Opinion

Alex Beam

The inglorious end of the world? Nah, just people

getty images/istockphoto; heather Hopp-bruce/globe staff

Earlier this month, MIT professor and provocateur extraordinaire Noam Chomsky, a linguist by training, published an article titled “The End of History?: The short, strange era of human civilization would appear to be drawing to a close.” Chomsky argued that ISIS, German bankers (!), and climate change are somehow confabulating to bring civilization to “an inglorious end.”

Did he forget to mention the Zombie Apocalypse?

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Of course, things look grim. What we once called the Fertile Crescent is turning into a hate-fueled caliphate, and yes, I’m sure the German bankers are being very tough on poor Greece. Without a doubt this weekend will be a rough one for the Koch brothers, squarely in the sights of the multitudinous People’s Climate March assembling in New York. “We know who is responsible,” the “People” announce on their website. “The debate is over . . . We have the solutions.”

I’m glad that’s taken care of. If the week hadn’t served up enough dark comedy, the well-known physicist Stephen Hawking told the world that the Higgs boson — known as the “God particle” — “could lead to the complete collapse of space and time as we know it,” according to the Huffington Post. He quickly elaborated that, for technical reasons, this probably won’t happen.

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There’s a tremendous vanity to assuming that the world will end on our watch, that we are so important that we will be the last humans on the inhabitable earth. When I’m flying in an airplane that hits heavy turbulence, I start meditating on the terrible tragedy of the planet being forced to spin on without me. It is all about me, all about us. After us: the deluge, the catastrophe, the “inglorious end” of it all.

The imminence of Armageddon is the flywheel that has kept many a religion choking forward on the planet. Prophets as diverse as Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith hinted that their followers might experience end times, within their lifetimes. Most famously, the Baptist preacher William Miller assured his flock that time would end on or around Oct. 22, 1844, with the second coming of Jesus Christ. The following day became known as the “Great Disappointment,” but it certainly didn’t drain the enthusiasm of millenarian preachers, right up to the present day.

My friends at the website Rapture Ready monitor such categories as “beast government,” “liberalism,” “Russia (Gog)” and “financial unrest” to compile their Rapture Index — “a Dow Jones Industrial Average of end time activity,” they call it. It’s a “prophetic speedometer,” they explain. “The higher the number, the faster we’re moving towards the occurrence of pre-tribulation rapture.”

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Here’s the bad news. The current Rapture Index of 186 is very close to the all-time high of 188. An index of 130 to 160 betokens “heavy prophetic activity.” Above 160? “Fasten your seat belts!”

Does that mean Chomsky is right, I asked Rapture Ready spokesman Terry James? “I don’t know Professor Chomsky,” James replied. “But if he believes this world system is coming to an inglorious end, he and I are in agreement.”

It’s not just the guys in clerical white collars who traffic in end times speculation. Men and women in white lab coats do, too. I keep a weather eye on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists magazine’s “Doomsday Clock,” which proclaims itself to be “an internationally recognized design that conveys how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making.”

The clock’s cheeriest reading was 17 minutes to midnight, in 1991, when the Cold War appeared to be at an end. Today, we are five minutes from midnight, the gloom-mongers say. Loose nukes and climate change, the scientists warn, threaten doom.

Or do they? We’ve avoided nuclear wars in the past. We may well avoid them in the future. Will the Boston of 2050 resemble Venice, as I read in the newspaper a while back? I suspect it will look like the Boston of 2014, perhaps with the addition of a 3-foot seawall. I am the world’s greatest pessimist, and I am here to assure you: It’s not ending here, and it’s not ending now. You and I will end, and the world will go on.

Globe contributor Alex Beam is author of “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.”
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