There is apparently something deeply embedded in the American psyche that appears to find the major cataclysm, the global catastrophe, the collapse, the Armageddon, the Apocalypse, both frightening and alluring. Witness the endless parade of feature films whose plot features any of these scenarios: Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Omega Man, The Day After, Independence Day, the “Planet of the Apes” series, I Am Legend, War of the Worlds, The Day After Tomorrow, the “Terminator” series, 12 Monkeys, Failsafe, Dr. Strangelove, The Matrix trilogy… the list goes on, and on… and on.
There’s something fascinating in the idea that this massive, globalized, industrialized, mechanized, seemingly unstoppable civilization could come to a grinding halt, after which we’d all wind up in a kind of post-apocalyptic stone-age. (It’s interesting, though, that the so-called “film that started it all” (far from true, really), “Mad Max”, is actually Australian. The Cult of the Apocalyptic is not limited to the United States, by any means.)
There have been no shortage of “end of the world” predictions, most of which have originated in the U.S. We just escaped global destruction on May 21 of this year (2011) due to an apparent miscalculation by the Reverend Harold Camping, who made the prediction originally (and a good thing, too. I was really busy that day.) I believe the new end-date, as he has now recalculated, is October 21, 2011 (Yay! At least we get another summer!).
And of course the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012 has apocalypse written all over it. (And why are so many of these end-dates on the 21st day of the month? I have no idea.) Y2K (the first few seconds of the year 2000, when computer systems the world over would go crazy) was supposed to have had airplanes falling from the sky, nuclear reactors melting down, banks collapsing, and the internet, the phone system, the electricity grid, and so forth shutting down forever. I’m sure I would have noticed that if it’d happened.
So what is it, this peculiar American fascination with apocalypticism? Certainly the Religious Right who, for the most part, believes we are heading for the Armageddon prophesized in the Book of Revelation, has something to do with it. But I am sure there’s more to it than that.
One could relate to images of America as a specially favored nation, with a special divine destiny, that go back to the very beginnings of European settlement. The Puritan leaders of New England speculated freely that America might in fact be the New Zion, offering an example to the world of a redeemed, purified, God-fearing social order. This belief emerged strongly in the millennial strand of the great revival movements of the 18th and early 19th centuries, in early Mormonism, in the expansionism that comes at the end of the 19th century, and in the reform-minded Social Gospel theology of the Progressive era.
In more secularized form one can see it in President Woodrow Wilson's soaring rhetoric of the World War I era, in which America becomes the instrument for spreading democracy, freedom, and peace around the world. This kind of thinking provided a fertile seedbed for apocalyptic ideas. When historical developments made it seem increasingly implausible that the millennium would arrive in the present age, the apocalyptic strand in American religious life turned more toward a “pre-millennial” rather than a “post-millennial” eschatology, foreseeing increasing wickedness, war, and the demonic rule of the “Antichrist” before Christ's millennial kingdom arrives--through divine intervention rather than human reform effort.
America has never had a state church or an established religion. Rather, it's had a competitive, “free-market” form of religious life, which encourages the rise of new religious groups, charismatic religious leaders, and the use of extra-denominational techniques to win a following, such as revivals, radio, television, mass-market paperbacks, etc. All this has encouraged high levels of religious activism in America in general, and a high level of interest in biblical prophetic and apocalyptic writings in particular.
So how the hell does this relate to Transition? you're asking. Good question. Well, for starters, the vision of a post-carbon world tends to be by far the most negative, and the most "apocalyptic", in the U.S. as compared to, say, Western Europe, or even Canada (America’s closest neighbour in far more than mere geography.) One has only to look at the peak-oil websites, and correlate them to their physical locations to see a definite pattern emerging. Survivalism in all of its forms, post-nuclear, post-millennial, as well as post-carbon, is rampant in the U.S., while is generally seen as rather atypical in most other parts of the world.
The American “cult of individualism” is partially responsible, I think. America is the home of the “rugged individual” as popularized and validated in everything from television to film to advertisement. The manly American doesn’t ask for help, doesn’t ask for sympathy or support, doesn’t ask for directions. When faced with a challenge, it is seen as admirable to button up, tighten your manly jaw, and triumph over the problem single-handed. It’s what the “strong, silent type” would do. Naturally, when surrounded by a collapsing civilization, it is thus a natural, “ruggedly individualistic” response to escape to the woods, build fortifications, and protect home, property and family (in that order) against all external threats by oneself.
Also, as Dr. Stephen Quilley points out, the United States still has thousands of square miles of untracked wilderness that it’s possible to escape to. Most other countries don’t have that luxury. Canada does have far more wilderness than the United States, but much of it is distinctly inhospitable, often featuring either muskeg swamp to the horizon, or a severely unpleasant climate, or both.
It’s likely no accident that the Transition movement, which embodies the spirit of collaboration, community and cooperation, started in Great Britain, an island that is almost entirely inhabited, and those relatively small areas still uninhabited are often even more inhospitable to human presence than Canada’s. And of course many cities in Great Britain survived the blitz during World War II largely because of what Pat Murphy calls the “power of community”.
Finally, the United States is one of the few countries on the globe that has never (the highly-selective attacks of 9/11 notwithstanding) experienced a direct threat due to war or attack. Many other countries have not been so lucky. In particular, countries in Western Europe and the British Isles have endured the massive devastation inflicted by two world wars, and have learned through direct, hard-won experience the value of community, and of banding together in time of crisis.
God knows I hope we are not headed toward a large-scale collapse due to peak oil, or climate change, or both, but nevertheless it is certainly one of several plausible scenarios. So, here’s a question: should such a collapse occur, who’s more likely to make it to long-term survival? The survivalist, hiding in the woods in his fortified bunker with an arsenal of weapons and a mountain of freeze-dried foods, or a community that bands together for mutual support and comfort, sharing of workload, distribution of essential tasks, and engaging in a large-scale collaboration on redesigning and rebuilding the local infrastructure with the goal of providing for their mutual and collective needs in the immediate and longer-term future?
I don’t have a definitive answer to that, but I know what my gut is telling me.