Monday, 3 September 2012

Dreams of Apocalypse

Post-apocalypse London* 

Since time immemorial, humans have been asking the same key questions: who are we? Why are we here? And where are we going?

For millennia, religion was used to offer the response: whether we were created from, then absorbed and re-shaped and endlessly recreated anew from the matter of the Universe, as the Hellenic and Buddhist faiths proclaimed. Or alternatively we are shaped in the image or purpose of a Divine Creator, who set rules for us to follow and will in the End come to render Judgement, as the Abrahamic faiths believe.

The Big Bang Theory of scientific creation and evolution similarly holds to a beginning and end of sorts – though like the Hellenic and Buddhist schools, each end heralds a new cycle. A new beginning, whereas the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic themes see the End of Life and in turn of the Universe as points of departure to a different plain, to Heaven – or by some reckonings, to Hell.

Although both Jews and Muslims believe in an Ultimate Judgement by God on all humanity, it is the Christian Book of Revelations, purportedly written by the Evangelist John towards the end of the First Century, that most explicitly (though in many respects also in the most obscure fashion possible) sets out the End and the Judgement. The Four Horsemen - sometimes identified as War, Famine, Pestilence and Death - will be sent out near the End Times to proclaim the coming Judgement of Souls (notably a concept derived from the Egyptian God Anubis, who weighed the souls of the dead)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - harbingers of the Last Judgement
While many of all faiths have argued that humans are stewards of God’s Creation for the future, US fundamentalists, who comprise over 20% of the population, hold that, if the world is due to end anyway, it exists for our exploitation rather than needless conservation. 

Indeed, one such believer, James Wyatt, dreadfully appointed by President Reagan as US Interior Secretary in 1981, chillingly told a bewildered Congressional Committee that “When the very last tree is felled, then Jesus Christ shall return.He was, unbelievably, responsible for the environment policy of the most powerful nation on Earth – and the ruin of our planet was a divinely-ordained inevitability he was actually looking forward to. (He has in recent years denied meaning and, sometimes, even saying this - alternately claiming he was taken out of context. What is beyond doubt was his implying that environmentalists should be gunned down because of the "trouble" they cause.)

Yet he was (and is) far from alone: both US churches and, unsurprisingly, the internet are awash with fundamentalists eagerly awaiting the destruction of our world and the return of Christ. If through war and resource destruction they can help that day along, they will willingly do so. Apocalypse Soon website depicts global warming as the culmination of God's Plan, not the result of human greed and folly - there is nothing we can do to prevent it and, indeed, as seeking to do so runs counter to God's Will, those who argue for clean energy and resource conservation are in effect blasphemers. There an ironic consensus between the prophetic fatalism of some religious thinking and the believe of many secular progressives that if the planet continues on its current trajectory, the dreams of apocalypse revealed by Saint John all these centuries ago may well come true.

Science has shown us that there have been Mass Extinctions before on the Earth – five in all, and many now talk openly of a Sixth Extinction: this is opening up rapidly with the destruction of a record number of animal and plantspecies every year, a trend that is escalating almost daily. Sitting atop the thin membrane that is the Terran biosphere, human society is increasingly under pressure as our current economic system of unalloyed global capitalism fosters growing consumption and an obsession with short-term profits rather than any form of restraint or long-term planning. Taking its cue from the Abrahamic Genesis myth that sets Man’s Divinely-granted Dominion over Creation (including over women), Capitalism holds that anything and everything may be commodified and bought and sold as long as there is a demand for it and some degree of scarcity (i.e., it is not freely available to all – such as air, for now at any rate).

In consequence, the economic system blindly drives forward the prospect of oblivion: and while there may be elites who even now enjoy obscene levels of wealth, their control over the course of events is as illusory as ever. Whether the Bilderbeg Group actually means anything or not, nothing and no one is ultimately in control of capitalism. Our species is riding an increasingly ravenous tiger and no one is going to come riding to the rescue. There is no Free Market White Knight – because had such a mythical figure ever actually existed, he would have rented out his armour and sold the horse.

And it is this prospect of our world of today gone totally out of control that, more recently, has spawned an alternative cannon of literature, counter-posed to the stories of Revelations which culminate in the arrival of Divine Judgement. For over a century, science fiction writers have asked the three key questions over and over again, and some of the most compelling visions they have created have been in response to the third enquiry of where we are headed. Whilst tapping into both our natural curiosity about what could be, as well as our morbid mix of fear and fascination with what might go wrong, few of the greatest texts offer an optimistic vision.

Meal-time for Morlocks...
H.G Wells blazed a trail with his short novella, “The Time Machine”, which sees the protagonist hurled forward to a time when civilisation has collapsed and humanity is divided into two newly evolved branches - the cattle-like Eloi who are farmed and eaten by the ferocious, troglodyte Morlocks – each a response to a world gone awry. This  inspired Russian Yevgenny Zamyatin's 1921 novel "We", which projected the man-machine theories of the early 20th century nearly a thousand years forward to imagine a de-personalised totalitarian nightmare. This was to be evoked further in films like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and novels like Huxley's "Brave New World" and, of course, Orwell's "1984" - all of which projected then-current schools of thought about social and bio-engineering to extreme but logical conclusions. Zamyatin's efforts in particular attracted the wrath of the nascent Bolshevik regime as it began to clamp down on the torrent of free thought briefly unleashed by the collapse of Imperial Russia and propagated by the herculean efforts of Maxim Gorky.

In subsequent decades, writers conjured up many versions of how the world as we know it might end, each responding to some of the threats of the writers’ times: in the years following the war, with atomic deadlock between the West and the Soviet Bloc, both literature and cinema focused on the potential for nuclear holocaust.

Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” movie posits a world of extremes where the the justification of nuclear arsenals lead to a suitably Freudian Love of The Bomb. Obsession with nuclear weaponry, which led to many in the American military positing the concept of “limited” nuclear war (helpfully “confined” to Europe), was to be parodied at its most extreme a few years later in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”, where a mutant human community worship a planet-killing plutonium missile and sing hymns in its praise.

More meal-time...
Over-population was one of the first big environmental themes to be raised by the mass media in the 1960s, spawning films like “Soylent Green” depicting  a world of massive social injustice, authoritarian politics and the total devaluing of human beings. Less successfully, “Logan’s Run” depicted a future society which controlled over-population via a mythological re-birth which permitted the elaborate ritualised execution of everyone reaching their 30th birthday. In tandem, the threat from man-made viruses accidentally unleashing a species threatening plague provided the foil for films such as “The Omega Man” (later remade as “I Am Legend”) and books such as “Earth Abides”.
 (NB It should be noted here that the frequent appearance of arch-Republican and avowed capitalist Charlton Heston in several of these films was almost certainly contingent with the size of his cheques as opposed to any endorsement of the movies’ premises – indeed, Serling commented that Heston was so bigoted that his narrow worldview meant he just didn’t notice the range of progressive political messages in the first two Apes films, even when later on they were explained to him!)

Technology has also both fascinated and terrified humans since the first loom was invented: and again, science fiction has offered up dystopian visions of a future run by robots, whether the prophetic Thatcheresque android of “Metropolis” or the indistinguishable-from-human replicants of Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner”, which was based on Philip K Dick’s story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”  1970’sColossus: The Forbin Project” combined several themes – nuclear war, overwhelming technology and scientific hubris- to create a nightmare scenario of artificial intelligence deposing its human creators that was far more convincing than the later series of Terminator films, which again portrays profit-seeking companies developing robotic weaponry endowed with independent thought seeking to destroy humanity.

With many artificial life form programmes now underway and within striking distance of recreating human-levels of intelligence, and last month the Disney Corporation perfecting the ability to graft human-like faces onto robots “for entertainment purposes”, this theme remains as pertinent today as 80 years ago in Lang’s Berlin studios.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father and son
However, perhaps the bleakest tale of all is one of the most understated. Published in 2006 and made into a strikingly beautiful but harrowing film, “The Road”, by Cormac McCarthy, tells the story of a man and his son walking an endless road in a dead world, hopelessly seeking some solace among the debris. It is hauntingly written and evokes so powerfully the relationship between the father, who has known a world of abundance, and his boy, who has known nothing but grey skies, ash-covered landscapes, scavenging for the last few tins of food and hiding from the dangers of cannibalistic strangers. All the hopes and dreams a father might have for his child are gone – all he can do is try to keep his offspring alive, hoping against all logic that somehow they might find something to offer just the faintest chance of a future. The cause of the apocalypse is unstated, but the skin deep nature of civilisation is revealed as the survivors scramble to secure what resources remain. Appropriately, much of the film version was made in the deserted and devastated streets of post-flood New Orleans.

This is one scenario, a sudden collapse. Other novels tell of more gradual endings – “A Secret History of Time to Come”, by Robie Macauley, is set three or four centuries on from a race conflict that destroyed the USA and presaged global conflict and the collapse of society. In this tale, a wanderer, Kincaid, follows an old ESSO road map around the Great Lakes of the Mid-west, encountering remnants of the old societies – while most live in wooden huts and barter for goods, occasionally some half-remembered title or post comes up such as a “Shirrf” in charge of one community. But in this world, no one travels far and strangers are seen as a threat and so Kincaid frequently encounters hostility. Underpinning his Odyssey is a concept of embedded biological memory – he keeps seeing an image of something which drives him ever on towards a destination he does not understand. This haunting book, while not as desperate as “The Road”, nevertheless shows how the human society we cling to now has shallow roots and how, left untended through a combination of greed and complacency, can wither and die faster than we dare contemplate. All that remains are the empty shells of once great buildings and the overgrown highways traversed by the solitary figure of Kincaid on his journey to nowhere.

Perhaps, though, the most assertive rebuttal of humanity’s claim to Dominion over the planet and the other species on it is to be found in Paul Dehn and Rod Serling’s film adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s “Monkey Planet” – 1968’s “Planet of the Apes”. In this, two thousand years from now, humanity’s remnants have lost all power of speech and reason, roaming the Savannah in search of crops to sequester from the farmlands of the now dominant Simians. The Apes have an evidently deep hatred and fear of these seemingly docile if destructive creatures. Their conservative society is unable to come to terms with the true reasons for this antipathy, but in their religious writings and the repressive actions of their Government in the form of Minister Doctor Zaius, humanity’s destructive potential is clear: Beware the beast man, for he shall make a desert of his home and yours.”  A desert area known as the Forbidden Zone is described as having been a paradise, ruined by mankind. The facts are long lost, but the folk memory of the Simian culture that has emerged stretch far enough back to recall however vaguely the inherent folly of our degraded species.

It is perhaps the most apposite illustration of the potential outcome of our current complacency as we face both deep resource scarcities and environmental degradation of catastrophic proportions – too often, we are told by both greens and the media that we must “save the planet”. Yet the truth of the matter, which much apocalyptic science fiction tells us, is that it is not the planet that is in danger – it is us; it is humanity, as well as many of our companion species.

It is said that good science fiction tells you more about the world in which it is written than it has to say about any alternate realm. And in this respect, the nightmares of tomorrow, forged in the minds of the authors of the last century or so, are a far more powerful warning and road map than any of the fantastical and whimsical dreams of apocalypse conjured up by Saint John. And science fiction is decidedly not prophetic – as often as not, it is a warning, a call to arms against folly and injustice. Unlike the writings of Saint John, where our species is so damned it has no means of redemption or escape other than by Divine Fire, the visions of tomorrow created by contemporary writers draw both on our very human fascination of our potential destinies and on our potential for action.

By depicting the very worst of outcomes, whether the big bang of Strangelove, the subversion of our own creations in Bladerunner or the poisonous legacy of the Apes films, science fiction offers choices. On a range of threats to our species survival, it portrays the possible – but not the inevitable. Where are we going? is a question that we can answer for ourselves; it is not pre-ordained by a spiteful deity intent on revenge against his own creation – we have no right to absolve ourselves of the responsibility of the stewardship of our planet so easily. In all the scenarios painted above – nuclear holocaust, environmental destruction, artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation and so on, the protagonist is not God, or Nature, or aliens. It is us, people. And just as we are the threat, so we can be the solution. Our behaviour, our choice of economic system and the social norms we adopt, our exploitation of the natural habitat and our damaging of our biosphere – all of it is our choice, our Free Will.

Unfortunately, with born again Christians mobilised to powerful effect in the US elections, and increasingly making their political presence felt in other countries too, it is the chilling Visions of Divine Inevitability that are more likely to inform public policy in the near future. As the Believers rapturously eye up the final trees and sharpen their apocalyptic axes, we need more than ever the authors of alternative futures to sharpen their pens and help to save us from leaving behind the most dystopian of legacies.

We deserve better. 

*Post-apocalypse London picture - credit to Hellgate London pc game


  1. I am heartily tired of the ongoing argument between those who say it is the Planet which must be saved from annihilation, and those who say it is merely ourselves and a few other species which are at risk - that the planet will be just fine. We have over thousands of years, and with ever-quickening pace, wrecked the planet visually and spiritually. We have already robbed the world of so many species and grabbed so many habitats for our own personal use. The web of relationships between species has torn in thousands of places, destroying that sense of wonder at otherness which at least kept some of us in check and hubris out of range. To me, hell is being a human being NOW. Although I make huge efforts to promote green and balanced living, in the final analysis I have no real hope for the future.

  2. I'm not sure it is an either/or debate Diana: the point I was trying to make in the text is that the "save the planet" tack tends to oddly avoid one of the implications of not doing so: the destruction of humans and other species of animals and plants and, indeed, most life on the globe, hence the reference to the Sixth Extinction Event now seemingly underway.

    My point though is that, however destructive we are, the planet won't die - it will become inhospitable to many of the live forms currently here, destroying much of beauty and wonder; but, as with previous extinctions and global catastrophe's, it will ultimately recover with new forms of life and long outlive the damage we inflict - as well as seeing us of, though we sadly appear very capable of doing so all by ourselves.