Like many others I know, I went though an End Of The Human Race reading obsession at one point in my life. I plowed through novels and stories by the dozens. (I’m thankful that zombie writing was at its nadir during that period. I never would’ve torn free of that subgenre.)
Most of the apocalypse tales, whether they took an optimistic spin on the idea or a depressing one, had some elements in common. They were all about giant cataclysms and giant creatures, explosions and eruptions, global contagions and global collapses. Big events, big moments, plenty of drama. Opportunities for angst and introspection abounded.
None of them are really about The End. They’re about how people face it. Whether we overcome it. Add in the morality factor, and toss in the answers to philosophical questions like: do we deserve to survive? Can we change in time to survive? Can we adapt to a new world order? Will we be crushed by the weight of our own sins?
Most stories give these big sweeping themes a lot of dramatic visuals and violent content. Things that catch the eye, and capture the imagination. Even quieter classics like “On The Beach” are full of tension and emotion. There is intense conflict at the personal level. When the World Ends, we know it.
I don’t think that’s how it’s going to happen. The story that made the most impact on me was one that took a very different approach to the topic.
First one species of fish disappears overnight. Then a type of plant. Then a vitamin ceases to exist. Something like that. Each time, the reaction provokes a flurry of concern, a rash of investigation, and then a collective shrug of resignation: we’ll have to live without it. We can make do. It wasn’t that important. Until it is. Until it’s over. Until everyone dies. Game over.
That presentation of humanity’s likely response to true disaster still resonates decades later, long after I’ve forgotten the actual plot. The world slowly, inexorably crumbles around the protagonists without the significance of each event being understood until too late. (Full disclaimer: I’m certain that was NOT an accurate synopsis. What stuck with me were the ideas, not the details. )
Some days when I look at the news, I see the downfall of Civilization as We Know It. It isn’t the rumblings of war that worry me most. (They worry me, plenty, but not most.) It isn’t even the leakage of radioactive waste or the earthquakes from fracking, or the lack of oversight on critical biological research. Nope. It’s the microbeads and the pig farms, the artificial colors and the unregulated transport of tar sands oil, the BPAs and the undiscovered toxins of tomorrow.
I predict that future generations will look at our use of microbeads and our tolerance for environmental contamination the way we look at the insanity of Romans using lead pipes to carry their water when they knew the metal was poisonous. Yes, they knew. Yes, we know that what we’re doing is bad. We’re still doing it, because reasons. We are choking and poisoning ourselves and the whole world with our own waste, and it’s normal.
Cultural blindness is deadly, and seen from a distance, inconceivably short-sighted. Perspective is everything. I’m an optimist. I think the human race will be around to look back and marvel at its own idiocy.
Black Mollies. I think the fish that died first in the story were black Mollies. Like this picture, a little.
Anyway. How many species of life disappeared from the face of the planet in the last year? Look it up, and acknowledge that it didn’t affect your life at all. Then add one little word: yet.
Not in My Backyard. Not My Problem. Too expensive. Too political. Too much trouble. None of my business. BAD for business. Excuses, all of them. Some good, some not as good, but…balance it against the harm done, and evaluate the alternatives again.
How bad things will have to get before we realize that we’re engaging in global insanity? How bad will it have to get before the collective cry of “enough is enough!” reaches critical volume? Will it happen at all? Will it happen before the little disasters add up to an inexorable tide of extinction?
Some days it’s hard to be an optimist.
Edit 10/3/2016 Someone wondering which SFF story had the dead black mollies in it came wandering past my little blog on their quest through the interwebz. Who’dathunkit?
So I should add here I’m pretty sure I found the name and author of the fish story here on Scifistackexchange
According to the entry there, the story is “And Us, Too, I Guess” by George Alec Effinger (1973). It’s in the Irrational Numbers anthology, and the start of it can be read on Google Books.