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The end of the world as we know it

Global warming, nuclear terrorism, pestilence and asteroids – what will you do when the world ends? A.D. Miller is worried, and bracing himself for The End Of The World As We Know It 

A.D. Miller | March 24th 2008

When I was at school, in the mid-1980s, my teenage friends and I would sometimes talk about what we'd do if the three-minute warning sounded. Most of us had detailed schemes for ultra-violence and revenge, often against the school librarian. But one boy, I remember, had alternative plans for the last moments before nuclear Armageddon.

"If the siren goes", vowed Nigel one morning (I have changed names to protect the guilty), "I'd run to the staff room and find Mrs Partridge," who was a curvy French teacher.

"Oh would you, Nigel?" said a voice behind us, which turned out to belong to Mr Partridge, her unimpressed teacher husband.

I've been thinking again about Nigel's dilemma: not the question of how he could ever show his face in French class again, but the problem of what to do when history runs out, or after it runs out and you find you have outlived it. Perhaps it's because I'm about to have a baby, our first, which in its way is a sort of private apocalypse, an end and a year-zero beginning. It's a prospect that makes you think about dealing with daunting new demands, like nappy-changing and putting up stair guards. But it's also made me wonder how I'd manage other once-unthinkable challenges and cataclysms. I don't mean a sushi shortage or the end of the last series of "The Wire". I mean bona fide, three-minute or no-warning havoc--an earthquake or anarchy or (since we're speculating) an insurrection by mutant London rats. What if, one way or another, the balloon goes up?

I'm not the only one wondering. Since roughly the middle of the 1990s, The End of the World As We Know It, which survivalists abbreviate at TEOTWAWKI,  has been preoccupying writers, film-makers and even game shows. Will Smith in "I am Legend" is only the latest in a long line of recent cinema survivors. Of course, this sort of end-of-the-world fever is almost as old as the human world: European peasants were roused to millenarian frenzy by meteorological portents, and civil-war-era Americans by strife. But there are, I think, two aspects of today's bout that are new.

The first is the widening range of apocalypses for us to ponder. Twenty years ago, my friends and I knew how the orgiastic end would come. Mutually Assured Destruction seemed to us a real and ominous possibility. It monopolised our grandiose fears. These days, it has competition.

A few of the rival doomsday scenarios are revivals of old, pre-nuclear versions. "I am Legend" and "28 Days Later", in which disease almost wipes out humanity, are reworkings of a pestilential nightmare that dates back to (and beyond) "The Last Man", an 1826 novel by Mary Shelley about a survivor of pandemic plague. But some are original to us. Our global warming might parch or flood or starve Britain, blight it with killer mosquitoes or crumble bits of it into the sea. It's difficult, even for the morbid, to worry too much about an ideological apocalypse in Britain--the sudden rise of some old-Etonian Robespierre or Home Counties Lenin. British politics has been comparatively sedate since 1688; even the hassle once caused by mass industrial unrest now seems a sepia-tinged memory (I remember my father laying in crates of bottled water for an averted water-work strike in the early 1980s.) But there may be a break in our intricately fragile economy or infrastructure, some blow to our arrogant modernity that sends us reeling back to the beast: the power lines go down; food imports are cut off; wholesale computer meltdown; and the new threat of apocalyptic terrorism.

Then there are the lower-probability worries, such as asteroid collision or alien invasion--though that famously seemed plausible enough for Orson Welles's radio adaptation of "The War of the Worlds" to have sent some people in New Jersey scurrying for the hills in 1938. There is also the off chance that everything will stop or change for ever without you ever knowing why, as in John Wyndham's "The Day of the Triffids" and "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy.

The other way in which the end of the world has changed is that, with ice caps melting and mega-terrorists proliferating, it may be a more real and urgent possibility than ever before. We thought that during the cold war, and now those MAD-anxieties look quaint and misplaced. Maybe in another 20 years we'll think the same about the new terrors of the "noughties". But I doubt it.

****** 

It's easier to contemplate the ends of other, fictional lives and worlds than to ponder our own: that is partly why we have fiction, so its characters can die in our stead. In "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" Douglas Adams portrays the scaling down that his hero Arthur has to do to understand Earth's destruction. The disappearance of America, the vanishing of New York: these are too enormous for Arthur to comprehend. It is only when he understands that "there is no longer any such thing as a McDonald's hamburger" that he crumples.

If you want to imagine the catastrophe--how you would cope, what would you do to save yourself and your family--where do you turn for advice?

The government can help, up to a point. From the British authorities I learn that if London, where I live, sinks or ignites or seizes up, something called the Mass Fatality Co-ordination Group will swing into action. The American government is a little more forthcoming: suggestions it made in 2003 on dealing with terrorist attacks led to a run on duct tape and plastic sheeting. But most of the tips it offers are on a level with the "Do not eat" sticker I once saw on the side of a vacuum cleaner. If a tsunami is on its way, says the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), "Stay away from the beach." If a volcano blows, "Stay away from volcano sites".

But there are two reasons not to count entirely on the government, either when you're contemplating the crisis or when it arrives. One is that governments are secretive. Beyond the headline categories--human and animal disease, terrorism, war, industrial devastation--they are reluctant to tell you exactly what they're preparing for, perhaps for fear of seeming eccentric. (FEMA says it has no specific plans for a meteor hitting the earth: "We will treat this like any other disaster," says a spokesman.) Also, with a few exceptions--such as a British calculation of 250,000 possible deaths from a flu pandemic, and a 1981 estimate that, in the event of full-on nuclear war, about two-thirds of Britain's population would die--governments tend tactfully to keep their worst-case reckonings to themselves.

There is a less benign explanation for the secrecy. If it comes to it, our interests and theirs may conflict. The powers the British government has to deal with national emergencies are couched in legalese and pallidly non-specific. But what they mean is this: if, on judgment day, you and I are among the unlucky ones--one of the ones too close to the blast or the spill--we may be left to rot, quarantined in "hot zones". Or we may be harried away from them, perhaps forced to leave our families behind. Our property may be requisitioned; our dead may be buried in mass graves. Along with this compulsion, there may be scarcity: too few vaccines, or not enough food or places in bunkers or on buses.

Besides the secrecy, the other reason not to put all your faith in government is that, not surprisingly, their plans assume government is still functioning after the deluge or the bomb. That assumption is probably fair: society carries on, life carries on, even after turmoil as great as the Black Death or war. Unimaginable calamities turn out only to be blips. But what if the next one isn't? What if you are one of the last ones, the only ones?

Apart from novels and films, there is somewhere you can turn for advice: the various sects and groups readying for precisely this eventuality. There are Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists expecting their Messiah and the tribulations that will accompany Him--the trumpets and tortures, fiery cavalry and locusts, and then the casting of the devil into the abyss for 1,000 years, as foretold in the Book of Revelation, maybe the most psychedelic vision of the end on record. There are members of the Nation of Islam planning for the visit of the "Mother Plane", and white supremacists waiting for the action of "The Turner Diaries" to begin in earnest. There is also a lively online community of more-or-less sane survivalists preparing for what they abbreviate as TEOTWAWKI. In the 1970s it was expected to result from hyperinflation, and in the 1980s from nuclear war. For a while it was going to follow the Y2K computer crunch.

Some of our challenges and needs, I read, will be broadly the same however TEOTWAWKI arrives: stockpiles of food; medicine; weapons; gold and silver (because paper currencies will have collapsed). If I have to flee London--"bug out" or "get out of Dodge" in survivalist parlance--I will need a four-wheel drive vehicle to skirt the New Orleans-style traffic jams and road-blocks that will have overtaken the arterial highways, plus somewhere to escape to. There is, I learn, a survivalist realty website offering apocalypse-ready retreats at what, given the dollar exchange rate, look like reasonable prices. I am advised to lay in chemical-protection suits, but I am sceptical. I once did a chemical-weapons training course before a hairy foreign assignment. In a moment of off-duty frankness, the phlegmatic ex-soldier instructor admitted that, if I ever really needed to, my chances of getting the kit on in time, and correctly, were close to zero.

******

So what would you do? What would I do? Whether it's asteroid or Martian, tsunami or al-Qaeda, we will need to decide who is in our survival team. An emergency-preparedness leaflet distributed by the Australian government advises, in the section titled "children", "Keep them with you." I haven't met mine yet, but I imagine that I would, along with my partner.

Where would we go? When I was a child in a conservative suburban household, and we pondered emergencies--such as the possible election of a Labour government--the default solution was: we'll go to Canada. My new survivalist friends recommend Idaho, for its good hunting and liberal gun laws. I fear we won't be able to reach either, nor even the Lake District, Dartmoor or some other high-elevation, small-scale British equivalent, at least not in our little urban micro-car (good for parking in the West End, less good for fording rivers).

But staying put, I realise, may be uncomfortable. A book that imagines the fate of depopulated cities informs me that it won't be long before the roofs of houses leak, gutters and drains block, pavements buckle, neglected pipes begin to burst and weeds take hold in surprising places (the narrator of "The Day of the Triffids" returns to an abandoned London to find plants "rooting in the crevices between the paving stones, springing from cracks in concrete, finding lodgements even in the seats of the abandoned cars"). Anyone left alive in London will at least be spared the bears, moose, coyotes and other megafauna that would overrun Manhattan. But reindeer and wolves might get over from continental Europe, and native dogs and cats would grow increasingly wild and dangerous. There would be no-one to put out fires.

Wherever we go, what will we do when we get there? A professor of disaster studies tells me that people in most developing countries are much readier for ruination than Westerners are, being better acquainted with key post-disaster skills: how to grow food and find clean water, how to make and repair shelter--and how to dispose of the dead. The typical modern British response to, say, a flood, is to do nothing, then berate the emergency services for coming late. After the invasion or eco-carnage, I fear I will number among the uselessly emasculated. (On a river-rafting trip in Kamchatka, in far eastern Russia, I was delegated by our all-action guide to chop some wood. I flailed around unproductively with an axe, using my stronger right arm. After about half an hour, the guide sidled up to my partner and asked "Is he left-handed?") My best hope is that the internet works long enough for me to learn how to wring chickens' necks and identify non-poisonous mushrooms, all the useful manual stuff that I've foregone in favour of latte consumption and looking at installation art. I will take lesson from a flood victim rather more memorable than Kevin Costner in "Waterworld": I will not, like Noah in Genesis, hit the bottle and lie around naked in my tent.

Then there is the question of other people. Most visions of post-doomsday life see it, as my friend Nigel did, as a time when primal instincts are unleashed. Typically the hero of apocalyptic stories is beset by maddening grief and loneliness, then discovers that the only thing worse than eternal solitude is the company of the other feral survivors. Sexual violence often features, sometimes combined with lurid schemes for repopulating the world. (Some American plans for the end of time, I notice, assume that one unattractive trait--litigiousness--will persist. A survivalist website warns against the risk of being sued for using excessive force against attackers. An American church has made sure its property would be secure should its officers be whisked to heaven).

But it is also possible that--as the doom-mongering sandwich-board men exhort--TEOTWAWKI will work as a cue for virtue rather than depravity. There is some evidence to think so. British psychologists who have studied the behaviour of crowds during real disasters concluded that worries about mass, contagious panic are misplaced. United by a sense of shared fate, the psychologists report, victims tend to help each other rather than fighting selfishly for the exits, and to continue observing social conventions (men holding open doors for women, pupils obeying teachers).

In fact, I'm guessing that post-apocalyptic human relations may be an extreme version of today's: a messy compound of need and suspicion, camaraderie and competition. And my hunch is that--since I can't farm, won't make it to Canada and have no idea how to use a gun--my life after TEOTWAWKI would be a warped version of the familiar too.

******

Last Christmas somebody gave me a replica of a propaganda poster that was printed in Britain during the second world war, intended for use after a putative German invasion. I plan to put it up in the delivery room when our baby is born. In white capital letters against a red background it says "KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON": utterly meaningless advice, and also probably the best and only advice. Actually, most Londoners did precisely that during the lesser shock of the Blitz. Despite the popular mythology that depicts the city huddling underground in the Tube, only a small share of Londoners ever did; many doggedly and fatalistically carried on sleeping in their own beds. The more you think about the alternatives, and the odds and risks of flight and fighting, the more sense staying at home makes, even with the weeds and the marauding cats. If I stayed, I could forage on Hampstead Heath and alphabetise my bookshelves. If I ran, made it past the roadblocks or across the Atlantic and honed my neck-wringing skills on the way, what sort of life would I have saved? Dartmoor would be muddy and overrun. Idaho would be full of survivalists. I went to Canada once, but it was closed.

And the more I think about it, the less apocalyptic the apocalypse feels. As it was for my lascivious teenage friend, The End has always been something longed for as well as dreaded, a consolation as well as an annihilation. Some have reached out for its release and relief, encouraging it with prayer and sometimes violence: against themselves (like "Heaven's Gate") or against others (like Aum Shinrikyo). Revelation--like its prototype the Book of Daniel, with its horned beasts and doomed kings--is among other things a sketch of justice and freedom offered to the faithful in a time of trial. Even if your grievances against the world are less cosmic--a long and squashed commute, say, or an oppressive mortgage--there is something liberating about the idea of it.

So many of our ambitions and frustrations are defined competitively--including, maybe, the biggest fear, of death. The idea of dying together, all of us, in some ways seems less appalling than the thought of going alone. Having a cameo role in Armageddon would confer a kind of intergalactic meaning to the inevitable; if you happened to survive, there would be no more statuses and salaries to compare ("all the old problems," says the narrator of "The Day of the Triffids", "had been solved by one mighty slash"). But perhaps I'll think differently when our baby arrives.

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