The end of the world is big business in the United States.
Talk about a flawed model: if they’re right, and the world really is going to end, their business is doomed; if they’re wrong, it’s pointless. Either way, Americans have no sense of irony (and, in the case of those stockpiling guns and ammo, no sense at all), so the dollars keep rolling in.
Armageddon’s gone mainstream here. It’s estimated more than 3.7 million people class themselves as ‘doomsday preppers’. Google reports more than two million survivalist searches a month. There are apocalypse workshops, survivalist expos and Day of Reckoning motivational speakers (now there’s a tough gig). They even have their own acronym for Judgement Day: SHTF. Shit Hits The Fan — because levity is always appreciated in a crisis.
And it’s not just nutjobs skinning deer in Alaska any more, either. The super-rich are in on the act too. The ultimate Silicon Valley and Wall Street status symbol isn’t a yacht or a private plane any more, it’s a fortified bunker with an air-filtration system and enough food and water to survive 10 years underground.
I thought it was all a big joke; what happens when the media pump people’s brains full of fear-mongering propaganda 24 hours a day — ‘The End of the World: A Welcome Break from Donald Trump and the Terrorist Threat’. Then I saw something that changed my mind. The Barringer Meteor Crater, in northern Arizona, is one of the largest and best-preserved, meteor impact sites on the planet. As I walked onto the viewing platform, a vast abyss of rock and dust, a mile across and 550ft deep, spread out before me. It was like seeing the unfathomable magnitude of the universe condensed into one spot: humbling, unnerving and impossible to comprehend.
When the 26,000mph fireball struck, 49,000 years ago, it exploded with a force greater than 150 atomic bombs. The ground melted beneath it, earthquakes rippled across the land, shockwaves levelled forests, a burning cloud rose above the debris, and molten iron and burning pieces of rock rained down for miles around.
But it’s significance goes far beyond this biblical devastation; the Barringer Crater offered the first definitive proof that meteors had struck Earth. It explained the large round marks found on the Moon and weighed in on theories of how the dinosaurs became extinct.
Tens of thousands of meteors pass through Earth’s atmosphere every year. Most burn up before impact, but they’re not the only problem — far bigger chunks of space rock are swirling round the cosmos, posing a much more serious threat. On 31 October, 2015, a hulking, 1,800ft-diameter asteroid passed within 300,000 miles of our planet — a hair’s breadth in astronomical terms. Had it hit, it would have been the end of life as we know it. When did NASA first identify it as a risk? Less than three weeks earlier.
No wonder doomsday is such big business. The apocalypse preppers are right: when the next meteor hits, the S really will HTF. And that’s surely what really lies at the heart of the survivalist mentality. Whether it’s a nuclear winter or a global economic meltdown, the results are always the same: bands of savages fighting over limited supplies — a bit like they already do, on Black Friday — in a barren, inhospitable land. Sound familiar? This isn’t a disaster scenario: it’s the Wild West meets the zombie apocalypse.
Perhaps its appeal shouldn’t be surprising. After all, survivalism is part of the American psyche. It’s an echo of the old frontier, a deep longing for a return to the lawless pioneer days, when the man with the biggest arsenal wrote the rules. They’re not preparing for the future, they’re dreaming of the past. And that’s a problem, because America’s past was written in savagery and blood. Because if we have to dream up a new way to live, surely we can do better than Butch Cassidy and the Walking Dead? Because, in the end, if it’s every man for himself, we’ve lost already.
The real lesson to be learned from the Barringer Meteor Crater is not that we should prepare for the worst, but that we should cherish the present. visitarizona.com
Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)