We’re not afraid of the end of the world; we’re looking forward to it. Disaster movies make great blockbusters, the Second Coming fills the pews, and historical figures from Nostradamus to the Mayans become news again. But why? Why do we love the idea of The End?
When I was twelve, I dug a hole in my backyard, tunneling underground to make a bomb shelter. In those Cold War days, end of the world options were few. While other kids my age read Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics, I depressed myself with non-fiction risk assesments and fictional accounts of nuclear winter. While that was a much more realistic threat than Mayan calendars, I was lucky not to die of suffocation when my tunnel caved in.
In 1992, my best friend and I sat on the steps of a church, eating popcorn, waiting for a predicted Second Coming. The church lawn sported a statue of Jesus, illuminated, so we’d recognize him. At midnight, the light went out. Spooky. Or a mechanical timer.
Though the predictions were wrong, and the world hasn't ended, we have every reason to keep rooting for it.
Surviving an apocalypse, in every form, represents our ability to cheat death. For all of us, death is the ultimate end of the world. Fantasizing about survival, (you do secretly expect to survive, right?) is really just a desire to survive death. This would also make us unique, special, not like those other weak schmucks.
There are three reasons you deserve to survive an apocalypse:
1. You prepared. Survivalists love this. They stock up on Tamiflu, iodine pills, biohazard suits, dried food, and dozens of guns, ready for anything. A tip for the rest of you: make a map of your friendly neighborhood survivalists. When they die, in their car, stuck in traffic, you inherit all their stuff.
2. You are technologically superior. Guys love gadgets. Prepping for an apocalypse isn't like collecting fine watches - it has a purpose! Just like all those woodworking tools in the garage, we might use them some day.
3. You are special. There are over six billion people on the planet and counting. It's hard to know who's smarter, faster, more resourceful - in short, worthy. An apocalypse narrows the field to let you shine. Of course that's you!
Every version of the apocalypse has its own deep-seated psychological issues. They serve a purpose. If I forgot any, let me know, but here are the big ones:
Popular Stories: Day of the Dead, World War Z, I Am Legend, 28 Days Later
What it Represents: Conquering death through base immortality and free sanction to kill humanoids.
Positives:The ability to shoot other human beings in the head without guilt. The ability to survive death (in some form) even if you are unlucky enough to die.
Negatives: Not very likely to happen in our lifetime.
Popular Stories: Left Behind
What it Represents: This fantasy provides those who have faith in invisible things tangible proof that they were right all along. (That's not really faith, though, is it?)
Positives: Jesus comes back and slaps the other cheek.
Negatives: Bible thumpers and televangelists, the very people first to go in other scenarios, survive.
What It Represents: The failure of rational thought
Positives: Vindicates anyone living in rural areas, away from prime targets. Radiation might, just might, create women with three breasts. Or men with breasts of their own.
Negatives: Country music immediately bumps R&B off the Billboard charts.More likely to eliminate all life on the planet. Kinda legitimately scary.
Popular Stories: Independence Day, War of the Worlds
What it Represents: A fear of science. Alien invasion scenarios became popular when human science started to take off. It is both a fear of our own technology (which is alien to non-engineers) and a fear that we're not advanced enough. Science seems to trump traditional common sense, so we like to see simple people win in the end.
Positives: Proves that we are not alone in the universe. Ability to co-opt alien technology for human good.
Negatives: Extinction level event means no survivors at all.
Popular Stories: Terminator, The Matrix
What it Represents: The fear that humans become gods. We don't like the idea that we can create life, even artificial. Only gods do that. Mortals who try must be punished.
Positives: Easy to tell the difference between friend and foe. Eat my EMP!
Negatives: AI robots will be just like us - intelligent, warmongering creatures that exterminate all lesser creatures. A justifiable fear backed up by ten thousand years of history. And when they're done, they'll probably invent Dancing with the Robots.
Popular Stories: Contagion, The Hot Zone, Outbreak
What it Represents: Our society supports the weak in our species. A plague kills them off. Balance restored.
Positives: If you survive, the world is your playground. Mostly good looking, strong, young, healthy specimens left to repopulate the world
Negatives: Nasty, brutish death from an invisible enemy that cannot be battled with guns
Popular Stories: Armagedon, Deep Impact
What it Represents: Death by an outside source, fear of that we cannot control.
Positives: It might not hit our side of the Earth.
Negatives: Not very scary. Makes us say, “Meh”. It killed the dinosaurs. Big whoop. If we were actually threatened, we'd send Ben Affleck up in a space shuttle and nuke it.
Arrival of a Supernatural World Overlord
Popular Stories: Ghostbusters, The Avengers
What it Represents: The triumph of sloth and ignorance
Positives: A world dictatorship takes away the compromise of a democracy, making everything easier. We don’t have to make decisions any more. Just do as the Man says, and you won’t get hurt.
Negatives: Bad architectural styles, poor fashion sense
Despite the variety, this still doesn't explain why we WANT it to happen. Here are the top five reasons:
1. WE’RE BORED! Modern society gives us increasingly smaller tasks and significantly less connection to the basics of life – food, shelter. Everything we worry about daily is really not important at all. People lining up for the next iPhones, people who vote for Dancing With the Stars, people who talk about what they’re going to buy next – these people have no life. None of us do! The apocalypse makes life meaningful – eat and stay alive. What could be more basic? What could be more meaningful?
2. Free Stuff. In the event that the world ends, all property, credit card bills, paychecks, become a thing of the past. Most of the world’s population is dead! You want that Ferrari? It’s yours! You want to live in that mansion? Yours! Need food, go to the supermarket. It’s free! We have enough durable goods and products to service the remaining lucky few for several generations. Once you figure out what to eat and drink (which you will if you survive the first two weeks), you’re golden. It’s like winning the lottery!
3. No Work. That’s right, you can kiss that dreadful day job goodbye. No work = permanent post-apocalyptic vacation. Nice. Of course, we don’t realize that subsistence living sucks. If it were so great, we wouldn’t have progressed to our modern level of convenience in the first place. But modern man forgets, and wishes upon himself the worst.
4. No more annoying people. Admit it. 90% of the people you encounter on a daily basis drive you insane. Even your loved ones and family members. After the apocalypse, you get a healthy dose of peace and quiet. And if anyone tries to disturb that, you can shoot them.
5. Every story has an ending, and we want to be there. This whole concept of the world going on for generation after generation for millions of years implies that we, now, are not the be all and end all of the universe. That’s just not right. It’s far better to be the culmination of history than a blip somewhere in the middle. Best of all, surviving the end automatically makes us the protagonists of the next chapter!
The Perfect Apocalypse
Not all apocalypses are alike. In fact, some are not desirable at all.
Sandia National Laboratories, the company America trusts with its nuclear arsenal, lists only three catastrophic events worthy of calculating the odds and the steps necessary for their prevention. These three are nuclear war, the collision of an asteroid on our planet, and global climate change.
Despite laboring over it for sixty years, the world still hasn’t solved the first problem. Non-proliferation, rather than elimination of nuclear technology, is the norm, which means the problem never really went away. As for asteroids… meh.
And Climate Change? We're still denying it. We continue to make climate change an economic issue rather than a survival issue, claiming that its solution lies not in the doing, but in the cost of doing.
Maybe the reason we’re not solving these three things is that we don’t want to solve them. We want this pathetic world to end.
Sandia sets the odds of a catastrophic asteroid impact at less than one in 10,000 within the next century. Meanwhile, Sandia reports, “The chances of a greenhouse gas induced global catastrophe are hundreds of times greater.” Nuclear winter and asteroids have instantaneous destruction going for them. Somehow the very real but slow acting poison of climate change simply doesn’t spark the human imagination in the same way.
And that’s what this is all about: sparking the imagination. You would think that with three very real possibilities for the end of the world at our fingertips, we wouldn’t need to think of any more. Wrong. We’re not looking for reality.
So what would the perfect apocalypse look like?
It would have to reduce the human population by a large margin, much like a viral event, while leaving all infrastructure in place. It would also give us some form of entertainment.
The clear winner?
The Zombie Apocalypse, caused by a virus. All the dead people you want, none of the damage, with a little target practice thrown in.
Sounds good to me!
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