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In which we dream of starting over

(Previously published a few years ago on

Of Wayward Pines and the Secular Rapture

I recently watched the first season of the 2014 mystery series Wayward Pines. The story is fast-paced and keeps the audience guessing with surprising twists, but around episode five I started to notice a common thread it shares with other current shows and films.

The theme is let's restart civilization—but this time, we'll do it right. In the past decade alone, it's been a common thread on shows like Wayward Pines, The Walking Dead, Last Man on Earth, The 100 and After Earth, and in films like Interstellar, Wall-E, The Beach and approximately half of the post-apocalyptic stories ever told. I started to wonder how far back this particular myth could be found in the human collective imagination. It was the same elitist reboot that Ayn Rand imagined in Atlas Shrugged and the same last best hope for humankind explored in classics like When Worlds Collide, The Foundation Series, and countless other novels, fairytales, myths and religious traditions throughout history.

It goes something like this: humanity is doomed—we're greedy, violent and divided by too many conflicting beliefs and ideologies. Even if we could come to agreement, there's no time. We've got environmental degradation and out of control production of pollutants contaminating everything—and there are too many people—we'll never be able to reign in our rampant consumption and destruction of natural resources. We're an invasive species on fast-forward, and too far gone to slow down even if we wanted to.

Besides, we're too invested in things staying the same. We're on a runaway train to extinction and too comfortable inside to risk derailing it. Not to mention the corporate interests and political leaders, who make protecting the status quo and perpetual economic growth standard operating procedure for the entire species, with little regard to the future into which we're hurtling headlong. If only we could take what we've learned from centuries of trial-and-error and slash-and-burn, and start over without all the poisonous bi-products and collateral damage we racked up in the process of attaining our current state of enlightenment.

This kind of thinking isn't new to our century, or the last, or even to post-industrial society. The desire to circle the wagons, seal off the borders and pull up the drawbridge has been with us since before we had wagons or drawbridges—maybe even before we had borders. You see it in the flood myths of all our ancient ancestors, each with its own causes and cautions, but all aligned in the execution.

For every flood story, there are survivors who lived to tell the tale, and every "Ark" contains a carefully-selected subset of the original population. The same story is rebooted for the final endgame of Christianity in the story of The Rapture, wherein all of god's favorites will be beamed up to sit out eternity in heaven while the rest of humanity is left to suffer his wrath on earth, without hope of salvation.

[Mountains of e-waste in China, photo credit: Greenpeace.]

It doesn't take an entire planet becoming aware of its own toxicity for people to imagine that everything would be so much better if we—our little group of enlightened, like-minded, chosen people—the best minds and craftiest survivors—could just start over from scratch. It's the fantasy of a Secular Rapture. Well... maybe not entirely from scratch. What we pack in the proverbial lifeboats sometimes says more about us than who's on the passenger list. (Just ask Noah.)

It could be anything from a well-stocked underground bunker to a well-stocked multi-generational spaceship to a brand-new green planet to a freshly-scrubbed and newly depopulated Earth—maybe not as we knew it, but brimming with "fixer-upper" potential. (What's a handful of major metropolitan centers between friends, or some low-lying islands and waterfront property at what we used to call sea level?) We'll do it much better this time. 

Throughout history, when the barbarian hoards are at the gates, or the invading army poised on our borders, or the gradual decline of our civilization after a century at the top of the global food chain seems imminent, our imaginations return to this fantasy of the Ark or the Rapture or the shake-and-bake colony. Hell, the North American continent was colonized and populated relatively recently by people who were chasing that very dream; a "new world" where they could escape the crowding, corruption and class warfare of the old.

A place where they could shed their old lives and be born again, free of family history and a destiny that was pre-determined by the circumstances of their birth, where they could carve out an existence based on their own personal desires, limited only by their abilities and ambitions. The only tools they needed were their wits and will power. With the prospect of a shiny new self, came the promise of an unspoiled audience and an ability to forge a fresh set of alliances—better, stronger, more egalitarian and meritocratic—the dream of every kid who ever moved to a new school and thought, everything is going to be different now. I'll get it right this time.

Because how could we not, knowing what we now know? We've learned from the mistakes of those who came before us, both real and fictional. With our hard-won agnostic rationalism, our globally-thinking, locally-acting, multicultural and post-racial worldview and our eyes focused on the "long now," we have the accumulated expertise of a thousand generations distilled through our senses at the speed of our fingertips.

Now all we need is an Ark and a destination and we can manifest our own destiny—leave this Beta planet in the dust clouds of our rocket exhaust. When we do, we'll be sure, just as sure as every smoker who came before us, that this toxic exhalation will be our last. It wasn't our choice to strip-mine Earth 1.0, after all, but the damage is done. We won't be removing any more mountaintops where we're going; we'll light no more fires under faucets fortified with fracking chemicals. Our next planet's flora and fauna won't have to fear being crushed under the leaden footprints we left on Earth. We'll walk softly among them, subsisting on Soylent Green and up-cycled bio-waste. 

We'll keep the colony small and intimate—seven is the magic number for a flight crew (don't take it from me—that's a science fiction fact), and we'll cap out membership at 150 (the Dunbar Number—thank you, Malcolm Gladwell) to ensure the insularity of the tribe. (Yes, we may have to "unfriend" a few.)

We've cured ourselves of the old superstitions, purged our urge for greed and bred out most of our baser instincts (or cancelled them out by flooding the environment with endocrine disrupting chemicals). We're sustainable and self-contained; our competitive instincts are channeled into gaming and high-stakes economic speculation and our carnivorous desires sublimated into complex and deeply addicting fan fiction and psychosexual role-playing about vampires, cannibals and superheroes.

[Screenshot from NBC's (sadly cancelled) serial killer bromance, "Hannibal."]

What are we forgetting? Oh yeah... Hell is other people. The one thing we can never escape is ourselves. We are both host and virus, cancer and cure; the seed bank that will save humanity and the stowaway blight that will corrupt it from within and start the whole vicious cycle over again. It's funny how the fantasy persists, whether in the form of high-budget Hollywood thrillers or ancient stone tablets buried in caves for millennia; but whatever the medium, the moral of the story is always the same.

We have to work together, love each other, help the weak who rely on our strengths and tolerate the stupid who will always try our patience because they just don't fucking get it. (I think all the great traditions include something along those lines, right after "be fruitful and multiply," and before "don't eat pork or shellfish.") 

There's a scene in "Interstellar" where two movie stars named Matt have made separate arduous journeys to this distant planet. But just when they should be working together to try and solve the dire predicament that caused them to leave the earth in the first place, they're rolling around on the icy surface trying desperately to kill each other with their bare hands.

We're probably still a good century or two away from sending real astronauts through a wormhole to another earthlike planet, but when we do, I'll bet you anything that scene will still feel every bit as shamefully plausible to audiences as it does today. It's a good thing we don't take our Hollywood thrillers as gospel, because we're great at missing the point.

But you can't blame Hollywood—this is one aspect of human nature that even Christianity got right on the money. In the very first chapter of the bible, even before "be fruitful and multiply," when there are only four human beings in all of existence, the third one straight up murders the fourth. Over nothing—and lies about it—to god! But maybe that's just because even the ancient prophets knew one thing about human nature and it's the same thing that the creators of Wayward Pines and Interstellar know; you can theoretically make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, but not if you expect us to swallow it.

[William Blake's Cain fleeing from the wrath of god after the body of Abel is discovered.]

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22 janv.

It was a great article at first posting and still so relevant! I look forward to more writing! (heart) 💙

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