The Inside Agenda Blog

Apocalyptic Narratives

by Mary Taws Wednesday January 4, 2012

One of the many reasons I found Daniel Yergin's book, "The Quest," to be refreshing was because it painted an optimistic picture of the future of energy. It was the first non-fiction book I've read in quite some time after which I felt a sense of elation.

At the end of many articles I read,  films I watch, or podcasts I listen to, I'm usually left with a sentiment of doom. Whether the piece is about the pressures of Discovery Communications LLCprogress, international relations, the quest for oil, climate change, etc., as a reader, I feel as though the underlying thought is, "One more mistake for man, one giant leap toward the apocalypse for mankind."

Centuries ago, when we thought the days of energy production were over, we eventually innovated and created new technologies. Daniel Yergin acknowledges the struggles ahead, but chooses to highlight the fact that we have innovated before, and we'll do so again in the future.

We do live in complex times, and the complexity of our problems often results in this mass production of films, books, and articles that end with an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty about the future. And often the fear of the unknown collapses into a depiction of a bleak tomorrow.

"Take Shelter" is a prime example of this phenomenon. The film premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and is about a man named Curtis, who lives with his family in Ohio and is plagued by apocalyptic visions. The audience is left wondering whether or not he suffers from mental illness or whether the world is, in fact, coming to an end. One scene I can't seem to stop thinking about is a panoramic shot of Curtis standing in the middle of his backyard, catching raindrops in his hands. He smudges his fingertips together and realizes the sky is raining droplets of thick, yellow oil. The feeling of impending doom in this scene, according to the director himself, Jeff Nichols, sought to capture a very specific type of anxiety that defines our times.

After I attended the screening of "Take Shelter" this past fall, I stayed behind to hear a Q&A session with actress Jessica Chastain and one of the film's creative directors. The film was shot a few years ago, before the 2010 BP oil spill and nuclear disaster last year in Fukushima, Japan. Chastain remarked how the themes of the film were almost prophetic, which I thought was an interesting comment; apocalyptic narratives are, after all, prophecy based on religion or popular culture. As Chastain said, the feeling of impending doom has only become more relevant.

Although theories about "the end" are nothing new, the rise of apocalyptic narratives are more prevalent in times of extreme change or progress. The nuclear disaster last year in Japan, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the rapid change in the Arab world have all yielded much uncertainty about what's next. The Discovery Channel explored the popularity of subscribing to apocalyptic theories in their special, "Apocalypse 2012," based on the theory that the world will end on the last date of the Mayan calendar -- Dec. 21, 2012. Although this theory has been disproved, the human response to the theory is still worth examining.

As I was putting this program together, I asked the twittersphere why we connect to these doomsday scenarios: What is it that we find so appealing about imagining the destruction of everything we know? Some of their answers are collected below.

And we'll explore some of these ideas and more on the program tonight.

All photos are courtesy of Discovery Communications Inc./Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.

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