As you’ve doubtless heard, it rained this week in Toronto. Admittedly, Torontonians are quick to turn any hiccup here into national news. But this was bad: 126 millimetres of rain in just a few hours, shattering the city’s daily record, exceeding the average rainfall for the entire month of July. Streets flooded, roofs collapsed (mine included), tens of thousands lost power, a water snake boarded a stranded commuter train. Tragically, a swamped Ferrari had to be abandoned on Lower Simcoe Street.
But Toronto’s trickle was nothing compared with the rampaging flood waters endured by so much of Western Canada mere weeks ago. That disaster (and the powerful stories and indelible images emerging from it) has genuinely moved the nation. And it’s but one of many terrible situations endured here and abroad in recent months; as hard as it has been for us, it’s far worse elsewhere. Runaway trains, political upheavals, natural disasters, wars, massacres, drone strikes, bombings. This week, an ice shelf eight times the size of Manhattan broke free from an Antarctic glacier, and presumably ocean levels inched a bit higher.
There is a palpable feeling that things, generally, are bad, and deteriorating rapidly. We see it in the news, with what feels like an ever-amplified parade of horrors. We see it in our books, such as Dan Brown’s new bestseller, Inferno, which is basically a screed against the dangers of overpopulation.
We even see it in the nightmarish embodiments of our fears that fill the multiplexes. This weekend, you can take in World War Z, which is exactly what it sounds like once you realize that the Z stands for zombies.
On Monday night, as I hoisted my wife so she could use a nine-inch kitchen knife to puncture the aquatic boil protruding from our ceiling, I thought of all these things – because the end of the world is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Despite seeming reasonable in other areas of my life, I believe that we are quite likely living in or near the fabled end times. Not necessarily a Book of Revelations type of end; now it’s easier to imagine a secular version caused by climate change, which is quite possibly irreversible, or nuclear war. Both options seem more probable at this point than an assemblage of horseman. And I think that this belief is increasingly common. That, whether it’s articulated as such or not, it’s becoming easier and easier to feel that the shadow hanging over us isn’t just another massive rain cloud. That it’s something bigger, something worse. And that it’s moving in awfully quickly.
In moments like this – extreme weather, extreme bad news, extreme trauma around the globe – it’s easy to fixate on that terminal fear. What if these are our final days? What if the rant-and-rave routine with which I’ve ruined countless dinner parties is actually accurate? What if we’re running out of time? And, I’d add, what if that’s a good thing?
The end may feel new again, but of course it’s an old idea, dating back to some anxious Assyrian tablets from 2800 BC. They warned that “bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” Sound familiar?
Some ancient Romans thought that their civilization would last no more than 120 years – a decade for each of the 12 eagles that had revealed the party’s curfew to Romulus. In 1260, lingering worry over the predictions of an Italian monk named Joachim of Fiore bloomed into out-and-out hysteria across Europe, with reports of earthquakes and other natural disturbances seen as confirmation of the worst. Soon thereafter came the bubonic plague, which one would have been hard pressed to see as a sign that things were on an acceptable track.
Predicting doomsday essentially became a high-stakes parlour game, with new dates floated continually. More recently, the 20th century, with its persistent evangelical bent, brought countless missed opportunities. We’ve been scheduled to go out in a massive flood, or at the hands of a bizarre planetary alignment. One of the more memorable (and outrageous) predictions was made by Sheldan Nidle, the founder of a UFO religion, who said the end would be brought about by 16 million spaceships arriving in 1996. Some foresaw nuclear disaster, comet strikes, even the good old-fashioned Rapture. To say nothing of the Mayan maybe that was 2012.