5 reasons the apocalypse and zombies are zeitgeist

As a result of our fascination with end-of-the-world scenarios, the zombie has become more iconic in pop culture than the revolutionary, writes Garth Mullins.

The zombie has become more iconic in pop culture than the revolutionary, writes Garth Mullins

People take part in a zombie walk in Lima, Peru. Similar walks are held in cities around the world, from Prague and Sao Paulo, to Miami and Winnipeg, attracting hundreds of would-be zombies. (Martin Mejia/The Associated Press)

Are zombies, economic collapse or climate change going to get us, or does humanity have reason to hope for a happy future? Listen to Garth Mullins' audio documentary on CBC Radio's Ideas Tuesday Oct. 27 at 9 p.m.

It's easy to see why popular culture is obsessed with the zombie apocalypse. Stories of climate change, economic collapse and pandemic are always trending. And the latest headline-making threat is hurtling toward the planet right now: On Halloween, a half-kilometer wide asteroid will have a close encounter with Earth. 

Telescopes only spotted the object a few weeks ago, travelling at 35 kilometres per second. NASA calculates that it will miss Earth, but if it did hit us there would be destruction on a continental scale.

As a result of our fascination with end-of-the-world scenarios, the zombie has become more iconic than the revolutionary. This tells us something about our political culture; its paucity of social imagination, timidity of leadership and assumption that versions of the status quo are the best we can hope for. 

The quote associated with literary and cultural critic Fredric Jameson has never been more apt: "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism." Here are five reasons why:

Hordes of zombie movies shuffle out of Hollywood

In this image released by AMC, zombies appear in a scene from the television series The Walking Dead. (AP Photo/AMC, Gene Page)
Maybe it's easy to picture the end of the world because popular culture is preoccupied with it. 

Just about everybody can imagine a future dystopia; a blasted wasteland where society has been destroyed and heavily armed survivors wander the charred landscape. TV shows like The Walking Dead and Jericho, films like Mad Max and video games such as Fallout and Resident Evil are infectiously popular. 

All this content makes it much harder to picture a world based on mutual aid, social justice, reconciliation between nations, dignity in work, sharing the wealth and a healthy environment.

Politicians are after our brains

Margaret Thatcher, the late British prime minister, was known as a hardline conservative. ((Dan Kitwood/Getty))
It's not just Hollywood that makes us feel doomed — politicians have done their part too.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher famously quipped that there is no such thing as society. Since then, decades of austerity, cuts to the welfare state and deregulation of the environment have helped bring that notion to life.

During elections, candidates commonly use wedge politics to tear at the fabric of social solidarity.

It all leaves us feeling alone and powerless. 

That doomed feeling is good for business

The so-called "Prepper" movement of people stockpiling supplies in anticipation of the end of organized society has become a market for scores of businesses, blogs and expos. (istock)
All that social justice stuff can be bad for the bottom line. A

generation ago, changing the world for the better was almost de rigueur, but now surviving its end has become common sense. Besides the hard-core "Preppers" and survivalists, even regular folks are stockpiling supplies and making escape plans — just in case.

Take Megan Adam, a communications professional with a food cache in her basement and a cabin in the woods. She has spent her life in the trenches of the environmental and labour movements, but now she's worried that it may be too late for the world to change course. Adam is still hoping for social justice, but admits she's also making backup plans.

"It's like, if you couldn't change it, get out of it," she says. 

Maybe it's too late …

This high-resolution photo from NASA's Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) on the DISCOVR satellite was taken from a distance of 1.6 million kilometres. (NASA)
If undead plague victims, viruses or asteroids aren't coming to get us, climate change is already here.

Next month, government officials will attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. There's some hope that leaders will be able to agree on a plan to really address climate change. But when the most optimistic outcome is that our planet's temperature will increase by an average of 2 degrees Celsius, it's easy to see why some people are in a generally apocalyptic mood.

Temperatures are climbing, seas are rising and cities could drown. Storms are more violent. Melting permafrost, disappearing ice, drought and heavy weather are the new normal. Is it getting warm in here?

The apocalypse has already happened

The remains of an ancient Mayan city in Lagunita. Archaeologists have found abandoned Mayan cities hidden in the jungle of southeastern Mexico, and some believe there are more to be discovered. (Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts/Reuters)
The end of the world isn't exactly new, at least for some of us.

Native American studies scholar Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy knows society-ending events have happened before.

Dr. Risling Baldy watches The Walking Dead on TV, and writes about how the trauma of that imagined zombie apocalypse parallels the very real trauma echoing through Indigenous nations after generations of colonization.

"As a culture we become obsessed with this end of the world as if nobody has ever had that experience," she says, "but there's lots of Native people who can speak to an experience where they lose everything in these massive waves of destruction."

Listen to Garth Mullins' audio documentary, The Coming Zombie Apocalypse, on CBC Radio's Ideas Tuesday Oct. 27 at 9 p.m.