WHAT IF? Could it be? Surely you've heard the news by now, seen the unholy graffiti scrawled upon the looming walls of apostolic fate, felt it in your heart to be true -- just maybe, just maybe. Or perhaps you've even taken that one deadly earnest moment to read the lunatic's abstract forecast, printed boldly across all the metaphoric sandwich boards on every dilapidated street corner of this broken-down, fucked-up century: The End is Near.

The time, alas, is upon us. Is it? Is this the darkening Omega, forever implied by an abstract, prelapsarian Alpha, impending like a guillotine over the tautly stretched neck of infinity? Is the planet -- certainly not "our" planet, but this revolving orb of elemental integrity that's spawned chaos, a fundamental mystery, the pleasure and pain of being -- dying? Oh, goodbye, cruel and beautiful world. Adios. Adieu.

Of course, the possibility -- perhaps one should say the inevitability -- of Armageddon has been with us since the beginning of recorded history, as some terrible, fanciful, circuit-blowing erasure, the critical winding down and irrevocable final tick of time's clock. It's the last chapter in the book of life, an epilogue to humankind's historic ordeal. Close the book. The End.

Whether interpolated from the nightmarish Revelations of St. John the Divine or derived from scientific data documenting gaping holes in the ozone layer and the slow, steady melting of polar ice caps, we are continually haunted by images of the world's demise. In many cases, apocalyptic images can be ascertained as the unavoidable certainty of a solitary death writ large, a childlike fear expanded to encompass the overwhelming terror of mass extinction. As the smoldering curtains of this millennium draw to a close, these images -- a tangle of fact, fiction, wish, and denial -- abound like never before. Walter Benjamin claimed that the state of emergency in modern society is not the exception but the rule. It's truer now than ever before. Modern society may be damned.

Will it end with a bang or a whimper? As to the former possibility, the scenarios, obviously, are manifold. There is of course the threat of that other Big Bang, the atom-splitting reversal of creation: a global reenactment of the atomic genocide inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as a kind of apocalyptic postscript to the dreadful prophecy cut loose at the conclusion of the second World War. Ever since that vengeful, fiery moment (endlessly justified yet never forgotten) and right up to the present day (with rumors of Soviet uranium sold on the international black market), citizens of this teetering, tottering planet have been awakened by nightmares of a red-hot doomsday, by terrible dreams of gigantic mushroom clouds bursting in their heads. Or it might indeed be the case (so strangely similar, and potentially such a self-fulfilling prophecy) that the explosive destruction of earth will be heralded by the thundering hooves of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the agents of God's wrath roaring down at a mad gallop from the heavens above. Could it be? Yes, behold, a pale horse, the fire-breathing dragon with seven babbling heads, the tearing open of the Seventh Seal, which unleashes plague and pestilence on an unrepentant humanity. While the earth burns, the Lord shall separate the wheat from the chaff.

These two scenarios, regardless of their metaphorical and existential implications, are simply two sides of the same end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it coin. Either way the devastation will be sudden and irreversible. There will scarcely be time to bid ourselves farewell. Life as we know it will cease in the blink of an eye.

But perhaps the end won't be so mercifully, if horribly, quick. Perhaps the whimpering (can you hear it?) will deteriorate into a prolonged last gasp, an excruciating planetary death rattle. There are those among us, and they are legion, who suggest that our very reliance on technological progress -- which, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, looks more and more like some deadly addiction -- will prove our ultimate undoing. Who can deny that our innumerable fancy machines, and the acrid chemicals that fuel them, have had an indelible, negative impact on the earth's fragile ecosystems? The international community of scientists warns us, fervently and consistently, that plant and animal species are disappearing by the thousands. It is only humanity's inveterate hubris -- and our will to irresponsibility -- that allows us to disregard the alarm, and deny the fact that we might just be included among the helpless organisms facing extinction. Shall we now place the primitive idiot savant, Homo sapiens, at the top of the endangered list? And not only as foremost victim, but misguided author as well?

The sheer magnitude of our dependence on technology, coupled with the growing millennial panic, has led to widespread concern over the year 2000. Y2K: The idea is that, due to an error in planning (engendered by an inherent lack of foresight), we are facing the imminent collapse of society's superstructure -- our "grid," as it is called. This gigantic collapse, however it might play out, could bring about a state of total anarchy -- a regression to a Hobbesian state of deprivation and despair, in which roving bands of armed, confused, starving people are forced to devour each other over an ever-diminishing supply of resources. Talk about a civil war. It's not a pretty thought. Let's not even get into polar reversals and gargantuan meteors. Ice Ages. Floods.

The Scandinavian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in his treatise Either/Or, suggested that the world would be destroyed "amid the universal hilarity of wits and wags who think it is all a joke." He wrote this over a century and a half ago. It's now 1999: Let us set aside, for once, the universal hilarity -- the nihilistic glee of Dr. Strangelove -- and admit that our laughter has always seemed a bit nervous.

Maybe it's time to face the possibility. If any one of these fearsome scenarios -- and there have been oh-so-many more seeds sown for the involuntary reaping of global annihilation -- if any of these scenarios were to come true, what would you do? What will you do right now? Is it possible to prepare for the end of the world? To take preemptive precautions by donning heaven's glittering garb? Or maybe you wish, before it's too late, to cast one last, sentimental look back upon the whole of life. Repentance? Relief? Resignation? Revelry? Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe the best any of us can do, beneath this sword of Damocles hanging by a gossamer thread, is to say with a shrug: Good luck, good night, and good riddance.

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