Planning for the End of the World (Or: Hopelessness as Superstition)
Bethany Ball is a Little Preoccupied with Complete and Universal Devastation
The night Hurricane Sandy hit my community—upriver in the Hudson Valley—I spent the night with a group of friends at a neighbor’s house. The children were nestled safely in the basement. As the storm grew stronger, one friend headed down to join the kids. I stayed upstairs by the sliding glass doors that led to the back porch. The house was surrounded by enormous old oak trees that had been there for a couple of centuries. They probably weren’t going anywhere. But smaller trees around the perimeter of the property crashed down at regular intervals, taking out first the fence, and then an old shed.
We opened a bottle of mezcal and laughed with drunken nerves each time we heard a crash or when the wind really started screaming. The power had gone out, as it usually did at the first gust of wind, and the living room was lit with candles. It was eerie, vaguely romantic, and oddly exciting.
I vanished into the kitchen to get a glass of water and when I turned again, some of our group had run out into the blackness. I stood on the back patio gripped with anxiety until they came back a minute later to tell me what they’d surveyed: lines down, cars smashed, road impassable by felled trees. Power was out for millions up and down the eastern seaboard. All around us we heard small gas generators powering up. Three hundred people died in the storm. We had no power for ten days and spent hours idling in lines stretching miles to the one gas station that was still open. The gas station only took cash and charged five dollars a gallon. Days passed and the grocery stores emptied. Target shelves emptied. It was junior varsity doomsday.
When Sandy hit in October of 2012, I’d already been thinking a lot about the end of the world. While Y2K had come and gone without incident, 2012 was the year the ancient Mayans had predicted would herald the end times. I, newly stable both financially and emotionally, finally happy, with a town I really loved and two small children, was somehow susceptible to this idea. It had wormed into my head during that whole year. Though I joked about it, and laughed it off, there was something in me that was becoming a true believer. 2012 would be the end, I decided, and Sandy cemented it.
I’ve always been superstitious, curious about the occult, astrology, prognostication. I will never turn down a tarot reading. Something about all of it still makes me shiver the way a good ghost story did at camp, or a Ouija board pulled out at a sleepover. If it was late in the evening and I was feeling vaguely mystical or apocalyptic or just bored with the Mayan predictions, I would instead watch Howard Camping the evangelical, predicting the world’s end. I would read all about Nostradamus and his predictions on the internet. It was like looking for WebMD symptoms, but instead of a fatal illness, I was watching for complete and universal devastation.
Unlike the Boomers, who didn’t know what to do with excess, the Gen X mid-life crisis is about preparing for and dealing with decline. The decline of our planet, our political systems, salaries, soaring housing and education and health costs. But for the first time, we were prospering and I was stunned by my good luck and believed it would all end in the most devastating and global way. To imagine the end times will happen in one’s lifetime is fairly egotistical. The end times have been prophesied for centuries. And besides, already all over the globe, disasters were occurring, people’s worlds destroyed. Wars, flooding, tsunamis, fires—it was already happening somewhere to someone. Even here.
After Sandy, one of my fellow hurricane watchers attended a weeklong tracking course for people who wanted to learn to track animals and live off the land. He has a PhD in math from an Ivy League school and attended the tracking course with men who had done time, urban commandos, special forces, corporate executives, and academics like him. There was no dominant political affiliation. All they had in common was a belief that living off the land—starting fires from scratch, hunting animals, and building lean-to structures out of brush and branches would be useful when the end of the world happened.
The world-famous tracker advertised his pedigree. He said he’d learned everything he knew from a native prophet, and he’d been working with law enforcement for several decades. The prophet had taught him world-class tracking skills and he’d also prophesied horrific events—massive catastrophes that would necessitate all knowledgeable people to scurry off into the woods until the coast was clear. My friend, the professor, came home breathless telling us all he knew, planning to attend future courses.
In spite of my staid village existence, preparing for the end times seemed fairly doable. As a child, my mother had taken me camping in a broken-down Chevette. By the time I was nine, I could jump out and push it while my mother popped the clutch to get it started again. We camped all over the country in all months of the year. February in Michigan? No problem. We had sleeping bags, a small leaky backpacking tent, a tiny stove, and wool long johns. We had backpacked all across the Presidential range in New Hampshire and camped through the Adirondacks.
By age ten I could put up a tent by myself in the dark in the middle of a thunderstorm and I could start a fire and even light the tiny butane stove. And later I’d used those roughing-it skills in New York City when I’d lost my apartment and found myself penniless in an abandoned building in Harlem, squatting there alone for months until I could save enough money on my publishing salary to move to a proper room. I’d come from pioneers and sharecroppers, making do with almost nothing as they trekked across the country in covered wagons, stealing the land of the people who’d lived there for thousands of years. “Cleared the snow off the stove,” my great great great grandmother had written in her journal around the 1880s somewhere in Iowa with her seven children, “and made breakfast.”
If necessary, and for survival, I could live off anything. I could live anywhere.
One weekend my friends and our families trooped upstate to visit a doomsday compound. The compound was hours north in the Catskills, several acres with a small pond and a large garden. There were four or five large houses in various stages of construction and one older house already kitted out with solar panels and a stove so efficient that a cord of wood could heat it for three days and leave behind just a cup of ash. We saw the food storages below. Large bags of shrink-wrapped rice and beans. The guy who ran the place was a professional homeopath.
He tried selling us his homeopathic remedies by telling us what was wrong with our kids—my son had pulled my daughter off a top bunk bed—and the homeopath had just the remedy for him. He tried to sell us a stake in the community, and as we sat around his table in the one finished house in the community, eating his homemade chili, while we endured his annoyance at our dogs and kids, and ordinary messy family lives, he shared his theories for what would end the world.
The first problem, at least for me, was that all his ideas were different. He talked about shifting poles and solar flares knocking out the power grid worldwide. Maybe for days, maybe forever. He spoke of climate change and worldwide flooding and hurricanes. Each would be equally as devastating as the last and they would all happen simultaneously. It was so over the top that at the time, I found myself wanting to laugh. And he wanted to know if we wanted to buy a 30,000-dollar room in his apocalypse Airbnb. For an extra grand, he’d throw in a yearly family plan for homeopathy.
“Your kids,” he said, staring right at me, “could really use it.” I looked around at the dowdy furniture, and outside at the houses in various stages of construction, and the rough beginnings of a garden we’d be expected to toil at for our sustenance. I thought about the rice and beans stashed under the house, and I thought about living in someone else’s property—with THIS guy in charge and I thought, No way would I live here. Even if fire was raining from the sky.
And the second problem I had was all the people this kind of plan left behind.
So we walked away. We walked away from all of it. From survivalist training and from the compound upstate and from the end of the world. We look back now a little bewildered. What were we thinking? If the end of the world actually happened, my professor friend said, I realized I’d rather just hold hands with my loved ones and jump into the abyss because I don’t want to live in the world after it ends. I agreed with him. I have no great love of Target, on any level, but it’s there. It’s easy. It’s convenient. I wouldn’t wish it away.
My daughter had grown two inches and by spring of 2020, none of her clothing fit her. The open Target was a beacon of civilization in what felt like a barren landscape in those early spring months of the pandemic. And maybe, in spite of my pioneer ancestors, my close-to-the-bone mother, my months in a New York City squat, I’d prefer the abyss to living on a compound with a nutty controlling homeopath and anyone else he managed to lure up there. To cut oneself off from all civilization and leave the rest to perish—even for purposes of survival—was more horrifying than any prophecies I’d heard.
Over a year and a half into the pandemic and nearly a year out of the Trump administration, it does feel like the beginning of the end of everything. There are police shootings and protests on the streets. Opioid deaths are on the rise. Mass shootings normalized. The loss of lives, the loss of livelihoods. White women throwing themselves down in histrionic fits all over America fearful of losing their grip on a world that no longer exists, fights on airplanes, a mass psychosis event at the capital in January. “I’ve seen a huge rise in people forgetting to be human,” a bakery owner in San Francisco said recently.
Still, there are those who stockpile weapons and worry about a tyrannical federal government and those who buy land far from the parts of the country ravaged by climate change. Once I met a Russian billionaire who said, “When there’s blood on the streets, someone makes money.” Certainly, Amazon and other tech companies have made a fortune during the pandemic. There have been countless magazine and newspaper articles and tv shows about doomsday prepping. There was a report a couple of years ago that the CEO of Reddit signed up for Lasik surgery because he wanted to be ready for a world without optometrists and Warby Parker. It’s every douchebag for himself. Wealthy people buy into three-bedroom condos underground in the Nevada desert “just in case.” For 6,000 dollars, Costco will send enough food to last a year for you and the lucky few in your bunker. Shipping is free and the packaging is “discrete.” A recent prediction by a retired Australian admiral says that by 2050 the world will fall into global unrest due to climate change. This is not superstitious doomsday prophecy. It’s science.
Our expectations shape reality, I read once. A line as opaque as a newspaper horoscope but there is truth there. If we can imagine only a world that must be escaped rather than improved then maybe that’s what we will end up with. But maybe the only ethical action in a world where your actions don’t matter is to act as if they do up until the very end. Like everyone, I’ll get older (hopefully) and one day die (definitely). Until then I’ll try and live in the real world and face it head-on. There are things we can do here on earth. In spite of everything, I’ve grown more optimistic over the years. The election, the fast development of the vaccine, the focus on social justice issues previous generations have ignored, the hyper-engaged teens in my house I’ll soon unleash on the world—they all force me to believe in better things on the way.
After all, hopelessness is just another superstition, an embrace of dread, another denial of reality. It requires the hubris to believe that we know how the story will end, when the reality is that none of us do. And hopelessness allows for inaction, to throw up one’s hands and do nothing. Surely, it’s better, or braver, to acknowledge this not knowing and soldier on, raising our kids, loving our friends, working to change the world and shape the future in whatever way we can, than to plot out how a few lucky few will endure the unendurable. The future is bleak, but it isn’t written.
The Pessimists is available from Grove Press. Copyright © 2021 by Bethany Ball.