Smoldering rubble. Corpses littering the ground. One lone, handsome survivor.
Hollywood loves to watch society collapse.
The trope of a failing civilization and how quickly we lose our humanity is a fetishized idea going back to early pirate literature and shipwrecks – before that, religious texts – and becoming a genre unto itself with the advent of modern sci-if. In film and in books, our end comes from aliens, war, oil, and every other fear of a modern world. The problem, though, is history tells us they always get everything dead wrong.
Zombie apocalypse stories spearhead the disease idea but no one gets the truth about disease apocalypses right. Famously, the Black Plague killed something like half of Europe. That’s up their with the worst apocalypses on screens. Imagine a movie where 50% of everything is gone. That’s a terrifying, scary idea. But…
Urban centers would be worse off than rural communities. This is sort of common if you watch The Walking Dead or A Quiet Place. Rural areas seem to have more survivors. What Hollywood always ignores are the politics and consequences of a plague-like apocalypse. If the initial disease doesn’t kill you, the following ones will.
A disease like the plague hits Europe, crossing over from Asia. Cities are hit hardest. Though the actual direct death toll is probably lower from the disease than the total dead. Why? No disease in the world we know of is infectious to everyone all the time and is always deadly. Even Ebola can really only be passed through close abd repeated body fluid contact. The problem, though, is sick people can carry many diseases. Dead bodies cause further illness. Services become effected. Water is tainted. Sewers back up.
If there’s a disease like Outbreak, there’s a good chance you won’t get it. There’s a better chance you’ll end up shitting yourself to death from secondary infectious diseases in fouled water or die from a minor infection because the hospitals are clogged with corpses. If you’re lucky, you’re on a farm with a mountain stream and in your 20’s without health problems.
And if there’s a physical disaster, expect all these diseases like malaria or staph to kill you, not the buildings falling.
2) NATURAL DISASTER
Think of the worse historical natural disaster. Pompeii. The Great San Francisco Earthquake. The Indian Ocean tsunami. How do we know so much about them? Lots of people survived the actual disaster. Pompeii was a giant volcanic eruption, but lots of folks got away safely. Pliny the Younger wrote of the terrible wrath of Vesuvius and the resulting chaos and misery of the volcanic eruption.
So, you say, what about lost civilizations? What about Atlantis?
Well, Atlantis has no historical basis in reality. True, though, that there are many lost civilizations destroyed by various apocalyptic means. However, many of these DID HAVE survivors. Historical documents speak of refugees and collapsed societies, but in the days before writing it was a lot harder to know what happened and how these people lived.
The issue, like disease, is that after a natural disaster, you are screwed. Puerto Rico went nearly a year without power in some rural or underserved communities after a hurricane, and that’s now. This is the current world we live in. And the immediate death toll in Puerto Rico was low, as most folks don’t die in the actual natural disaster. The deaths were large a lack of medical care, power, properly stored foods, clean water, and other basic services we rely on.
What about wars and invasions?
Here, again, history shows us that it’s really disease that kills everyone, and that happens after the exciting initial invasion, or during a long boring conflict. How many Hollywood movies show a 20 year war between humans and aliens where both sides are mounting losses due to food-borne illness? None?
One of the biggest apocalyptic events for humans was the brutal colonization of the Americas started by the Spanish. Lots of people on both sides of the conflict died in battles and wars, but it was disease that took the largest immediate toll. Smallpox and other disease were so bad amongst the Indigenous peoples that by the time European colonists made it to some areas of the Midwest in any number, the people living there weren’t related to the cities and villages a few hundred years earlier. But even here, with one of the worst violent and systematic extermination by an invading force of people in history, lots of folks survived.
At least 2% of US Citizens can claim Indian heritage, and that percentage is higher in Central and South American. Oh, and Hollywood and pop culture also ignores that disease and invasive species go both ways… There’s a good chance syphilis, a disease that ravaged Europe for generations, came back with the early explorers and other Europeans heading to the Americas. So, if Martians can catch our colds, we would be catching Martian Space Colds.
Luckily, there’s almost no chance a modern society like ours would ever completely fall because of…
The fall of Rome is still being brought up in American politics and on the world stage as the example of what happens when hubris meets the apocalypse. The problem, though, is that Rome lasted hundreds of years before it fell. And… it never really fell. People never stopped living in Rome. Italy is still full of people and many of them are still living in and using buildings and streets thousands of years old, built by Romans.
Rome had a fantastic infrastructure. That’s the same reason China, Egypt, Greece, and many other societies that have come and gone and come and gone and come and gone… Well, they might have had apocalyptic wars, diseases, natural disasters, and all of those and them some, but there were still people living there. Society never got so low that everyone was wiped out. As governments changed and huge populations of people died or left for various reasons, there were still ways for the people surviving to get water, get food, engaged in trade, reach the ocean.
If you’re stuck in a zombie-alien-giant-cat apocalypse in the next big movie, don’t expect everything to just suddenly stop. We still have roadways, ports, farms, buildings, books, and whatever else we need to get by. It might be the United Legions of Corporate Monster Aliens, but the USA should still hang around for a long time if history shows us what happens to civilizations with high quality buildings, roads, bridges, and watercourses.
Oh, and historically, the societies that survive civilization ending events also do so by having a sense of community. Families and towns pull together, sometimes around a belief system or sometimes just because they don’t have a choice if they want to live. There’s not one society in history that survived and prospered by being armed, mutant cannibals that steal and murder. If you do that, you’re going to go extinct pretty fast. To survive, you need a constantly supply of nutritious food. You need healthcare. You need skilled laborers. No one can do all of this, so Hollywood movies should show our valiant hero also befriending some a farmers, a plumber, a doctor, and a few other tradesman. And then those valiant heroes living a town where everyone does one or more things they are really good at. Then mysterious people come to town and…
Trade skills or goods for other skills or goods.
If the cannibals come to town and want to eat you, they’re ignoring a long history of cannibalism that is usually associated with honoring of the death. They’ll also die pretty quickly from severe malnutrition and some awful disease like kuru. You’d be much better off growing veggies than eating brains. Unless your idea of fun is living out your last days after the bombs drop by suffering severe tremors, gastrointestinal problems, and a lack of nutrition before lapsing into a slow death.
6) BUT! YOU WILL DIE ANYWAY!
So, you’ve ignored all the Hollywood tropes and literary memes. You realize that you’re not going to die from Disease X that was brought by Alien X and his cannibal friends. The aliens ended up just installing a useless, puppet governor and exploiting some resources, but the family is mostly fine. Your community had a few outbreaks of illness but over half of you survived all the fighting, famine, war, and monsters because you’ve got many skilled, health adults in Survivor Town.
Oops. Hollywood forgot to warn you that you’d die anyways. You’ve got a slow, cancerous death because of leaking nuclear plants and industrial manufacturing. And now your whole town is on fire because some of the people who knew how to properly turn off the manufacturing facilities are dead. No one is cleaning up all the pollution and run off. In your desperate hope to survive, you’ve cut down too many trees and screwed yourself. All you can do is wait and hope for the best…
Better hope someone in Survivor Town, USA is a rat catcher.
7) HOLLYWOOD HATES SCIENCE
Apocalypses just don’t happen the way they do in movies. Even the biggest, most deadly extinction level events in history had survives. The dinosaurs died out… Only they didn’t. Birds survived, and those are dinosaurs, as did many other species big and small… fish, insects, mammals, lizards, etc. The single worst extinction in history still left enough life to keep going. That’s why we are here.
The end of the world makes for a great story. When you add in the heartbreaking tale of ONE MAN ALONE AGAINST ALL ODDS to RESCUE PERSON X, well, that’s a great movie. It’s just not accurate at all. If you were one crazy guy, running around trying to save your daughter, you’ll probably get food poisoning or drink tainted water and die. And the cannibal monsters on your trail are going to die off after a generation when they all have prion disease and succumb to seizures and a lack of vitamins.
It might make for a really boring story, but the people who will survive the end times are regular, boring people who manage to be both luck and useful. They’ll live in a community with low violence and a high rate of survival for babies. How do we know? Because history shows again and again it’s these kinds of groups that survive. Unless you’re on an island, then maybe everyone will just drop dead from climate disasters or disease. Scientists can even look at the single worst human disease in history – the Toba catastrophe – and see that at one point as few as 3,000 human beings survived some apocalypse.
It wasn’t one crazy guy alone against hordes of zombies, though. It was 3,000 people who would’ve had to help each other hunt, gather, build tools, and treat their sick. It would be a boring movie, sure, but if Hollywood wants to be less Mad Max and more reality, it needs a violent, long-last apocalypse where regular folks band together to survive using existing infrastructure and skills.
Kind of like Mad Max: Fury Road, but less violent. Or like the original Planet of the Apes, A Boy and His Dog, and Land of the Dead. People might not remember everything afterwards, but something will still be here, posting memes on the cave walls.
HOWEVER, THEY DO GET SOME THINGS RIGHT
There are a few aspects of the end of human society that Hollywood and pop culture probably get right.
Many, many post-apocalyptic movies are wastelands… vast open deserts with a lack of water. This is the future in every. Single. Movie. Ever. And, hey, that’s a very likely outcome for at least a large portion of the world. Due to climate change, water use patterns, and population growth, desertification is a very real thing happening right now. Added to this is our current model of agriculture, so it would not be surprising if we had to wonder a partial desert that looks a lot like the 1920’s Dust Bowl-era America. Though, it’s more likely we’d have a lot of annual grasslands burning from fires than big, sandy flats.
Resource wars are also very likely to happen within our lifetime, as is Artificial Intelligence, and post-humanism. Any and all of these issues could contribute to an apocalypse, but it’s likely at least a few thousand of us will be around to make more crappy movies about the ends of days. Hollywood just prefers to make things more exciting and immediate, rather than the long, slow death of a normal civilization much more common throughout human history. Even in big catastrophic events like the Permian Extinction, the actual extinctions and collapse took thousands of years rather than a weekend. Unless you just die from the flu or malaria after our healthcare system collapses, like the rest of people in history. Or a big rock will smash into the earth and we will be wiped out… over a few hundred or thousand years, unless we evolve into something tougher than doesn’t need constant asthma medication to be alive.
What do you think pop culture is getting right or wrong about our eventual demise? Will death come to us all via aliens, illness, or SoundCloud rappers? Let Nerdbot know in the comments!