note: this originally appeared as the opening essay for Bilerico.com’s What You Need To Know on 12/21/12, but is probably better suited to NFABS.
Due to a common misunderstanding of the Mayan’s concept of the nature of existence, there’s a rather tongue in cheek meme that says the world is due to end today. As I’m writing the What You Need To Know at 1am EST, I’m pretty confident that there will still be people around it when it posts at 10am. And again, the end of the world isn’t what the Mayans predicted, if you’re inclined to worry about one particular Mesoamerican people’s calendar over any others.
That said, our world certainly is being transformed at a remarkable rate. In the words of celebrated sci-fi/fantasy author Catherynne M. Valente, I’m a “Challenger.” That is, I belong to the short and somewhat overlooked age cohort that is pre-Millennial, but post-Generation X, defined by Ms. Valente as those of us who watched the Challenger disaster unfold live in our elementary school or early middle school classrooms.
Every generation since the dawn of Industrial Revolution has seen radical change in their lifetimes of course. My own great grandfather was born in the era of the horse and buggy, but died after seeing humans leave footprints on another planet. Things are no different for the Challengers.
The most visible changes in our world of course have been information oriented. I was ten when ARPANET was officially decommissioned and commercial ISPs began piping internet and World Wide Web access into people’s homes. I don’t have hard figures, but I’d be surprised if any but a few of the most powerful computers on earth when I was born could rival the computing power most of us carry in our pockets today. And for better or worse, the connected nature of the internet age has created a global community with both the good and bad characteristics of a small town or village.
I also grew up from the fourth grade on with the specter of global warming (now global climate change) hanging over my head. My peers and I were told time and time again of the consequences that would come to pass if the threat posed by global warming to the planet wasn’t addressed. Challengers, and the generation after us, grew up with the knowledge that the planet was sick, and we came to realize that older folk didn’t have all that much in the way of will or resources to do a lot about it. We’ve watched in mounting horror as climatological changes that as children we were told our children or grandchildren might see in their lifetimes, have come to pass already or are predicted well within our own.
At the same time, there have been positive changes too. I first learned of the AIDS crisis as a boy at my great-aunt’s house for Thanksgiving, where on the TV I heard a news report about Ryan White. My mother, a teacher, was simultaneously outraged at the unfairness of his treatment, and sympathetic to the scared parents of his peers who were trying to protect their children from an unfamiliar and terrifying illness.
But while HIV/AIDS is still with us, we’ve managed to chain it and remove much of its destructive power (at least in the wealthy first world). HIV/AIDS is not unlike Fenrir in the Norse cosmology, it took all our cunning and know-how to mitigate its destructive power, though even bound it still poses a danger. And should it outsmart us someday, the consequences could be beyond dire.
Along the way, the crucible of the AIDS crisis helped force the creation the modern LGBT civil rights movement. Just as advances in computer and communication technology over the last thirty years has been inconceivably fast, the changes in freedom, rights, and our place in society as queer/LGBT people is staggering.
Part of the reason that the conservative right in America, and other nations, fight against our equal place in society so doggedly, is that they aren’t entirely wrong about what’s happening to society. The world they knew is vanishing. Some of that is because their world was always an illusion, a mutually agreed upon suspension of disbelief in which white middle class Christians pretended their experience was universal, and in exchange for being somewhat left alone, everyone else tried not to upset the balance of their imaginings.
But beyond that, our culture and understanding of the world has changed, as it pretty much continually has for the last two hundred years or so. Change can be terrifying. The End Of The World, at least if you’re deeply invested in your world remaining exactly how it’s always been.
So in that, maybe the prognostications of the Mayans (or what people think of that way) are correct. The world is ending today after all, but only because it is perpetually ending and being made anew. Perhaps now more so than ever.