Can you remember your first apocalypse?
Mine was when I was 16 and it took the form of a computer bug that was going to short the electrical supply, mess up everyone’s computer and make aeroplanes fall out of the sky. These predictions tore my attention in half – at school I was being told to work hard and prepare for my A-levels, while at the same time I wanted to party like it was 1999, just in case the small town I lived in was hit by large-scale devastation at midnight on January 1st. This millennial angst was exacerbated by major Hollywood films; Deep Impact and Armageddon were both in the cinema the previous year, cashing in on the anxiety of the masses.
Since then I’ve lost count of how many I’ve lived through. There was the end of the Mayan calendar, and the biblical ‘rapture’, and every time I am secretly a little bit afraid that this was the one they got right. Mankind doesn’t do itself any favours in avoiding its own annihilation, either – we’re lackadaisical with our fossil fuel targets, we’re environmentally irresponsible and the Doomsday Clock hasn’t been this close to midnight since the Cold War.
We humans, it seems, can’t resist trying to predict the future, from the football score to the weather, or the next general election. When it comes to the end of the world, everyone has their own ominous ideas about where it’ll come from; a global pandemic, climate change, nuclear war, even super-intelligent robots as predicted by Stephen Hawking, who called artificial intelligence ‘one of our biggest existential threats, something so powerful and dangerous that it could put an end to the human race by replacing us.’
What is the role of art, then, when faced with Armageddon? A poem might be little more than a comfort in the face of immediate danger, but could facing up to the worst possible scenario encourage people to engage emphatically and even encourage us to live better, curtailing any actions that might endanger our future now rather than waiting for the inevitable? Dystopian novels such as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, which present worlds ravaged by war and paranoia could both be read as warnings against militarisation, for example.
Certainly I think the most harrowing representations of our eventual end are those in which our everyday lives are recognisable in the background of the chaos. Even the most mundane of our everyday activities become imbued with great significance if we’re doing them for the last time, as illustrated in ‘The Ashes’ by Jack Underwood:
‘but imagine you knew the objects to hand
were your last objects: like a TV remote:
you’re rubbing its smooth back in your palm;
you’re clicking open the back and rolling
the batteries, like two little buddies in there –
you are alive.’
A few years ago I watched the superb and harrowing cold war TV miniseries Threads, in which a nuclear bomb is detonated in Sheffield, directly above the street that I walk along every time I go to work. During viewing I paused the film several times to consider whether I was emotionally robust enough to watch any more. The CGI isn’t up to much (it was the 80s, and made for TV) but the domestic intimacy that the viewer shares with the families in the film is powerfully affecting when it’s combined with a barrage of truly bleak factual information.
So if we don’t get blown up, do we want to survive the apocalypse? To remain in one of the few remaining corners of the ravaged world and rebuild the entirety of civilisation? It seems laughable, doesn’t it? To me there does seem to be some dark humour visible in our flailing attempts to prepare for that which is completely unknown. Maybe we laugh because we cannot fully imagine it, perhaps it’s to offer ourselves some light relief from the thought of our own extinction? Perhaps it’s because we can’t really believe we’re still here? Certainly, if we are to keep the human race going, we will need hope, and I think humour is a part of that.
Even preparing for these events in itself can be dangerous. Dylan Evans, a professor of artificial intelligence, charts his attempts to prepare for the collapse of civilisation in his book The Utopia Experiment. On some remote land in Scotland Evans gathered a group of like-minded volunteers to attempt to see how they’d fare, should the worst happen. He charts his own descent into mental illness and physical decline, against a backdrop of rising tensions between residents and some very flawed attempts at self-sustainability: ‘At first I had justified the shopping trips in terms of our scenario by arguing that in the aftermath of a global catastrophe, the survivors would be able to scavenge supplied from local houses and abandoned shops […] Now, almost a year into the experiment, every trip to the supermarket felt like a betrayal.’ Evans describes his own depression as what leads him to create the project, rather than a result of it, but even so, the staged apocalypse doesn’t do anything to improve his mental health.
So how do we proceed, on this melting planet, in these pre-apocalyptic times? Do we stock up on the matches and water-purifying tablets or do we live like it’s our last night on earth? Are we in a unique position as poets, able to look at the future of humanity in new ways? Perhaps we can deliver a message to the world before it’s too late, or at least address our own mortality and prepare ourselves for the inevitable. Just don’t forget the canned food.
How’s it all going to end? Imagine possible futures and discover how existential risk can empower your poetry with Suzannah Evans on her new online course, Surviving the Future: Poetry for Pre-Apocalyptic Times. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.