Everyone Daydreams About Collapse. Few Understand It.

The author of "Frankenstein" wrote an honest book about the end of the world.

Everyone Daydreams About Collapse. Few Understand It.

You probably know about Frankenstein, but maybe you don't know about The Last Man. Mary Shelley published it about eight years later, after her husband and her best friend both died. It's one of the first pieces of dystopian, apocalyptic fiction. The story begins in the 2070s and wraps up around 2100. A plague wipes out most of humanity, leaving one lonesome aristocrat who decides to pack all his stuff into a boat and go looking for survivors.

He doesn't find any.

Critics hated the book. They tore it apart. They didn't like how Shelley portrayed rich people or politicians. They didn't like the characters. They seemed to find it plausible that a mad scientist would create life and disown it, but not plausible that a plague could wipe out 99 percent of all humans. Now 200 years later, it's enjoying something of a revival. Cambridge professor Rebecca Barr describes Shelley as "unsparing in her depiction of the limits of individual agency and the fallacy of personal exceptionalism."

She got it.

The novel doesn't indulge any survivalist fantasies. It criticizes the prevailing culture of selfishness and elitism she saw at work in the government and society at large. Her main characters try to rise above it. As the title hints, all of them die anyway. It's not just the plague that kills them.

It's also freak weather events.

I'm reading The Last Man now on Project Gutenberg. Honestly, it's good. You have to get used to the flowery prose. Once you do, there's a lot of great sentences. More than anything, Shelley describes the end of the world and the emotional fallout with chilling accuracy.

It's lonely.

Dystopian apocalyptic literature and cinema have turned into real cash cows. Sometimes, they nail it. Books like The Road or The Parable of the Sower give us an accurate portrait of the future on the current track. Basically, we'll wind up with vast stretches of poverty and violence dotted by enclaves of stability. Something of a government will persist, but it's going to be ineffective and hopelessly corrupt. Something of a financial system will persist, but it's going to be predatory and inaccessible to most of us. There's a good chance you'll get shuffled into a work camp or a corporate town, slaving away for a handful of billionaires hellbent on draining the planet's last resources.

Hundreds of years ago, they used to throw you in prison for not paying your debts. They sold you into servitude. You spent the rest of your life waiting hand and foot on some spoiled rich gent.

That's going to make a comeback.

It's not going to be fun.

These conditions already exist in the world. They're not a future fiction for millions. They're a present reality. Look at where our coffee comes from. Look at where our chocolate comes from. Look at where the cobalt and the rare earth elements for our laptops and smartphones come from. Corporate or "company towns" used to be common in the U.S., back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The rich made their own rules. They didn't have to listen to anyone. They owned the government and the media. They saw plagues and disasters as opportunities to extract more wealth from the poor.

Some of us have already had a taste of the post-apocalyptic world. We already lived in places without air conditioning or heat. We already know what it feels like to go without running water. We already know how to eat oatmeal and beans every day for long stretches of time.

It sucks, but you manage.

Reality hasn't stopped Hollywood from pumping out a steady stream of dystopian thrillers, including a gazillion spinoff shows. Survivalism and prepping have gone mainstream, but it's heavily watered down.

Sociologists have explained the American obsession with dystopian apocalyptic thrillers. They allow their audiences an escape from all the crushing economic and social expectations placed on them.

It's fun to imagine yourself as Daryl Dixon, riding across a barren landscape on a motorcycle that never seems to run out of gas. It's fun to fantasize about hiking through a depopulated Europe full of ruins. For millions of us, it's the only future that offers any sense of freedom or autonomy.

It's the only way to matter.

Unfortunately, that's not how the world is going to end. Capitalism isn't going to suddenly die with the next big plague. Your debts aren't going to disappear. Neither is your rent or mortgage.

(I mean, I wouldn't count on it.)

Look at other countries that have already collapsed or hover on the verge of collapse. Nobody gets a break. Nobody gets to ride around shooting zombies and hiding food in bunkers. Read about famines, especially the ones under Stalin. If they found you hiding a sack of potatoes, they threw you in jail. People got arrested for eating their kids.

There's a reason why Americans soothe themselves with dystopian fairy tales instead of reading about our history. When you read history, you learn the truth about collapse. You learn about police beating unpaid school teachers at the start of the Great Depression. You learn about the military shooting teargas at their own veterans. You learn about parents selling their kids to farmers because they couldn't afford to feed them.

It's grim stuff.

Americans don't want to think about that.

They don't want to hear about the Dust Bowl or the Texas drought of the 1950s. They don't want to know that the self-help movement in the 1930s wasn't about aphorisms. It was about farmers and local workers getting together to trade goods and services. It was about people helping each other, because the government refused. Politicians were more worried about sounding like a socialist than letting their constituents starve.

They don't want to learn about London in the 18th and 19th centuries, before sanitation and public health became common. They don't understand that in a true collapse, toilets eventually stop flushing.

They won't have water pressure.

A lot of westerners live in denial. Some look forward to collapse. They think it's going to free them from the world's problems while bestowing some kind of elusive meaning on their life. They believe it'll give them an excuse to break the social contract. Look around, and you see a growing number of people who seem to want civilization to collapse, for all the wrong reasons.

They think they're ready.

They're not.

It feels good to write about doom again without getting judged. This post adds another layer of reflection on the topic. If you appreciate my work, consider subscribing or buying me a coffee. Thank you to all the readers who support this site. It makes a big difference.

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