I like thinking about a zombie apocalypse.

Given the popularity of the genre in film, tv, and video games, I’m not the only one.

It’s fun - thinking about the resources I’d need to acquire, the plans I’d make, what locations provide fortification and food, and of course it’s always pleasant to entertain heroic fantasies about blasting apart the undead.

Such daydreams have always been accompanied, in my own experience, with a curious sense of relief, and it’s this sense that I want to talk about.

The Popular Apocalypse

Why are apocalyptic scenarios so popular?

Perhaps the question has an empirical answer. I could imagine correlating interest in apocalyptic fiction with real-world surveys of general sentiment or news headlines, generating evidence that our fiction explores a future in ruins because that’s where people believe we’re headed.

But I don’t quite think that’s the answer.

Apocalyptic thinking is old - really old. The Book of Revelations in the bible, old.

So what draws people to thinking that the world is ending?

And in this day and age, what is enjoyable about that thought? In an age of comfort and predictability, where I know where my next meal is coming from for the next ten years, why is it such a relief to imagine all of that safety and certainty disappearing in the fires of calamity?

Why do I find it pleasant to imagine a world that is, on any objective metric, terrible to live in?

The Present Future

If you’re reading this, odds are you know what you’re doing for the rest of day.

You probably have a concrete idea of how the rest of the week will go.

The rest of the month, too.

Maybe you even have a five-year plan. A ten-year plan?

A thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage?

Do you put money into a retirement account you won’t be able to use for decades? Do you have some idea of how you want to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries that are years in the future?

In modern day America, for me at least, the future is an ever-present concern, and has been since childhood.

In primary school it was all about getting good grades, not just to get them but because I needed good grades to get into a good college, preferably with a scholarship. In college I needed to do well to get a good job. At my job I need to do well to get promoted.

And so on.

One of the greatest triumphs of science and progress is the safety of knowing there’s a very large chance you’ll live to grow old, so large that it becomes the default path for one’s life to take. Yet the increase of years to live also necessitates an increase in years to plan for.

One’s youth is spent preparing to face adulthood, one’s adulthood is spent planning for retirement, and one’s retirement is spent preparing to die.

I spend time every day thinking about the future.

The future, in other words, is present, even in the present. It has a tangible presence, one that can be felt long before any actual future comes to pass.

And that, I believe, is what makes apocalyptic scenarios so seductive: they involve no future beyond the immediate.

The Weight of the Future, Gone

When the apocalypse hits, the future vanishes.

All those bills lying on the kitchen table? Irrelevant.

Concerns about passing a midterm exam or climbing the corporate ladder? Meaningless.

Anxiety about the economy and whether you have enough saved for retirement? Smoke on the breeze.

When the apocalypse hits, the only thing that matters is right now. The current moment. “Are you or are you not zombie chow?” is a question with a definitive and concrete answer. There’s no need to wait or study or prepare or plan.

Beyond the immediate concern of being masticated by the undead, what else is there? The next minute, hour, day, perhaps, but that’s it. It’s a timescale that humans have dealt with since we’ve existed, long before the 401k and other investment vehicles allowed us to contemplate how we might spend our time half a century in the future.

The future can be experienced as a magnificent, wide-open field of promise and potential just waiting to be tapped, but I personally experience it more as a weight that must constantly be carried. How much lighter would I feel, how unburdened would my shoulders be, I wonder, without the years ahead to way them down?

The Sober Reality

Of course, in reality, I’m quite glad I have a future to plan for. There are plenty of people who don’t.

The time we have alive - the future I describe as heavy - is a luxury bought by all the wonders of technology and civilization, and it is well worth the cost of its weight. The absence of said wonders isn’t some kind of freedom; it’s a prison of poverty and sickness and quiet desperation.

It’s still nice to imagine, if only in an idle daydream, the thought of not having to be concerned with anything except the present moment.

Even if said moment does include a zombie trying to eat your brain.

New Comment
14 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:33 AM

That may explain why these scenarios have never been all that appealing to me, because I do think about the future in these hypothetical scenarios. I ask myself "Okay, what would the plan be in five years, when the scavenged food has long since run out?" and that feels scary and overwhelming. (Admittedly, rollercoaster scary, since it's a fantasy, but I find myself spending just as much time asking how the hell I'd learn to recreate agriculture and how miserable day-to-day farming would be as I do imagining myself as a badass hero who saves someone from zombies - and that's assuming I survive at all, which is a pretty big if!)

Hypothetical-you might like exploring abandoned permaculture sites -- scavenge their libraries for knowledge of what's good to forage, and their gardens for delicious food. Perennial food forests are a great hedge against long-term food anxiety.

I thought this was going to be about the AI apocalypse, and the idea that life is pain, so apocalypse would at least be relief from the pain... 

I was big into escapist apocalypse fantasy pre-2020, and I'm not any more.

Previously, I pictured the popular apocalypse as destruction of the agency-limiting systems of civilization, which would leave behind post-scarcity amounts (relative to the remaining population) of the agency-enhancing tech of civilization. It's basically the best of both worlds, if you survive -- you get most of the material benefits of centuries of industrialization if you're resourceful about it, without the individual limitations necessary for participating in the continuation of the industrial economy.

The other appeal of many apocalypse scenarios, which is highly impolitic to discuss in mixed company, is the population drop. I think there's a widely held intuition that modern life involves way more humans than our brains historically ever had to cope with. Fantasies about disconnection from the internet -- getting stranded on a tropical island with a good group, or similar -- address this problem from a less globally lethal angle as well.

The fantasy of a world in which an individual or small group functions (explores, rebuilds) independently might stem from the American cultural mythos of "wild west" exploration, and seems to also underlie the appeal of open world games where you're either the only person or the most powerful/agentic person in the world that you're aware of.

Post-2020, it's lost the appeal for me, though. Turns out my escapist fantasies were based on assumptions about humans' underlying pro-social proclivities that didn't actually play out when stress tested.

2020 - and the pandemic in general - seems to have been a bit of a watershed moment for figuring out certain things about human nature and society in general for me as well.

I also like your characterization of post-apocalyptic fantasy as getting all the benefits of a modern technical civilization with none of the people-driven drawbacks.

Interesting exploration, I wonder how to measure the frequency and impact of such daydreams.  I share some of them, but recognize the escapist nature - it doesn't impact my activities any more than, say, reading fiction or watching entertainment (which is to say - non-zero impact, but not central to my beliefs).

I don't agree with your thesis about the CAUSE of such fantasies being pleasant.  Some of it is a relief of responsibility - in an apocalypse, it's not your FAULT that people are suffering and dying.  You can't do anything meaningful for them, so you don't have to feel bad for not doing so.  But, somewhat contradictory to that, it's also attractive because in the fantasies the protagonist is much more clearly the major heroic agent of the story/world.  EVERYONE ELSE is either evil or non-agentic.  This satisfies a deep desire to be important.  

All such fantasies seem to be "personal success in the face of an apocalypse", not "actual suffering and death along with everything you love" style of apocalypse.

While the zombie apocalypse is popular, I'd say an asteroid strike/supervolcano/other no-fault apocalypses convey a similar sense of relief.

That being said, I do strongly agree with the "heroic fantasy" angle.

I don't agree with your thesis about the CAUSE of such fantasies being pleasant.

I'm not sure I'd characterize the relief as pleasant, at least not in a positive sense. It's a removal of bad things (stressors), not an addition of good things. The cause of said fantasies is a desire to avoid feeling one's current burdens, by imagining a situation in which they don't exist.

I share your disagreement with the original author as to the cause of the relief. For me, I find the modern day and age very confusing and difficult to measure one's value to society. Any great idea you can think of, probably someone else has thought of it, and you have little chance to be important. In a zombie apocalypse, instead of thinking how to out-compete your fellow man with some amazing invention, you fall back to survival. Important things in this world, like foraging for food, fending off zombies, etc, have quicker reward, and it's easier in some sense to do what's right. Even if you're not the best at it, surely you can be a great worker, and there's little uncertainty that you're not doing more harm than good... just don't be stupid and call the horde. Sure, sometimes people do horrible things for survival, but if you want to be the hero, the choice is much clearer.

I'd say the bigger reason people like to think that some apocalypse is going to happen in the future is because we have a bias towards viewing things negatively, even if they mislead us. In particular, we have a tendency to believe that today is a wasteland according to our values, compared with the past, which naturally is drawn to golden ages. Unfortunately, those golden ages were fictional, not real, and even from at least some people's values, things have improved, not declined.

The archived article is below:

https://archive.is/rQPwa

One implication is that one should treat things going worse claims as less evidence than things are going better claims, and in particular there's an a priori reason to distrust negative claims but not positive claims.

This is a part of why I suspect AI existential risk is wrong, and negativity bias is why I suspect people would fall for a false existential risk claim.

I broadly agree that we're biased towards the past and against the future, although I think a large part of the latter is that we don't like the uncertainty involved in it.

While the AI debate is well beyond the scope of this post, I will say that I would expect the future to continue getting weirder the more non-human processing capability exists, and I personally don't expect this weirdness to be survivable past a certain threshold.

More generally, one of the implications is that one should expect negative news to be less informative than positive news, since there's probably a gap between the negative things in reality, and the negative news you are hearing, and that there's more negativity in your information sources than exists in real life.

Related: sometimes when I'm driving to do something stressful/unpleasant, I'll think to myself, "Man, if I got in a car crash right now I wouldn't have to do X."

I've had similar experiences. It seems odd, but sometimes a crash can seem like a better option than takin g a test or attending an unpleasant family dinner.

It isn't, but the thought can be tempting.