My wife and I were hiking through Point Defiance when our conversation turned, as it sometimes does, to the end of the world. If there was a major natural or man-made disaster, how would we survive? Would we be able to hunt the deer in the park? Or should we aim to steal a boat from the marina and make our way to her parents’ house on the other side of the bridge? I think we’ve all had these conversations — even if it’s only in our heads — where we’ve wondered whether we have what it takes to survive the end of the world.
Apocalyptic fiction has a long history in the Western canon. Some of the earliest texts referencing a humanity-destroying calamity include a version of the Flood Narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh dating to the third millennium B.C.E. (though it’s certainly older than that) and the Book of Revelation written in the first century. Since WWII and the splitting of the atom, books exploring the collapse of civilization have been gaining in popularity. The Hunger Games Trilogy, a series set in a post-apocalyptic North America, has sold an estimated 36.5 million copies.
As a society, we are fascinated — even obsessed — with every kind of apocalypse imaginable. In fiction, I’ve seen the Earth burned to a crisp by asteroids, decimated by viruses, torn apart by nuclear warfare, eaten by zombies, and reduced to fighting over dwindling natural resources. In books, movies, and comics, we are drawn to dark portrayals of our own demise.
Why? Does humanity have a death wish?
I don’t think so. When I reread and rewatch my favorite apocalyptic books and movies, I don’t see pessimism. I see hope; hope for the future. I say that because apocalyptic texts seem to reach peak popularity in troubled times — times of war, economic strife, and civil unrest. When real life is bad, we project that into the art we create and I think we turn to end-of-the-world parables to remind ourselves that the world is not really coming to an end. They remind us that all is not lost. Not yet, at least.
Intentionally or not, fables about the collapse of civilization as we know it are hopeful because they never count us out completely. I never read an apocalyptic tale that didn’t have survivors. No matter the calamity, there is always someone left standing. Those characters often embody the best qualities of humanity — determination, creativity, and compassion — and find a way to rebuild their lives. In each of these narratives, we pick up the pieces of our broken world. The human spirit cannot be extinguished, even at the end of days. Life goes on in the face of insurmountable odds, despite the best efforts of zombies, super bugs, or legions of alien invaders.
If that isn’t a cause to hope for the future of our species, then I don’t know what is.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA. You can find him on Twitter, among other places, and you can sign up for his email newsletter.