I’ve been away from the city for a long time. Driving through the countryside, I have seen red barns and the occasional industrial building as I pass by. After passing the airport where the monthly number of departures recently reached an all-time high, the density of cars and lanes on the highway increase as well. Finally I can cruise southbound at 100 kph. As the evening grows darker, the density of the lights and the pale yellow cast of the autumn sky from the streetlights ahead show that I am approaching the city.

My extended stay in a rural mountain region has heightened my sensitivity to the city lights. My eyes linger on them. Once again, the vast amount of light from a rather small European city strikes me. Not too long ago, this play of city lights was an attraction that could impress and amaze country dwellers. Now other thoughts are evoked. I am in one car driving along one road towards one of a thousand cities that are all lighting up the sky, each with their tens of thousands and millions of lights, at this exact moment as I pass the sign announcing the city boundary. Electricity from coal, oil and tamed waterfalls, channeled through an amazing grid of cables, is beaming so brightly from the neon lights and light bulbs that they render the stars in the sky almost invisible from the city streets, even on clear nights.

How many sets of wheels have rolled past this sign in the course of the day? 20 000? 100 000? Perhaps 200 000? I move into the passing lane and glide slowly past a giant on wheels thundering southbound today with a load of paper that will be northbound tomorrow filled with bottles of carbonated sugar water. The only visible trace left behind is the faint grooves in the asphalt. What have all these vehicles emitted into the air today?  How have they affected the trees, the buildings and the people along the roads? And this is merely a small country in the periphery, home to less than one-half of one per cent of the world’s rapidly increasing number of industrialised, two-legged mortals. Rather than figures and statistics, a question: How long can the earth bear us?

For some twenty or thirty years, David Brower traveled throughout the United States to deliver his ”sermon”. He asks his audience to visualise the history of the world during the past four billion years as if it had occurred in the course of the six days described in the biblical story of the creation. In that perspective, each day represents some 700 million years. All day Monday and the early hours on Tuesday were needed for the formation of the crust of the earth, the oceans and the atmosphere. The earliest forms of life emerged inexplicably at around noon on Tuesday. For the next few days, the bacteria and single-celled organisms were busy making the earth a more pleasant place. At about 4 pm on Saturday, the large reptiles appeared, and now evolution began to spawn numerous new species.

Five hours later when the redwoods appeared, there were no more big reptiles. At three minutes before midnight, man appeared. At one-fourth of a second before midnight, Christ arrived. At one-fortieth of a second before midnight the industrial revolution began. We are surrounded with people who think that what we have been doing for that one-fortieth of a second can go on indefinitely. They are considered normal, but they are stark, raving mad.

“I hope that the psychological community may be able to diagnose and do something about the ‘stark raving mad’ part”, adds the systems theorist Donella Meadows.[1]

However, we need not assume the perspective of millennia in order to discern bleak prospects for the future. You can feel that something is dreadfully wrong. You feel it on the motorway. When a 15-tonne 18-wheeled monster of a lorry thunders past. Or as you drive through the industrial outskirts of a city. At the sight of a badger smeared across the surface of the road, flattened and bloody. Or when a record flood breaks through the river Suddenly the experience of doom – the greater context – is there again, although it may be dispersed already the next morning by the events of everyday life. Our enormous capacity for letting the tasks of everyday life fill our entire field of vision, which keeps us from looking many years ahead or behind, prevents us from noticing the speed at which the world is changing. Combined with the creeping normalcy of the gradual changes in the surrounding landscape from year to year this amounts to “landscape amnesia”. Over a generation or two we simply forget what landscapes used to look like and which beings once inhabited the land.[2]

Still, the warnings that our natural environment is on the road to disaster are so familiar that they need not be reiterated in detail here. Both well-documented and more superficial warnings of disaster have swarmed as thickly as a cloud of mosquitoes on a sultry summer evening. It is time to ask what such predictions of doom try to tell us in addition to their “purely scientific” content. Why such missionary zeal, such grave moral imperativeness? What kind of feelings do they evoke in the soul? Which mythical shape do they assume, and what other images are they related to?

The stories of apocalypse – telling how the world will come to an end – is one of the grand narratives, a proto-story that has enjoyed favourable conditions in the past century, under the yoke of war, nuclear weapons and the environmental crisis. The apocalyptic dimension of environmental literature is particularly apparent in the atmosphere of urgency and imminent danger that permeates these narratives. Perhaps we could call this the essence of apocalyptic rhetoric: If we do not change our course at once, calamities will strike us mercilessly tomorrow. Entering into this mode of speech, this plot, evokes grand mythical reverbations in the audience from our cultural history that those uttering them are often unaware of.

The 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, issued an early warning: “Our Common Future serves notice that the time has come for a marriage of economy and ecology, so that governments and their people can take responsibility not just for environmental damage, but for the policies that cause the damage. Some of these policies threaten the survival of the human race. They can be changed. But we must act now.” Note that the length of each sentence is shorter than the preceding one. There is less and less space for manoeuvring, until everything comes to a halt in a call for immediate action. Existing in such a small space, under so much pressure, becomes intolerable in time. Most people, the general public and politicians alike, cannot bear it and must escape. These are the psychic processes we shall consider more closely in the following sections.
The environmental crisis – a myth of late modernity

The focus here is not on whether those who predict a collapse in the global ecosystems are proven right or wrong. Shedding light on the mythical nature of the narratives of doom simply draws attention to the fact that the end of the world has an immediate significance here and now. The concept of impending catastrophe is again alive in our soul. We have become concerned about the end of the world and where we are headed for. Our anxiety is aroused: How long can this planet endure our preposterous ways?

When I describe my experience of driving towards the city, and my attendant feeling of unease about the number of cars and roads and the vast consumption of energy, I do so not because my experience is unique. Quite the contrary – the apocalypse has taken possession of the undercurrent of our culture once more, making such experiences quite universal. The apocalypse has moved into the neighbourhood and the elementary school. On the personal level, it manifests itself as a distaste, disgust, or repulsion towards society, politics and what we are doing to nature. Distrust in political leadership, resignation and a diffuse hopelessness have crept into our collective psyche, gradually replacing the conventional cheerful, progressive view of the future.[3]*

The myth of ecological catastrophe has broken through in the mainstream newspapers and magazines as well: now the dying forests, global climate change, radioactive waste that will be lethal for 20 000 years, and the unknown side effects of chemical compounds are all variations on the theme from the chorus of doom. We are besieged by images of moribund nature that intrude even into our living rooms. We envision a planet where everything that is green is dying, where only buzzing insects have survived. The climate scientist James Lovelock says it’s already too late to change our course, because the critical thresholds have already been smashed by humanity.[4] “What good is a used up world, and how could it be worth having?” asks Sting in his hit song “All This Time”.[5]

Scenarios of catastrophe haunt us on the screen, in literature and in politics: Our planet cannot sustain 12 billion people wanting western levels of consumerism. A lack of fresh water and food will trigger atrocious wars and refugee crises. The future threatens to become unbearable. The strength and potency of the myth is related to the rapid, sweeping changes that have taken place in our way of living in the course of the past century. The technological advances that have long been adopted now portend doom – rather than progress – to an extent no one could have imagined just half a century ago.

The prophetic heritage

This is far from the first time that the idea of temporal progress leading to destruction has surfaced in the tradition of Western thought. The gloomy prospects bred by environmental problems resonate back thousands of years. Judaism had its prophets. Jeremiah’s call was to prevail upon the people of Israel to stop worshipping material gods and idols in order to obey the law of the Lord:[6]

For the mountains will I take up a weeping
and wailing,
And for the habitations of the
wilderness a lamentation,
Because they are burned up,
so that none can pass through them;
Neither can men hear the voice of the cattle:
Both the fowls of the heavens and the
beast are fled;
They are gone.

And I will make Jerusalem heaps and a
den of dragons;
And I will make the cities of Judah desolate,
without an inhabitant.

The same mythical theme emerges frequently in the writings of the prophets. It was their trademark, more or less. Isaiah, too, draws on catastrophes and wars to lead his people away from the paths where they have gone astray:[7]

Because ye depise this word,
And trust in oppression and perverseness,
And stay thereon:
Therefore this iniquity shall be to you
As a breach ready to fall,
Swelling out in a high wall,
Whose breaking cometh suddenly at an
And he shall break it as the breaking of
the potters’ vessel that is broken in pieces;
He shall not spare:
So that there shall not be found in the bursting of it
A sherd to take fire from the hearth,
Or to take water withal out of the pit.

Judgment day in Christianity is graphically depicted in the book of Revelation. When the seven angels sound their seven trumpets – on the last day – a series of environmental catastrophes shall afflict the earth. Hail and fire will strike the earth, the trees and the green grass will burn up, huge stars will fall from the heavens and poison the water, the sun will scorch people with its fire, the heavens will be dark and swarms of locusts will torment all the peoples, one earthquake will follow another and all life in the oceans will die. All of this will happen because of the evil ways of man, who has ruined the world with materialism, unrestrained propagation (adultery) and the worship of idols. Not until the imperial city of Babylon has fallen and Satan has been chained to the depths can everlasting harmony prevail in the new Jerusalem.

The modern version of doomsday has long been associated with the failure or revolt of technology against its creator – mankind. The narratives about Frankenstein were among the first and most important in this tradition (science fiction). Dr. Frankenstein created a monster that broke out of the laboratory and killed his creator’s wife on their wedding night.[8] Technology somehow gets out of control and comes back with a vengeance.

The ancient Greeks were particularly perceptive of how closely pride in one’s own progress is closely related to destruction. From among the many Greek narratives, I choose to draw attention to the myth of Prometheus, helper and teacher of man.[9]


Prometheus was a Titan of the ancient family of gods. The name Pro-metheus means fore-thought, foresight, planner. His brother was Epimetheus – hind-thought, or hindsight. It was Prometheus who fashioned the first humans from clay. He called on Athena to help breathe life into them, and he gradually taught them a vast array of arts: architecture, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, medicine, metallurgy and crafts of all kinds.

At first their life was rather wretched. They should have fire to assist them, these humans of yours, Athena said to Prometheus on one occasion. Then their lives would be vastly different. But Zeus is the sole ruler of fire, so that is probably impossible, she added.

Prometheus kept brooding about Athena’s mention of fire, and one day he asked her – as if in passing – whether she knew of a hidden path to the top of Mount Olympus. Oh yes, Athena knew of such a path, and she willingly explained the way. Carrying a staff made of the hollow stalk of a giant fennel, Prometheus made his way up to the heavens. There, without being observed, he snatched some glowing coals from Zeus’ sacred fire and hid them in his hollow staff. Not even the guardians of the heavenly gates could see that any wrong had been done.

Safely back on earth, he presented the sacred fire to the shadowy people to serve them. Only now did they begin to proliferate, develop the art of cooking, amass wealth and inhabit all the corners of the earth. As they grew stronger each year, Prometheus swelled with pride at what he had accomplished. But when Zeus discovered what had happened, it was far more than he could bear. Sparks flew from his eyes, and he seethed with rage. Swearing vengeance, he laid a plan.

Zeus commanded Hephaestus, god of fire and craftsmanship, to make a woman, and then he summoned the four winds to breathe life into her. Next he called upon all the goddesses to ensure that she would be the most beautiful woman the world had ever seen. Zeus himself built a golden box with an elaborate lock, which he filled to the brim with all matter of torments, suffering and misfortunes. He was filled with malicious glee and expectation as he watched Pandora descend the rainbow to visit the earth and seek out Prometheus. She was to ingratiate herself with him.

Prometheus was working outside his house when Pandora arrived. But when he heard where she had come from, he sent her away at once. By no means would she be allowed to stay. However, this made Zeus even more enraged, and now he could not restrain himself any longer. He gave orders that the rebel was to be captured and Hephaestus was to chain him to Mount Caucasus, at the end of the world, for a thousand – or according to some accounts, thirty thousand – years. But Prometheus was stubborn and would not relinquish his partiality to people. As he refused to be reconciled with Zeus, the supreme ruler of the gods bombarded him with lightning and sent an eagle to peck out his liver every day. During the course of each cold night his liver grew back, so that the eagle could return to torment him again the next day.

Epimetheus, frightened by his brother’s fate, married Pandora at once. And as beautiful as she was, he was not the least bit unwilling. After the wedding, Epimetheus was curious about what was inside Pandora’s box. He lifted the lid ever so slightly just to peer inside. Suddenly, the contents burst out – like a swarm of angry wasps – to alight on mankind: disease, toil, hardship, the afflictions of old age, madness, wickedness and lust. Last of all was hope, whose self-delusionary lies are the only thing that since that day have prevented humans from committing suicide one and all.
Prometheus and the myth of progress

The myth of progress is doubtless the most fundamental concept informing modern society. We have more or less ingested it with our infant formula through the sterilized rubber nipple.[10] It is both implicit and explicit, in the foreground and the background in politics, health services, business and industry – in virtually all areas of life. Things must get better, we must grow stronger, richer, wiser. Next year’s budget should be bigger than this year’s, which in turn exceeds last year’s. Most people of our day, writes the Swiss depth psychologist Guggenbühl-Craig, consider progress “natural”.[11] Even at present, when our belief in progress is faltering (as more and more high-tech Frankensteins reveal their pallid faces), words such as fast-growing, progressive, increasing, booming still have strong positive connotations. Only those who progress have a future. Change means improvement. New things are far superior to old things, new books are more correct than old ones, and new research is less flawed than research from a decade ago.

The Greeks recognised Prometheus in this way of thinking, which has progress as a root metaphor. Prometheus is the archetype of one who makes practical use of everything he comes across to make the future better. When he encounters a problem, he refuses to give up until he has found a solution: In his world of progress, problems exist to be solved. «The sky is not the limit.» Prometheus never wonders why problems emerge, what message they convey, what depths they emanate from or who has sent them. The fact that the gates to Mount Olympus are closed becomes a question of how-can-I-get-in? Fire must be used for something – it cannot simply smoulder in the hearth of the king of the heavens. The fact that it is illegal to take fire from Olympus becomes how-can-I-conceal-it? Pandora is not useful. As she is merely beautiful – and perhaps a threat to progress – Prometheus rejects her advances so that he can continue to work without interruption.

Whenever anyone asks: What can we use this for? What practical problem can it solve? How can we apply this? Whenever this attitude emerges, then Prometheus is present here and now. Every time someone wants to make a technological improvement, perhaps we can catch a glimpse of Prometheus in that impulse. When growth and increased production are considered unambiguously beneficial, it is Prometheus’ message we are hearing. In our day he is often referred to as instrumental or technological rationality. But by using such terms instead of his personification, Prometheus’ perilous nature is obscured. His autonomy is camouflaged in an attempt to chain this intractable Titan to an abstract category: «technological rationality». However, Prometheus represents more than a way of thinking. He also kindles boundless enthusiasm and the powerful emotion of pursuing a goal eminently worthwhile. Those who are possessed by him feel as though they have titanic power. Heave ho! Building up the company or building the nation becomes a all compelling call.

Living within a myth affords an intense emotional conviction that drives our thoughts and our reasoning. Archetypal figures such as Prometheus constitute an entire world and a way of being in the world, so that everything we do, see and utter is consistent with our fundamental state of mind. It is a pre-analytic vision, one that is not itself subject to analytical scrutiny. This is the most certain indication that we are dealing with a mythical archetype: It has an emotionally possessive effect, bedazzling our consciousness so that it becomes blind to its own stance.[12] In this way, Prometheus is more of a god or an eternal narrative than a purely internal, mental phenomenon. He is not merely a concept invented by humans; quite the opposite, he has fashioned us to be perennial builders and small energetic problem-solvers – and we build on in his name.

As a Titan, Prometheus was not considered a true god. Giants and Titans belonged to an older generation of gods, born of Gaia before the other gods came into existence. From these two races we have the expressions titanic and gigantic. And there is undoubtedly something titanic about progress. Thus we recognise Prometheus in everything that grows to titanic dimensions. These things lose both their human proportions and their contact with their place on earth, their groundedness. Developments in late modernity are characterised by vast metropolises, global markets, multinational corporations, colossal energy infrastructure, huge investments, mass transportation, etc. Conceived by a titanic imagination, their growth is unbounded. Like the Titans, they defy the heavens.[13] *

This shows that Prometheus exists not only in the imagination of individuals; he moulds organisations and economic structures as well. Capitalism has been criticised for being driven by individuals’ egotistical desire for profit. However, this moral criticism misses the mark. In a Promethean culture, that which is useful and profitable is precisely that which is good. Anything that contributes to increased prosperity and progress does not need to be justified – it is intrinsically good. Accordingly, everything that is in keeping with the myths we live by will be considered natural.[14] Individuals, enterprises and institutions that pursue maximum profit are not immoral, but quite simply well-adjusted cogs in a titanic system. Prometheus is proud of his work, and humans are proud of their Promethean achievements.

This myth means that the question of whether the latest advances in modern technology should be implemented is really not a political issue. In both industry and health care, as within agriculture and bureaucracy, it goes without saying. Nobody needs to promote more efficiency and new technologies, because most of society already operates within that myth. The implementation of new technology, then, is not a topic for debate, but «natural and necessary» for these systems. This reveals quite simply that a mythical understanding of reality prevails.[15] *

The myth of technological progress is deeply entrenched in technocracy – a comprehensive intertwining of technology and social structures. However, it is not recognised as a myth within these systems, as it is considered a self-evident necessity. Hence it becomes apolitical and universally accepted. Choosing between progress party A and progress party B is necessarily an uninspiring political choice. When the entire range of mainstream political positions is operating within one and the same myth, the profound – or mythical – differences disappear, and politics becomes void of issues that could engage the heart and soul, as well as the mind.

Anyone who expresses scepticism about progress will soon be met with objections such as: “Certainly, we cannot turn the tide of development! We cannot return to nature and live in wooden cabins!” However, this is itself a Promethean conception, which assumes that things can only go forwards or backwards. The latter is hopeless and stagnation is impossible, so we must continue to cultivate forward progress. In the Promethean world developments cannot be cyclical, branch out in multiple directions or simply alter shape indefinitely. Both Forwards and Backwards are actually titanic words that capture everything that happens in a linear way of thinking, as though history had just one dimension. It is the uncompromising Prometheus who presents the pseudo-choice of going onwards or backwards – of sink or swim. He refuses to negotiate with Zeus even when he is chained. Prometheus is unable to compromise: Onwards or Death!

Likewise, the Titanic – Prometheus’ first truly representative ship of the past century – could do nothing but continue onwards. It dared not turn or come to a halt before it was too late. This ship has since been frequently used as analogy for our day. With its bright lights, loud music, enlightened passengers with a promising future and a well-educated crew below deck, the Titanic heads on into the night. And those who are navigating this proud ship are firm in their belief in the ability of technology, science and the economy to avoid the iceberg ahead.

However, progress and improvement belong to only the first half of the myth of Prometheus. We have not yet hit the iceberg, been consigned to Mount Caucasus or opened Pandora’s box, which is always inextricably related to such narratives. Neither in the realm of the soul nor in the realm of ecology can progress continue forever.[16] * This is not a moralistic message, implying that progress is sinful or evil in itself. The myth quite simply reveals a necessary connection: By his very nature, Prometheus is bound to end up chained to Mount Caucasus, with an eagle eating at his liver all day long. Yet every morning it has grown back, is fully intact, quivering and crimson once more.

This dramatic narrative of torture expresses a psychological truth, or should we call it an «heroic remedy». Progress is caught in a hopeless position where it is forced to relive the same experience time after time. Linear progress is trapped in a confined cycle of recurrence: Every day more of Prometheus’ liver is pecked away, but during the night it grows back again. What could be worse for a believer in progress than to experience such endless recurrence? The true torture, the great fall as described by Aeschylus, is not the physical pain but the shame of being immobilised so that there is no progress.

Let us return to the present situation. Worldwatch Institute publishes the world’s most widely read book on the environmental state of the world.[17] Every year it describes anew how economic advances in the rich countries, combined with population and consumption growth in the poor countries, have got a stranglehold on the ecosystems. Human progress has changed the composition of the air itself, and with it, both climate and oceans seems to turn worse. The thorough, scientific documentation backing reports such as these reveals unequivocally that we are heading for chaos and catastrophe in the long run – if we continue on our current course, rather than making the drastic changes that are necessary.

However, environmentalists seldom take the time to dwell on the apocalypse as such. They, too, leap at once to the Promethean questions: What should we do at once to avoid destruction? Which are the most effective solutions? How can we change our current course? All of these questions are important, yet they remain within the myth that has generated the problems. If we want to escape from the myth, we cannot shirk the difficulties involved. We will have to face the apocalypse and dwell on it, even at the possible expense of being viewed as Cassandras, Luddites, Malthusians, spreaders of gloom, weirdos, necrophiles or doomsayers. We must explore the darker images and emotions the apocalypse evokes in the soul.
Face to face with the apocalypse

The gradual approach of the apocalypse seems to be inevitable, but like Prometheus we moderns would rather not know of either Pandora or her creator, Zeus, the God who preserves the order of the cosmos. We turn to the next page of the newspaper, change the TV channel, think about something else, continue on with our own pursuits. The destruction of our culture is somehow too distant, while we hold a steady course towards Mount Caucasus all the same.

Some people adopt a rather cynical attitude: The end of the world has been prophesied before, but it has never materialised. In other words, these are merely empty words this time as well. With the self-confident air of the business-as-usual proponents we can say: When the problems become urgent enough, we can count on technology and the free market to come up with a solution. This is simply nothing to worry about.

An enlightened approach might sound like this: The evidence is unequivocal. We must see to it that everyone gets enough facts and information about and insight into the environmental problems ahead. When everyone realises that we are heading for disaster, any responsible person will contribute to changing our ways.

A more puritanical or nostalgic reaction is not uncommon: We must return to pure and simple living. Any excess is bad. If only every person would realise that moderation, redistribution of goods and cutbacks in our standard of living are the key to harmony with nature, we would avoid environmental destruction. Let’s all dismantle our cars, settle down, grow organic food and practise global solidarity.

The critically minded go searching for causes. Who is behind this conspiracy against the common people and against nature? What system failures should be mended? Which institutions have turned corrupt? Capitalism, the market, the trade blocks, multinational corporations, the distribution of goods, the media, the patriarchal system and dualism have all been scrutinized. One or several of these institutions have been assigned the blame. If only we exposed and eradicated them, rebelled or organised a revolution, this planet could still be saved.

The «accountable» administrators and pillars of society have their own way of reacting: It is true that the situation is serious, but we must not be rash or base our strategies on whimsical fads. Nor can we impair the competitiveness of our national industries vis-à-vis other countries. It is crucial that reforms are thoroughly researched, well considered and implemented at a pace determined by international agreement. The situation is not at all as bleak and gloomy as some people seem to believe. In fact, compared to other nations we have made substantial improvements in pollution control and environmental legislation in recent years.

The heroic response is also common. Facing destruction, the urge to act is aroused. The hero awakens, ready for combat. We cannot merely spend our time talking. SOMETHING MUST BE DONE AT ONCE! The question is what. Merely recycling milk cartons and purchasing environmentally friendly toilet paper doesn’t seem entirely satisfactory. These environmental activists swarm through the country like modern knights looking for a real dragon to fight – and a virgin to rescue. Some find the virgin in patches of unspoilt nature here and there. Whales and spotted owls, lichens threatened with extinction, tropical forests, tigers and unspoilt watersheds can all fill this role of the defenceless victim in the hands of ruthless exploiters. Some see the dragon in the international logging industry, while others may target whaling nations or SUV’s, chemical manufacturers or the government’s plans to make huge dams for hydroelectric power. My thoughts automatically go to the green warriors (such as Norway’s Kurt Oddekalv or “Captain” Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace): equipped with 4-wheel drives and diving gear, pH metres and echo sonars, they are ready to muster for battle against any environmental enemy. Only concrete results count, and achievements are measured in wins and losses. Environmental work is a battle – a war to be fought until victory is won.

However, none of these reactions seems satisfactory to the soul. None of them is able to face the apocalypse itself. None of them stays with the anxiety, the fear and the apprehension emanating from its foul breath. They are all ways of fleeing from the threat of destruction. This reluctance to confront the reality of the destructive images as they present themselves is itself worth dwelling on. Why is the apocalypse not able to manifest itself as a sustained political and terrestrial reality? Why is it so difficult to be a prophet of doom?
The art of holding ecological catastrophe at bay

Certainly, it is difficult to live with the knowledge of our relentlessly increasing destruction of the diversity of life on our planet. It is difficult to find meaningful ways to react. There seem to be three related psychological reasons for this difficulty.

In the first place, the environmental crisis is seldom accessible to the senses. In Norway we currently use some 50 000 chemicals that are alien to nature; there are not many I can recognise by taste or smell. Much of the clearcutting and the death of forests, the regulation of watersheds and the building of dams takes place far from where most of the population live. It is impossible to sense the destruction of the ozone layer or increases in the emission of greenhouse gases other than on the screens of scientific instruments or via the flickering messages of the media. Everything that is disappearing – topsoil and earthworms, coral reefs and butterflies, hedgehogs and arctic fox – none of this is as easy to be aware of as what is still around. And the explicitly perceptible changes that are accumulating – such as exhaust, aeroplane noise, road construction, or city lights – occur so gradually that it is difficult to believe in the catastrophic urgency of their magnitude.

It’s hard to believe what we cannot see with our own eyes. Thus the awareness of catastrophe disappears in the busyness of our everyday lives; it doesn’t feel quite real. There is something about ecological catastrophe that does not sit well with the principle of reality that prevails in our world. Like most spectres, it is allowed to surface only in the dark and in the shadowy outskirts of our consciousness. Our progress-oriented ego automatically filters out such nightmarish phantoms from our awareness. Shall we call this phenomenon “the invisibility of the environmental crisis”? It results as much from westerners’ impaired capacity for sensing the world, as it does from the material changes themselves.[18]

The next psychological step is to repress and render innocuous that which threatens us. When environmental catastrophe so easily slips out of the field of everyday awareness, the entire topic is shifted to a debate about divergent models and their myriad negative forecasts. Science has been wrong before. Is it certain that things are as bad as all that? The situation is probably not as bleak nor as hopeless as they claim. Actually, things have never been better. Environmentalists can be labelled as one among many other special interests. There is the sphere of education, of industry, of care of the elderly, and of environmental protection – each of them defining a sector of society, each of them with its own pressure groups.

Denial is further abetted by the fact that so many factors are in play: population, consumption levels, technology that is harmful to the environment and the inertia of social structures. Each dimension is serious enough in its own right, but because we are unused to thinking systemically (we prefer analytical perspectives that draw exclusive divisions) it is not easy to catch sight of the complex interplay behind the environmental problems. This in turn makes it easier to deny their magnitude: there is no single enemy, no absolute evil, in sight.

For the most part, we tend to end up in what we might call a double life.[19] The apocalypse is repressed, yet it lives on in a parallel level of partial consciousness. We continue to live our lives as if nothing had changed. However, there is a constant murmur reminding us that everything has changed and that many things are utterly, madly on the wrong track. In our everyday lives we retain our ability to shoulder the tasks at hand. We get up in the morning, get the children off to school, keep all the appointments scheduled for the day and socialise with friends. At the same time, a part of the soul knows that there are unprecedented changes ahead of us – whether the apocalypse becomes concrete reality or remains a potential reality.

Let us consider what is in store for those who do wish to draw this spectre out of the depths of the dungeon and into the streets after all. What sort of fears does the apocalypse evoke?[20]

In the first place, the fear of suffering. It is painful to acknowledge the loss of nature or to become aware of our culture’s self-destruction. We are living in a Promethean culture that considers suffering and grief non-functional. There are medicines to treat headaches, back pain or depression – but no effective remedy to alleviate the grief and compassion we feel for our dying world.

Likewise, the fear of feeling powerless, the despair at the futility of anything we try to do, is lurking. What can insignificant wee me accomplish? My contribution will not even be a drop in the ocean. The magnitude of the problems is too great; we have no control, are lacking the answers and have no idea what to do. Both the heroic response (Keep at it!) and the Promethean (Every day a little better!) are helpless when the contender is Pandora’s box and the desolate cold nights of Mount Caucasus.

For many people, the fear of being labelled a pessimist is manifest. You can scarcely utter a few sentences about the impending disasters before you are deluged with all manner of “positive thinking” ideology. Wallowing in destruction and possible catastrophe is morbid. A successful, happy person should bubble over with optimism, creativity and new initiatives. Who wants to go around talking about the demise of nature?

By extension, we have the fear of seeming stupid. In a Promethean culture, competence and knowledge are what count – they show that you are in contact with your creative spirit. In order to have the right to express concern about the environment, you should also have the solution. You must have a technical-rational alternative to suggest. If not, you are ignorant and should keep quiet. And many people do just that because they feel that they should be ambulant data banks and intrepid debaters in order to earn the right to express their worries. Unfortunately, choosing to act on the basis of a concern for nature has been confused with proficiency in abstract reasoning.

The unpleasant feeling accompanying a sense of guilt is yet another facet. Who are you to be preaching about environmental sins to others? Have you kept to the straight and narrow path, and swept in front of your own door? Of course we have not. In our work, our cars, our clothes, our household appliances, our travels, in all of these things we are contributing to the destruction. By virtue of the things we own and the resources we consume, we are participants in the injustices perpetrated against impoverished countries by our asymmetrical trade system and in the corrosion of nature by our industrial economy.

Let this suffice. There are far too many «good reasons» for ignoring the threats of destruction. Thus it was also in keeping with a «natural» law of psychology that after an environmental wave of concern there comes a phase of disbelief, denial, repression and double lives. For the most part, the demise of nature was passed over in silence in public debate and politics in the latter half of the 1990s. Environmental protection was swallowed up by a booming stock exchange and rapid economic growth once more. Will we see a new steadily rising wave in the first decade of 2000s?

Perhaps we should not let go of the apocalypse as such just yet. So far we have merely examined how we hold it at bay; we have not yet confronted it. Asked it what it wants from us. Why it is haunting our house. What is it that our planet Gaia (or her grandson Zeus) is trying to tell us by sending this spectre into late modernity?
The message of the apocalypse for the soul

The first thing that happens when an awareness of the apocalypse surfaces is the awakening of a deep uneasiness. Despite every attempt to discount and disregard the forebodings of destruction, this uneasiness is and will remain the emotional impetus behind the environmental movement of our day. Thousands of organisations and millions of individuals sense the deep, foreboding undertones of approaching catastrophe. The primordial visions of the apocalypse have reawakened, much the same as the monsters from Frankenstein’s laboratory. We have made the entire world our laboratory, and the unforeseen consequences have now been unleashed. As Lester Brown has observed, either we will have to change the course of developments soon, or the self-intensifying inner dynamics of the scenario of depletion and decline will get the upper hand. The political decisions we make in the next few years will determine whether the world our children will live in flourishes or deteriorates.[21] If we were living in another time, he might have written: «Zeus has fetched his lightning bolt, the earth quakes and progress is fettered. We must court the benevolence of the gods.»

In other words, one aspect of the message of the apocalypse is a call for departure and perhaps even a call to adventure.[22] The uneasiness many feel motivates them to find other ways of being in the world, to seek out other mythical worlds.   If progress is no longer credible, what then? The more we learn about environmental problems and how they are all interconnected, the greater our unease. This feeling of uneasiness is not allayed by political plans for action, as none of these have yet gripped deeply enough into our perception of the world.

Photographs of our planet taken from outer space show us a round, blue and white sphere. But even though we have one planet, it contains many different worlds, a myriad of cultures. Which world does the apocalypse pertain to? Perhaps the apocalyptic songs of today specifically target the world that has been responsible for the most sweeping changes on the planet: the world I have called Promethean. The apocalypse – as it appears to progressive, industrialised individuals – signals death over precisely this way of living. The world that is about to go under is the one characterised by linear, abstract time, progress, growth and human-centrism.

In other words, the apocalypse speaks to more than the purely physical changes in global temperature, the ozone layer and the forests. It applies to more than the rapidly increasing gap between humanity’s growing desire for food on the one hand and the finite supplies of tillable soil and inexpensive freshwater on the other. Perhaps even more urgently, it tells of the demise of a form of consciousness, a certain way of being in the world that is typical of our northern, industrial, human-centric culture. The reappearance of apocalyptic images in precisely this culture brings to an end our perception of progress as a matter of course. That means the end of the world as we know it, and the demise of  the mentality that has created gigantic structures, international standardisation and industry – so that roads and factories everywhere, e.g. in Taiwan or Brazil, are hardly any different from those in France or the Netherlands. They all embody ideas from the same mythical attitude. For many years this mentality has soared freely, spreading the stolen fire zealously throughout the world.  Now it is in danger of being fettered to the mountain, of stagnating. Perhaps we can start to hear the story of apocalypse tell us that it is precisely this obstinate, rebellious reality that is now being chained to Mount Caucasus.
Doomsday is not a moment in history

Doomsday is nothing new. As the Norwegian poet Rolf Jacobsen, born 1907, once said in an interview: «I grew up with threats of doomsday … Ever since I was a child, we have been living at ‘the end of time’.» [23] Wars, nuclear weapons and the approach of a new millennium gave rise to a profusion of doomsday prophecies in the twentieth century.

Believing that doomsday is going to happen at a future point in linear time is to take this vision and myth literally. Religious beliefs often take this form; that the day of the Last Judgement is a secret date marked with red in Gods own calendar. As the Republican Kevin Phillips points out in his book, American Theocracy, about 55% of Republicans who voted in the last presidential election believe the  world is going to end soon in a bloody conflagration — and if that’s the case anyway, why spend time worrying about the natural environment or social injustice?[24]

The fact that the apocalypse is such a widespread, recurrent idea, from the norse Ragnarok to the computer industry’s Y2K millenium scare, indicates that it is more a ongoing process in the soul than a point in linear history. Many people, though, might be tempted to draw the conclusion that if the apocalypse is only mythical or in the soul, we need not worry. That means it is not real.

However, nothing is more dangerous than ignoring the mythical world, believing it to be only subjective and personal. If we do not take the apocalypse seriously as a mythical reality, it will have to manifest itself in the only form that our culture respects: in material reality. Parched soil. Violent floods. Black ashes. Undeniable facts of dark annihilation. A failure to understand the apocalypse as a message for our souls will mean that we continue on the same Promethean path. That world will then have to be consummated in a literal apocalypse. Taking the apocalypse seriously psychologically and socially serves to reduce the probability of having to undergo the apocalypse as an historical, factual process. If we do not manage to keep the apocalypse alive as image and myth, it will inevitably come back as a literal reality.

There’s nothing mystical about this principle. It really is basic systems thinking. As Gregory Bateson pointed out it’s really not a man, the subject, who fells the tree, the object. One strike is followed by the next depending on what each subsequent cut results in. It’s the whole man-hand-axe-tree-system that makes the huge trunk fall at last.

In the same way: Our current economic system is not all out-there. It’s the humanly created resource – technology – price – consumption – garbage – system that makes the entire planetary ecosystem wobble. And our thinking is an inseparable part of this larger system. Changing the information, the emotions and thinking inherent in the system, will eventually result in a different system.

In this perspective, the apocalypse is an early warning indicator of the inevitable collapse of the system as it is. It is the whole giant eco-human-system dreaming about the end of itself, and at the same time giving motivation and impetus for itself to change. Apocalyptic images today premonitions the end of the Promethean world – our deeply ingrained, traditional fantasies of a predictable and steady future of growth.

As idea, then, the apocalypse is always present somewhere in the soul. “Doomsday” does not necessarily mean total annihilation. It only seems to be “total” because it is a major, total or titanic concept in itself. It is more-than-human, an archetype. As a result, when we speak of it, it tends to grow empowered from within by the myth, particularly when communicated by the mass media. The words grow in our mouths, in our ears and on the printed page. However, the environmental crisis is unlikely to take the shape of one great, final apocalypse; more probably, there will be many small ones. And they are not far off; in fact, many of them are already here. An understanding of the apocalypse that places it at some point in the future in linear time (like 2050) prevents us from acknowledging that it has already manifested itself in numerous places and in various ways. This keeps us from facing it here and now, working on our attitudes, our souls.

Many environmental thinkers believe that a true catastrophe is needed to get us to change our shortsighted ways, and that we will not grasp the reality until we have experienced more disasters at nuclear power plants, more poisonous algae invasions, more floods or ultraviolent hurricanes. We could say that they practically long for the apocalypse, which will purify us, giving us a chance to begin anew. However, from the perspective of depth psychology we know that there is almost no limit to the realities people manage to deny. History is full of eminent people who refused to acknowledge what is right in front of their noses. Thus we need a new awareness of the apocalypse – or a death consciousness – more than we need new ecocatastrophes. We need to be able to accept the workings of collapse and apocalypse in our souls.[25] For literal catastrophes do not necessarily foster that ability, even though they may provide compelling impetus in that direction. Born-again Prometheans simply clear up the debris and immediately start rebuilding again and again.

The function of doomsday here and now in our souls is to puncture the hubris of arrogant pride, and to remind us of our limitations, of finiteness, darkness and the underworld. The next time you see a newspaper or a magazine dramatically declaring decay or ruin, the true significance is not the approaching event but rather the spiritual reactions doomsday has evoked and will continue to evoke. Many people would object that if collapse is predicted to occur 20 years from today and that prediction proves wrong, then it follows that this was an erroneous and worthless forecast.[26] However, this ignores the necessity of visions of apocalypse in the ecology of the soul for deep change to happen.

The myth of the apocalypse is as inextricably linked to the myth of progress as night is to day. Progress and doomsday belong together like light and shadow, right and left. In our culture, where the linear perspective of progress prevails, the feeling of doom will never be farther away than shadows are from that which is illuminated. Its function is to remind us of the impossibility, the untenability and the unsustainability of endless progress. The myth teaches us that Prometheus cannot govern the soul for too long without some form of Pandora or Mount Caucasus appearing.

There are three reactions that are truly detrimental for letting the apocalypse work on the soul: 1) The heralded catastrophe is merely an erroneous prediction, a false prophecy. 2) An impending catastrophe can be solved with the right technology, so we need not change our ways. And 3) Finding somebody to blame: the multinationals, the neighbour or rogue states, the terrorists, the leftists, the jews, the rich, the neoconservatives can all be scapegoated. All of these responses prevent doomsday from being present here and now. It is denied and rejected alltogether or redefined as a purely outer, technical problem. In the latter case, the darkness and evil is firmly put over there and violence easily justified. The apocalypse is still not allowed to affect us.

However, the apocalypse does pertain to us here and now – that is why it is encroaching on us at this very moment.[27] The “crucial” choice is not whether we should believe in it or find out how to avoid it, but whether we can allow the qualms it evokes to dwell in us. It wants to be included in life, to come in from the cold. Perhaps we could allow it to work on us. Try to understand what it wants of us, and see where itcan take us. As has already been pointed out, acknowledging the mythical apocalypse is the opposite of seeking it in its literal sense. I have no idea how we shall manage to change our current ways, how we can stop this runaway juggernaut, but I do feel the infinite strength of the songs of the apocalypse as driving forces for deep psychological change.

The myth of the apocalypse can teach us to remain in our ignorance and to accept that we do not know the solution. The Promethean attitude does not suffice alone. This not-knowing surfaces as a uneasiness which affords a lot of energy and drive, but it works indirectly. We do not own this drive. We cannot use it such uneasiness as an instrument. We cannot measure its strength or magnitude. We cannot use it as power for achieving whatever the ego might desire. But it does connect us to the ecology of mind, because it is this greater context that conveys the visions of apocalypse. The uneasiness comes from a context that is greater than ourselves, and that makes it meaningful to act from uncertainty. We do not have the full picture, but nevertheless we take the messages of the soul seriously.
Rediscovering the ensouled world

Until now, modern thinking as expressed in scientific materialism has postulated a dead earth. Granted, that earth was considered subjectively beautiful, but in principle it was nothing more than a lump of minerals, fluids and gases rotating around the sphere of gas that is our sun. On this earth only human subjects with their ego-consciousness have been considered alive and ensouled, with everything else governed by mechanical or biological laws. We have for centuries employed a theory of a principally soulless world, and are discovering first now – literally – how, in practice, it is becoming ever more soulless as we spread our old visions of it across the earth.

This very literalness, this scientific unambiguity in the visions of apocalypse provides another hint as to what world is coming to an end. Predictions of the demise of nature herald the end of a soulless nature with a singleness of understanding. The entire doctrine of a mechanical, atomistic, physically dead world threatens to ultimately yield precisely what this concept conveys: a completely dead world.

When ecosystems and the climate are now developing counter to our intentions, brimming with abnormal symptoms and threatening us with revenge, the world becomes visible for us once more as alive and ensApocalypse Soonouled. Human society will have to begin to see the world in a new manner. Even the ozone layer, distant rainforests and the polar ice shelves are emerging as our own concerns. Whereas “everyone” used to see linear chains of causality and one-way progress, more and more people now see networks, symbiosis and cycles – in other words, ecology.  Life on earth sustains itself; thus it cares about itself. Based on this understanding, it no longer makes sense to speak of the living network of matter and organisms as isolated, soulless mechanisms.

Hence we are drawn to rediscover an ensouled, animate earth.[28] The forests, the soil and the ecosystems tell us that they are alive and that they are suffering from our lack of respect. We must revision our conceptions of what has been considered lowly and lacking in value – everything from bacteria and butterflies to the air and the oceans themselves. If we do not welcome this change in our relationship with nature, the threats of the apocalypse will draw nearer and nearer in ever more literal, concrete ways desperately trying to evoke a deep enough change in human hearts and hands.

We have seen that apocalypse is one of the primordial songs of the soul. It has always been there, and today it is raising its ugly, medusian head with renewed vigor and strength. We need not become stiff with fright nor pretend that we have not heard it. We need not become overwhelmed by it. Perhaps we might even wish it welcome – choose to sing along, not moralising, puritanically or anxiety-ridden, but with an inner enthusiasm. We might join whole-heartedly in Jean des Esseinte’s outburst in the novel Against Nature:

Well, crumble then, society! Perish, old world![29]

We do not know what he will bring, but pallid old Doomsday might have more surprises in store, a greater ability for deep transformation and a more ambiguous relationship with time than any Promethean consciousness can fathom.

[1] Notes, Chapter 2 – Apocalypse soon?
Donella H. Meadows (1991): «Change is not Doom», in ReVision, A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation, Fall 1991Vol. 14, no. 2, p. 56. The quote of Browers story is from John McPhee (1971): Encounters with the Archdruid, pp. 79-80. See also Stephen H. Schneider & Randi Londer (1984), The Coevolution of Climate and Life, p. 234 for a graphic timeline illustrating this scenario.

[2] Jared Diamond (2005): Collapse – How Societies choose to Fail or Survive, London: Allen Lane, p. 425-26.

[3] Robert E. Lane, 2000, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, see chap. 11: ”Rising Malaise at Democracy’s Feast”. Peter Schwartz, an american optimistic futurist and founder of Global Business Network makes a point out of creating scenarios that oppose such dominant negativity: As an antidote he relaunches the full-blown promethean ideas of endless progress with as much gusto as he can muster in two recent books: The Long Boom, 2000, and Inevitable Surprises, 2003. When confronted by the author in 2001 with the argument that this is repeating the myth of progress all over again, in pure form, he exclaimed, ”Why, yes!” and turned his attention to the next questioner.

[4] James Lovelock, 2006, The Revenge of Gaia, London: Allen Lane

[5] From the track «All This Time» on the CD The Soul Cages, Sting, A&M Records, 1991.

[6] Jeremiah 9:10-11.

[7] Isaiah 30:12-14.

[8] Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818.

[9] Sources: Nanna L. Hauge: Antikkens guder og helter; Robert Graves: The Greek Myths; Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound, in Norwegian translation by Øivind Andersen.

[10] This image is borrowed from Bill McKibbens (1997): The End of Nature, p. 154.

[11] Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig (1992): The old fool and the corruption of myth, p. 67.

[12] James Hillman (1977): Re-Visioning Psychology, p. xiii.

[13] The giants engaged in prolonged strife with the gods. During the ‘revolt of the giants’ they piled huge rocks atop one another in an attempt to build a stairway to heaven. The giant Porphyrion even tried to rape Hera. Even though all the gods (apart from Hera and Demeter) joined in the war on the side of Zeus, they only just managed to kill the giants in the end. See e.g. Robert Graves (1955): The Greek Myths, Ch. 35.

[14] Cf. Joseph Campbell, 1973, Myths to Live By, NY:Viking Press.

[15] This mythical understanding of reality becomes particularly evident in connection with conflicts between the environment and unemployment. Comprehensive protests are seldom directed against – or queries raised about – the implementation of more capital-intensive automisation and increased efficiency in business and industry that also result in a reduction in the workforce. Such protesters are easily written off as backward Luddites. If, on the other hand, an organisation is at risk of having to cut back the same number of employees because the activity is a strain on the environment, the enterprise contacts the media and local mayors protest against environmental regulations issued by the central government. In the Promethean world, automisation and progress are natural – «you can’t stop the course of developments» – yielding the following inexorable order of priorities: 1) progress, 2) jobs and 3) the environment. The myth defines the values. The problem is not the myth itself, but the fact that it is universal, as it has become in our globalised economy, which means that increased efficiency and greater returns on capital are always and everywhere seen as good, from now and to eternity, Amen.

[16] Carl G. Jung wrote in 1941: «To our way of thinking [«primitive» man] is painfully backward, whereas we exalt progress. Being closer to his instincts, like the animal, he is characterized by fear of novelty and adherence to tradition. But our progressiveness, though it may result in a great many delightful wish-fulfilments, piles up an equally gigantic Promethean debt which has to be paid off from time to time in the form of hideous catastrophes. For ages man has dreamed of flying, and all we have got for it is saturation bombing! … The older view of things realized that progress is only possible Deo Concedente», (God/Zeus willing), from CW 9 part 1, § 276.

[17] Lester Brown et. al.: State of the World, published annually since 1983.

[18] For an extended discussion of this alienation from the participatory sensing of the world, see David Abram, 1996, The Spell of the Sensuous, specifically pp. 24-29

[19] A concept I have borrowed from Joanna Macy, who in turn has borrowed it from Robert Lifton. Joanna Macy (1995): «Working through environmental despair», p. 243 in Ecopsychology, Theodore Roszak (ed.).

[20] The following observations are inspired by ibid., pp. 244-249.

[21] Originally from Lester Brown, ed. (1992): State of the World. The same has since been uttered repeatedly.

[22] cf. Joseph Campbell (1948): The Hero with a Thousand Faces, chapter 1.

[23] Interview with Rolf Jakobsen: “I mørket der kan mennesket ta av sitt ansikt”, (”In the dark, people can take off their faces”) in Wera Sæther (1987): Vi overlever ikke alt (We can’t survive everything), pp. 136-140, Oslo: Gyldendal.

[24] Kevin Phillips, 2006, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.

[25] Cf. Michael O. Hill (1994): Dreaming the End of the World for an extended investigation of this topic.

[26] This accusation has – repeatedly and from a multitude of sources – been brought against the 1972 study ”Limits to Growth” by Meadows, Meadows and Randers. Critics of their work, The Economist being one of them,  claimed the study said “collapse before 2000”, despite the fact that there is no such message in the actual book. This shows there was a mythical attitude at work in its early critics. They could not read the facts of the book for the power of the myth in their ears.

[27] The book The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock became an international bestseller in 2006, with precisely this mythological theme (unconsciously?) underpinning his scientific discourse.

[28] Cf. Stephan Harding 2006 Animate Earth.

[29] From J.K. Huysman (1884): Against Nature, as quoted in Andrew Samuels (1993): The Political Psyche, p. 121.


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