Avner Falk
Clinical and political psychologist and psychohistorian

Is the End of the World at Hand?

In addition to plagues and pandemics, organized warfare has been the scourge of the human species for the past fifteen or twenty thousand years (a relatively short time in human evolution), ever since human beings began to form families, clans, tribes and nations. By now our species has divided itself into some two hundred “pseudo-species” called “nations,” separated from one another by international borders. Despite the old adage that good fences make good neighbors, nations that share a common border often war on one another across that border.

The Russian-Ukrainian war has been going on since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. Some 70,000 to 100,000 Ukrainians have been killed, with some 120,000 wounded, some gravely. Some 290,000 Russian troops have been killed as well. A recent report by The New York Times puts the number of casualties in this war at half a million. Russia’s autocratic ruler, Vladimir Putin, has threatened to use “tactical” nuclear weapons, a euphemism for a bomb that could kill tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands. The U.S. and Europe, which have been supporting Ukraine, could be dragged into such a war, with China, Iran and North Korea on Russia’s side. That could mean a nuclear third world war, which would destroy our species.

War also takes place between nations and non-state groups. The U.S. war on the Islamic State (ISIS or Da’esh) is a recent case in point. On October 7, 2023 the Israeli-Hamas war broke out after Hamas terrorists, calling themselves “freedom fighters,” savagely massacred over one thousand Israeli civilians and wounded thousands more, committing unspeakable atrocities and destroying all the Israeli village surrounding the Gaza Strip. During the past week that war has already claimed many thousands of people killed on both sides.

An all out war between Israel and the Hizballah in Lebanon, with Palestinian Arab fighters in the West Bank jumping in, may break out as well, in which case many thousands more could be killed. Some twenty-five thousand Israeli soldiers have already died in Israel’s wars since 1948, and tens of thousands have been gravely wounded, handicapped, or traumatized. Thousands of Israeli families have lost their loved ones and went through bereavement and mourning, as well as having to deal with devastating post-traumatic stress disorder. If threatened with extinction, Israel may use its nuclear weapons. If the U.S. and Iran get involved in such a war, we have another scenario for a third world war.

The preoccupation with the end of our world, or the End Times, is as old as human civilization. Some of it is realistic. On top of the devastating wars, there is a lengthy litany of very dangerous processes, in addition to war, that threaten to end our life on this planet as we know it. The Doomsday Clock stands at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest our species has ever been to extinction. No wonder many people around the world fear that it is about to end.

Fantasies of the End Times have been around for millennia. The Hebrew Bible includes prophecies about “the end of days” by Isaiah and about the war of Gog and Magog. The New Testament has the Apocalypse of St. John. Christian theology talks about Armageddon (a corruption of the Hebrew Har Megiddo). In 2011 Maria Manuel Lisboa, an expert on Portuguese language and culture, published The End of the World: Apocalypse and its Aftermath in Western Culture in which she pointed out that our fear of our world ending is ancient, deep-seated and perennial. It crosses boundaries of space and time, recurs in all human communities and finds expression in every aspect of human civilization, from pre-historic cave paintings to modern high-tech computer games.

In her interdisciplinary study, Lisboa examined the imaginary scenarios of the Apocalypse, the depiction of its likely triggers, and the imagined landscapes in the aftermath of global destruction. She reviewed novels such has Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, as well as popular films such as Blade Runner, Armageddon and The Terminator. Lisboa also analyzed the religious doctrines of the End Times, scientific research on the end of the world and the visual arts to study of what she called “one of Western culture’s darkest and most enduring preoccupations.”

Climate change and global warming are now household phrases. In 2017 Peter Brannen, by his own description “an award-winning (and often losing) science journalist and contributing writer at The Atlantic,” published The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, in which he argued that the impending extinction of our species has been preceded by five former extinctions of all life on Earth, or, as he put it, “scientists now suspect that climate change played a major role, not only in the end of the age of dinosaurs, but also in each of the five most deadly mass extinctions in the history of the planet.”

The age-old fantasy of the End Times has, alas, become a reality. In his recent End of the World: Civilization and Its Fate, the Canadian psychoanalyst Jon Mills, who writes a blog for this newspaper, discusses the impending end of our species. Mills points out that we are facing an unprecedented “planetary ecological crisis, with runaway greenhouse gas emissions, environmental destruction, extreme climate change, human overpopulation, global catastrophic hazards, including the threat of world war, nuclear holocaust, bio-terror, pandemic infectious diseases, famine, water scarcity, religious fanaticism, techno nihilism, public health calamities, obscene disparities in wealth and poverty, civil disorder, and the anathema of evil that could bring about the end of the world.”

According to the publisher’s blurb for his book, Mills “provides the first book of its kind [sic] that examines the ominous existential risks that could bring about the end of civilization. Drawing on the psychological motivations, unconscious conflicts, and cultural complexes that drive human behavior and social relations, he offers fresh new perspectives on the looming fate of humanity based on a collective bystander disorder […] As we stand idly by as passive global bystanders in the face of ecological, economic, and societal collapse, we must seriously question whether humanity is under the sway of a collective unconscious death wish.”

This statement raises at least two questions. First, the “global bystander disorder” concept had been described by Mills in a previous publication as the  Global Bystander Effect. As Mills put it, “Despite the fact that we see the ruin with our own eyes and do practically nothing to mitigate the ecological crisis, world masses have adopted a global bystander effect, where denial and abnegation of social responsibility lie at its very core.” It is not clear, however, whether the “global bystander effect” (or disorder) is meant to explain our impending doom, or whether it is only meant to describe a well-known phenomenon.

Second, and more importantly, the idea of an unconscious death wish is problematic. It was first put forth in 1920 by Sigmund Freud in his essay Jenseits des Luztprinzips (Beyond the Pleasure Principle). Freud divided all human drives into two major classes: the life drives and the death drives, known by their Greek names of Eros (love) and Thanatos (death). Freud thought that “the aim of all life is death.” When he published this essay, however, Freud was ill with oral cancer after having smoked cigars for decades. His idea of the death drive has been disputed by psychoanalysts and philosophers. Some have seen Freud’s notion of a “death wish” as incompatible with the sanctity of life and as an explanation for (or even encouragement of) suicide. The philosopher Todd Dufresne has denied its existence. The psychoanalyst Ben Kafka believed the concept to be flawed and not  relevant to contemporary life.

The idea of a “collective unconscious death wish” that is pushing us toward self-extinction is even more problematic. In a Commencement Address at American University in 1963, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and five months before his assassination, U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy — or of a collective death-wish for the world.”

Large human groups like nations do not necessarily have a collective death wish. They do have psychological needs, such as the need for a collective identity, the need for clear boundaries between the group and other groups, the need for a common history (whether real or imagined), the need for a “chosen glory” and for a “chosen trauma,” the need for a common language or religion, the needs for allies, and the need for enemies upon which the group can externalize what it cannot accept about itself. Hence the endless jokes by the English about the stinginess of the Scots, whereas in reality the Scots may be more generous than the English, of, if you like, the dehumanization of the Israelis by the Arabs, and vice versa.

The end of the world has been a preoccupation of our species since the dawn of civilization. Most of it was fantasy. On the other hand, the present preoccupation with the end of our world is quite realistic. If the Doomsday Clock moves 90 seconds forward, we are done for.

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