Kevin Costner in “The Postman”
Then Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was invited not to attend the State of the Union. The custom of “designated survivor” has been in place since the early days of the Cold War. Duck and cover, a northeastern hurricane — a strange tendency of the unthinkable is that it becomes familiar. And so we blink through the explanation of a credit default swap, another economic bubble of tulip-like retrospective silliness. The glee of brinksmanship returned with the government shutdown (see: the preferable “nuclear option”). Doom is cyclical, prone to booms and 2012 busts.
And yet, this time around, the end certainly seems nigh. Overpopulation is expressed in a graph shooting up into space after millennia of mild sloping. The Malthusian banner has been taken up by Alan Weisman, author of the The World Without Us, and recently — seriously — Countdown. Earlier predictions of famine have been flouted by artificial nitrogen, the green revolution, and social welfare states hanging on tenaciously to solvency, earning Malthus his synonymity with unnecessary dourness. In the course of Weisman’s advocacy, he’s become conspicuously responsible. Fertility rates are chilly (given the health of females through childbearing years, correcting for infant mortality, zero-growth is 2.33). His may be a one-child policy, but it comes rhetorically disguised as single issue women’s education, which can deliver the same sub-replacement-level results.
James Howard Kunstler disapproves of the term “doomer.” Whatever we call the bearers of bad news, they are fond of ominous reminders of what is already taking place. Sprawl — Kunstler’s bête noire — is unabated. A trip across the United States leaves the lasting impression of pipes billowing foul smoke, city edges become ragged, like worn hems. From a train window, no modest, lovely Midwesterners shoot at a tilted basketball hoop in driving rain. Highway junctions pass for street corners, the parking lots of Super Targets and Walmarts undelineated (Kunstler says to stay by the river). Farmland is entrusted to processed food. (Michael Ruppert, in the documentary Collapse, has typical talking points on monetary policy; more interesting is his warning about Monsanto’s mutant seeds, later proving himself a locavore of rooftop vegetable garden variety.) In a landmark moment for respectable dooming, Kunstler delivered a good-humored TED talk, where he delighted the tech conference with his musings on bad architecture, and didn’t linger much on the end of an “era of cheap oil” (which, other than cars, powers the industrial production of plastics, chemicals, and the long-distance shipping of an interconnected world, without viable alternative.) This was doom as its most tasteful. But apocalypse fever tempts the brain stem. Unrestrained by higher orders of humanity, doom becomes dumbly provocative, of helpless curiosity, the excitement of a reckoning.
For example, one had to think, could our government be any worse than if it were hastily reconvened solely by Steven Chu, physicist of middling charisma? A New York Times article speculated that Ted Cruz, after supposedly humiliating defeat, grinned “like a man whose monthlong parade in the public spotlight left him without any burns to his ego.” The stakes of the shutdown, supposedly never higher at the prospect of default, were in an important way unchanged. The only thing on the line was Ted Cruz’s masculinity — and that was impregnable. But few can match his unflagging confidence. For the rest of us, there’s a strong sense that western civilization — with its biblically-meek brokering million dollar deals — does not test mettle. After all, we don’t build anything with our hands anymore. I used to manage an independent bookstore. I always wondered whether the floor staff would acknowledge my authority if cars came pinballing down the avenues, the way NYC is typically destroyed in the movies. A world in smithereens is a world relieved of its burdens and its embarrassments. Of cheap plastic anxiety. The idea that chaos will be cathartic is wholly imaginary, and imaginary is too good a word for it. The would-be death and destruction wrought by environmental collapse is already beyond comprehension, which relieves the masculine death wish of even having to try. Who or what could pick up the slack? The cathartic apocalypse requires a vapid bloody-mindedness of bloated Hollywood proportions.
“Oh no, you did not shoot that green shit at me.”
– Captain Steven Hiller, F-18 fighter pilot, Independence Day (1996)
Damon Lindelof typically shares a writing credit with two or three others, not including a tip of the cap to original material. In his scripts, the action is packed, and vehicles are never intact for long. Between very exciting chase-fight sequences, quieter, character-developing scenes have a desperate futility about them. These quivering attempts to make human love the equal of death come crashing down to Earth, fireballs through the atmosphere, flattening area codes, thousands of screaming innocents buried alive in the sound mix. “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world,” he explains to New York Magazine. But you have to destroy almost all of it first. Lindelof tells us how that sausage is made. The process is called “story gravity.” Rewrites tend towards raising the stakes until the known world hangs one-handed from a helicopter landing skid. There’s money in this, and sure enough, the apocalypse has become a cliché, with subgenres: Mayan, alien invasion, viral, nuclear, zombie. Less commercially viable are dystopias sharp with social commentary — they aren’t as fun. But there is a post-apocalypse subgenre that critiques our day and age quite ruthlessly, if unintentionally.
In 1997, many walked out on The Postman, starring and directed by Kevin Costner. Arguably, it is bad. But there’s a less plausible argument that the film was well ahead of its time. The protagonist survivor is an unreconstructed charlatan. Costner’s smirk — at having survived an inferred nuclear holocaust — would make Ted Cruz proud. He is not an advocate for sustainability. He has a modest talent for self-preservation, the lust for life required to relish his chances with a woman who, under ordinarily civilized circumstances, he wouldn’t have a chance with. In Oregon, people live under the boot of an Aryan mafia, deprived, but Costner himself is not resolved so much as irritable. In the face of death, he is rascally. Of all human qualities that catastrophe might emphasize, could it be narcissism that proves itself roach-like, invulnerable? How many died for Costner to wryly reclaim his sense of destiny? How many times was the script polished to end this way?
Michael Ruppert is the voluble subject of Collapse. He is encyclopedic with Titanic analogies, the price of gold, the law of thermodynamics. He recommends good soil, landlines. But nothing will stop the shortages, runs, busts, and crashes of those steep waves of population, fake money. Ruppert operates adjacent to the mainstream; he is UCLA poli-sci, but a cranky self-publisher; an ex-LAPD public defender of the CIA theory of crack cocaine. After an hour-long lecture, he is overcome with emotion. The moment is a precise cut between his extolling community (“You will survive as a member of a family”) and his lament, “we have waited so long for somebody to listen to us.” The temptation is to view him through the lens of millennial zealotry. He is tired of being ignored, the latter remark ringing unfortunately with persecution complex, complete with weird, culty choice of pronoun. But what if he is simply demonstrating empathy for the human condition, feeling the suffering of actual billions he sees sacrificed to a system we refuse to limit? Isn’t that decency? The phrase “what makes us human” is invoked strictly in admiration. It’s just like us to afford ourselves that kind of certainty. And it is that convenience which makes us human, for better or for worse.