There was a man I was following on the internet. Some called him a madman and a conspiracy theorist because he was convinced that civilization was on the verge of collapse. He had accumulated detailed data on the theory we know as Peak Oil; he had traced the stages of the cataclysm to come. He passionately believed that his role in life was to warn us all.
His suicide in 2014 posed a huge psychological question to me.
It is important to understand the details of what he believed.
Peak Oil Theory:
Oil is a finite resource, and once peak oil production is reached, it will decline rapidly worldwide. As a result, the manufacture of plastics, medicines and fertilizers (and 6,000 other items from detergents to life jackets), all of which rely on crude oil, will collapse irreversibly. Electricity production dependent on oil will cease. Civilization will quickly return to the “carrying capacity of the planet” that existed before the industrial revolution.
One of the Peak Oil theorist’s poignant points was that for millennia before fossil fuels, the world’s population had remained constant at around 1 billion. We are currently at a world population of 7.98 billion. When peak oil hits and we are forced to deindustrialise, he claimed, 6.98 billion people would be “surplus to need”. They would be left to starve and freeze in “mortality”.
This man’s Armageddon was to begin as early as 2040 when the oil began to run out. He appeared on a video, crying, trying to warn us all.
In 2013, I had found his emotion, his fear and even his warning compelling.
Then in 2014, he committed suicide.
What led to his suicide was not that “the end was near” or that “nobody would listen”, it was, paradoxically, that around 2014 vast new oil reserves were discovered around the world. , and new ways to access oil and gas. become credible (fracking, oil shale). In 2014, scientists pushed back the predicted peak in oil production by 100 years to 2100.
His apocalypse was postponed far beyond his own lifetime, and in reaction he put his dog where a neighbor would find him, and he shot himself in the head.
It’s a mystery. Surely one would think he would have been relieved that humanity got a reprieve.
The answer to this riddle may come from another historical apocalypse that has been postponed.
The big disappointment
In the 19th century, the leader of the Millerite Christian movement, Baptist preacher William Miller, prophesied that the second coming of Christ would occur in 1844, bringing about the Last Judgment and cleansing the world from sin, as millions were thrown into hell. Miller had calculated the exact date meticulously, using numerology, and Judgment Day, he said, would be April 18, 1844.
Millerite cartoon. 1901.
Source: CC: Library of Congress.
Many of his followers (estimates vary between 50,000 and 500,000) sold their homes and gave away their jewelry and livestock in anticipation. When that “last day” came and went, he told his followers that he miscalculated seven months and that Revelation would now be October 22, 1844.
Again that day, his disciples climbed hills and rooftops to await ascension. After that day passed uneventfully, one of Miller’s supporters wrote.
“I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come; I waited all Wednesday morning and was fine in my body but after 12 I started to pass out and before dark I needed someone to help me up in my room, because my natural strength was leaving me very quickly, and I remained prostrate for 2 days without any pain, sick with disappointment.
Millerite, Hiram Edson, wrote: “Our dearest hopes and expectations were dashed, and such a spirit of tears took hold of us as I had never known before…We wept, and cried, until the dawn of day.”
Chaos erupted. A Millerite church in Ithaca, New York was burned down, a group of Millerites were tarred and feathered in Toronto for causing such a panic, and another Millerite group in Illinois was attacked with clubs and knives. The Millerites themselves were left puzzled and disillusioned.
Their sect dissolves in consternation. Newspapers of the time reported detailed cases of insanity and suicide among the disappointed Millerites who had been unable to return to normal life.
A 16-year-old Millerite girl, Ellen White, wrote, “It was hard to deal with the vexing cares of life that we thought had been laid down forever. It was a bitter disappointment that fell on the little flock whose faith had been so strong and whose hope had been so great.
This poses a curious question about human psychology: why would some people be so engrossed in the idea of the Apocalypse that when it fails, they sink into despair?
For the Millerites, of course, there was the promise of paradise and the frenzy of religious faith, but our peak oil theorist seemed far more concerned with the human tragedy of 6.9 billion deaths than his own salvation.
Being so disappointed that the world doesn’t end that you kill yourself.
What I think the peak oil theorist and the Millerites share is the idea that a single narrative that explains all of existence can give a person’s life great meaning, direction and hope. . Even if this story ends in certain death for the believer, his life has immense value. The believer is part of the “chosen ones”, of the “chosen ones”. They possess “the only truth,” which places them above the masses of unbelievers, sheep, blind people.
This is exemplified by the fact that so many Millerites suffered from what must have been cognitive dissonance after their great disappointment and, unable to admit they were wrong, they continued to invest in new date predictions. ‘apocalypse. The Seven Day Adventist Church and sects were born.
In this sense, one could speak of a psychological dependence on the story of the apocalypse. A paradox, but yet, in a world with so much uncertainty and conflict, believing in a fatal and meaningful “end of all life” might seem like a more consoling option than a life lived without any sort of guiding narrative. . – a life of meaningless fragments which is itself a “great disappointment”.
Why am I raising this issue now?
There’s so much doomsday fear in our time, whether it’s nuclear war or climate change or a new pandemic, and those anxieties seem legitimate. But we might want to pay attention to the extent to which we come to depend on these stories to make sense of our lives.