Lenny Bruce is not afraid – or so the song has always insisted – but it’d appear he doesn’t speak for many of us these days. It’s 2012, the end of the world as we know it, the year the Mayans allegedly called out as the end of time more than a millenium back. And it appears from a certain angle that we inhabitants of this fragile planet, 7 billion strong, are hellbent on making the prophecy a reality. We’ve all but abandoned a global climate treaty, doubled down on a collapsing economy fueled by oil and coal, busied ourselves with the endlessly fascinating task of studying the flattering reflections we find in the shiny funhouse mirror we’ve fashioned from social media and smartphones.
Aren’t these dark times? If the four horsemen aren’t actually astride their steeds, surely they’ve got ‘em saddled and ready, right?
Well, hold it there, hoss. Let’s play a little New Year’s game. Let’s stare blearily at this anxious year and assume it’s the anxiety – not the year – that’s got us so gloomy. Let’s assume it’s us, not them, and see if we can’t find the bright sunshine on the far side of these clouds. Join me, just for a moment, in imagining that 2012 is the year a generation of innovation comes to full flower. Let’s assume that 2012 is the first year of our brightest possible future.
Let’s start with all these darn zombies.
Science fiction – from bodysnatchers to poltergeists to the keepers of X-files – has long been a revealing barometer of our collective anxieties, and so it’s worth noting that we enter 2012 in the midst of a zombie revival, probably the most robust and enduring zombie waves since George Romero’s flesheaters first shambled across movie screens in 1968.
The standard bearer at the moment is the AMC series "The Walking Dead," which has introduced the genre to the careful characterization and long-arc storytelling of "The Sopranos" and "The Wire." But beyond this there are zombie videogames, schlocky zombie movies and annual flash-mob zombie marches in cities around the world. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention joined the fray earlier this year, issuing a cheeky “Zombie Apocalypse” preparedness guide. The CDC notes that a household properly prepared for a zombie apocalypse would be equally well-provisioned for a pandemic or natural catastrophe, which of course points directly at the prime suspect for why zombie apocalypse scenarios resonate so strongly just now. Spend too much time watching the news on the wrong day, and it can seem like the apocalypse is already upon us.
I’ve just started reading Colson Whitehead's "Zone One" – a postmodern high-lit take on the zombie genre – and what’s struck me, so far, is how familiar the book’s milieu feels. Here is New York after the fall, drained of life, a ruined wasteland inhabited by flesheating ghouls. Kurt Russell was here in "Escape from New York" and Will Smith rode these empty streets in "I Am Legend." How plausible, really, this zombie apocalypse. I wonder, actually, whether the really radical postmodern take wouldn’t be to try to build a truly convincing utopia on the near-future streets of New York.
Are these troubled times? Maybe. Certainly anyone following climate talks or GOP debates too closely would be forgiven for suspecting so. But are they uniquely dark? Are we so much closer to apocalypse, or are we just able to access more vivid depictions of it? And have we perhaps forgotten just how dark our own past has been?
I was thinking about this last point as I followed along with my favorite recent Twitter discovery: @RealTimeWWII. The meticulously researched feed reports the key developments from World War II in real time, hour by hour, as if it were a newsfeed reporting events happening right now.
As 2011 gave way to 2012, @RealTimeWWII was tracking the viciously black dawn of 1940. The Finnish army was trying desperately to hold off a Soviet invasion and Hitler raged in his New Year’s Day address, announcing there would be no talk of peace until the war was won and promising that “the Jewish-capitalist world” would be gone by the end of the 20th century. In Britain, all 23-year-old men were being conscripted, while in New York they partied in Times Square with the greatest opulence anyone had seen in a decade – as if they knew it might be the last carefree New Year’s Eve for a long time.
The feed’s season’s greetings to its followers was drenched in irony: “Happy New Year, everybody! Thanks for following. Let's hope things get better in 1940.” Part of what it makes it so compelling to follow along with @RealTimeWWII, of course, is that we all know just how terrible things get before anything like a ray of hope shines through. By the time Normandy greets the liberating armies of the Allies, it’ll be 2016. I wonder where we’ll be by then.
I’m reminded of a great passage from Rebecca Solnit’s extraordinary 2004 book "Hope in the Dark," the exclamation point at the end of a section where she tracks the enormous changes she’d seen during her own lifetime in attitudes, behaviors and hard-fact legal rights toward women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals and many others. Solnit: “We inhabit, in ordinary daylight, a future that was unimaginably dark a few decades ago, when people found the end of the world easier to envision than the impending changes – in everyday roles, thoughts, practices – that not even the wildest science fiction anticipated. Perhaps we should not have adjusted so easily. It would be better if we were astonished every day.”
It’s not a bad mission statement for the whole sustainability project in 2012, actually. Let’s try to be astonished every day. I’ll start in my next post, in which I’ll turn headlines about a "gloomy" year for the solar industry into impossibly bright astonishment before your very eyes.
To trade optimistic tales 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
Also on MNN: 10 tips for surviving a zombie apocalypse