First published online by Andy Beckett.
It is a crisp bright winter morning, but in a windowless basement gallery at Tate Britain, minutes after opening time, there is already quite a crowd for the paintings of the end of the world. The 19th-century artist John Martin has an erratic reputation, the exhibition has been running for months, and entry is a not-very-recession-compatible £14. But his grandiose panoramas of churning floods and cities aflame are being eagerly studied by today’s ticketholders. Caoilfhionn Ní Bheacháin is one of them. She is a youngish lecturer in communications at the University of Limerick in Ireland, on holiday in London; as an employee of both the public sector and academia, she understands that the future may not be too cheery for Ireland, Britain and the rest of the western world.
Apocalypse is the title of the show. “The work is of the moment,” she says, a little professorially, as we talk in the gift shop. “The sense of imminent doom, the scenes of cities being destroyed – it goes with the recent riots, with what’s happening to the planet’s ecology.” Above us on the wall is an exhibition poster: a detail from Martin’s best-known picture, a hellish vortex of crashing rocks and collapsing sky, like a cross between a heavy metal album cover and Hieronymus Bosch, called The Great Day of His Wrath. “I also quite love the gothic,” she says with a smile. “I’m thinking of getting one for my office.”
“The apocalypse,” wrote the German poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger in 1978, “is aphrodisiac, nightmare, a commodity like any other … warning finger and scientific forecast … rallying cry … superstition … a joke … an incessant production of our fantasy … one of the oldest ideas of the human species. Its periodic ebb and flow … has accompanied utopian thought like a shadow.”
It is haunting us again. A sense of doom dominates recent films such as Melancholia, in which a vast unknown planet suddenly appears from behind the sun and converges inexorably on Earth; and Take Shelter, about a taciturn American Everyman, living quietly with his family somewhere on the suburban plains, who starts dreaming extravagantly about devastating coming storms and social breakdown. There is doom television, such as the BBC1 series Survivors, a post-apocalyptic soap opera that ran from 2008 to 2010, about the struggles of ordinary Britons after a deadly flu pandemic. There is doom literature, from the exhaustingly erudite – Living in The End Times, by the Slovenian superstar philosopher Slavoj Žižek – to the more digestible – The Coffee Table Book of Doom, by Steven Appleby and Art Lester, published in time for this Christmas, and complete with cute cartoons and would-be wry discussions of the likelihood of an asteroid strike or global food shortage or “supersize hurricane”. There is doominess in pop music, not just in the usual genres such as metal, but on the fashionable fringes of dubstep and techno, where the much blogged-about young record label Blackest Ever Black issues echoing, funereal instrumentals with titles such as We Must Hunt Under The Wreckage Of Many Systems.
There is an ever louder babble of apocalypse-predicting subcultures, amplified and partly sustained by the internet: peak-oil doomers, who believe the world’s energy supplies will collapse and mass famine will follow; Christians who anticipate an imminent day of rapture when believers will ascend to heaven and non-believers will perish; interpreters of the ancient Maya calendar who, contrary to mainstream scholarship, are convinced that the world will end on 21 December 2012; and traditional survivalists, stockpiling tinned goods and constructing rural “survival retreats” to sit out armageddon, who in recent years have been more active than for decades, according to one of their gurus, James Wesley Rawles, American author of the 2009 bestseller Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse. This autumn, as the estimated world population passed seven billion, an earlier prophet of doom, Paul Ehrlich, co-author of the 60s and 70s bestseller The Population Bomb and professor of population studies at Stanford University in California, resurfaced in the British press to warn that demand for the planet’s resources would soon decisively exceed supply. “Civilisations,” he reminded this newspaper, “have collapsed before.”
Especially in Britain, the media love frightening forecasts: from the rightwing Daily Express, with its fondness in recent years for near-constant, alarmist front-page weather warnings, to the leftwing New Statesman, whose 5 December coverline read: “The death spiral: Is it too late to avert a British Depression?” Even The World in 2012, the latest edition of the Economist’s annual compendium of predictions, abandons its usual relentless capitalist cheerleading for warnings about an economic “Great Stagnation” and further “mayhem on the streets” of the west. “The world won’t end in 2012,” writes editor Daniel Franklin. “But at times it will feel as if it is about to.”
In July, the word “apocalypse” appeared 60 times in British national newspapers. In August, 70 times. In September, 92 times. In November, 100 times. Usually calm Guardian columnists have started to ponder armageddon. After the chancellor George Osborne’s bleak autumn statement on the economy, Zoe Williams discussed the pros and cons of food hoarding. In November, Simon Jenkins declared: “Today’s [economic and political] predicament is unquestionably worse than the 1970s.” The same month, Ian Jack wrote: “Build a bunker with a vegetable plot on some high ground and leave it to your grandchildren: dangerous levels of climate change now look all but inevitable.”
In rich countries until quite recently, doominess was mainly for pessimists or aesthetes. From the early 80s, when the great modern free-market boom began, until the seemingly sudden onset of the financial crisis in 2007, “There was a deep-seated sense that a model had emerged – western capitalism – which would survive all difficulties and spread throughout the world,” says the political philosopher John Gray. “Wars didn’t puncture this belief, because most people in the west have no connections with the military, and because even after events like 9/11 the boom carried on.”
During these relatively benign years there were still mass, media-fed anxieties about global outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola and bird flu, about the millennium bug; but these threats either seemed to pass or, in the case of the latter, barely materialised at all. When the worldwide computer meltdown widely forecast for January 2000, with possible consequences as enormous as crashing airliners, an international recession and an accidental nuclear war, turned out to be no more than a scattering of computer glitches – a weather centre in Aberdeen affected, likewise a tide gauge in Portsmouth – the moral of the episode seemed clear: in the well-off west at least, catastrophes were increasingly the stuff of disaster movies rather than real life. Meanwhile, the steady upward climb of popular capitalism went on. As the 1993 D:Ream song and 1997 Labour general election slogan had it, Things Can Only Get Better.
How naive that sounds now. The economic and political shocks of the last five years, and of this year in particular, have changed how many westerners see the world. “The impossible is becoming possible,” as Žižek puts it in Living in the End Times, and he doesn’t mean in a good way. Gray says: “We’ve moved from a delusional optimism to a sense of intractable difficulties: resource scarcity and enormous debts; the erosion of bourgeois life; the inability of politicians to solve big problems; the realisation that the economic problems of the 70s weren’t really solved; the realisation that the window for doing something about climate change – the next five years – will be entirely occupied with trying to restart economic growth.”
Meanwhile, for westerners who instinctively look to other countries or big political ideas for inspiration, the possibilities seem to be withering. The US appears economically declining and politically dysfunctional. The EU is damaged and possibly disintegrating. The social democracy of Europe’s postwar golden decades seems unable to modernise itself. The ability of Thatcherism and its international variants and descendants to rescue countries from national decline – if that ability ever truly existed – seems to have run its course.
Žižek argues that over the past five years the west has suffered a form of bereavement. To describe the resulting mindset, he uses the famous “five stages of grief” model devised in 1969 by the Swiss-American psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The current combination of public doominess and desperate-looking political summits certainly seems to feature the middle three. Gray sums up the prevailing mood more succinctly: “People are afraid – for good, practical, experientially based reasons.”
The last time a lot of us felt this way for a sustained period was in the 70s; or more precisely, during half-a-dozen bad years scattered between 1970 and the early 80s. In Britain and across the west, there were riots and recessions, bail-outs and stock market plunges, politicians seemingly out of their depth, deep fears for the environment, a pervasive uncertainty and anxiety and dread. No one could confidently say what the world would be like a few months hence.
These years produced their own doom culture. The word itself acquired a currency: in 1970, Gordon Rattray Taylor’s The Doomsday Book predicted both global warming and a new ice age; between 1970 and 1972, BBC1 broadcast a hit drama series called Doomwatch, about a fictional government agency dealing with environmental disasters. Between 1975 and 1977, BBC1 showed an earlier, eerier version of Survivors. There were apocalyptic novels such as Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden (1978); films such as Chris Petit’s Radio On (1979); hit singles such as UB40′s nuclear war melodrama The Earth Dies Screaming (1980). Posthumously, John Martin became part of the doom boom: after a century of being ignored or derided by critics, interest in his paintings revived. The triptych of which The Great Day of His Wrath is a part was bought by the Tate in 1974, the year of the Birmingham pub bombings and the three-day week.
Enzensberger mocked the doom-mongers for their paranoia. “The apocalyptic metaphor promises relief from analytical thought,” he wrote in 1978. “Everything is conceived of as a hidden sign … of catastrophe.” In previous eras, he wrote, people had imagined armageddon coming “as a bolt from the blue” – an act of God – but to the pessimists of the 70s, the end of the world “seems only to be a matter of time”. Such foreboding also suggested a kind of vanity. “We all [like to] believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species,” argued Michael Moyer, editor of Scientific American, in a special apocalypse-themed issue of the magazine last year. “Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special” – a last generation, rather than one of many to come.
Yet in the 70s, the doom culture only spread so far. In Britain and other rich countries, a large proportion of people had experienced and survived far worse eras, most obviously the second world war and its aftermath. Faced with the power cuts and oil crises of the 70s, many of these older Britons reverted to what you could call Blitz behaviour: grumbling rather than panicking, improvising their way round the shortages and disruptions – buying candles, hoarding petrol – or simply ignoring the apocalyptic in favour of the domestic. The great crisis of 1970-81 was much more present in the minds of leader-writers and politicians than the population as a whole.
Are we as resilient now? Increasingly few Britons can remember the hardships of the 70s, let alone those of the second world war. For many people (I include myself), the key formative period as adults was the Blair era, with its benign economy and managerial, barely changing politics. Those fat years have filled our lives with material goods that may act as a buffer against the bad times, psychologically as well as physically, for quite a while. This may explain why the opinion polls have yet to turn that grim for the government. But then, as Gray puts it, “What happens when these materialistic, impatient citizens, used to short recessions at worst, have to face up to a long, slow struggle? The penny has sort of half-dropped, which explains the doominess.”
When societies are fearful, people sometimes vote with their feet. In 1974, one of the worst years of the British 70s, the number of Britons emigrating rose sharply. That has yet to happen this time round: in 2010, the emigration figure was the lowest for 10 years. But that may be less reassuring than it seems, reflecting a lack of opportunities in the rest of Europe and in the US, two traditional exit routes for ambitious Britons in hard times.
Yet the best historical parallel with the gloomy era we have entered may not be the 70s but the 30s. Then Britain was governed by another Tory-dominated coalition, the National Government. As now, continental Europe was in turmoil, and the British government kept its distance from that struggle. As now, there was a lingering British recession but parts of London and the south-east of England prospered regardless. In frightening times, it was possible to regard Britain as, to use one of George Osborne’s favourite phrases, a “safe haven”.
As Žižek writes: “Once a catastrophe … dismissed as impossible … occurs” – such as the Great Depression of the 30s, or the current financial crisis – it can be “‘renormalised’, perceived as part of the normal run of things.” The British can be particularly good at such rationalisations. Often, in relatively orderly and prosperous societies such as ours, feelings of doom don’t last.
During the winter of 1938-9, another George associated with times of austerity – Orwell, not Osborne – wrote a condition-of-England novel. From its title, Coming Up For Air, and one of its main settings, a smart new housing development in southern England, you might imagine it is about a country beginning to recover from the trauma of the Depression. But Orwell, with characteristic shrewdness, filled the book with suggestions that worse was in store. For Britain and much of the west, you may recall, the 30s did not end well.