Can Hollywood help us envision a post-apocalyptic world that’s not so bad?
Journalist Brian Kaller just published a beautiful new post at his blog, Restoring Mayberry: “The post-apocalypse movies we’d like to see” (May 17, 2010).
For the past couple of years, Kaller, who lives in rural Ireland, has been writing about peak oil, economic collapse, etc., from the viewpoint that the collapse of our industrial-technological civilization is leading us not toward a Mad Max-style apocalyptic wasteland but toward a much slower-paced and more local, community-based, soul-fulfilling way of life. “The world peak oil and climate scientists predict is ‘doomsday’ only in the sense that it is a little more normal than we have come to expect,” he wrote in 2008, in the blog’s inaugural post (the blog itself being derived from his newspaper columns). “In only a few generations we have come to expect that we will be many times richer than our parents, that our houses will be larger, our travel cheaper, our technology unimagined even a few years ago. We have lived our lives in a boom and think it normal. We hop in our cars and travel at 100 kilometers an hour, make the house a sauna all winter, cross an ocean in a day, call a friend on the other side of the planet. We become enraged if we experience even the slightest delay in any of these things.”
In that same post he pointed out that our world might indeed collapse — but that this would simply mean the bursting of an inflated bubble and a “return to something more normal — negotiating with neighbours, taking care of animals, extended families — less like Star Trek and more like the town of Mayberry on the Andy Griffith Show. And is that the end of the world?”
Now he’s urging the movie and TV industries to give us some films and shows to help us envision such a future, as a counterbalance to the likes of Mad Max, The Book of Eli, The Road, and the Terminator movies. He says,
What we need is a way to reach a lot of people at once, not just to present the crisis and let them walk away scoffing or scarred, but to show the future as it could be. We need a realistic yet hopeful vision of the world, one that would be vivid and memorable in a way that no essay could, that could reach a hundred million people in a way blogs never will. Luckily, we have something like that: they are called movies.
….In the years to come the boom of the last several decades will likely end, and more people go back to manual labour or giving their child a wooden toy for Christmas. It will be genuinely difficult — for me too, probably — and I don’t want to dismiss the genuine pain of families who have been evicted or who can’t afford chemotherapy. Nonetheless, the way most people will live will likely be the way your grandparents lived, the way most of the Third World lives today. It might be a reduction of our fortune by 10 percent, or 50 percent, or 90 percent — depending on your time and place — but it’s not the same as Armageddon, and we shouldn’t confuse the two.
….So I challenge any filmmakers out there — Hollywood insiders, students, amateurs — to create films like this, images of post-crash life that are both positive and realistic.
I can’t tell you how much this resonates with me, and also, I suspect, with you, since all of us who engage in activities like, oh, say, reading and writing blogs, necessarily share a roughly similar cultural background and set of experiences. Personally, I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, and was, like Kaller, entranced with the “world of the future” books that I read as a grade schooler. I mean those books, many of them hailing from the 1950s and 60s, that said — and also showed, via copious illustrations — that we would all be living in a techno utopia within 30 or 40 years, complete with flying cars, robot servants, a technologically perfected food supply, beautiful cities with sparkling buildings reaching to the clouds, and so on. When I first visited Disney’s EPCOT Center with my family shortly after its grand opening in 1982 — and the name, remember, is an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — its fictional embodiment of a guiding vision like the one described above positively mesmerized me. And yes, I was a huge fan of the original Star Trek, which I devoured throughout my youth in reruns. As an adult, I had this same hopeful longing pinged yet again by Ray Bradbury via his story “The Toynbee Convector,” which portrays a perfect future techno world — bright, clean, beautiful, peaceful, prosperous — whose creation was catalyzed by a man who told the proverbial “noble lie” in order to inspire a global civilization that was facing a crushing set of apocalyptic environmental and other circumstances to get off its collective duff and fix things.
Alas, nowadays it looks like none of these visions is likely to come to pass. But, to repeat, that doesn’t necessarily entail epic wars over gasoline being waged against intelligent cybernetic machines by katana-wielding cannibals in a vast and barren wasteland. Remember what the ever-reliable Rod Dreher, editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News, said in a 2007 post that I quoted somewhere or other at this blog?
Post-peak-oil conditions would reverse globalization, forcing a return to intensely local agriculture and local manufacturing. The stores and services that communities need in order to carry on everyday life would emerge in neighborhoods, as in the pre-automobile era. Cities would empty out, with rural areas and small towns in agriculturally rich areas reviving. Culturally, all Americans would have to undergo a Great Relearning of skills and social habits that our ancestors developed to survive in community.
— Rod Dreher, “Reaching our peak oil supply,” The Dallas Morning News, Nov. 25, 2007
Let’s not forget that he followed this paragraph by relaying a comment from Jeffrey Brown, a peak-oil aware geologist from Richardson, Texas, who said, “My hopeful view is that we’ll be living like we did at the turn of the 20th century, but with computers.”
Whether the “with computers” part will come to pass remains to be seen, but everything does appear to be lining up in favor of producing a post-petroleum, and therefore a post-how-we-live-now, world of the near future. You and I will see and experience the transition within our own lifetimes, if we live what’s now considered a normal span. And although I’m as much a fan of the dark apocalyptic visions of, e.g., Mad Max and The Road as the next person — or actually I’m probably a bigger fan than average, since I positively exult in apocalyptic and dystopian fictions — I certainly wouldn’t want to see those visions become concrete realities.
So, in short, here’s hoping. As in, hoping not for Star Trek, since it’s a pipe dream, and definitely not for Mad Max, since it’s a nightmare, but for Mayberry.
(Postscript: In an oddly synchronicitous intersection of authorial purposes, immediately after writing this post with its link to and quote from Rod Dreher, I discovered that just yesterday Dreher posted a piece at Beliefnet titled “Truth, history and the Toynbee Convector,” which is about — you guessed it — Bradbury’s story. Weird. Bradbury must be weighing on the collective brain. You’ll forgive me for speculating that we’re experiencing a flash of collective clairvoyance, and that our shared Bradburyan fixation must mean the fabled new film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 has received a fresh injection of life. He said hopefully.)