Visions of the Apocalypse

11 Nov

An Apocalypse (Greek: ἀποκάλυψις apokálypsis; ‘lifting of the veil’ or ‘revelation’) is a disclosure of something hidden from the majority of mankind in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception. (Wikipedia)

Apocalyptic visions of the world ending, or the destruction of human civilisation have been with us since the dawn of time through myth and religion. Most religions have a creation and apocalypse myth. Whether it’s the Norse Ragnorok or the Christian End of Days, there is some form of apocalyptic future vision where the destruction of mankind is destined.

This article won’t be looking at the religious visions of the apocalypse but those that have a real possibility to us in our contemporary society, such as climate change, pandemics and the solar flares expected in 2012. We will also look back through history at events that had catastrophic and apocalyptic effects on past societies and environment.

Moments in history, such as the Black Death in the 14th century, changed society and had such an impact that the apocalypse became a possibility. So why look at the past and possible future events? The reason is that these could form one of the building blocks for an RPG or wargame campaign you may be planning or currently running. This could be a theme that holds the campaign together or is just another background element that can be used to spice things up every now and again.

The past offers us a rich database from which we can learn, in order that we may keep on succeeding. Jared Diamond

This could be a disease that starts localized (endemic) and goes pandemic as the campaign progresses. There have been several periods in history where a pandemic has catastrophic effects on the human population. One of the most famous and well-known is the Black Death that killed millions of people in Medieval Europe; society was devastated both rich and poor were affected. A scenario such as a violent disease like the plague could potentially wipe out a vast proportion of the human population.

In 1348-1349 the disease commonly known as the Black Death appeared on the shores of Britain. This took a death toll of nearly 1/3 of the population, approximately 1.75 million people of all ages and backgrounds. Lesser outbreaks occurred in the aftermath of the initial disease and by 1400 the population was only about 2.5-3 million. The plague didn’t die away quickly, it didn’t vanish completely until around 1480s. The population during this period were demoralized and whittled down over a number of years, leaving villages deserted right across the country.

Recent potential pandemics have been Swine Flu and Bird flu. These recent outbreaks didn’t have the same devastation as the Black Death. Though what Swine Flu did show was how quickly a disease can go pandemic in our globalized society. People have the ability to travel from country to country very easily and quickly through modern air travel. An infected person can potentially spread the disease several hundred or even thousands of miles before the symptoms start to show themselves.

Climate Change
There have been several periods in history, where events have been shaped by severe changes in the Earth’s climate. These changes have been caused by a variety of factors such as natural life cycles, volcanic eruptions, solar flares and by humans themselves. These changes in climate have caused famine, war and disease. We are currently going through a period of climatic change where the sea level could rise up to a possible 21 meters and change coastlines of countries all over the world. There is great debate over the causes of the current climatic changes. Some suggest that it is part of the planets natural cycle, but the main consensus by many from the scientific community is that it is caused by human activity, that is green house gases.

The Medieval Warm Period

The medieval warm period was a time of very warm climate conditions in the North Atlantic region which lasted from around 800-1300 AD. Originally researchers thought that the temperature rise was global. Though recent study suggests that this period of warm weather and the mini ice age which followed were only seen in the Northern Hemisphere.

This period of warmer weather meant that the Arctic region was ice-free, and because of this the Vikings were able to colonize Greenland. During this period white grapes were grown in Britain for the first time.

Little Ice Age

There was a period following the Medieval Warm period, called the little or mini ice age. There tends to be some contention as to when this started and finished. Though there is an average date of between 1600-1850.

Many believe that the mini ice age started much earlier. The ice in the Arctic region began to advance in the 13th Century along with the glaciers on Greenland. In Northern Europe from 1315 there were three years of torrential rains. From 1300 the warm weather seen in the past in Northern Europe slowed. It has been suggested that glacial expansion started around 1550 globally. This period of climate brought extremely cold winters, the glaciers advanced in the Swiss Alps destroying villages. Rivers, such as the Thames froze over during the winter. Frost fairs started in 1607. These were held on the ice and the last one was seen in 1814. In 1780 New York harbor froze which allowed people to stroll from Manhattan to Staten Island.

The Viking descendants who colonized Greenland during the Medieval Warm Period died out in the 15th Century. They were not able to produce enough food to survive. Crop growing in Europe had to be altered to adapt to shorter, less predictable growing seasons. This led to food shortages and famine. Large tracts of land along the coasts of many Northern European countries disappeared due to flooding.

Study has suggested that decreased solar activity and an increase in volcanic eruptions around the world are the two most likely causes. Around 1850 the climate started to get warmer leading to the end of the mini ice age. Many critics of the current global warming debate suggest that today’s situation is because Earth is still recovering from the mini ice age. Though most agree that the last 50 years of warming has been due to human activity.

Economic Collapse
This is the breakdown of a national, global or local economy. It could be a sharp growth in bankruptcy and unemployment such as the depression of the 1930s. It can be followed by years of depression, social chaos and civil unrest. Some experts are suggesting that the recent breakdown in the economy around 2007/8 is the start of a complete collapse of the global economy. Currently we are seeing the Euro zone facing some of its worse days since its inception, with countries like Greece, Ireland, Spain and Italy facing bankruptcy. There aren’t many cases of economic collapse in recent history, however in most of these cases the economies eventually make a slow recovery. Interestingly, the advent of crisis has been traced to imbalances in financial systems which broke down and paralysed the real economy. Only after removing bad debts and driving asset prices to all-time lows with employment levels and wages severely devastated, have these economies begun the painful and lengthy process of recovery.

What we are currently facing is a global meltdown that could have a devastating effect on society for many years to come. A crisis that could throw us into another depression.

Nuclear Holocaust
This potential apocalyptic vision has been with us since the atom bomb was first dropped on Hiroshima in Japan. There was a very real crisis during the 1960s with the Cuban Missile Crisis. There have been several films set in a post-nuclear apocalyptic world such as Mad Max. Society as we know it has disappeared and people survive through violence and hardship. Fuel and water become the currency of the future worth more than gold and gems.

Solar Flares
The sun goes through a period of regularly producing solar flares. NASA has predicted that towards the end of 2012 there will a period of sunspot activity producing solar flares that could potentially have devastating effects of the planet. Solar flares have the potential to produce an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) that could knock out all, or most, of the planet’s electronics and electricity. A similar scenario can be achieved in a nuclear attack. We’re totally dependant on the use of electronics. If such an event occurred, we wouldn’t be able to access our computers, radio or TV for information regarding what was happening or receive instructions from the government on what to do. Transport would be knocked out preventing food distribution. The majority of houses are dependant on electricity for light and heat. We would essentially be sent back to the 18th century.

Chaos would ensue as the population, who are dependent on food distribution, clean water and energy for light and heat, would be forced to loot to survive and civil unrest would soon become a realistic likelihood. The riots seen in the UK recently would be widespread, but with communications down, police, local and national government would be hard-pushed to stay in control of the situation. The same scenario could occur with the loss of oil. This would also be a problem in an EMP (Electronic Magnetic Pulse) as without electricity oil production would grind to a halt. No more fuel for transport, no plastic, chemicals or medicine.

Resource Depletion
Over the last few decades its become apparent that we as a globalised community are slowly running out of a variety of resources, that include oil, gas, metals and water. The current spate of wars in the Middle East have been referred to as resource wars i.e. wars specifically aimed at taking control of a country’s or region’s valuable resources. Of most concern is the depletion of oil. This is because we are utterly dependant on the substance. Not only does it power our transportation, heat our homes, cook our food, it is also a vital ingredient in plastics, chemicals, fertilisers and the pharmaceutical industry, along with many other products. The loss of oil would throw us back to pre-industrialised society, and possibly a medieval period.

Without oil, manufacturing would shut down. Replacement parts would have to be made by hand and in some cases wouldn’t exist. Certain items would become very expensive, alternative energy would have to be used to generate electricity and power what equipment was still usable.

These are some of the current possible visions of apocalyptic future that could be used within a campaign. The idea of a Mad Max type of society or a 1984 future where the government has become a dictatorship (as in the film V for Vendetta) could make an RPG game quite intriguing and require some clever thinking by the players. Hopefully some of these will inspire you out there to really drop your players in at the deep end with an apocalyptic vision.


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