“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history,’ but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature.”Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense
Above Nietzsche renders rather beautifully a notion that has now become commonplace: that we are but tiny specks in universe vast beyond our reckoning. We are clever beasts who invented knowing, but that knowing will not prevent our inevitable end. Our sun will cool and die and we will die with it. He is wrong, however, to think that we will be here to see the sun die. The end of our species, if we continue down the path we are now on, will not be sudden and it will not be brought about by an event of cosmic significance. No, our apocalypse will be slow and anthropogenic, and it has already begun.
The apocalypse is often imagined as an event: the arrival of an asteroid or aliens or zombies or a rapid outbreak of a highly deadly virus. We love apocalyptic movies because the people in them look so alive, don’t they? Terrified, sure, but alive! These movies often begin with the protagonists busy going about their daily lives. We see them rushing around, trying to keep a lid on things: making breakfast for the kids, getting them to school, getting themselves to work. Then the aliens or the zombies arrive and they are awoken from the myopia of the daily grind and propelled into an exciting, albeit frightening, new reality.
Take the disaster movie, 2012, which begins with its protagonist, played by John Cusack, waking up late, rushing to get ready for the day ahead. He drives along the highway, stressed out by the traffic. He picks up his kids, who he is taking on holidays. His estranged partner tells him that his daughter is wetting the bed again. His son, bitter over his parents’ separation, refuses to call him ‘dad’. A father, then, dealing with the insecurities of his children and his own inadequacies as a parent. Once they depart, he realises that he has forgotten to bring mosquito repellent or to make sure the kids have enough warm clothing. And then disaster strikes and they are all running for their lives, frightened but oh, so very alive. Par for the course in such movies, the event brings the family together again.
Is there a feeling, buried deep within us, that there is something wrong with the way that we live? Do we secretly desire an event that will bring an end to it all? The cliché Hollywood apocalypse movie presents the apocalypse as a cathartic learning experience whereby we come to understand ‘what’s really important’, and generally that thing is family, country, bravery, courage, honour, loyalty, etc. The world may have been almost totally destroyed by aliens, but humanity somehow managed to prevail.
Outside Hollywood, however, there are apocalyptic stories that do not journey towards happy endings. The connection between father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road compels the reader through horrors that might otherwise be intolerable. There is little hope in his imagining of the apocalypse: we know that there is no Eden awaiting them, no last outpost of humanity, just a father and a son and the love between them.
“Strange to think of the endless labour, the digging, the hammering, the carving, the lifting, the drilling, day by day, year by year, century by century; and now the endless crumbling that must be going on everywhere. Sandcastles in the wind.”Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
My favourite apocalypses are the ones that humans have created for themselves. Margaret Atwood’s wonderful trilogy of works, which begins with Oryx and Crake, is set in a near-future world in which climate change and biotechnological meddling cause various human systems to collapse. The wealthy live and work inside gated communities run by their corporate employers, while everyone else struggles to survive in a largely lawless world. Its protagonist, Jimmy, grows up in one of these compounds, where he meets Glenn, who will later become the titular Crake, a bioengineer that genetically modifies homo sapiens in order to remove their worst instincts and then releases a bioweapon in order to rid the planet of them in the hope that his new creations will prosper in their place.
“So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit.”William Gibson, The Periphery
William Gibson’s The Periphery begins with one of its protagonists, Flynne, doing security work in a seemingly virtual world, where she witnesses the murder of a woman by a swarm of nanobots on the balcony of an apartment building. The world she encounters, however, turns out not to be virtual at all. Rather, it is London roughly seventy years in the future, some decades after an event Gibson calls the ‘Jackpot’ kills off roughly three-quarters of the world’s population. Technology then steps in to save the day: over time, the carnage of the jackpot is cleaned away and new cities and urban environments are shaped by trillions of nanobots called ‘assemblers’. The new world the characters inhabit is aesthetically how we might image a future utopia to be: carbon neutral, totally self-sufficient and efficient. At the same time, an uneasy aura remains over it, the pall of the many dead. Future London, as Flynne observes, is strangely devoid of people, and those who are left are almost exclusively the super-rich, in other words, those who could afford to survive.
The slow apocalypse is already underway and the rich are already building their bunkers and stocking up. Steve Huffman, the founder and CEO of Reddit, was inspired to start preparing for the apocalypse by the movie Deep Impact. Huffman has had laser eye surgery so that he does not have to rely on glasses and has bought motorbikes in order to beat the traffic he anticipates will clog the roads when the mass panic begins. His concern is not so much that a natural disaster will kill us all, but that the collapse of governments around the world will lead to widespread looting and vigilantism. Others have bought apartments in a luxury complex built in a decommissioned nuclear missile silo in Kansas. When the apocalypse begins, residents can be picked up from anywhere up to 400 miles away in armoured Pitbull VX trucks.
In order to prevent the slow apocalypse, we must now do what we have never managed to do before: live in harmony with the ecosystem. While we might have romantic notions that our ancestors once achieved such a feat, there is empirical evidence that suggests that this is not the case. In his work Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari presents a powerful argument against the notion that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. We are, he claims, the deadliest species to have ever lived. Everywhere we have travelled in our rapid colonisation of the planet, other species have begun to die out. He writes that just a few thousand years after homo sapiens travelled from the Indonesian archipelagos to Australia, twenty-three out of twenty-four of the species weighing more than a hundred pounds became extinct. Among the wonderful marsupial species lost was the diprotodon, a giant wombat that stood two-metres tall and weighed more than two thousand kilograms. The pattern repeated itself twelve thousand years ago when homo sapiens arrived in North America. Again, within a few thousand years, the continent lost thirty-four out of forty-seven genera of large mammals and South America lost forty out of fifty.
We modern humans may do astronomically more damage to the ecosystem than our ancestors did, but this is only because the technology with which we exploit the world’s natural resources has become more sophisticated and the drain that modern life, especially life in developed nations, puts on those resources has increased. In other words, humans haven’t changed much at all. We have always been egotistical and seen ourselves as something apart from the rest of the ecosystem, when, of course, we are not. We are part of it. We all know it, but do we really? Would we be living the way that we do if we did?