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It’s Always the Right Time for Apocalypse!

May 7, 2009 • Adam Nemmett

My wife-to-be and I booked our honeymoon to Mexico. This was months ago, before the 24-hour news cycle grabbed hold of its newest plaything, its greatest scourge:

Apocalypse, thy name is Swine Flu.

Perhaps I will regret writing this. Hubris is always a bad idea. My comeuppance will surely be swift and brutal: several weeks from now, sipping all-inclusive Mai Tais while basking with my bride under the Mexican sun, the swine flu virus may again mutate. Hordes of zombified service industry professionals will descend upon us. Before they devour our brains, my new wife will remind me that, yes, I should have tipped better at the buffet line.

All this to say, I’m actually totally freaked out about the whole swine flu thing.

But should I be? Recall other recent viral outbreaks—avian flu for instance (257 human deaths) and the SARS outbreak of 2003 (774 total deaths). As of May 7, World Health Organization statistics show only 2 reported swine flu death in the U.S. and 44 total across the globe.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that 44 flu-related deaths are “negligible.” Certainly, the communities and families directly affected by any disease would beg to differ. But when I look at other disease statistics—skin cancer, for instance, (the most common form of cancer in the U.S., which affects more than a million Americans and may claim as many as 65,000 global lives each year)—I worry that basking in the Mexican sun may kill me quicker than the newest “global threat.”

In the introduction to The Apocalypse Reader, a fiction anthology containing end-of-days stories from classic and contemporary authors, editor Justin Taylor writes: “every single generation has imagined itself uniquely in crisis and fantasized that theirs will be the one which will witness The End.”

In other words, the threat of apocalypse is only frightening when we forget that we’re still here.

Perhaps the things that scare and threaten to destroy us are the very things that help us to survive. The world has changed since SARS: airports now employ thermal scanners to check for feverish travelers; information technology allows data to be more readily shared between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and other regional agencies; crisis centers use role-playing scenarios developed in response to SARS. We are learning from our history. Every day.

Our greatest threats beget the daily triumph of our survival.

This outlook is certainly applicable to the business world as well. As the global financial crisis continues to ripple through our daily lives, it’s easy to believe The End is Nigh. But I would argue the true survivors—the families and mom-and-pop shops and multinational corporations that will survive the downturn—are those who are able to view our current moment in the context of a vast trajectory of ups and downs, utilizing the teachings and assets of years of experience to guide them through, while the Chicken Littles of the business world fold and are forgotten.

Alarmist as it sometimes seems, fearing and preparing for the brink of extinction may be the very thing that helps a company (and indeed, a global society) survive. Perhaps these apocalyptic notions are an inevitable but necessary, and even desirable, part of the natural business lifecycle. Seen in this light, maybe we can find more hope and humor than fear in the inevitable crises that shape our newspaper headlines. (For those looking for that dose of humor, take a look at some ridiculous swine flu PSAs from 1976, below).

If you’d rather be safe than sorry, that’s perfectly commendable. As for me, I’m keeping my honeymoon reservations in Mexico. It was a hell of a deal.


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