Understanding true meaning of the fictional apocalypse

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Wasted a part of a sunny Saturday afternoon last weekend sitting through this season’s mega-disaster movie, “2012.”

And no, the mega-disaster featured therein doesn’t have anything to do with the re-election of President Barack Obama, but with the end of the world. Not that I want to spoil the plot for you, but I particularly liked the giant tsunami which sent the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy crashing into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — or maybe it was the Capitol?

And Washington wasn’t alone in its travails.

Los Angeles went down, as did Las Vegas, and London and Rio (no Olympic Games for you!!). But one city, if not unscathed by the coming apocalypse, went unmentioned: Detroit.

Perhaps the filmmakers mercifully spared that unfortunate city — or maybe they realized that its residents were so inured to catastrophe that they’d scarcely notice earthquakes and tsunamis.

As Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times after visiting Detroit, “What you’ll see are endless acres of urban ruin, block after block and mile after mile of empty and rotting office buildings, storefronts, hotels, apartment buildings and private homes. It’s a scene of devastation and disintegration that stuns the mind, a major American city that still is home to 900,0000 people but which looks at times like a cross between postwar Berlin and the ruin of an ancient civilization.”

Movies such as “2012” might be fluffy entertainment, video games crossed with soap operas, but they’re also artifacts of our time, at least as revelatory as a cache of baskets and pottery in the ruins of Mesa Verde.

The movie’s plot (and I use the word loosely) goes like this:

Dedicated scientists investigating scientific-type stuff at the bottom of a copper mine find that neutrinos from giant solar flares are heating up the earth’s core. When it gets hot enough, the earth’s crust will shift. All life on earth will end. It’s all earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and cities sliding into the sea. It’ll all happen in three years — in 2012.

So our government, in concert with other world governments, launches a vast secret program to build arks in Tibet, enormous ships that will contain a remnant of humanity to repopulate the world — and they will be the only man-made structures to survive the looming apocalypse.

As the movie nears its climax, folks from all over the world arrive and file into the arks. Most of the repopulators appear to be Americans and Europeans, with a smattering of Asians and Africans.

There’s more — it’s a three-hour movie — but let’s think about the assumptions embedded in the film.

1. If the world is facing annihilation and we need to build complex, enormous and sophisticated structures to save humanity, who’s gonna build them? The Chinese!

2. And once the Chinese have built the structures, they’re going to courteously stand aside and let America and Western Europe repopulate the world, while everyone else perishes!

Had “2012” been filmed at any time between 1945 and 1995, the arks would have been built in America. For most of the 20th century, America’s industrial might and manufacturing competence was unrivalled and unquestioned.

Consider the B-17 bomber, a weapon crucial to Allied victory during World War II. A week before Pearl Harbor, the Air Force had fewer than 200 Flying Fortresses in service, although the aircraft had been in production for nearly four years.

Between Dec. 7, 1941, and May 20, 1945 — 43 months — Boeing built 12,731 B-17s. At peak production, the company produced 15 B-17s a day, 360 a month.

Boeing was located in Seattle, then a comparative backwater. Detroit was the symbol, center and capital of the American manufacturing colossus that ruled the world. So completely and effectively did automobile manufacturers shift to wartime production that Detroit was known as the “Arsenal of Democracy.”

Today much of Detroit is in ruin, its major industry now a ward of the government. It seems unlikely that it will ever regain its former luster as a manufacturing center, just as it seems unlikely that this country will ever again regain world industrial pre-eminence.

“2012” envisions a world which, on the edge of catastrophe, works together to preserve the human race. The Chinese do the work, and we get preserved.

That cheerful fantasy exactly mirrors the delusional beliefs of most of our leaders in government and business.

For decades, we’ve acted as if the steady migration of our industrial base to China, India and the developing world was of no particular importance, but just the beneficent interaction of free trade, capitalism and the laws of comparative advantage. Why should we worry if our most successful corporation, Wal-Mart, is basically the retail arm of the Chinese government? Why should we worry if we no longer lead the world in most industries? Why should we worry if General Motors is broke and unemployment’s at 10 percent?

Why indeed?

The Chinese will always be there with cheap, well-made goods, and trillion-dollar loans, won’t they? They’ll always realize that we’re No. 1, won’t they?

Just like in the movie …

John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.