Our culture is on a deathtrip. Do we secretly wish for the end of the world?
I never thought I’d live to see 20. I know that sounds dramatic, but I was a fatalistic kid. By the age of ten, I was absolutely convinced that I would die as a child in a worldwide nuclear holocaust. There wasn’t any special reason for it. I was convinced because I wanted to be convinced. I was a normal(ish) kid growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in California, and from as far back as I can remember, people talked about nuclear war.
The news on TV was always MX Missiles, B-1 bombers, Soviet aggression, mutual destruction. When Jimmy Carter told us to wear sweaters, it got confused in my mind with preparing for nuclear winter. Cold war kitsch was popular with the art school crowd my folks ran with, and they’d drag me to this old, smoky theater to see movies like Doctor Strangelove and Atomic Café. It seems to me now that every film I saw in that theater ended with a mushroom cloud. I guess I just figured I’d end that way, too.
I should have gotten over it, like a person gets over any random childhood fear, but I let it get away from me. I was afraid of it for so many years I perversely began to long for it. At night, I’d close my eyes and see those bright, beautiful mushroom clouds—the sudden, white burst of Trinity, or the Enawetak test at sea, filmed from the air in saturated blue Kodacrhome—and I’d feel myself vaporizing, fading into nonexistence. I looked in library books at photos from Hiroshima, of the charcoal shadows on walls were people once stood, and I froze myself in their shapes and wondered what they were thinking when the flash came.
My stepdad told me if a war really did break out, he hoped we would be close to the blast. Better to die quick and get it over with, he said, then have your skin fall off and start shitting out your kidneys. He made a good case for incineration.
But at some point, I allowed myself to imagine surviving. Huddled under my blankets with a flashlight, I aged five or ten years, grew some manly stubble and became the teenage general of a gang of paramilitary youth, scavenging the wreckage of post-nuclear Los Angeles. It was, in a word, rad—a much more fulfilling fantasy than my stepdad’s, and one I clung to for way too long. We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and because of that I already felt disconnected from everyone else. As I bounced from school to school, trying and usually failing to make friends, I decided I preferred my own morbid fantasy over the boring and frustrating real world.
It’s not like I was the only one obsessed with nuclear war back then, either. The Reagan years produced a treasure trove of late-period cold war culture—the Road Warrior movies, On the Beach, The Day After, Night of the Comet, Wargames, Missile Command, Threads, A Boy and His Dog, Red Dawn, not to mention a hundred classic hardcore songs—and they all added new images to my nuclear fantasy highlight reel.
I remember walking to school one morning in about fifth grade, looking up to see the contrail of a passing jet. I stopped on the sidewalk and stared, wondering if this was THE bomber, the one sent by the USSR to finally deliver my Technicolor deathwish. I knew exactly what to do. I would run home, gather supplies, bring them under the house, fill the bathtub with water… I had a whole checklist.
But the world failed to end. As my eyes followed that jet on its landing path to LAX, you might think I’d have felt some relief. Maybe I did feel some. But mostly I was disappointed, because my extensive preparations and vast knowledge of post-nuclear survival were all for nothing, and on top of that, I still had to go to school that day.
Isn’t this kind of where America’s at, culturally, right now? Looking up with a sigh, wishing it would all just end already?
I mean, if the insanity and paranoia currently polluting our culture was just garden variety milleniallism, it should have peaked with the Y2K scare. Yet we’ve dragged out our once-every-100-years millennial freakout for an extra 13 years, and now that even the bloodthirsty Mayans have failed to bring about the end, there’s been a weird, pensive mood over America.
Our bestsellers are almost all dystopias in some way, we’ve got zombies eating our brains on every screen, survivalists have rebranded themselves into “preppers”, gun sales are booming and millions of us are switching to “paleo” diets in anticipation of some future primitive where we hunt our meat with clubs and eat it raw.
The signs are all there. Civilization is on a serious death trip. We have worried ourselves into a place where we are so fearful that the end is near, we’ve crossed the line and begun to wish for it.
Scientific American magazine will back me up on this. They published a story on 18 December called, “Do we all secretly want the world to end?” which quotes a gaggle of neuroscientists as saying that doomsday predictions activate primal areas of the human brain which cause us to react with fatalistic responses. Our evolutionary predilections bid us to prepare for the worst, and when we do, we reinforce the fear, which re-triggers the behavior, which reinforces the fear, and so on. When people invest time and energy into this cycle, they begin to see it as part of their identity, and they form communities of like-minded people who again reinforce those beliefs. Thus, we have average citizens in peacetime hoarding military grade weapons, stocking their basements full of dehydrated food, suspicious of their neighbors, skeptical of facts, seceding into their own little fiefdoms.
Psychologically, hoping for the end of the world is soothing in an odd and perhaps counterintuitive way. But think about it. How many times does the average person dream of getting away, to a tropical island maybe, or any place without a lot of people? What’s the difference between that and simply daydreaming that all the faceless people in our crowded cities are gone? No more long lines, mean bosses, bad drivers, politicians, telemarketers—who hasn’t fantasized about getting rid of everyone they hate all at once? How many of us have wished in times of doubt that morality and social expectations could be condensed into simple problems, the kind that can always be solved with foreknowledge and firepower?
For all our technology, humans are still essentially apes. But we live in a messy, complicated, 24-hour world, where our roles are unclear and success at anything is a moving target. In the same way people find comfort in complex conspiracy theories about space lizards running the U.N. and the president being from Kenya, a lot of people are enthralled by the idea of making a clean break from history and society. They want to say goodbye to all that and get back to our roots, stripped of the confusing and burdensome requirements of civilization.
I can tell you from personal experience, though, it’s not a great way to run your life. Like I said, I clung to my fantasies of global annihilation way longer than I should have. It was a nice crutch, thinking the end of the world was always around the corner. It made me feel superior to all the saps who knocked themselves out trying for a better future, because I knew that future wasn’t coming. I didn’t see the need to get an education or try for a better job, because the nukes would turn it all to ashes anyway. And wouldn’t all those overachievers feel stupid then?
I spent ten nonproductive and unhappy adult years on that track and still have the occasional relapse. But see, I have kids now, and it makes all the difference. It’s one thing to wish for your own destruction. But once your kids start to show up in that post-nuclear highlight reel, the whole apocalypse thing starts to look like a downright drag.
The worst thing about all this doomlust is that we really are facing an existential threat in the form of anthropogenic climate change, and like idiots we refuse to do anything about it. We’ve had 30 years to come up with a plan and we’ve squandered those years by distracting ourselves with fake doomsdays in order to avoid dealing with the real, albeit slower-moving one. It’s like dropping out of school on the first day because you’re afraid you won’t pass finals in four months. Stupid, sad and avoidable.
I love my dystopias and zombie flicks as much as the next guy. And yeah, I’ve got a survivalist streak. But we have to see these things as the myths they really are. We have to stop believing that the end is preordained. Because if there’s any day worse than doomsday, it’s the one when you wake up and realize you’ve spent your whole life preparing for things to get worse, when all along, you could have been working to make them better.