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Odd Wisconsin Archive

End of the World?


This summer's heat wave renewed conversations about global warming. Science writer Bill McKibben summarized the scientific literature on climate change and concluded that the survival of the planet is already in jeopardy. This spring the World Wildlife Fund reported that humans are consuming natural resources faster than the earth can provide them. They presented data showing that, because the human population is growing exponentially, the climate warms, other species go extinct, and the basic resources underpinning our way of life will soon be exhausted.

So, are this summer's heat, drought, wildfires, and polar melting the beginning of the end of our way of life? Was poet T.S. Eliot right when he predicted, "This is the way the world ends: / Not with a bang but a whimper" ? Or will we be able to invent a world that runs on something other than oil and coal?

Historical Visions of the Apocalypse

Speculations like these led us to investigate how our ancestors envisioned the end of the world. They certainly couldn't imagine global warming or the exhaustion of natural resources. To them, earth's forests and lakes and minerals were never-ending and had been given to us by God for exploitation (Genesis 1:28). But they imagined the end of their world in other ways.

Some foresaw the apocalypse predicted in scriptures and prepared to meet their maker. When in 1844 William Miller (1782-1849) used Biblical prophecies and arithmetical calculations to predict the second coming, a group of Massachusetts families banded together to spiritually cleanse themselves in preparation. When the world did not end, they migrated west and founded a successful religious colony at Germania, in Marquette Co. It thrived for more than 50 years and spanned three generations. Its story was told by Peggy Sands in "Till the end of time: awaiting the millennium in Wisconsin" in the Wisconsin Magazine of History (vol. 83, number 1; autumn 1999).

Other visions of the apocalypse were more immediately tangible.

Peshtigo Fire

Rev. Peter Pernin of Peshtigo recalled that during this famous 1871 fire, "The banks of the river as far as the eye could reach were covered with people standing there, motionless as statues, some with eyes staring, upturned towards heaven, and tongues protruded. The greater number seemed to have no idea of taking any steps to procure their safety, imagining, as many afterwards acknowledged to me, that the end of the world had arrived and that there was nothing for them but silent submission to their fate."

The Peshtigo Fire consumed more than 280,000 acres on both sides of Green Bay and killed about 1,500 people. Some residents of Kewaunee, like those in Peshtigo, saw it as apocalyptic. The town's historian recalled that, "Many people thought that it was the end of the world. One woman decided to stop fleeing from the fire and fell to her knees and told her husband that the day of judgment had come. Her husband ordered her to get up and run, but she refused and bowed her head to the ground. The husband studied the tempting target she made, then drew back his leg and gave her what was described as 'an affectionate lift with his boot.' This got her off her knees and into motion…"

Looking to the Future

Our current weather may or may not be traced to global warming, but either way we should probably not stand here "motionless as statues." McKibben, the World Wildlife Fund, and other scientists suggest that while industrial society has placed our future in doubt, it's not too late to avoid the worst. Maybe this summer's heat wave is just an affectionate kick in the pants.


:: Posted in Curiosities on July 19, 2012
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