A Brief and Sarcastic History of the Apocalypse

The apocalypse has already happened. And that’s why we love it.

Humans have been on this planet for a few hundred thousand years, but it could have been a lot less than that. We’ve endured supervolcanoes that turned the sky to ash for years on end and reduced us to a miserable remnant; ice ages that exterminated us from whole continents; and plagues that swept across the globe and turned cities into cemeteries. The world has been trying to kill us for as long as we’ve been here. We shouldn’t feel victimised. It’s been doing it to every other species on the planet too. Just ask the trilobites – oh, wait you can’t. They’re all dead and they probably didn’t have ears anyway.

All that apocalypse leaves a mark on a species, in the same way that antibiotics leave a mark on bacteria – the ones that survive, anyway. We got better at living through these things, and a lot warier of the same thing happening again. And unlike most other creatures on the planet, we had language. We could tell our descendants about it, not realising how myths grow over generations. It’s typical. You tell your kids to watch out if the sky gods get angry and you don’t see the sun for a few years. Then a few generations later they think you were a prophet and they’re all worshipping statues of you shaking a fist at the sky, and telling each other that one day it’s all going to end because humans stood up to the gods and the gods decreed the sun would come back and eat the Earth one day in revenge for the sky swallowing it up all those years before.

Fast forward a bit. Leave all that prehistoric stuff behind. We’ve acquired culture and civilisation and everything, but we’re still terrified of the end of the world. It probably didn’t help that our mediaeval ancestors spent most of the time drunk. Any landmark date ended up being regarded as the definitive end of the world. But they were missing the most likely cause of apocalypse: themselves. Plague was one of the biggest killers across the world, because civilisation had moved forward so fast that we really hadn’t had time to properly adapt to living in massive colonies (i.e. cities). And like a beehive infested with varroa, cities kept getting infected and having their own mini-apocalypses that, being primarily commercial institutions, they then exported across the world. And if it didn’t go along the trade routes, it went with the armies and navies as they explored and campaigned. The Mayan apocalypse has nothing to do with their landmark date of 2012, and everything to do with measles and smallpox. Whole populations of Inuit died the same way because they traded with passing whalers. And in every war, the death toll from fighting would be miniscule compared to the mass graves they had to dig for all the people who died of dysentry along the way. And let’s not get started on prisons. There’s a reason why Typhus was once known as Gaol Fever.

And then we get into the twentieth century. We figured out sanitation. We discovered antibiotics and got most of the plagues under control. And, having eliminated the usual causes of apocalypse, we promptly set about creating some more to put in their place: nuclear weapons that could screw up the world in the same way as a supervolcano, but with radiation added just to make it that little bit more hellish. And not content with threatening ourselves with thermonuclear armageddon for a few decades, we started screwing up the whole planet just by being here. We became this world’s plague, running so far out of control that we may just turn it into either a barren baking desert or one big snowball, depending on how exactly things go bang when you drop a wrench into a set of machinery as fantastically complex as the planet’s climate.

(And I’m not even going to mention all the ways the universe can destroy us without even trying very hard. Some of them have happened before but they’re pretty rare on human timescales. See here for details)

With all of this dreadfully serious stuff going on that may just wipe us out, what do you think humanity’s greatest current response to the apocalypse would be?

We’ve turned it into entertainment!

Oh, sure, we’ve done tons of stuff to stop apocalypses happening for real. Smallpox eradicated. Nuclear weapons scaled back. CFCs eliminated. Big Brother cancelled. But what’s our true level of involvement?

Entertainment!

When you watch the zombie hordes pouring through Atlanta; the Triffids prowling through London; the fighting in the War Room; the cyborgs stalking through Los Angeles; why do you watch?

Entertainment!

When you fight the aliens in Half Life; the zombies in Left 4 Dead; the port authorities in Madagascar; why do you play?

Entertainment!

When you read of the scriptorium of the monks of Leibowitz; the last voyage of the USS Scorpion; the terrible plan of Paul Raedeker; the Man and Boy trudging down the road; what do you read?

Entertainment!

But there you go: all stories are about suffering. Preferably not yours. It’s far more fun to watch someone else go throught it, because if it were all hearts and flowers, it would be Mills & Boon boring.

A story of apocalypse shows you this suffering on a grand scale, the kind of scale your ancestors have dreaded for thousands of years, and which you flock to enjoy. You who know so much more about exactly how many things can wipe you out, but sneer at it as though it’ll never happen. Any sensible species would just get on with eradicating diseases and making peace, but somewhere deep inside, I think we remember how close we came to extinction. We are the ones whose ancestors survived the apocalypse, and the bodies and brains they bequeathed us simply won’t let us forget.

Even if they have to make us watch I Am Legend to remind us. Bastards.