By Pepper Trail
Just about every worthwhile video game, young adult novel, and streaming series agrees that we need to prepare for a post-apocalyptic world. Ahead of you, around a sharp bend or atop a cliff, awaits – The Apocalypse.
Perhaps not “the final complete destruction of the world”, but certainly “an event involving destruction or damage on an impressive or catastrophic scale”, to quote the two definitions from the Oxford Online Dictionary. Not now but soon.
It makes me wonder: how will we know when we go from pre-apocalypse to post-apocalypse? This summer, my hometown in southern Oregon was crushed under a heat dome, sweltering in triple-digit temperatures. A blaze across the state line broke out and exploded within 24 hours to become California’s largest blaze this year so far.
The two mountain lakes that supply water to our orchards and vineyards in the valley are 2% and 6% full, that is to say 98% and 94% empty. Last year, an even more severe heat dome pushed temperatures in normally cool Seattle and Portland to record highs, wildfires scorched more than a million acres in Oregon and giant redwoods in 2000 years perished in fires of unprecedented severity in the Sierra Nevada in California. .
Catastrophic extremes become normal. The Great Salt Lake is at the lowest level on record, spawning toxic dust storms. A mega-drought has shrunk the Colorado River, with the start of major water delivery cuts to Arizona and Nevada. Elsewhere in the West, flooding devastated Yellowstone National Park in June, collapsing roads and causing the evacuation of more than 10,000 visitors.
Broadening our perspective, Dallas is currently inundated by what is being described as a “millennial” flood event, following similar floods in Las Vegas, St. Louis and Kentucky earlier this summer. Across the Atlantic, Europe has been scorched by the highest temperatures on record this summer, triggering massive forest fires, the collapse of a glacier in Italy and more than 10,000 heat-related deaths. India, China and Japan have experienced record heat waves this year.
I could go on, but you’ve no doubt also read the information about climate-induced apocalyptic events. The global extinction crisis is intertwined, with more than a million species threatened by the end of this century. Bird populations in the United States have collapsed by a third in the past 50 years, and the world’s most diverse ecosystems, including tropical rainforests and coral reefs, could largely disappear in the decades to come.
Let’s also not forget the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed at least 6.46 million people worldwide and sickened 597 million. This pandemic shows no signs of ending as the virus continues to develop new variants. Meanwhile, the new global monkeypox health emergency has been declared. And poliomyelitis, once eliminated in this country, is back, thanks to people who are not vaccinated.
What about the American social fabric? According to a survey conducted this summer by the New York Times, a majority of Americans polled now think our political system is too divided to solve the nation’s problems. The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive has documented 429 mass shootings so far this year in America, with “mass shootings” being defined as at least four people killed or injured.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade led to a rapid and brutal division of the country into states that allow abortion versus those that prohibit it. Republicans and Democrats increasingly live in separate media universes, with both sides worried about the possibility of civil war.
I admit this is a staggering list of “damage on an awe-inspiring or catastrophic scale”, but I’m not ready to call myself a post-apocalypse citizen. We don’t have to live there. Instead, let’s accept that humanity and the entire planet are “adjacent to the apocalypse.” The apocalypse is ahead of us and we can see it clearly. But the world is not ruined yet.
Human beings have this redemptive and also infuriating trait: we are most creative and cooperative when it’s almost too late. We can – we must – pull each other from the brink. To fail is to condemn our children to live in dystopian video game hell. As they will tell you, this is not a place to be.
Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating lively conversation about the West. He is a naturalist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.