Transcript for Barry Vacker on "The End of the World -- Again: Why the Apocalypse Meme Replicates in Media, Science, and Culture"

Jim Fleming: These days, you can't avoid them -- doomsday scenarios. They permeate every area of contemporary culture, from economics and ecology to technology and theology. Barry Vacker teaches media and cultural studies at Temple University, and he's the author of a book called "The End of the World -- Again: Why the Apocalypse Meme Replicates in Media, Science, and Culture." Vacker talks with Steve Paulson.

Steve Paulson: Why are you so interested in our obsession with apocalyptic thinking?

Barry Vacker: That's a really great question and one I wrestled with in writing this book, and I think it actually goes way back to my childhood. I grew up in the suburbs of Texas, and I had my own little portable television, and we had some stations that would show these odd, quirky, apocalyptic films, "Fail-Safe," "Dr. Strangelove," to the more B-level movies, like "Them!," with the giant ants.

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Vacker: And I never really could explain my fascination with these films, because I never thought ants were going to come get us, or that all these scenarios are going to unfold. But at some point, I realized that they were actually really raising questions about human existence and about how we understand what it might be like if we were all gone. What would it really mean if we were to disappear, if we were to obliterate ourselves, or if some species was to take over? And so, I think, at some deep level, they're challenging us to think about the meaning of human existence.

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Vacker: So, I think at some deep level, they're challenging us to think about the meaning of human existence.

Paulson: Hmm. Well, you talk about what you call "the apocalyptic meme," and we should define our terms for a moment here. What do you mean by, "the apocalyptic meme"? What's a meme?

Vacker: The "meme" is a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his book "The Selfish Gene," and what he meant by the term "meme" is that ideas evolve, very much like genes. And so, they copy, they replicate, they mutate, and so on. And those memes, like genes, those memes that confer survival advantages will be those that continue to exist. And so a meme, in essence, is really any idea, belief, or behavior that can be copied, and replicated, and passed along. From the simplest thing as fashion, and tattoos, and art to science, to philosophy, to more complex things like world views, ideologies, economic systems. Pretty much everything humans do can be understood in terms of a meme. Something that's been copied and replicated and passed along.

Paulson: And then you say there are sometimes collections of memes, related memes that are clustered together, what you call "meta-memes."

Vacker: Yeah and, again, I'm getting that term from Susan Blackmore, who's done a lot of work extending the ideas of Dawkins and others on memes. But a meta-meme is a collection of memes that are all woven in together. So, for example, let's take the meme of capitalism. Well, that has lots of meanings. It has a lot of other lesser memes -- corporations, mass-production, maybe exploitation, free market, free enterprise, profit, consumer society. It's got a lot of other memes woven into it. So, within these larger narratives, there are lots of lesser memes all woven in together.

Paulson: So you are saying that there is an apocalyptic meme out there.

Vacker: There's many of them. They're all over the place.

Paulson: Oh, OK. Well, tell me, what form do these apocalyptic memes take?

Vacker: Well, this came off the whole Mayan apocalyptic hysteria. And I think what's interesting in our society, is that the Mayan apocalypse, even though 27% of Americans believed that it was likely to happen. 

Paulson: You're saying 27% of Americans thought the world was going to end, like the Mayan prophecy?

Vacker: Yes. According to a survey by "National Geographic," yes.

Paulson: Really?

Vacker: Yes, 27% thought it was likely to happen. The number in China was 20%. So, there are a lot of beliefs out there of various apocalyptic scenarios. The Mayan one was easy to discredit, but I think that kind of worked as a cover story, because, let's face it, the War on Terror is apocalyptic. I mean, let's look at Afghanistan, what has happened to Afghanistan. After the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 and '80, and that lasted a decade. And then with the Americans since 9/11. So that's apocalyptic, Iraq is apocalyptic. I think you could say that war itself is apocalyptic, and humans have been waging war for a long, long time. In fact, in the new millennium, since the year 2000, humans have spent over $15 trillion on war and military. That's $2,000 a person waging warfare.

Paulson: So, this obsession with the coming end of the world, I mean, it helps to explain a lot of the books, and movies, and TV shows that trade on this idea. And, you know, dystopianism, obviously, fits in to this, as well, the sci-fi fantasy stuff, zombies, vampires, it's all sort of part of the same thing. But then, I guess it raises a question, "Well, are all those movies, and books, and TV shows creating this apocalyptic fervor, or are they reflecting it?"

Vacker: I think it's probably both, because, growing up in the Cold War, which ended in 1990 and '91, there was the fear of the nuclear apocalypse. That is not on the radar near as much, although it might be, because there's still over 22,000 nuclear warheads in the world. But, we now have the ecological apocalypse, whether that's measured as climate change, rising ocean levels, global warming, ecological destruction. There's also the idea of a resource apocalypse, that we're going to exhaust the Earth's resources. Then there's a variety of technological apocalypses. In other words, maybe the nuclear power plants will melt down, and maybe we're going to run out of energy. And there's also the idea of the digital apocalypse, that we will create these machines that will be so powerful and so small that they will go in and alter human consciousness and create a new human. So, the real human will be gone and be replaced by some kind of digitalized human. That's sort of the Ray Kurzweil scenario.

Paulson: Right.

Vacker: And you mentioned the zombie apocalypse. And I would say there's two others. The cosmic apocalypse, the idea that Earth could get obliterated by the cosmos, be it a meteor, asteroid, black hole, supernova. The science shows on television do a lot to further that idea that the universe could wipe us out. There's a show called "The Universe," that shows up on the History Channel, and they have numerous scenarios where these scientists sort of gleefully explain the ways the Earth could meet its demise.

Paulson: This is how scientists can get on television. [laughs] Predict the end of the Earth.

Vacker: That's right, exactly. In fact, these guys, you would think they were like Roland Emmerich, announcing their new blockbuster, you know?

Paulson: There's kind of a paradox here. I mean, going back to this idea of the meme, and again, if we draw the analogy to evolution, I mean, for creatures to exist into the next generation, they have to be successful, they have to reproduce, which raises the question of, "Why are these doom and gloom scenarios so popular?" You know, they're kind of frightening. Why do people get off on them?

Vacker: Well, it's interesting because, as a meme, to survive they have to have some kind of advantage. So, in my book, I list seven advantages, or seven benefits. All of these apocalyptic scenarios offer "what if" scenarios. What if this happened? What if we had an ice age? What if the temperature of the Earth heated up? What if extra-terrestrials came to us and our planet and decided to wipe us out? What if we had a nuclear meltdown as in "The China Syndrome"? And so they have all these "what if" scenarios. Embedded in that is the possibility that something could end. Is it going to be the end of industrial civilization, the end of humanity, the end of capitalism, whatever it might be. But, pregnant in an end is also a beginning. Oh, wow, if we could just get past this wave of destruction, we'll have a new chance for a beginning. So, the scenarios always have embedded, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, and end and a beginning. And spinning off those two things, because everybody kind of wants to know how things are going to end, right? We want to know "Hey, this is going to end," and "Hey, there's a new possibility," right? We always have those in our lives, because we were born, and we know we're going to die, so ends and beginnings are important.

Paulson: You're really talking about rebirth, then. The fantasy that the old, the corrupt, the decaying will be wiped clean, and we'll have a new, fresh, wonderful start.

Vacker: Right, it's just like Madison Avenue promises with so many products, right? You'll get a new beginning, a new chance to begin again, and the old will be swept away. One of the ends that's terrifying in this sort of fear of the future, the idea that somehow, the future is messed-up. Somehow, it's going to get worse. That the good old days are better than the days to come. That tomorrow is going to be terrifying, and we got to go back to yesterday. And that fear of the future under-girds a lot of the sort of conservative or neo-conservative apocalyptic scenarios, cultural apocalypses, whether it's immigration or gay rights, all the things that are perceived as largely negative by conservatives, or fundamentalists, or evangelicals, or whatever. So, all that sort of fear of the future, or that there's just simply no future. And I think that was part of the fear of the Cold War, is that somehow we knew that we could immediately get wiped out, and there might not be a long-term future. And so there have been any number of films that have dealt with that, from "Dr. Strangelove" to "Fail-Safe." I would say even a film like "The Matrix" has a deep fear of the future. But, another benefit is the idea that somehow, out of this, there will be a transformation of human consciousness, that somehow we'll come out a better species, if we just survive it. And this is a very optimistic view. Once we survive our mistakes, once we conquer climate change, we'll be transformed. Or, maybe by transforming consciousness, we'll conquer the climate problems. And I think that's sort of what's in Al Gore's message, is that somehow we can transform human consciousness and society to cooperate on a global scale to fend off severe climate change. So that's what makes his view so optimistic, as opposed to the meaning of much more pessimistic views of climate change. 

Jim Fleming: Barry Vacker is the author of "The End of the World -- Again: Why the Apocalype Meme Replicates in Media, Science, and Culture." He spoke with Steve Paulson. So, what do you think about Vacker's ideas about the apocalypse meme? You can share your thoughts with us, through Facebook or Twitter. Or send us an email through our website.

Comments for this interview

distortions of root of the term "apocalypse" (Sawyer, 12/01/2013 - 10:49pm)

why is it that in the broadcast there was mention of apocalypse as coming to the Earth/humans from various sources, outer space (the universe), the global warming problems, wars and several others but the "father(s)" of the idea of apocalypse wasn't mentioned at all when it should have been on the top of the list, that is what Jesus spoke about. Isn't that where western civilization got the entire idea from. Doesn't the author know that the Jesus and Old Testament prophets spoke about the Earth being recycled by "heat" and fire, toxins, space aliens (birds, dragon (reptilian?) (fallen angel) (serpent) invasion, large object(s) from space hitting the ocean, etc. and plagues that cause humans to mentally snap, etc. Is it because it's unpopular to say the name Jesus, in a sense understandably. If you ever want a show that speaks truth to power and is not Christian or religionist nor atheist nor new age spiritual go to my site on blogtalkradio.com/sawyer. My book will be out soon but I'm revealing it's content gradually on the internet radio broadcast and you probably won't find what I am reporting reported anywhere else.