OCCUPIED TUCSON CITIZEN
The End of the World–Again: Why the Apocalypse Meme Replicates in Media, Science, and Culture, by Barry Vacker, challenges the belief that apocalyptic or end-time changes are tenable and inevitable. In his new book, the Temple University media professor delineates how and why this apocalyptic “meme,” or culturally shared belief, has replicated itself throughout history.
Right now, the meme is showing it’s ugly face through a variety of “end-of-the-world” scenarios. Most interesting to this reader is Vacker’s “philosophic apocalypse,” which is part of our search for human meaning. Valker points to people’s failure to grasp the meaning of the Earthrise–that famous and very moving photo of our Earth as seen from the moon in 1969–as a low point in our inability to recognize the stark philosophical choices if our species is to survive. A true understanding of the meaning of Earthrise could have had huge repercussions on our sense of our place in the cosmos. Instead, it led to future shock: we just could not live with the sudden and unexpected reality of the Earthrise perspective, with its message of the urgent need to live together in a finite and fragile world. Since that missed opportunity, according to Valker, we have created a number of fearful and harmful philosophical apolcalypses.
This book provokes the reader to move to the edge of time and space. Will we create a postmillennial apocalypse that will leave all of us trapped in a dismal, violent dystopia? Or will humanity wake up in time to divert an apocalypse, instead creating a life-sustaining, meaningful global utopia?
Vacker’s book helps us understand new media technologies, explaining how they reflect and replicate apocalyptic worldviews. Vacker has a virtually unique ability to deconstruct the apocalyptic meme, as well as larger apocalyptic “metameme systems” (systems of related apocalyptic ideas), making them comprehensible and, in some cases, predictable. Ultimately, his clarity of focus leads to an optimistic vision that, once it is truly understood by the masses of people, the danger of retaining this meme and its related metameme systems, can be recognized and averted in time to deflect worse-case scenarios of horrific futures.
Vacker provides a long list of converging philosophic apocalypses facing humanity: cosmic apocalypse (e.g., a direct hit by a meteorite); extraterrestrial apocalypse (e.g., UFOs with superior weaponry); ecological apocalypse (e.g., extensive global warming); economic apocalypse (e.g., global bankruptcy); energy apocalypse (e.g., a complete nuclear power plant meltdown); industrial apocalypse (e.g., people becoming total slaves to machines); biotech apocalypse (e.g., large-scale germ or gene warfare); and resource apocalypse (e.g., completely running out of water), to name a few. These apocalypses are accelerating toward us and, if not recognized for what they are–simple erroneous belief systems–they are capable of causing a complete Earth systems failure.
Vacker makes it clear that we are confronted with a planetary emergency, and the only way out of it is through new ways thinking that are both radical and existential. There is no God to rescue us, he says; he sees the theistic metameme as the source of one of the most dangerous apocalyptic belief systems of all–religious wars that could result in a true nuclear, biological, or chemical apocalypse.
Vacker writes that “the biggest challenges facing America (and the world) are not attaining political liberty or economic equality, but achieving philosophical sanity.” The philosophic apocalypse might be the most critical one for us to overcome, as it provides the ideological underpinning of all the others. We clearly must address it if our species is to evolve beyond the apocalyptic narrative, and the terrifying place toward which this narrative appears to be leading us.
What, then, is a philosophic apocalypse? As noted above, Vacker answers this question by looking at Apollo 8’s orbit around the moon in 1968, when astronauts took the famous photo of the Earth from space that was to become Earthrise. This act was to change history, or should have done so. The image made clear the interconnected parts of Earth’s biosphere and proved that national borders are artificial political constructs which contradict the integral nature of our planetary ecosystem. Then the 1969 moon landing itself was broadcast in real time to a television audience of about 500 million to a billion people. Taken together, Earthrise and the moon landing constitute an existential moment when we collectively saw–or could have seen–that we inhabit a small, round, beautifully blue planet that is surrounded by vast space.
The Earthrise image showed us that we had become smart enough to produce a self-reflective image of our home. To mark the Earth-shaking event and to give it philosophic meaning, the Apollo 8 astronauts chose to read passages from the beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Bible.
Vacker states that just prior to this time, in 1968, the Cold War was in play between two superpowers: the USA, a God-fearing state, and the USSR, an atheistic state. The Genesis passage read by the astronauts in 1969 conveyed an underlying message to the Soviets, which was that the USA was superior because it worshipped a creator of the universe. Using this familiar creation meme in Genesis at this Earthrise moment missed the mark. Instead, it reinforced the same old dualistic and sexist narrative that has created wars and empires for over two millennia.
The astronauts shared a perception that could have given us a deep and immediate sense of the interrelatedness of life on Earth. But by simply reading from an ancient Judeo-Christian text, the result was what Vacker calls “cosmic doublethink.” This occurs when two contradictory worldviews are pitted against one another, with the purpose of neutralizing any cosmic truth. Earthrise could have freed us to think in a new way, but the establishment that controlled media technologies didn’t want our thinking and our world to be transformed. The motive behind cosmic doublethink is to maintain the status quo of competing world interests with their arms races and wars. Vacker writes, “When new knowledge challenges the existential foundations of existing worldviews, the new knowledge can be ignored, forgotten, derided, neutralized or assimilated into a false cognitive system to maintain the dominate worldviews and metamemes.”
Perhaps future shock affects even Vacker’s own thinking. For example, he writes about three great architects–Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri, who in the 1950s were designing homes for the masses: Wrights’s Usonian house, Fuller’s Dymaxion house, and Soleri’s Dome house. Vacker reports that these futuristic houses, written about in the mass media, were made with modern materials, but that only 100 of such houses were built. The housing meme that did succeed in providing housing to the masses was the monotonous Levittown suburban house model that only simulated “architectural styles from the past.”
Vacker neglects, however, to mention the later work of these three men. Fuller and Soleri abandoned the model of the single-family house with its suburban culture altogether, developing entirely new kinds of ecological city designs. Soleri’s concept of arcology (ecologically sound architecture) and Fuller’s Old Man’s River City mimic the Earth’s ecosystem much more fully than does our present day megalopolis. These prototype cities integrated different parts of a typical city into a new, more efficient infrastructure, capable of bringing people together in what Soleri calls the “urban effect.” Here, every part of the city is designed to work together like an intelligent living organism. Soleri even spent time drawing plans for closed-system arcologies that would function in Outer Space. Such megastructures would be necessary for us to live on one of the possibly 50 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy, 500 million of which are in habitable life zones for human beings within their solar systems.
This reader has a great interest in arcologies, so here I’ll enlarge upon Valker to present some of my own ideas. First, moving beyond the archetype of the traditional home and family is an emotional task, because our housing is so tied to our memory. Yet we desperately need to make a quantum leap from the urban social organization patterns of the past. So we will need to repeatedly summon the courage to overcome our need for familiarity, instead embracing the unknown by experimenting with new urban models. Such a change in habitat will enable women and men to finally free themselves from domestic servitude, mortgage payments, and rent that perpetuate the global plutocratic regime.
Second, since we are still trapped (if one is lucky enough to have housing at all!) in 20th Century cities with deteriorating, dysfunctional infrastructures, corrupt with unfilled dreams and poverty, we need to take a close look at the philosophic meme systems that are responsible for our home and urban architecture. The nuclear family is too easily seduced by entertainment and fantasy landscapes, courtesy of Hollywood, Disneyland, and other theme parks, that distract us from the grim realities that face our species with the lure of happy family outings and vacation getaways.
To build a world for the human family and make it sustainable, capable of withstanding a future climate of extreme weather and events such as meteor impacts, it is vital that we leave behind our out-of-date nuclear family structure and single-family mode of housing. The philosophic apocalypse is sheltered in and nurtured by these systems that, in their utter disregard for sustainable resource use, are destroying the entire life-support system of the planet. Because we are socially isolated in single family and suburban houses–even if we live in a futuristic Dymaxion house–we find ourselves with no social exit.
To this reader, the only escape hatch from our dismal architectural meme system is to be found in the noosphere (the thinking layer of the Earth) that has become accessible to the masses through social media technologies.
In our online world today, lines blur between reality and hyperreality. The latter refers to philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s idea that “the `real world’ has either disappeared or been destroyed and has been largely displaced by models and simulations—hyperreality now indistinguishable from original reality.”
As we spend more and more hours living our lives in front of a screen, we have entered the realm of virtual apocalypse. In virtual apocalypse–which we should hope to avoid—virtual space becomes more exciting than life itself. Intelligent people who have Net access spend time online searching for meaningful information and interactions, virtual friendships, and cyber love. In Cyberspace, the erotic love meme is becoming disembodied, freed from the material baggage of real estate and utilities bills that enslave people who are forced to work for Corporate America to “make a living” to feed and house their bodies.
The human body needs a healthy biosphere to in order to survive. As our environment become more and more toxic, it is not unbelievable that in the near future technological advances might actually allow humans to upload their consciousness into the machine, becoming Homo Siliconis and abandoning the human body altogether–a possible future scenario discussed in Vacker’s book. In a world in which the dominant culture is destroying global climate, uploading the mind/brain might be the only way for intelligent life to survive.
Vacker insists that “humans can modify their memes to prevent these dystopias or digital apocalypses from happening.” So, the question becomes: how do we create an egalitarian economy and distribute the world’s resources in a way that makes sense and brings justice and joy? Vacker concludes that “the best long-term prospects for an ecological metameme that preserves humans, culture, and nature is a model where wilderness, garden, and machine are united in a global civilization that respects nature and science while abandoning the tribalism and nationalism that distort humanity’s true place in the universe of the big bang.”
For Vacker, musician John Lennon was one of the few artists at the beginning of the Space Age able to understand the significance of the existential moment of Earthrise. His song, Imagine, speaks of a world that has evolved beyond national borders and religions, what Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev calls a “Type One Civilization.” However, Vacker is hesitant to embrace Lennon’s call in the song for “a world without possessions.” Even though Vacker criticizes the consumer culture, it’s too much for him to see Spaceship Earth revolving around the sun without private possessions.
Is it possible for us to even imagine migrating into a 21st Century arcology that has invented a user-based, world accounting system? In Buckminster Fuller’s book Critical Path he envisions such an economic system where resources are shared and no one has a private bank account. Is it too terrifying for us to grasp a cosmic metameme where everyone’s material and emotional needs are met, and robots are programmed to do menial and dangerous labor? Can we even imagine a world in which people have the time and resources to do art, music, science, scholarship, democracy, and other activities such as raising children that bring meaning and love into our lives?
Barry Vacker’s book deserves to be read; it is essential reading. We must look at our own subconscious philosophic apocalypses. Only then can a new personal narrative begin to be written, in which the collective imagination is emancipated in order to explore new worlds ahead of us.
Nevertheless, for this reader our first step must be to confront the real possibility of a true, near-future ecological apocalypse. As fearful such thinking may be, it is clear that we face an immediate planetary emergency. The root cause of our crisis in part duo to inflated real estate markets, increasing numbers of cars, roads, and parking lots, poisonous foods, toxic industries, nuclear power plants, fossil fuels, and the global shopping mall. If we can create the philosophic sanity required for us to build truly ecological cities on Earth, not only will we finally have beautiful living environments, but we will also find ourselves understanding the real potential of human love, and thereby find ourselves able to outwit any and all man-made apocalyptic mind viruses.