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November 6, 2006 / D.F.Dufty

dreaming of an apocalypse

There are certain ideas that tap into the deep primal currents of the human mind, ideas that simultaneously fascinate and appall. The end of the world is such an idea. Humanity lives and relives its own demise in endless variations through fantasy, fiction, science, religion, and prophecy.
In Revelation 20, a thousand-year period of prosperity is foretold. For this reason, people that focus on the imminent end of the world are sometimes called millenarists.
A nation where millenarial thinking is strongly embedded in the culture is South Africa. The obsession with the end of the world can lead to unhealthy trends in politics, as the people look for a great leader, a prophet, or other messianic figure. This is sometimes referred to as the Nongqawuse syndrome, after the tragic events of 1856 and 1857:

Then, a 16-year-old girl, Nongqawuse, had a vision on the banks of the Gxarha River. She saw the departed ancestors who told her that if people would but kill all their cattle, the dead would arise from the ashes and all the whites would be swept into the sea. The message was relayed to the Xhosa nation by her uncle, Mhalakaza. Although deeply divided over what to do, the Xhosa began killing their cattle in February 1856. They destroyed all their food and did not sow crops for the future. Stored grain was thrown away. No further work was to be done. Days passed and nights fell. The resurrection of the dead Xhosa warriors never took place.

The result was starvation and death on a collossal scale.
It might beggar belief that an entire nation could become so enthralled with the visions of a teenage girl that they could destroy their livelihood. However, such scenarios have been replayed time and again since those events. Perhaps the best known incident is the tragedy of Heavens Gate and the Order of the Solar Temple, otherwise known as Jonestown. Even among the general public, we have had a string of disaster scenarios take hold of the public imagination, including a best-seller in the 1980’s called “The great depression of 1990”, Time Magazine’s cover story in the 70’s about “the coming ice age,” the threat of total destruction from plutonium in space launches, AIDS, SARS, ebola, bird flu, nuclear winter, the ‘population bomb’, black holes, and my personal favorite (because I was totally sucked in), the Y2K “millenium” bug.
Global warming is the latest threat to our survival. While I do not intend to question the science or the reality that the Earth is warming, I wonder if the more extreme predictions of impending doom and destruction are driven partly by our need to indulge in millenarial thinking.
Of course, catastrophes do happen. Europe’s population was halved by the bubonic plague. American Indian populations were virtually wiped out by the arrival of Europeans (although, unlike the Aztecs, the biggest killer of the indians was the introduction of European diseases for which they had no immunity). And the dinosoars met their demise when a giant meteor crashed into Siberia and spewed massive amounts of pollution into the atmosphere. Yes, species and civilisations do meet their demise – in the long run, it is inevitable. The price of survival is eternal vigilance. However, as South Africa shows, apocalyptic predictions can become a destructive obsession that, in the worst case, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

other links:
cranky professor
The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7

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