TWD-iconic

The Walking Dead’s iconic season 1 teaser image

But first, a little bit about me…

Yeah, I’m pretty obsessed.

I’ve often wondered what it is about the apocalypse that’s so captivating, especially these days when there’s a marked increase in books, movies, and video games on this topic. I was surprised to find that I had to dig pretty hard to find any information on the psychology that might serve as a catalyst for this popularity. I had my suspicions, sure, but when I reached out to one university psychologist asking the question and sharing my theories, I got a very curt response; “Have you LOOKED at a newspaper lately?” Maybe she was just having a bad day, though the point is valid.

I had better luck reaching out to author Todd Mitchell, after coming across his more cerebral response to this idea, “What Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Books Say About Us”. Todd had observed the apocalyptic trend in books, and I had observed it in video games. Everyone, at this point, of course, has observed it on television. But why? Why now?

Todd and I corresponded at length about the potential motivators, and we agreed on two likely factors:

  1. We’re awash in technology. Everything’s a screen, everything’s instant, everything’s social media. A part of us wants it all to go away.
  2. We’re no longer self-sufficient. When no one person in the world possesses the full knowledge required to make a pencil, perhaps we yearn for the days of being able to take care of ourselves. I personally think that’s also a motivator for preppers, homesteaders, and other types of “off-the-grid” fans.
Pandemic, a cooperative board game by Matt Leacock

Pandemic, a cooperative board game by Matt Leacock

Another motivation Todd shared with me was the concept of purpose:

“In survival stories, the characters have a clarity of purpose. They know what they must do to survive, and their actions and decisions have clear meaning and significance. I think we yearn for that pure sense of meaning and purpose—that return to an undeniable reality, because in our ordinary lives, the prevalence of the simulation is all-consuming and enervating. In short, the confusion, disconnection, and denial of modern life often creates an existential crisis (what matters? what is life about? why am I here?), and survival stories that focus on the struggle to exist offer an answer to, or a relief from this crisis (if characters are fighting to survive, then what they’re fighting for must matter).”

I think Shaun of the Dead illustrates this concept humorously, when on the morning of the apocalypse, Shaun doesn’t even notice that the store attendants and public service workers have become zombies. Sometimes that’s exactly how the daily grind feels. Like we’re just shuffling along, one paycheck to the next, with no real purpose to it all.

Another contributing factor is offered up in a fascinating dissertation by Hyong-jun Moon for the University of Wisconsin, The Post-Apocalyptic Turn: A Study of Contemporary Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Narrative

Moon talks about the role globalization may play in all this, about how a basic fear of others who are not like us drives a yearning to return to a more tribal dynamic. That makes sense on a very core human level, as part of our baser instincts, and you certainly see that fear played on in Donald Trump’s political speeches.

Now I’m not sure if all this escapism and desire to disconnect applies to why I love day-dreaming about which buildings would make a good zombie base. Honestly I like technology, I like my job, and my fellow human. I guess if anything, the idea of being self-sufficient is what appeals the most to me, and for whatever reason, it has since I was a child. As a teenager, I was an edible wild plant enthusiast, and owned a copy of the US Armed Forces Survival Manual. But I’ve changed a lot since then. I don’t want to be cold. I hate mosquitoes. I worry about being out in the sun. I love the conveniences of modern life, and roughing it would SUCK. I love survival games, but I love them because I can turn them off.

Reality

The fantasy of surviving in an apocalypse is fun to imagine. But I also don’t actually think this is purely fantasy. My college background is in biology,and I firmly believe a global pandemic is inevitable.

When a population explodes in nature, it eventually crashes, either by running out of food itself, or by becoming food for a corresponding predator population explosion.

predator-prey

But we have no real predators. That leaves disease. We’ve thwarted those natural mechanics, too, with antibiotics. But with pathogens becoming more and more resistant to antibiotics, that’s an arms race we’re starting to lose. As I understand it, there’s one last type of antibiotics we know of and haven’t really tapped into (something to do with dirt), but even if that pans out, it’s just delaying things. Inevitably, we’re going to run out of options. And with globalization, we’ve broken down all the natural barriers to prevent what would have been an isolated incident from spreading. An outbreak of cholera in Africa can be on its way to Europe and North America within hours if it gets on the right flight. It’s a pathogen’s dream.

It may sound alarmist and fantastical, but it’s NOT. It already happens, just not to the extent described in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Yet. By the way, I hear a screenplay is in the works, and I could not be more excited…

coughing-busI’ve listened to Station Eleven multiple times. The thing that finally pulled me to a new audible title was the sort of non-fiction version of Station Eleven, “Pandemic” by Sonia Shah. And it is every bit as captivating. Besides including really interesting history lessons about 1800s New York and the Irish potato famine, several concepts have already stuck with me:

  • 40% of dog owners don’t clean up after their pets when out in public spaces. Thanks a lot, guys; not only is it such a joy to come across on a walk, dog feces contains e. coli and other potentially dangerous bacteria that children are then exposed to.
  • We really need to keep pigs away from birds. See, pigs can catch both bird flu and people flus. A really great opportunity for a bird flu mutation lies in its bumping up alongside human flu. This happened in China.
  • For Frith’s sake, cough into your ELBOW, not your flipping HAND!

A pandemic is coming. We’re simply too abundant, and our behaviors are too conducive to spreading disease. All these mass-farming monoculture food practices we’ve used in order to bring things to scale are going to come back to bite us. Global warming favors insect vectors like mosquitoes and ticks, and you’re already seeing that with the Zika virus and EEE. We watched the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa that “ended” in 2015 and forgot about it as soon as that was over, but it’ll be back.

Citing a 2006 survey, Shah says, “the majority of … pandemic experts of all kinds, felt that a pandemic that would sicken a billion people, kill 165 million people and cost the global economy about $3 trillion would occur sometime in the next two generations.”

Honestly, 165 million people… isn’t that much. At least, it doesn’t really fit the meaning of, “apocalyptic”. My question is, is an apocalyptic pandemic in our future? One we can’t contend with at all, despite all our advances in science and medicine, one that brings our current incredibly complex and vulnerable societal structure to its knees, obliterating the possibility of returning to business as usual afterwards? That would take a reduction of billions.

Then there’s this other possible thing, do we secretly welcome an apocalyptic pandemic? All these overwhelming problems we struggle with; over-population, of course, but also global warming, pollution, endangered species, war, poverty… all gone, with an entirely politics-free solution. It’s like a giant “reset” button, and, assuming a viable percentage of the population survived, it’s a second chance. That might be the most tempting fantasy of all.

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