Surviving Premonitions of the Apocalypse

On May 10, the New York Times’ daily news highlights included the following lead items:

In Hours, Thieves Took $45 Million in A.T.M. Scheme

By Marc Santora

The authorities said laptops and the Internet were used in more than two dozen countries to steal from A.T.M.’s, including 2,904 machines in New York City, in one day.

After Plant Explosion, Texas Remains Wary of Regulation

By Ian Urbina, Manny Fernandez and John Schwartz

Last month’s devastating blast in West, Tex., did little to shake local skepticism of government regulations, and recent efforts to push for more oversight have faced strong resistance.

Citrus Disease with No Cure Is Ravaging Florida’s Groves

By Lizette Alvarez

So far, efforts to find a way to stop the spread of citrus greening have failed, and the damage is growing increasingly extensive.

Opinion/Op-Ed Contributor

The Next Pandemic: Not If, but When

By David Quammen

The new, aggressive pathogens in China and Saudi Arabia may or may not carve a deadly path to the West. But sooner or later, you can be sure, one will.

It is almost enough to turn one into a “Doomsday Prepper.”

Of course, apocalyptic visions have long colored the rhetoric at both ends of the political spectrum. Yet, perhaps understandably, because the new millennium has been marked by horrific terrorist attacks and severe economic recession in the U.S. as elsewhere, such rhetoric seems especially prevalent today. Most of the “Doomsday Preppers” seem to be Right-wingers. But for every “Doomsday Prepper,” there seems to be an environmentalist warning that we are on the verge of irreversible climate change, species extinction, or environmental degradation.

Why, then, do I find the Right-wing stuff harder to take—at times, patently ridiculous?

I think that it may be because the Right-wingers often think that the apocalypse can be escaped or survived, whereas the Left-wingers recognize that the nature of an apocalypse is that it is essentially inescapable—that somehow surviving an apocalypse might mean that eventually your descendants might inhabit again a habitable world, but that, for dozens of generations, surviving the apocalypse may be tantamount to a terrible exclusion from extinction.

It does not seem to me to be an accident that those most convinced that apocalyptic events are imminent but survivable almost always live in remote rural areas. It is not just that they want to remove themselves as far as possible from the maelstrom. Rather, it seems quite clear that the metropolis is, for them, already very illustrative of the maelstrom.

In contrast, people who live in urban areas have an innate sense that there is very little that is actually escapable—not the crush of people, not the congested traffic, not the noise, not the sense of being imposed upon, not the chronic edginess that is the reflexive response to everything else taken together.

But, of course, most of them continue to live in “the city” because it provides other things that compensate for the daily annoyances—challenging and high-paying employment; a broad spectrum of educational opportunities, in particular in very specialized areas; almost unimaginable options in dining, recreation, entertainment, and the arts; and, underneath all of the rest, an energizing awareness of the most dynamic possibilities of human society.

So, even as many city centers continue to deteriorate, our urban areas remain the most economically and culturally dynamic and important places in our nation. Indeed, there is every indication that they will exert an increasing influence on the national consciousness. If that trend means that we have an increasing sense of being in all of this together and less of a sense that we can somehow go it alone, it seems to me to be a largely positive trend.

Some may see this trend as spelling the doom of American individualism. But, for all of their urgent press of human activity, cities have been, paradoxically, the great creators of individual initiative and achievement. Whether your idea of American individualism is personified by Henry Ford or Jackie Robinson, it has very seldom emerged from or come to fruition in an underground bunker deep in the wilderness.

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