Apocalyptica America: Hampshire College professor looks at the history of ‘the end is nigh’

  • Author and retired Hampshire College professor of Development Studies Betsy Hartmann of Amherst has a new book, "The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness.” —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • In her new book, “The America Syndrome,” retired Hampshire College professor Betsy Hartmann says the U.S. has a long history of approaching issues from an apocalyptic standpoint that hurts practical efforts to solve problems. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • In her new book, “The America Syndrome,” retired Hampshire College professor Betsy Hartmann says the U.S. has a long history of approaching issues from an apocalyptic standpoint that hurts practical efforts to solve problems. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • In her new book, “The America Syndrome,” retired Hampshire College professor Betsy Hartmann says the U.S. has a long history of approaching issues from an apocalyptic standpoint that hurts practical efforts to solve problems. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • “The America Syndrome,” by Seven Stories Press, is the new book by former Hampshire College professor Besty Hartmann.

  • An image from the 2004 disaster film “The Day After Tomorrow,” in which New York City is flooded by a storm surge caused by global climate change. It’s one of many “cli-fi” movies, TV shows and books dealing with environmental apocalypse, Hartmann says. LIONSGATE

  • “World Made By Hand” imagines life in upstate New York after oil supplies have dried up.

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2017

Zombies roaming the land, hunting the last surviving humans. Violent storms and temperature swings ravaging the planet, leaving hundreds of millions dead and countless others on the verge of starvation. U.S. politicians painting dire pictures of our nation overrun by illegal immigrants and Muslim terrorists who threaten our very existence. Dogs and cats living together — mass hysteria.

If it seems like apocalyptic themes and images have become all too common in America today, whether in “cli-fi” novels and movies or in newspaper headlines, it’s really nothing new, says Betsy Hartmann.

In her most recent book, the Hampshire College professor emerita of development studies suggests that “the end is nigh” thinking has a long, troubled history in the United States, dating back to the days of Pilgrim settlement.

And in “The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness,” Hartmann argues that those doomsday beliefs have contributed to some of the nation’s biggest problems — from persistent inequality, to exploitation of natural resources, to the growth, since World War Two, of a powerful military-industrial complex.

There’s no doubt that contemporary issues such as climate change and terrorism are serious problems that must be addressed, Hartmann said during a recent interview in her Amherst home. But couching these and other topics in apocalyptic terms, she added, can prevent the development of pragmatic solutions or effecting social change that could also address such issues.

“We need to return to the world of the practical,” said Hartmann, who retired from Hampshire last year but continues to write and do research in her field.

“There’s a long history in this country of casting our choices in this either-or dualism — we must take this particular course of action, or society and the world will collapse,” she noted. “That kind of thinking doesn’t do anyone any good.”

Born under the bomb

In “The American Syndrome,” Hartmann offers a mix of memoir, social history and political review that makes for an engaging read, not a dry, academic tome. One of the chapters examines what she calls the myth of overpopulation — an area she devoted much of her career to, including two previous books.

In her 1987 book “Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control,” Hartmann argued that people in poorer nations, and women in particular, have long been demonized in the western world for producing too many children. Yet those same women have been denied access to birth control and, in some countries, been the target of enforced sterilization and state-mandated family limits, she writes.

Today, she says, fears of the earth’s overpopulation — a claim she says has been consistently debunked but yet “keeps coming back” — have been coupled to those of climate change to raise the spectre of hordes of “climate refugees” from poor countries adrift on the ocean or appearing on some other nation’s borders.

Yet she understands the impulse to think in apocalyptic terms, she said with a laugh, “because I’ve been guilty of some of that myself.”

As she writes in her new book, Hartmann was born in 1951 and grew up during the Cold War, during which she absorbed much of the fear people had of a cataclysmic nuclear war. And by the early 1970s, with the U.S. riven with protests against the Vietnam War and the assassination of national leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the country seemed on the cusp of breakdown, she writes.

The solution at the time for her, her boyfriend (now her husband) and other young people was to go “back to the land” and find refuge in rural America from the coming meltdown.

“The prospect of nuclear annihilation added to our sense of urgency,” she writes. “For the most idealistic of our generation, the task was nothing less than saving the human race and the planet. We would build sturdy arks to survive the apocalypse.”

But end-of-the-world thinking in America goes back far further than the 1960s and 70s. In 17th century New England, she says, religious fervor and bloody wars with Native Americans combined to produce a basic tenet of the “American syndrome.”

As she writes of one part of that early framework, “War is God’s will, and while its depredations punish us, they also cleanse; they’re necessary for the spirital purging and revitalization of the Chosen People. God condones the use of extreme violence if it serves divine ends.”

Indeed, Hartmann sees the “America syndrome” as based on principles that have been passed down over the centuries: our sense of “exceptionalism” and superiority to other nations and cultures; our susceptibilty to sermonizing; a conflicted attitude toward wilderness in which nature is both balm for the soul and something to be tamed and exploited; and our “acceptance of the necessity and inevitability of war.”

Recent polls, Hartmann notes, consistently show large percentages of Americans — as many as 49 percent in some cases — believe “end times” are coming, whether from climate change, war or the return of Jesus Christ, compared to 6 to 8 percent of respondents in countries in western Europe.

The population bomb?

Hartmann says she began thinking of her new book around 2009-10, when some of the talk about climate change first began to seem over the top. “I wanted to try and see where this was coming from,” she said.

She notes that in conferences and meetings in which she’s spoken about the issue, she’s sometimes been attacked “for not being sufficiently apocalyptic.”

In her view, fears of climate change have revived a false idea that first gained credence in the late 1960s: that the world’s population was approaching a tipping point. It’s an argument she’s consistently rebutted. In her book, she describes an acrimonious debate she had at Stanford University in 1994 with Paul Erlich, author of the 1968 bestseller “The Population Bomb,” whose predictions of widespread famine, war and disease from overpopulation all proved completely wrong.

Her fear now is that worries over climate change and overpopulation will cause a further “militarization” of the issue, with the U.S. and other wealthier nations deploying troops to close their borders.

Climate change, serious as it is, she says, is not the main problem the poor in places like India and Africa face — rather it’s factors like unequal land distribution, lack of access to education and health care, political repression and forced marriages for young girls.

Furthermore, she notes, it’s wealthy nations like the United States that use vast amounts of energy, not poorer nations that use much less, which are driving the increases in greenhouse gases behind climate change.

And when environmentalists and even liberal politicians like Bernie Sanders and John Kerry invoke dark images of whole populations displaced by climate change, Hartmann adds, “It’s clear we need to rethink these issues and look at practical and positive steps to address them.”

As she writes in her conclusion, “All this entails developing a new and different mindset, less prone to fear and more prone to action … Breaking free from apocalyptic thinking can help restore faith in our common humanity and solidarity with those most affected and afflicted by climate change, wherever they may be.”

Betsy Hartmann will read from “The America Syndrome” June 1 at 7 p.m. at Amherst Books.