I’ve spent most of the month of November reading Craig Child’s latest book, Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth. Childs visits places on the globe, like deserts and volcanoes, that are already experiencing the kind of events that could wipe out life on our planet. I’ve read a variety of books with an apocalyptic theme this year, from fiction (Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, Maureen F. McHugh’s After the Apocalypse, and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One) to nonfiction (Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats) to poetry (Kathleen Flenniken’s Plume).
My friends would tell you that my reading list is nothing unusual. They’ve nicknamed me the Apocalypse Gal, after all. And my apocalyptic appetite isn’t limited to books. I spent much of the 2011 pre-Christmas season watching every episode of The Walking Dead. Some people watch Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, but I was happy to think about zombies and the end of the world as we know it.
I’ve always had a taste for eschatology. And I’m not the only one. The Walking Dead continues to break viewership records. We’ve seen people fascinated by Nostradamus, and other prophets both old and new. As we reach the date where the Mayan calendar ends, I expect to see a certain rising hysteria.
The interest in the end times is nothing new; we might speculate that only the technology changes. I spent my late adolescence in the 1980’s in thrall to the trinity of nuclear war movies: The Day After, Testament, and Threads. Earlier in the century, after World War I came to a close, we see a gloominess and pessimism creep into British literature that hadn’t been there before; think of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as ultimate ode to apocalypse.
I could trace the apocalyptic strain back through the centuries, but most of us know that just as tales of utopia have entranced humanity, we’ve also been seduced by tales of ultimate doom. But why?
Literary and film theorists would tell us that nothing creates a compelling conflict like having the kind of high stakes that the end of the world brings with it. Psychologists might tell us that we deal with our deep fears by experiencing these disasters from the remove of popular culture.
I’ve often wondered about what our apocalyptic scenarios say about our deepest fears. Sometimes, it’s obvious: the nuclear war movies of the 1980’s seemed rooted in what might happen any day as Ronald Reagan joked about bombing the U.S.S.R. The first season of The Walking Dead contains an episode which shows a gang who turns out to be inhabiting a nursing home or hospital; it has clear Hurricane Katrina allusions, and it’s what we’re all afraid of, being helpless, whether it be in the hospital or helpless in some other way, during a catastrophe.
We’re in a zombie renaissance right now. Everywhere I turn, I’m seeing zombies in popular culture, whether they’re taking over Jane Austen or appearing in Colson Whitehead’s The Zone. What does it say about us? Are we worried that we’re losing our humanity, because of technology that threatens to make us little more than reactivated brain stems? Or is it a more basic fear of Alzheimer’s?
And of course, it’s hard to deny that our planet groans as we put ever more stress on it. As I wrote this piece this week, a report came in that sea levels are rising 60% faster than anticipated, and a different report noted the increase in polar ice melt. Wordsworth said “The world is too much with us,” but the world might see it oppositely. We’re in the middle of one of the great extinctions, most commonly called the Holocene Extinction, and much of it is caused or accelerated by humans.
So, what are we to do with this knowledge? Most of us would agree that sinking into a despair from which we never emerge is not an option. But many of us feel alarmed at the rate of change and the sinking feeling that we’ve waited too long to try to act.
The Protestant reformer Martin Luther says that the proper response to knowing that the world would end the next day is to plant a tree (referenced in N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church p. 209). That advice is as good today as it was 500 years ago. The theologian N. T. Wright would tell us when we need encouragement to do great and/or beautiful things, to remember that it all becomes part of the ultimate redemption of the world.
Even those of us not of a theological bent can take comfort from the sweeping geopolitical changes of the last decades of the twentieth century. Imagine going back in your time machine to the year 1985. Imagine telling the inhabitants of 1985 that not only will Nelson Mandela be freed from prison, but that he’ll be elected president of South Africa in the first free elections that country will have. Imagine telling the inhabitants of 1985 that East and West Germany will be reunified and that the countries of Eastern Europe will be free. The inhabitants of 1985 would shake their heads in disbelief.
It’s important to remember that social activism can make a difference, even if we have trouble understanding how that change will occur. In much the way that artists do, we can remind ourselves that we have no control over the ultimate outcome, but that we can control our daily and yearly actions.
My Hindu artist friend who has extensive training in Mythology of all kinds would tell us that creating art is essential too. She continuously reminds her classes that the last sign to show us that the apocalypse is almost here that the muses will desert us. So, each time we appreciate beauty or each time we create something, we’ve put off the apocalypse by one more day—or at least 15 more minutes.
Surely, we can do that little bit: appreciate a painting, enjoy a meal, exclaim over a flower, or share a piece of good writing with our friends. Not only will it enrich our daily lives, but we’ll stave off apocalypse as well.
In the finale of season 1 of The Walking Dead, a CDC scientist reminds the group that they will lose everything if they go back into the zombie-occupied world. But really, isn’t that what we all face? We know that everything we love will be lost sooner or later, whether that be to something as global as the Holocene Extinction or as mundane as the death that happens to us all or something mystical, like a Mayan curse.
The task we all face is to build a meaningful life in the face of this knowledge of certain doom. We may follow the path of theologians, social reformers, and/or artists—or perhaps we’ll chart a new way unique to us. But attend to the task we must. And in the process, we’ll do the important work of transforming the world from one of apocalypse and doom to one of creativity and new life.