An abandoned school in Pripyat, in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster

This article is a preview from the Spring 2018 edition of New Humanist

Let me tell you of the things I’ve seen. Skeletal trees lining an empty road, totally deserted but for two lone figures. A tidal wave bulldozing its way through the streets of London, Tower Bridge subsumed. New York City abandoned, a meadow of golden grasses waist-high in Times Square. A Los Angeles cleft in two as rifts in the Earth’s crust rip through the city, severing highways and trainlines, vehicles and buildings falling into the void. I’ve seen all this, and what’s more I bet you’ve seen them too. Many, many times before.

We, as a culture, are obsessed with the end of the world. The evidence is there in the cinema listings, the television schedule and the bestseller lists. We have watched the world’s end a hundred times: blighted by environmental collapse (The Day After Tomorrow, Wall-E); ravaged in eschatological judgement (2012, Noah); irradiated by nuclear holocaust (Mad Max); depopulated by zombifying pandemic (World War Z, The Walking Dead, I Am Legend); facing extraterrestrial collision (Armageddon, Melancholia) or alien invasion (Independence Day, War of the Worlds).

We have witnessed the rapidity with which law and order might disintegrate (The Road); the way a resulting power vacuum may leave room for despotic regimes (V for Vendetta, The Hunger Games) and how concern for the continuing survival of the human race could descend into hysteria and the subjugation of women (Children of Men, 28 Days Later). Still our hunger for disaster does not abate. So what is the enduring appeal of Armageddon? Why do we seek escapism in visions of the most incredible destruction, of society brought to its knees?

“One of the possible key issues in trying to understand the appeal of these films is the perpetual sense of fear in current society,” suggests Professor Karen Ritzenhoff of Central Connecticut State University, editor of The Apocalypse in Film: Dystopias, Disasters, and Other Visions about the End of the World. She pinpoints the attacks of 9/11 as having increased the public appetite for apocalyptic or dystopic stories. These films act as “visual metaphors of current political events”, she adds: zombies as substitutes for terrorists, World War Z as analogue of the refugee crisis.

An obvious instance of fantasy chiming with reality is the recent revival of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Adapted for television in 2017, the book conjured a disquieting vision of America in an ecologically bankrupt near-future: an oppressive theocracy where biblical teachings justify sexual enslavement of the last fertile women. Interest was boosted by the election of Donald Trump, and the accompanying rise of the Christian right: in Atwood’s vision many saw a worst-case scenario.

But not all tales of Armageddon have such clear parallels. What about the rest of us? The truth is, apocalyptic narratives are by no means new. They feature heavily in the mythology of early culture: the ancient calendar used by the Mayans, for example, which was said to predict the destruction of the universe and its reformation (a misreading, predicting imminent doomsday, made the news in 2012). Among Christians, there is the story of Noah and the Ark, or the events of the Book of Revelation – the original “Armageddon”. (Analogous accounts appear in Islam, though there the prophet’s name is Nūh.)

It is possible that cataclysm, as a recurring motif in cultures around the world, provides an insight into how the human mind works: telling of a need for retribution or, at the very least, a dénouement. As the literary critic Frank Kermode proposed in The Sense of an Ending, our need to impose a linear structure on time may be at the source of the “strikingly long lived” theme of apocalypse: we feel, instinctively, that if there was a beginning of time, there must also be an end. And “it seems to be a condition attaching to the exercise of thinking about the future that one should assume one’s own time to stand in extraordinary relation to it.”

There may also be other desires at play. Often apocalyptic fantasies are not only tales of destruction but opportunities for rebirth. As from the ark came pious Noah and his offspring, ready to repopulate the Earth, so too the survivors of our disaster movies usually find reasons for hope, a glimpse of future utopia. A child is born, a vaccine found, the first planks of a new society dropped into place. A simpler society. A better society.

* * *

In November last year I travelled from my home in Edinburgh to Kiev, and from there a further 150 miles to the northwest, to spend two days in the exclusion zone that surrounds the decaying remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. The “zone of alienation” (as its name translates literally) is an area the size of Cheshire that has been almost entirely abandoned since the Chernobyl disaster of April 1986. Within its borders lie the ruins of 190 settlements once home to 120,000 people.

To walk the deserted streets of Pripyat, the abandoned city at the heart of the exclusion zone, is to find horrifying confirmation of our worst prophecies. Tower blocks, poxed with age and shrouded by climbing plants, jut from the forest reclaiming the streets. Muscled tree roots rumple the tarmac. Plasterwork swells and peels; wallpaper slips sensuously to the floor. Ferns sprout in damp corners. Birds nest in cupboards.

The experience was harrowing, deeply troubling, and yet I could not shake the sensation that these disturbing scenes (a supermarket scattered with broken jars, rusted trollies lying on their sides in deserted aisles; a swimming pool, long empty, filling slowly with dead leaves and litter; a classroom ankle-deep in discarded books) were strangely familiar. I had seen this before – if not this particular room, then one like it – and while the scent of decay, the feeling of spongey floorboards giving way underfoot, were visceral and new, the ubiquity of disaster imagery in films and on television meant that the sights were not, or not entirely.

In Chernobyl, however, the destruction is real and indisputably man-made. It is impossible to visit there without brooding on our folly; our carelessness with the Earth and the destruction wrought as a result. So too is climate change, which may well prove to be the grand apocalyptic narrative of our time.

As politicians dither, the creators of films and television shows have been grappling with how best to depict environmental Armageddon. Recent attempts include Interstellar, Blade Runner 2049 and the upcoming Geostorm. In fiction, classics of an emerging “cli-fi” genre already include Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. With its biblical echoes – the imperfections of man, his original sin – climate change, and the promise of apocalypse it summons, is a perfect new hook for the human fixation with a day of reckoning in an increasingly secular world. Dare we hope for a chance at redemption?

I take comfort from a lesser-cited specimen of cli-fi: Ben Elton’s 1993 satire This Other Eden, in which panic over an imminent ecological collapse sends humanity scurrying into bunkers, sealing the doors (to guard against marauding gangs) for several decades. When, finally, they emerge blinking into the daylight, they find that the catastrophe did not take place – and in their absence the Earth has made a remarkable recovery. Songbirds trill in the branches, honeybees buzz between flowerheads weighed down by velveteen petals, clouds scud calmly across a clear sky.

Their self-interest has, unintentionally, revealed the route forward. The panic is over, the planet as good as new, and they can appreciate their good fortune afresh. It is a redemption story, of sorts. May we all be so lucky.