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Apocalyptic thinking

Our contributors contemplate the end of the world

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July 11, 2021

A few months back, a friend of mine had a baby girl, and so, on the card accompanying her birth gift I wrote, “When you’re my age, I’ll be 118.” This is funny because in 59 years I’ll be dead, but it’s also depressing because I’ll never get to see what happens next in the unfolding narrative called the world we live in.

My writing has often fixated on the end of the world, perhaps because I’m jealous of a future I’ll never get to see, so, in response, I think, “Well, if I can’t see who wins the Academy Awards of 2083, then nobody will get to see the Academy Awards of 2083.” Hence, I have, or rather, once had, a tendency to latch onto apocalyptic thinking — except I’m actually finding that harder to do these days. I once thought the end of the world was kind of cool, but now I see it as corny, even though depictions of it are irresistible, like Beatles music or Ranch dressing. The bogeyman du jour tells you a lot about a culture at a given moment; there’s a reason UFOs became a thing during the McCarthyist Fifties.

The house I grew up in was sold a few years back and the house next door was torn down and replaced by what is arguably the ugliest McMansion in Canada. Most trees in both properties were chopped and — there’s just been too much change, and because of this I’ve lost all desire to ever visit there again. This is something of a counterargument against being jealous of the future and wanting to see how things change after you die. I suspect the future is neither a glorious Brave New World nor a zombie apocalypse. It’s just a lot of tasteless chipping away at the things you once held to be important. In some senses, the future reminds me of a game of Monopoly because nobody ever actually wins a game of Monopoly: people merely drift away from it to do something else, and there’s no satisfying win or loss. How on Earth has that game persisted for so long? Maybe because it unwittingly mirrors the ageing process and prepares us for death.

Having said that, there will, one day in the future, come the day when someone drives a car for the very last time. There will come the day when somebody makes spaghetti for the very last time. A day when — well, you catch my drift. Everything must end at some point, and it’s the end of these small things that make any description of the end of the world extra disconcerting, poignant, and even frightening, because they’re the things that structure our days. But it’s also those small losses that make End Times scenarios fun to read about and fun to watch. There exists a website out there that is devoted to finding chronoclastic errors within zombie TV shows. These sites are fuelled by people who watch the TV screen with a finger on the pause button as they hunt for innocuous background set-dec errors like a recently mown lawn. They’re thinking, After the zombie apocalypse, nobody will ever mow a lawn again. How could this TV show be so clueless? This is the same sort of person who watches movies set in World War One only to spot railway station signs done in Helvetica Bold, and declare the movie is dead to them. And this person is me.

But so much of what we think of as the look of the end of the world comes from film, TV and their often extremely low set-dec budgets. 30 years ago, in Vancouver, I lived in a neighbourhood that was always being used as some sort of film or TV set. In the mornings I’d open the blinds and the streets below would be lined with Sixties muscle cars from Detroit, so I could tell it was a period piece movie set back then. Or sometimes there would be Model T’s and the show would be set in the 1920s. And sometimes I’d open the blinds and there would be tumbleweeds, huge piles of litter and a few sloppily modified electric cars, and this meant that the movie in question was set in a post-apocalyptic future. If you ever wonder why the future in movies is not bright, it’s because using litter and keeping the lights low is a really simple way to stretch your budget.

In our culture, the end of the world seems to happen in very predictable ways and there’s a kind of reassurance and comfort that comes from this. Capitalism runs amuck; AI runs amuck; viruses run amuck; environmental catastrophe runs amuck. Amuck. Amuck, amuck, amuck. If you say the word a few times in a row, it starts losing its meaning and becomes just a sound effect. If you watch too many disaster movies you get the same blanking out effect; it all turns into colourful explosions and alien Halloween costumes.

Alien invasions, of course, are plot line staples for cinematic ends of the world — certainly the most special-effects driven — but I have trouble with aliens wrecking earth because it’s as if we’re offshoring, in the most extreme sense of the word, blame for an end of the world that will, as we know, be entirely brought down by human beings. Using aliens to end the world is a cop out. Human beings have earned the right to end the world. We are a useless species. We deserve the end of the world — but the rest of the world doesn’t deserve it, and our epitaph can only read: Sentience was a terrible idea.

So yes, it is strange to think that there will be the last time someone ever sings a song, and strange that there will be a last human ever born, but this vein of thinking reeks of speciesism. Why is it only the end of the world when humans are gone? A world without whales or a world without penguins or songbirds seems to me to be a form of the end of the world. At what extinction point do we call it a day and say, “Well, yes, it’s a planet, and yes people are still around — but there’s just no point to it”?

When the end of our world does happen, it will be quick, and completely out of left field. The end of the world will be the “unknown unknown” as opposed to the “known unknown” which is basically our list of the usual apocalyptic suspects: viruses, radiation, famine, climate, AI and comets. Knowing this, five years from now it might turn out in the end that the actual vector for human extinction is that everyone who got AstraZeneca and then used Crest toothpaste a year later dies of some hideous disease, and people who got Pfizer who use Colgate toothpaste go next, but by the time it’s figured out, it’s too late. Smug anti-vaxxers fare no better, as some fresh new bug wipes them out a week later and doesn’t even need toothpaste to get the job done. I’m being facetious, but why not? The end of the world is kind of absurd. I’m thinking about ridiculous zombie films and also about Love in the Time of Cholera: dying by trying to save a parrot from a tree.

My longstanding love affair with the end of the world goes way back and most likely stems from my being a child of the Cold War. In high school art class we had to make environmentally aware dioramas, so, I’d make dioramas of gas stations that just happened to straddle the San Andreas fault. It had to be gas stations, and the stations had to cleave in two halfway between the two gas pumps bays, because that way I could melt the 1973 oil crisis together with Mother Nature, the two of them working in tandem to end the world. Forty years later, I worked with a computer modelling friend who worked on the earthquake disaster film San Andreas, which came out in 2015. Their 3D design building team was divided into two groups who were never allowed to even talk together and who worked in different parts of the building. One group built the buildings, and the other group destroyed them. The worry was creative cross-contamination that would make less satisfyingly accurate seismic destruction. That extra level of detachment made the scary special effects even scarier, but it also made the results feel industrial and mass produced, like Warhol paintings.

The thing is, in the Seventies, the end of the world seemed much nearer than it does right now. Nothing worked back then, and everything was fading and imploding and being smothered in oil and soot. The Seventies with an internet would have been an utter pit of despair. Which reminds me: I was in Toronto in 2003 during SARS Classic, which had a 16% kill rate and, to be honest, the city didn’t feel even remotely as doomy as it does now during Covid, which has a pathetic kill rate of, what, 0.3%? That’s what happens with an internet everywhere around you: it’s this sleepless beast that roams everywhere, poking shit with a stick all along the way, and waking up every conceivable sleeping dog it finds with a clanging pair of concert cymbals.

I guess my biggest issue with the end of the world is, I realise as I write this, that I no longer believe in it. In short form, in my lifetime I’ve seen acid rain and the ozone hole be fixed, and I have every reason to expect global warming to be fixed, though heaven help anyone who shows even a smidge of optimism on that issue. A few weeks back in Vancouver, where I live, and in nearby Seattle and Portland, we had the hottest recorded days ever, and not just by a little — these new heat numbers blew up the charts. I know my house is on fire and yet I somehow think we’ll be fine.

Two days after I wrote that conclusive sentence, the small town of Lytton, British Columbia — a three-hour drive north-east of Vancouver — experienced Canada’s all-time highest temperature ever: 49.5°C. Lytton’s mayor was on national radio talking about how unusual this was. Then this morning a wildfire burned the entire town of Lytton to the ground. Last year, the entire town of Paradise, California burned to the ground. I may not believe in the end of the world, but I do believe in messages, and the end of the world is somehow mapping onto real life in a way that feels like cheese melted onto a hamburger. I really do want to make it to 118 because I want to see all of this stuff get fixed, and it will be.