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The End of the World as We Know It

People prophecy doom. It’s what we do. Sometimes it’s celestial, inevitably unfulfilled; for the last hundred years it’s been self-directed, and narrowly avoided — totalitarianism during the early 20th century, nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, famine and overpopulation towards its end. Now there is climate change and its attendant social, economic and environmental disaster.

The undercurrent is caught in the collective unconscious of the recent cinema: Danny Boyle’s 28 movies and Sunshine, I Am Legend, and before long the brutally dehumanized apocalypse of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will go from page to screen. The novel, of course, is merely the latest and most literate of a long line of post-apocalyptic literature — H.G. Wells and J.G. Ballard and John Christopher and Margaret Atwood spring to mind, and there are dozens more authors, particularly among Cold War-era science fiction writers.

Why do we tell ourselves these tales? Perhaps there’s an element of vicarious pleasure in imagining the status quo overturned, a la Constantine Cavafy :

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

Of course, the best part of such stories is their historical failure to come true; perhaps we also tell them to reassure ourselves that, as with nuclear winter and global famine, our darkest fears will go unrealized  — but sometimes I think nervously of another tale, of the boy who cried wolf, told to discourage the raising of false alarm but just as much a warning against assuming that the future will resemble the past.

What if climate change really does bring food and water shortages, waves of refugees, warfare, economic and social collapse? It seems already to have started. I wonder how I’d do in a such a world, on a day-to-day level — how would I support myself and loved ones? What would communities look like, and how would we treat one another? The possibility of violence is less frightening than that of ruthlessness, cruelty and the abuse of power.

But I am comforted by the decency of people, our mundanity, and turn to another author of the apocalypse, Philip K. Dick, in whose Dr. Bloodmoney — formally subtitled, or How We Got Along after the Bomb — the survivors of nuclear war plot and scheme in the most petty and human ways, their inanity a triumph of resilience. Things fall apart, but the pieces aren’t sharp.

It might be ill-advised to take inspiration from a man who believed himself reincarnated in this world as a Godly reward for his service in the fight against the Nixonian totalitarian state of another, less fortunate version of our reality, plucked from that thread as the secret police gathered at his door. Philip K. Dick was schizophrenic — but then again, what malady is more in harmony with modern life?

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