Earth as seen from the International Space Station, just after sunrise.
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Earth as viewed from the International Space Station, September 2014. Credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman

Space the Nation: Ignoring the apocalypse

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Nov 27, 2018, 3:02 PM EST

If you are reading this column, the chances are you are already interested in apocalypses, distinct from The Apocalypse as described by the Prophet Daniel in the book of Revelation. Rather, you are fascinated with the kinds of wastelands and hellscapes that serve as theatrical backdrops to stories about equally theatrical endeavors: heroic quests, escape from evil overlords, cataclysmic battles between good and evil. I certainly am! Maybe, like me, your attention is piqued when such storylines surface IRL. Such happenstances are, in fact, the basis for this column.

So I’m not that embarrassed that when a Tweet popped up in my timeline to comment on a story about how “there's a giant meteor headed for the earth which could kill tens of thousands, radically remake life as we know and wreck the economy,” I clicked immediately.

I am embarrassed that the linked story turned out to be about the climate change report released last week, on Black Friday — a kind of apocalypse of its own, I suppose.

Well played, Edward-Isaac Dovere, well played.

The report’s specifics will be familiar to those of us who have read post-apocalyptic fiction: Devastating wildfires (like in The Parable of the Sower), scorching hot landscapes (Mad Max, Dune), and mass human migration away from devastated urban centers (Children of Men, District 9 — though in that case, it’s not humans migrating). The differential between my excitement about fictional destruction and my loathing to delve into the specifics of climate change is, let’s face it, both embarrassing and typical and embarrassingly typical. It’s also something of a mystery.

Americans’ appetite for post-apocalyptic adventure is durable enough to have sustained movie franchises and television series — it’s even launched the subgenre of “climate fiction,” in which creators are explicit about the human folly that precedes dystopia! This genre becomes a “trendperiodically, yet we lack the political will to transfer our fascination with annihilation into action. When we do take action, it’s pathetically symbolic. Mass commercial forces are at work to undermine the stability of the biome we need to live and people are out there banning straws. Imagine Paul Atreides confronting a sandworm with a reusable cup.

Or, wait, don’t imagine that, because despite the popularity of dramatic climate narratives and apocalypses in general, social scientists who study Americans’ resistance to climate change policy say that people can’t be enticed to change their behavior by fear. Indeed, they argue that presenting skeptics with worst-case scenarios is doomed to backfire: human brains simply cannot process an incipient existential crisis and continue to do, you know, balance the checkbook, walk the dog, and pick up the kids from daycare. A panicked brain can’t behave rationally in the short term and so, in order to keep up our day-to-day lives, we behave irrationally about the long-term.

There is honest-to-goodness neuroscience to back up this claim, which has to do with the effect of uncontrollable stress and chemicals found in the limbic system, or, specifically, how “[f]eedforward Ca2+-PKC and cAMP-PKA signaling rapidly opens K+ channels to disconnect dlPFC networks.” I mean, obviously. The authors of the study I quote here also describe this process, using what I assume is a scientific term, as “Going To Hell In a Handbasket,” and note that bypassing higher-level logic “can save our lives when we are in danger and rapid, reflexive responding is needed, but can be detrimental when more thoughtful solutions are needed.”

So what if you need a public that can do both? Reason and react quickly, or at least react. Perhaps the problem is one of timing. Post-apocalyptic stories maybe easier to grapple with than real-life disasters in part because the waiting is over. The disaster has occurred, there will be no more debating it on Meet the Press.

There is a more narrow genre that delves into what could be called the “peri-apocalypse”: narratives that occur at or around the time of apocalypse. (See this Twitter thread for a bibliography on the topic.)

As a plot device, the impending-but-not-quite-urgent apocalypse is also familiar, if more subtle. The threat of universe-ending conflict hovers over a lot of multi-book fantasy epics — a category I am diving into a lot recently, I thought as an escape.

In those books (Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, the Starlight Archive), the not-yet, merely suspected apocalypse gives characters a motivation and character-boosting adversarial attitude. It unifies sprawling plots and gives readers a narrative thread to follow even if they need a wiki to keep the characters straight.

For the protagonists and antagonists in those narratives, knowing the shape of the doom just beyond the horizon is what distinguishes them from background characters, and whether you are trying to stop it from happening is how we tell the heroes and villains apart.

As a writer and civil rights activist, I’m sadly used reading headlines about humanitarian crises and asking myself what side of history I want to be on. It’s become bitterly easy jump from stories about present-day neo-Nazis and segregationists to acknowledging that I’ve been given the opportunity to see what role I might have played during Hitler’s rise or in the Jim Crow South. I have thought less about my chance to be a bonafide hero, but perhaps more of us should.

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