Updated: Feb 9
I remember the first time I thought about the end of the world. I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. The family and I had just returned home from a vacation from Australia. I was in that post-airplane grog that anyone that has flown over the Pacific is familiar with: Jetlagged as all hell, tossing and turning in my sleep into the wee hours of the morning, reading whatever I could get my hands on. I remember reading through the Pokemon Silver handbook to find a prepubescent crush on the Steel gym leader. Right around dawn, I grabbed an issue of Time Magazine that often littered the house in my formative years. On that issue I remember reading, “How the Universe Will End” and in the corner an unrelated story with that kid from the Sixth Sense. I remember being shocked… like, “the universe will end? Someday I will die? And there’s nothing that can be done about it.”
It was my first bout of existential dread. I thought about crawling into bed with my parents except that even that offered me no respite. It bothered me for months after that, the idea would just pop into my head watching cartoons or at recess. It bothered me so much that a couple days later I guiltily threw the issue away because I didn’t want to have it around to remind me. But the whole ordeal is a really vivid memory, the emotion and the fear that came with it. It still feels so tangible, probably because it never went away.
Looking back I wish I had leveraged that knowledge and told everyone on the schoolyard, like the kid that knows Santa isn’t real. Such power.
That article was largely science based. It was 2001, pre 9/11, pre An Inconvenient Truth. The closest apocalypse was Y2K. I looked it up again a couple years back. It was basically just an article about the information we get from deep space light and then some postulation about the Big Crunch or heat death. The end of the universe, sure. But nothing so dramatic as the capital A Apocalypse.
I remember the ol’ monkeybrain getting freaked out about the apocalypse a number of times in my life.
Time Magazine was one.
When I first watched Dragon Ball Z and Majin Buu was turning all the people in the city into chocolate I was like, “What if that happened for real?” And so I kept looking out the window at the entrance to my cul-de-sac expecting some kind of animated pink blob to fly by and explode my house.
When I first heard about those Left Behind books:
My family was never particularly religious, but for some reason I was obsessed with the idea. I think it was the fact that you could never see it coming.
Another time my freshman year of high school when all the 2012 stuff started popping up on the History Channel.
Don’t judge me, I’m fragile.
Everyone has an idea of what the end looks like in their head, but it’s non-specific. I’ve found that there’s a structure that develops. There’s the pre-apocalypse: the world we live in, whatever that looks like. Then comes the apocalypse: within the structure this can be anything really, a giant tidal wave; aliens destroying New York; zombies rising from the dead; an asteroid that we don’t send Bruce Willis up to nuke, the list goes on. This is really just a threshold to usher us into the post-apocalypse: anything that comes after the event. We all know the beats of “The End”: chaos, fire, every man for himself. But in this structure the actual cause of the apocalypse doesn’t really matter. The anxiety evoked is the same.
Now this is all well and good for the purposes of movies. It offers a nice adversary and a convenient three act structure. But it can become dangerous when we unconsciously apply that structure to real life. Apocalyptic fiction has been around since ancient times. From Armageddon to Ragnarok the genre comes from our intrinsic fear of change. But in modern times it only really picked up steam after WWII when the threat of nuclear annihilation was imminent. And while maybe we should give more of a shit about nuclear weapons just being… around; we don’t really have the same concerns as those in the Cold War. Barring an undetected asteroid or supervolcano, the odds of some kind of dramatic cataclysm are pretty low. So we go back to making up stories about it, this time through our cultural mass media. As a result “The Apocalypse”, becomes an internalized narrative. It’s a collective super structure for us to slot our generic fears into. But change rarely occurs in explosive events like in the movies and it turns out that a slow collapse caused by systemic problems isn’t a very sexy premise; so when something truly apocalyptic does come along and it happens to be a slow, insidious killer, we’re ill equipped to wrap our heads around it. When climate change causes a slow rise in sea temps which will result in a steady average annual increase in natural disasters and scarcity, all of this due to the individually imperceptible rise/normalization of industrialization and globalism, it becomes something that we don’t recognize as the end of the world.
The prevalence of post-apocalyptic media has become incredibly pervasive in the last couple decades. From the rise of the zombie genre, to disaster movies, The Matrix, Snowpiercer, even cartoons like Adventure Time and Wall-E, the genre has an effect on our psyches. Not to mention the everyday mention of it on the news. We’ve been told on the daily for the last 20 years that the end is looming just over the horizon. But rather than take proactive steps to stop it we become desensitized as it begins to feel like an inevitability. The media saturation of this structure is largely to blame for our desensitization and apathy.
At the outset of the Pandemic there was a noticeable uptick in viewings of the 1995 movie “Outbreak” and of the 2011 movie, “Contagion”. Why one would do that is beyond me. But to each their own I suppose. But their content as well as the fact that people are watching them as a means of catharsis offers some insight into our condition.
Both movies end with the vaccine coming along and ***timeskip*** the pandemic is over. Simply by virtue of giving us a happy ending the movie liberates us of all the pain that comes with the post-pandemic. But in reality there will be no singular event that “ends the movie” ushering us into the post-apocalyptic age. It’s going to be a long arduous journey to get us to a day where you will never have to utter the words “Coronavirus” ever again. The virus will, as many things do, slowly peter out as it becomes less widespread or as treatment becomes more readily available. The economic ramifications of the virus will linger for years or decades to come. We’re still feeling the effects of the 2008 economic crash, what will the screeching halt of our economy result in? The pandemic has changed our society, it has changed our psychology, it has changed our economics, in many cases permanently. But all those changes will be slow and any given individual may not actually notice how widespread they are. And most importantly there will be no return to normality because what is normal has changed.
In apocalyptic media the cataclysm tends to be this dramatic, undeniable thing. When someone gets bitten by a zombie in a zombie movie, everyone is in agreement that the cause was the zombie apocalypse. When all the people are huddled in the library in The Day After Tomorrow, everyone agrees that what got them there was the giant tsunami and subsequent flash freeze... or whatever that movie was about. But in reality the apocalypse is far more abstract. A sub Saharan subsistence farmer has a 10% decreased crop yield over 3 years; it may not be easily attributable to climate change. Especially since maybe it wasn’t climate change, maybe the seeds were off, maybe they neglected the crop too much, maybe the soil is depleting.
I think here in the West, or in the privileged world more specifically, we prefer to get wrapped up in this structure of “The Apocalypse”. There’s a kind of absolution of guilt that occurs as we wait for the cataclysm to usher us into post-apocalypse, it allows us to ignore the steady decay: the real apocalypse that we see around us everyday. Mark Fisher talks about the slow cancellation of the future. The idea of “the future” in the 1950’s was utopian. The Jetson’s envisioned flying cars, personalized spacecraft, robots that fulfilled the duties of the 50’s housewife. Star Trek envisioned post scarcity and the transcendence from the castes of modernity. The future looked bright and we couldn’t wait to get there. But what does the future look like today? Not great. Media about the future is either bleak, cynical or satirical. Culture seems to fold into itself through self referentiality and nostalgia. The hunger for a utopian future has been replaced by a desire to return to a predetermined past.
Disaster movies by their nature are subjects of confirmation bias, you’ll never see one where the main character is smashed in the first 5 minutes, roll credits. We’re the main character in our own movie, so to each of us maybe “The Apocalypse” isn’t so bad. But I find the real apocalypse to be much more comforting as it offers us so much more agency. I’m not Bruce Willis, I can’t stop an asteroid. But we can stop climate change, we can stop social decay, we can stop nuclear proliferation. It’s incremental, it’s not like the movies. We are not subjected to the apocalypse, we are the inventors. We constantly live in a state of post-apocalypse, it’s on us how we want to rebuild.