world we live in now seem to be the false twilight of a short lived golden age of global travel and instantaneous communication.
Is it any wonder that we are outraged? We were born into a world on the brink of collapse precisely because no one really believed it would last long enough to bother with planning beyond the next line of blow. Now, as a world without enough fuel to keep planes flying and cars rolling, where tuna is as unobtainable as Dodo, and where we tell tales of when small boxes made of the rarest minerals on earth existed purely for entertainment, seems close enough to touch, is it any wonder that my generation is beyond bitter that a greedy minority not only act without care that they may hasten the end of the golden age, but also in ways that deprive us of the chance to bask in the last rays of the sun that’s setting on the world we were promised as children?
My generation often bemoans the sedentary nature of our successors. We reminisce over days riding bikes with friends and playing pretend in the park, while the younger generation sits enraptured in artificial landscapes of videogames and faceless Facebook friends. But is it any wonder? Born into a nation caught up in a war that their elders understand even less than the one my parents grew up with, and into a world in which predictions of ecological disaster (and hence economic as well) now place environmental D-day well within their own lives, who can blame them for retreating into artificial worlds like opium addicts of a century ago. If Morpheus’s “real world” was what you had to look forward to, would you choose to unplug from the Matrix?
2 thoughts on “The End Being Near…”
“If Morpheus’s “real world” was what you had to look forward to, would you choose to unplug from the Matrix?”
Do you know, I have thought about this for almost an hour, and I still don’t know what my answer would be. I was 18 when you were born, but was so shielded from the “real world” that I honestly didn’t know (or care) what was going on until I had my son almost ten years later. So in a sense, I actually “grew up” when you did. And I am just as appalled, and very ashamed that it took me so long to see what was happening.
Thank you very much for this post. Maybe someday I’ll be able to answer your question.
Though I agree with the general thrust of this entry, I guess I have to question the brevity of the window you’re using for assessment of human expectation of world-ending calamity. Smithsonian Magazine has some good counterexamples. Granted that most of the apocalypse scares of the past have been predicated on the expectation of divine wrath rather than man-made science, but there’s no reason to think that the people who were caught up in those eras expected the annihilation to be any less total than nuclear devastation would be.