The Popularity of the Apocalypse

If you will permit me a gross generalization:

Apocalyptic visions of the future are anything but new to humanity. Many religions are founded on just that: an apocalyptic future in which all is lost and–in some cases–rebuilt. Popular culture, alongside religious culture, has also long held a penchant for the apocalyptic. Visions of the future without humans, without autonomy, without plants, without water, without technology, etc. The justification for such bleak visions of the future has often been that we, humans, see no way of continuing our current course of existence without destroying the environment in which we live. An apocalyptic future assumes that we found no alternatives to our consumptive ways. We, on some level, understand that our way of life is either too violent (nuclear war), too reckless (carbon emissions), too selfish (resource depletion), or too successful (overpopulation) to continue as it has.

However, I wish to propose the opposite: apocalyptic scenarios are appealing because they allow us to perpetuate our way of life–the very way of life which jeopardizes our future. Humanity’s penchant for the apocalyptic is not because we recognize that our way of living is too exacting on the planet, or in the religious case too exacting on the sensibilities of deity, but rather because any apocalyptic scenario allows us to continue in exactly the way we have always behaved. Apocalyptic futures provide the justification for changing nothing.

For example, when a group of survivors faces a hostile horde of undead, the immediate need of survival eliminates all thought of future and effect. Many post-apocalyptic scenarios justify violence, exploitation of resources, and implement growth politics and economics because survival is the only desirable outcome. Perspective shifts from the proverbial forest to the tree. The immediacy of circumstance eliminates all thought of consequence.

Post-apocalyptic scenarios appeal to us not because we see no other alternative, but because they justify the methods by which we have always existed. In such scenarios there is room for nothing but our immediate and consumptive needs.

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