Apocalypse, Myth, Rebirth: The Importance of Stories

By Ian Kerstetter

Art from NateHallinArt

I was nine years old and the radio on my school bus had stopped playing music. Breaking news, it murmured. Crash, explosion. The bus driver turned it up without a word. Something was happening in New York. A plane had crashed into a building full of innocent people– then another.

I had never experienced war or violence in any way until that morning. I knew that a long time ago, people had used guns and bombs to hurt each other but I had never imagined that people would do that here and now. As an adult I recognize that violence has had a more or less constant presence on the planet since human history began, but as a child privileged to live in relative peace and safety, my mind had never before imagined war in the present tense. Although I understood the narrative facts of the events that day, I didn't fully understand what had happened to me, or the world, until years later.

The idea that my life, or the lives of those around me, could end suddenly at the will of another human felt like the ground beneath me was no longer stable. The radio could say breaking news at any moment and another piece of the world could end.

My conception of the future had been thrown into question. Ultimately, many if not all people face the idea that the future is unpredictable, and such questioning prompted me to grow and investigate my own beliefs in a positive process, but this process is difficult nonetheless. My parents, teachers, and friends did everything they could to help me cope with my increasing existentialism, but as with any part of growing up, it took time and patience.

The memory of that day made me ask myself countless times, if people could bring themselves to kill each other, what's to stop them? If people had the technology to destroy whole buildings, why not whole cities or nations? It was around this time that I first encountered doomsday theories. Religious zealots, conspiracy theorists, cynical atheists, there were so many people saying the world would come to an end soon. As an impressionable young person, I was overwhelmed. I didn't know what version of reality to hold on to, so I tried to push them all away. New Years' Eve became a frightening night in the legacy of Y2K and 9/11. 06/06/06, 12/12/12– someone seemed to predict a new end of the world every year. They never came true though, and as I grew up, I began to trust in the present moment, and gained the courage and wisdom to study the facts of these false prophecies and see their emptiness, and their patterns of obscuring truth and feeding on fear.

Eventually, I accepted that end of the world predictions were not something that deserved my energy, and that living in fear of the future wasn't healthy or empowering. I learned that people have been predicting the end of days every so often since there were years to be counted. I learned the broader implications of the 9/11 attacks, and the unforgivable violence that our country enacted on innocent people in response.

And while I have healed from the realization that the world is a violent place, and have largely grown past my fear of the end of the world, I still find it troubling how flippant our society seems to be when discussing these ideas. I find it disturbing that people continue to laugh about flimsy doomsday conspiracy theories and pay money to watch disaster flicks that treat mass violence and chaos as mere spectacle. I feel that continuing to give them space in our media and conversations perpetuates them. Conspiracy theories about the world ending on a given date are just as empty as thinking fluoride is put in our water to control our minds or that vaccinations cause autism or cancer. As a reasonable person, I certainly think that science is just as subject to human error as any other field, but I find alarming the number of people willing to deny well-tested scientific truth to perpetuate these theories. I wouldn't suggest that we avoid talking about them at all– rather, we need to openly and critically examine them just as openly as we allow bloggers, filmmakers, and the History Channel pretend that they are real.

The widely popular 12/21/12 apocalypse theory, for example, was born out of a series of misinterpretations about Mesoamerican calendar systems, sensationalist media, and fear mongering, and yet I remember how the theory completely captured the public's imagination that year. The Mayan calendar– completely different from the Aztec calendar stone that was widely pictured to represent it– uses a “Long Count” that allowed for timekeeping up until December 21, 2012. After that, the calendar stopped, but the claim that this signified the end of the world was largely fabricated. While you and I may not really have believed the world would end on December 21st, think about all the people who did– schools were closed and bomb shelter sales went up that year. Consider all of the money, effort, and attention poured into that story. What if all of that attention had been paid to something else, like the U.N. Climate Change Conference in November of that year, which decided to extend the emission reduction policies of the Kyoto Protocol until 2020, which the U.S. continued to refuse to agree to. Imagine if every person who thought about the 12/12/12 conspiracy theory had written about, spoken about, or watched the conference. Social media and the internet have allowed many people to rally around important issues, but how many with such widespread knowledge, investment, and media attention than 12/12/12 or any of the other things we choose to focus our attention on?

In many ways, the world is ending, and has ended many times. For many indigenous people across the Earth, the world ended the day colonists stepped foot in their ancestral home. In different places and times, the world ended and began again with the inventions of bombs, cars, factories and computers. The world is in constant flux, and it isn't a stretch to say we that we are in fact living at another end of the world. But by focusing on the end, are we prepared for what comes next? Where, in our cultural storytelling, are the stories of the future? Sci-fi holds many stories of the far future, and of near futures gone wrong, but where are our stories of the near future gone right? Warnings of dependency on technology, a failing economy, and a suffering Earth are important warnings, but I wonder what stories might be told about humans rising to these challenges rather than falling into chaos, and how these stories could change the course of history.

We need stories that open up the possibilities of a world beginning, not just of a world collapsing. Climate change, nuclear war, hunger, disease, income inequality, genocide all pose real threats to the wellbeing of humans present and future, but the future has yet to be written. Humans have survived many tragedies and challenges; it's not beyond the realm of possibility that we could flourish in a post-apocalyptic world, or not face a Hollywood apocalypse at all. But for this to be a tangible possibility, I think we need storytelling that establishes this, not another disaster film or another gritty post-apocalyptic teen novel.

As artists, writers, and creators, I feel we have a duty to be considerate and deliberate in what stories we add to public conversations about the present and future. We don't need another disaster film or another blog post about Illuminati imagery in Rihanna's last music video. We need stories that interrogate the real challenges facing the world, like climate change, unchecked capitalism, institutionalized prejudice, industrial poisoning of our land and water, or militant imperialism. Zombies and aliens may be entertaining, but there are far more real monsters paying off our government, killing people and the Earth, and yes, writing our stories. They have names and faces –David and Charles Koch, the Walton Family, Robert Rubin, A. Jerrold Perenchio, Tony Hayward– and we should talk about them, and add our own narratives and truths to the stories they try to dominate.

The world may be ending, or may well have already ended. But we are still here, and what we desperately need is to leave behind narratives of end and apocalypse, and to tell stories about this new world we're living in, and open our imaginations to the world we might come to live in, as painful as the transition may be.