Over the weekend I read World War Z, a book about a zombie near-apocalypse and watched Contagion, a movie about a deadly disease that spreads globally. Both explore how governments would respond, the anarchy that might break out, and what it takes to survive a break down of the rule of law.
Pop culture has been full of apocalypse since I’ve started paying attention to it. There’s 2012 (days away), alien invasion, zombie infestation, nuclear Armageddon or environmental destruction of some kind. Why the fascination?
At the risk of sounding like a high-school essay I’ll venture three theories.
1. We need an enemy
We’re not allowed to hate anyone. Without true evil, and a true enemy, it’s hard to have heroes and hard to be loyal to something. When Fascism and Communism were threats, we could rally around democracy as the ultimate good. We could denounce bad people. We could be passionate about something. We could be proud of what we stood for.
Now, standing for something is almost synonymous with being bigoted. If you care too much about something, then you are denouncing whatever opposes it, and that’s un-American.
Zombies and evil aliens are a welcome respite from non-violence. Once again there is absolute evil, and therefore an absolute necessity to abolish it, which implies that is something that must be saved, something worth dying for; goodness, humanity, democracy, or fill in your own value.
2. We don’t think the life we live is sustainable
As an orthodox Jew I believe in the coming of the Messiah, a time when G-d will be revealed, and goodness and kindness will reign. (I know I just lost 90% of my credibility but if you’ve read this far please don’t let this dissuade you.) If I didn’t I would also be wondering just how long the planet has left to live. Climate change, population growth, toxic waste, nonrenewable resources, greedy consumerism. Take your pick of reasons why the Earth won’t last another millennium.
There’s also no viable solution. Recycling, bicycling, solar energy, skipping meat won’t make more than a dent and if you look at the math you know that a dent is not going to help. So unless you believe in a utopian G-d given reprieve, we’re doomed. So we write about it.
Almost every pop-scientist and pop-sciencee (read: reasonable people who don’t have science degrees) has a fascination with the “when we were hunter gathererscwe did this and that’s why now we do that” model. It’s why women are better at communicating (for hunting grunting suffices), why we run marathons (born to run), why men are attracted to a woman because of her ability to bear offspring, and then protect themselves from that very possibility.
So the story goes, we adapted in order to survive, and then we survived so well that the average U.S. citizen can’t survive without two cars, a house and a TV that’s at least as big as the neighbor’s.
In the developed countries we face the luxury/misery of needing to answer the question: What is the purpose of life when life is so easy to come by? Apocalypse and Armageddon puts our imagination in the place where survival is once again necessary and forces us to ask the question: What is the purpose of life when the only thing to fight for is life itself?