The COVID-19 Response as a Dress Rehearsal for Dealing with Climate Change

How we ultimately respond to the coronavirus pandemic could tell us a lot about what will happen when the climate crisis hits in full force. (Photo Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Public domain)

If you think the ongoing global pandemic is bad, wait until I tell you our planet is hurtling toward an environmental disaster.

It’s been about two weeks or so since Americans across the United States have been hunkering down en masse to try to limit the spread of coronavirus, and in that time, numerous people have made the connection between confronting the wrath of COVID-19 and addressing the deleterious effects of climate change on our planet. In a recent piece for the Los Angeles Times, energy writer Sammy Roth outlines what a coronavirus-like response to the climate crisis would look like.

Roth’s article is not a strict explanation of what large-scale future intervention to tackle the climate emergency would entail, but rather a compendium of responses from activists, clean energy company executives, energy advisers, legal experts, organizers, researchers, and scientists. The following are some of the common observations made between the eight authorities surveyed for the piece:

Science is important

As it turns out, studying and working within scientific frameworks tends to lead to better outcomes because people tend to understand things. (Who knew!) It can’t be emphasized enough that listening to scientists and placing value on medical/scientific consensus is of critical value to our survival.

Much as epidemiologists had been sounding the alarm about the havoc a global pandemic could wreak prior to coronavirus becoming an imminent threat across the world, the vast majority of the scientific community has been sounding the alarm on climate change, warning that drastic action needs to be taken to avert a catastrophe, assuming anything we do now will be enough.

These people know their stuff, to put it mildly. It’s time to put them front and center in helping marshal an appropriate public response to looming disaster.

Emergency responses need to address systemic flaws, not just the symptoms

There are obvious clear and present dangers concerning COVID-19 and its symptoms. Older individuals are particularly vulnerable herein, but younger adults not only can be carriers, but can be killed outright as a result of infection. We’re talking 30s, 40s, and younger with no co-morbidities. In other words, even if you’re not a senior or an infant and in good health, you could die from this disease. It’s a sobering thought.

Even for those who haven’t been directly impacted by COVID-19’s ravages, however, the ripple effect is no less substantial. With widespread closures of businesses and public gatherings effected in attempts to “flatten the curve,” the economy has plunged into a tailspin, resulting in record numbers of Americans filing for unemployment and otherwise unable to meet their obligations, esp. on the medical and homeowner/rent side of things. Fears of recession are giving way to resignation that this is an inevitability.

Our coronavirus response, lacking as it has been, has laid bare the holes in the social safety net that have been visible as cracks leading up to this current precarious state. Accordingly, any substantive approach to handling the climate crisis must involve provisions like guaranteed paid sick leave, jobs, and livable wages for workers, not to mention affordable and reliable health care for all. In addition, and with high relevance to investment in “green” solutions to public dilemmas, infrastructure-based solutions to transportation and utilities shortfalls will be essential to meeting the needs of everyday people.

Act early and in solidarity

As of this writing, the United States is number one in presumptive COVID-19 cases in the world. That’s a rather dubious achievement and owes much to evidence Donald Trump and his administration were aware of the nature of the coronavirus threat and the potential scope of the problem as early as January but failed to act in deference to this forewarning. Reports suggest, moreover, that pandemic response protocols were either in place or suggested, but that President Trump and Co. ignored the risks and did not take the exercise seriously.

As Shane Skelton, former energy adviser to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan observes, “Confronting a crisis is far more difficult and expensive when it’s already on your doorstep.” Preventive measures will thus mitigate our losses, and following our reaction to the spread of coronavirus, he proposes that we use federal stimulus money to address shortcomings in clean energy infrastructure.

Alongside proactive measures to confront the climate crisis, the reality is that we’ll also need to work together to achieve ambitious goals. This includes young and old alike making lifestyle changes to benefit the other’s welfare, demanding policy with teeth from our lawmakers and other political figures, and pressuring industry leaders to commit to carbon taxing and other forms of remediation specifically designed to limit emissions and curb our reliance on non-renewable fuel sources and products.

As these past two weeks have illustrated through approval of trillions of dollars of stimulus spending by Congress and a loan injection into short-term markets by the Federal Reserve, what is lacking for progressive solutions to economic and societal problems to succeed is not the money to do so, but the political will. To the extent we can influence corporations and officials to act in the public interest, we are responsible too.


You might have guessed that while America’s theoretical climate change response might be modeled on how we’ve engaged the current global pandemic, the topics are more intertwined than we might otherwise realize.

As Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, a national organizer for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action cited in Sammy Roth’s article explains, a warmer planet is more conducive to the spread of disease, particularly because it makes Earth more hospitable to insects like mosquitoes that are known disease transmitters. In turn, a hotter planet with reduced air quality could force more people inside akin to what people are encouraged to do now to avoid spreading coronavirus. These matters are related.

The connection between infectious disease and climate change becomes all the more apparent when examining possible origins of novel coronavirus and its rapid proliferation across states, regions, and international lines. In a piece for CNN by Nick Paton Walsh and Vasco Cotovio, while bats are potentially a source for the coronavirus as pathogen carriers that possess specialized immune systems based on their level of activity, humans’ destruction of natural habitats and people spreading out and moving from place to place faster than ever have brought our species closer together, exposing us to diseases normally only found in bats or among other animal groups. Perhaps most significantly, infected bats may be more likely to shed viruses when they are stressed. This may occur in situations such as when they are hunted, their habitat is destroyed, or they are held captive in markets.

What does all this suggest, to Paton Walsh and Cotovio? Bats are not to blame for coronavirus. Humans are. By this token, we need to reassess how we care for our planet. Deforestation, exploitation of animal species, and faster travel have made life convenient in many respects for us, but these changes come at a cost. COVID-19 may be but the tip of the iceberg regarding the ill effects of climate change. Other infectious diseases may be just around the corner and harder to fight, at that.

Amid the world’s collective response to the global pandemic, there are signs of encouragement as well as reasons for concern. Sure, our self-consciousness is high now and platitudes conveying the notion “we are all in this together” are pervasive. What happens when things return to relative normalcy, though? And what about the bad actors undeterred by apocalyptic conditions? The Trump administration has used the current emergency as a pretext for further rolling back environmental protections and for moving ahead with slashing CDC funding once more. If how America handles the climate crisis in the coming years is anything like how it’s dealing with coronavirus, we may be in for a world of trouble.

Clearly, political leadership at various levels of government will have to accept responsibility for ensuring Earth is habitable for decades to come and longer, and that includes holding countries and corporations liable for putting profit over the public welfare. We have a say in this, too, however, and not just with respect to whom we vote for, though that is significant.

As it must be stressed, few would or should wish a plague like COVID-19 on the world’s population. In rising to this challenge, on the other hand, we can observe the clear silver lining to be found: that we might be better prepared to do so the next time, when it counts even more. Some data obtained from this early quarantining points to a reduction in emissions as a direct result of behavioral changes. Let’s hope more of us make this connection and that it jump-starts a movement to foster a more equitable and sustainable world for all.

Of Course the Coronavirus Pandemic is Political

SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is affecting people regardless of country or origin and political affiliation. If you think our response to it shouldn’t be politicized, though, you don’t realize how politicized it already is. (Image Credit: NAIAD/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

I’m not sure if you realized, but there’s some sort of virus going around.

By now, unless you’re living under a rock, you understand that COVID-19, a disease caused by the SARS/coronavirus 2 virus strain, is a global pandemic (and even if you do live under a rock, you might want to get tested if you can afford it). According to the Center for Disease Control, fever, cough, and shortness of breath are common symptoms.

As of March 12, the World Health Organization has confirmed over 125,000 cases of coronavirus disease, with upwards of 4,500 deaths across more than 100 countries, regions, and territories worldwide. What’s worse, as numerous authorities on the subject matter have emphasized, these numbers represent only what is known.

Depending on the availability of testing, those showing symptoms or suspecting they might have the disease after being in contact with people who have tested positive might not be able to confirm they’ve contracted it. Plus, there are those who may be asymptomatic but are still carriers of the disease. Regardless, the tallies stand to get much higher and the scope of the problem much worse.

In no uncertain terms, then, this is serious business and not, as some have suggested, a “hoax” or some elaborate conspiracy designed to bring down President Donald Trump. On that note, if anyone or anything can make Trump’s legitimacy as a leader seem questionable, it’s Trump himself.

It is painfully apparent that Trump and his administration are woefully unprepared for a health emergency of this magnitude. The president has repeatedly undercut his own advisers and medical professionals on the facts surrounding COVID-19, suggesting that a vaccine is nearing availability when the actual timeline points to such an intervention being a year or more away. Trump also has downplayed the gravity of the moment, opining that this coronavirus threat will be gone by April in concert with a rise in temperatures, despite having no evidence that the virus will be susceptible to warmer weather and otherwise failing to appreciate the notion that this strain could return in full force when the weather gets colder again.

Clearly, the United States’s response thus far is indicative of the disorganization and flippant self-servingness of its highest officeholder. For one, the Trump administration disbanded its global health security team after the sudden departure of Timothy Ziemer, the official designated as the country’s leader in the event of a pandemic. Trump has also authorized cuts to the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Security Council, organizations which all play a role in helping the government respond to a major health crisis. If this weren’t bad enough, in its proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, the White House has outlined further cuts to the CDC and, at this juncture, is sticking to its guns. You know, because we’re not having enough fun as it is.

Given every chance to seem remotely presidential, Trump has severely botched this aspect. From the first mention of COVID-19 as a “foreign virus” that “started in China” in his Oval Office address on the coronavirus disease, the xenophobic overtones and influence of Stephen “Richard Spencer Is My Homeboy” Miller were unmistakable. The haphazard announcement of a 30-day travel ban on most trips from Europe to the United States, aided by Trump’s inability to read a teleprompter because the man won’t admit he needs glasses, is also of questionable utility given that there are already so many cases here.

Speaking of confirmed cases, America faces a shortfall of available testing for the coronavirus, in large part because the Trump administration sought to drag its feet on its response so as to fudge the numbers and not make the president look bad. Instead of using the lag in the proliferation of the virus following its earliest reports from China, whose own initial response to the outbreak deserves admonishment, the Trump administration squandered that time, blaming, of all people, Barack Obama for this mess. Seriously, is there nothing Trump won’t blame Obama for?

In sum and to put it mildly, there’s a lot of noise and disinformation surrounding COVID-19 in America right now. I certainly don’t wish to add to it. More narrowly, though, I’d like to highlight the attitudes of Americans across the political spectrum in relation to coronavirus right now.

As one might expect, there are umpteen refrains from armchair political analysts and professional pundits alike that this health emergency isn’t political. We’re all affected by it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re from China or the United States or Italy or the United Kingdom or South Korea or Iran or what-have-you. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate and the loss of life and livelihood as a byproduct of this crisis are regrettable independent of where you live, what you look like, or how much money you have or make.

By the same token, as with calls for civility in a political climate marked by dramatic polarization and online interactions that often veer into the realm of personal attacks, abuse, death threats, and doxxing, these pleas are only as good as the intent of the person making them. Notions of “we’re all in this together,” made in good faith, are valuable and inspiring because they evidence a recognition that this pandemic is one we have the ability to address, particularly by working with one another and rejecting the distinctions and principles that might normally divide us. As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Pledges of unity are therefore double-edged swords, and when wielded in bad faith, serve only to silence conversations we need to be having, especially on behalf of members of marginalized groups. Defenders of President Trump are quick to hide behind the sentiment that in this time of communal suffering, we should put aside our criticisms of one another in service of a common goal in fighting COVID-19.

Discourse restricted in this way, though, deflects blame where blame should be assigned. The Trump administration’s actions and verbiage heretofore have been shameful. We are behind the curve on coronavirus testing and COVID-19 amelioration as a direct result of the president’s deliberate inaction and counterproductive rhetoric designed not to negatively impact the stock market and not make him look weak by proxy. As recent market plunges the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades manifest, meanwhile, we obviously have already crossed that bridge. With every new cancellation or shutdown and with the market gains accrued during Trump’s tenure effectively erased, now is the right time to scrutinize his job performance. It is in the crucible of an event like a global pandemic that we arguably can best judge a leader’s ability and temperament. Trump is failing this test miserably.

The fact of the matter is we’ve heard this kind of politically-motivated inertia before and it’s no less depressing. In the wake of innumerable mass shootings, America has yet to make substantive progress regarding gun control, even as far as the most basic reforms which most Americans agree on (e.g. universal background checks) go. To dismiss desires of Americans on the left, on the right, and everywhere in between to hold Trump accountable for his poor handling of the COVID-19 threat is to make eerily similar arguments against progress merely to cling to an ideology and to ignore the reality of the circumstances at hand.

Bringing former president Barack Obama back into this to illustrate a point, if he were primarily responsible for the systemic failure of our government to address coronavirus, he would be roundly criticized on FOX News and elsewhere in conservative circles for the quality of his administration’s response. Hell, the man once caught flak for using Dijon mustard on his burger. If the roles were reversed, do you have any doubt Obama would be lambasted by Americans from coast to coast? Trump seemingly gets a pass from some because he, under normal circumstances, screws things up and lies about it. It’s not that funny normally, however, and it’s certainly not a laughing matter now. It’s quite literally life or death.

Accordingly, it’s fair to make discourse about America’s response to the spread of COVID-19 political in nature because it already is inextricably linked to politics. Most of our world is, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. In our own daily lives, we wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) expect to get away with things because of our political affiliation or a particular agenda. The same applies to Donald Trump and exceedingly so given that he willingly signed up for the task of leading the country.


In their own addresses on coronavirus after President Trump’s debacle, Democratic Party presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders drew a marked contrast to their potential general election opponent by treating the occasion with the solemnity and measure it deserves.

On his campaign website and in his public remarks, Biden has emphasized the need for “decisive” public health and economic responses to the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting the importance of “trust, credibility, and common purpose” as well as “leadership grounded in science.” He has advocated for free and available testing; the creation of mobile and drive-thru testing sites and temporary hospitals; activating the Medical Reserve Corps; accelerating the production of medicines, tests, and vaccines; allocating resources for health and emergency services workers, including overtime reimbursements; ensuring paid leave for workers and reimbursements to employers; expanding unemployment insurance, employment relief, food relief, medical assistance, loans to small- and medium-sized businesses, child care, mortgage and student loan relief/forbearance, and union health funds; and other forms of mediation. It’s a rather detailed plan.

As for Sanders, he also was highly critical of the Trump administration in his address, stressing the urgency for declaring a national emergency (which Trump has since declared); convening a bipartisan coalition of experts to lead the coronavirus response; and caring for communities most vulnerable to COVID-19, notably nursing home residents/rehabilitation patients, immigration center detainees, and the incarcerated. Like Biden, he supports free testing for coronavirus as well as free vaccines when available.

Sanders too examined the need for funding for paid family and medical leave; expanding community health centers; facilitating private- and public-sector cooperation to ensure the availability of ICU units, medical professionals, and ventilators; establishing safeguards against price gouging, especially with respect to the pharmaceutical industry; augmenting unemployment insurance for employees and independent contractors alike, food assistance programs, and emergency loans to businesses; and placing a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs, among other things. As with Biden, there are policy specifics aplenty to be appreciated herein.

For both candidates, the proposed coronavirus response is much more developed than anything the Trump administration has or likely can come up with. As always, “better than Trump” is a low bar to clear. An important distinction to be found between the two, meanwhile, is in the call for structural reforms, the importance of which is magnified by the severity of the problems the United States and the world currently face. Regarding access to high-quality health care for all Americans, the expansion of public programs to meet the need at this juncture is evocative of Medicare for All, an idea certainly not lost on Bernie’s supporters.

The Federal Reserve’s move to inject $1.5 trillion into the markets to fight “highly unusual disruptions” related to coronavirus also eats away at the professed concerns about cost that Sanders’s opponents have used to try to discredit him. What is evidently lacking is not the ability to meet these costs, but rather the political will. As Sen. Sanders tweeted in response to the Fed’s decision, “When we say it’s time to provide health care to all our people, we’re told we can’t afford it. But if the stock market is in trouble, no problem! The government can just hand out $1.5 trillion to calm bankers on Wall Street.” Critics of the backlash to this intervention say it is unfair to call this a “bailout,” but it’s hard to view this as anything but socialism for the rich and for Wall Street speculators.

Following a string of disappointing primary losses on consecutive Tuesdays, Bernie faces an uphill battle in capturing the Democratic Party presidential nomination. While I wouldn’t wish COVID-19 on anyone, though, it draws attention to the necessity of providing health care to everyone as a right as well as the sheer absurdity of saying we can’t pay for things like the cancellation of student debt when we can provide the markets over a trillion dollars in cash infusions with a snap of our fingers.

So, electoral prospects be damned: Bernie Sanders is right on these issues and deserves to continue his campaign as long as he can shine a light on the problems we face as a nation and will face even when we can reasonably say coronavirus has been contained. Here’s hoping he hammers this point home in this weekend’s debate with Joe Biden.

Sorry to get political there.

Bring on the Apocalypse?

160322_slatest_trumpocalypsepromo011-jpg-crop-cq5dam_web_1280_1280_jpeg
Slate’s Trump Apocalypse Watch, at full Four Horsemen. (Illustration Credit: Slate; Photo Credits: Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of people worried about the eventual outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election—and by proxy, the fate of the country and of the free world—have contemplated all sorts of doom-and-gloom scenarios should Donald Trump, despite his best efforts, actually win this damn thing. The publication Slate has even taken to measuring Trump’s likelihood of winning amid their tracking of his more reprehensible moments, gauging this probability in the form of zero to four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as part of a daily Trump Apocalypse Watch. This is a joking allusion to the end of the world as we know it, but some folks are legitimately concerned that Donald Trump in a position of immense power could lead to World War III, a nuclear holocaust, or some other Earth-shattering event.

It’s not an entirely unreasonable prediction either, given Trump’s apparent nonchalance in, say, arming Japan with nuclear weapons, a country devastated in World War II from the dropping of two atomic bombs, to scare a nearby threat like North Korea. Or the revelation during the Republican presidential debates that Trump had no idea what the nuclear triad is, which was a pretty disturbing revelation for a man who might be given the proverbial keys to the castle if all goes poorly. Then again, there are warnings from outside America that nuclear war is a threat should Donald Trump not win, specifically from the person of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Russian lawmaker, nationalist, and ally of Vladimir Putin. Of course, both he and Donald Trump are known to be blowhards, but in a weird way, some might find comfort in the notion we’re f**ked no matter how we might slice it.

Speaking of the apocalypse and taking solace in our imminent destruction, the end-of-the-world motif seems to be a prevalent one in today’s popular media. The Walking Dead, a show so successful its spin-off is set to air its third season in 2017, is nearing its Season 7 premiere. Earlier this year, Independence Day: Resurgence threatened the Earth once more with alien invasion—and movie critics promptly alerted audiences with roundly negative reviews. Alternative rockers R.E.M., apparently, have long been predicting the apocalypse, and perhaps most disturbingly, seem to be perfectly accepting of such an outcome. I’m sure you can readily come up with any number of examples yourself, but suffice it to say there are plenty of ways in which creative types in and out of Hollywood have envisioned our demise at the hands of some awesome force. A listing of some of the theoretical means of humanity’s destruction:

Alien invasion

As movies like Independence Day and stories like H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds have suggested, intelligent life exists elsewhere than just Earth, and upon reaching our skies, extraterrestrials have one idea in mind: enslaving the human race and taking over the planet. According to this theory, the invaders, undoubtedly possessing superior technology by which to get to our solar system in the first place, are able to use their ships and weapons to abduct, zap and otherwise put a hurting on humankind.

I personally have two problems with this kind of story. First of all, it’s perhaps a little cynical to assume that beings from another galaxy would necessarily want to colonize us and tear shit up. First contact, as envisioned in the Star Trek universe, depicts a far more diplomatic set of circumstances, and as a viewer of a number of episodes of The Next Generation, I appreciate how deep the writing is in creating a world that is a mirror of ours and yet distinct and rich with interpersonal and political relationships. In other words, it wouldn’t be a given that visitors from beyond would be hostile. In addition, and maybe here I’m being too cynical, but perhaps would-be usurpers of our planet, upon seeing what havoc we’ve wrought in an environmental sense, might just think twice about taking over our little blue orb. Um, no, that’s OK, Earthlings. You keep your world. The polar ice caps have already started melting. It’s damaged goods now.

Global pandemic

It’s all fun and games until some super-virus overruns the planet, leading to martial law, quarantine zones and the breakdown of the kind of order to which we are accustomed. Take your pick as to what kind of disease threatens to ravage the Earth’s population. There’s the sort faced in Outbreak, in which a deadly airborne virus brought into the States by a smuggled African monkey causes a panic to ensue. A variation of the theme is found in the world of 28 Days Later, where some sort of blood rage virus spreads like wildfire across the world’s regions and turns people into bloodthirsty savages. So, um, it’s sort of like the behavior observed at Trump rallies. Blindness, Contagion, Quarantine—if there’s a way to decimate our numbers via infection, movies and TV will find a way to do it.

That plots involving the threat of a bug powerful enough to bring Earth to its knees are relatively frequent suggests an underlying belief that such a scenario could unfold in the real world. Indeed, according to a 2006 TED Talk with Larry Brilliant, nine out of 10 epidemiologists (yes, apparently that’s a thing) believe a pandemic is “fairly likely” in their children’s or grandchildren’s time, owing to factors such as global population size, the centralization of life on much of our planet, and our increased interconnection and ability to travel considerable distances in a short amount of time (and spread germs all along the way). Add to this the notion that there are “superbugs” in parts of the world that are resistant to most, if not all, antibiotics, and you have a potentially worrisome situation on your hands. I’m not saying we should all be getting bomb shelters or bubbles ready preemptively, but it’s something to think about. Oh, and lighten up on the hand sanitizer, would you? There is such a thing as too much, especially when it might be contributing to anti-microbial resistance. I know—you just bought that family-size bottle of Purell, too.

Natural disaster

As Robert Frost wrote in his iconic poem “Fire and Ice”:

Some say the world will end in fire
Some say in ice
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Frost’s poetic voice, speaking metaphorically, envisions the world ending by fire (desire) or ice (hate), but in terms of disaster movies, this could manifest more literally in cascades of fire and lava (e.g. Dante’s Peak, Volcano) or severe ice storms and freezing (e.g. The Day After Tomorrow). Then again, there are always those apocalyptic visions which recall popular diluvian myth (e.g. Waterworld) or, well, death by sharknado (hey, it could happen!). I’m not sure what to make of the apparent appeal of these types of films. Filmmakers, and by proxy, movie audiences, evidently have a hard-on for watching monuments like the Statue of Liberty get torn asunder, or quite simply, witnessing the raw power of nature, even when taken to absurd extremes.

In the case of a global “superstorm” or great flood, meanwhile, there is a subtext which invokes the ever-present threat of global warming—unless you are a member of the GOP. Should we regard these fictional cataclysmic events as a portent of what faces our planet should we fail to heed Mother Nature’s stern warnings? A call to action for the preservation of our natural resources and of what’s left of the Earth’s atmosphere? Hmm, this is Hollywood we’re talking about here. Perhaps I’ve overthought this. I’ll shut up and watch the destruction, slack-jawed, now.

Plant uprising

SPOILER ALERT: this was what was behind everyone killing themselves in The Happening. Now I’ve saved you the trouble of having to watch this terrible M. Night Shyamalan offering. (Side note: if you’re familiar with the premise of the film, which element requires the greater suspension of disbelief—the flora of the Earth releasing neurotoxins in an attempt to rid the planet of destructive human beings, or Mark Wahlberg playing a high school science teacher? Discuss.)

Robot uprising

Maximum Overdrive: chilling prelude to our future, or chillingly bad piece of cinema? Both, perhaps? Stephen King’s one and only directorial feature is not the only work of art (and I’m being generous here) that imagines a world in which the machines have become self-aware, have taken umbrage to being used as tools by humans, and have reversed the script to enslave our race and become our overlords. Battlestar Galactica, Dune, I, Robot, The Matrix, Terminator—take your pick as to which parable of the dangers of artificial intelligence gone awry you find most appealing. With Isaac Asimov’s work in particular, the Three Laws of Robotics are proposed to bring about a set of conditions whereby machines afforded some degree of artificial intelligence could disobey the orders given them by humans or even harm individual humans for the sake of the greater good. Of course, this presumes a robot would be able to discern what is good for humanity and what is not, a task that is made difficult by virtue of “humanity” being an abstract concept. If it’s hard for us as emotional beings to decide, it’s enough to make a robot explode.

Lest we think that this is all much ado about nothing, and that the architects of artificial intelligence would be keen enough to limit robots’ capabilities or otherwise install a failsafe so they could be stopped should they try to take over the world, numerous prominent figures in the science and technology communities have warned of the potential perils of an effective AI coup, including Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. (Pshaw! Like they know anything!) It’s a tricky topic indeed, for while the benefits of artificial intelligence are manifold, expansion without the requisite safeguards is risky. Sure, it sounds like a remote possibility now, but don’t come crying to me when you’re eating Tasty Wheat aboard the Nebuchadnezzar!

Rogue asteroid

With the all comings and goings of bodies and particles in our galaxy, it would seem a matter of time or a byproduct of the law of averages that some hunk of burning rock would find its way into Earth’s atmosphere—and not just your run-of-the-mill meteor either. We’re talking some Deep Impact or Armageddon shit here. It’s a scary notion, and one that is particularly frightening if we stop to consider just how bad the acting in Armageddon actually was. In theory, we have the technology to avoid an extinction-level event from a near-Earth object, be it using nuclear weaponry to divert a celestial body, a sizable enough spacecraft to draw away an astronomical threat through the force of gravity, or by some other means.

Still, much depends on scientists’ ability to spot an asteroid or meteor on a collision course with the planet. Recall the near-miss that occurred in 2013 when an asteroid blew up in the sky in 2013 over Chelyabinsk, Siberia, Russia—and relatively speaking, that one was small. Even if we watch the skies constantly, there is the real possibility we could end up like the dinosaurs based on some hot rock the universe slingshots our way. And unless B.D. Wong and the rest of his staff can bring us back à la Jurassic Park, we’d be in a heaping help of trouble. Hold on to your butts, Planet Earth.

Zombie apocalypse

Ah, yes. The zombie apocalypse. This may be highly correlative with the occurrence of a global pandemic (how else to explain the zombification of the majority of the Earth’s population?), but here, we’re concerned with the end result that manifests in hordes of people—well, at least they were people—shuffling from place to place, looking for human or other flesh on which to feed. They have no emotion. They have no desire—other than, of course, their lust for your brains, and even that would appear to be mere impulse, mediated by whatever force is keeping them alive. So, yeah, like I said, just think of your average Trump rally. OK, OK, I’ll stop using that joke. Trump supporters have brains and emotions. It just so happens the candidate they support may not have a soul, but that’s another story.


the-walking-dead-promo-zombies-1
Zombies from “The Walking Dead,” or Trump rally? You be the judge. (Photo retrieved from srcdn.com.)

It helps that “zombie” starts with a Z, all but guaranteeing any discourse on the zombie apocalypse would come last in a compendium of the various ways human life on this planet may cease to be. This notwithstanding, I would be wont to talk about the zombie apocalypse as my ultimate entry anyway, owing to the massive popularity of this genre. As noted, there are a slew of movies that have been released and continue to be made, ensuring simulated blood, brains and guts will continue to be spilled for the foreseeable future, not to mention The Walking Dead and its spin-off series once more, as well as zombie fiction in the literary sense. Heck, there are even periodic “zombie walk” events throughout the country, including an annual walk of some prominence in my home state. And I’m sure the living dead will be a go-to costume choice this Halloween. The abstract concept of the zombie is a cultural icon in the United States.

But why exactly? After enumerating potential causes of human extinction, and outlining just some of the ways our apparent collective zombie fetish has been realized, this is my fundamental question. After all, zombies are not the sexiest of mythological creatures to be found in popular lore. Vampires, before or perhaps even after they drain you of blood, play a seduction game. If the True Blood series, based on the Southern Vampire Mysteries book series penned by Charlaine Harris, is any indication, when vampires are not primarily motivated by blood lust, they’re guided by, well, plain old lust. Zombies, meanwhile, don’t really have a sex drive. It’s all stagger, bite, rinse, repeat. Besides, even if there were to be a situation by which to be intimate with a representative of the undead, and not merely to be graphic, but there would be concerns about decomposition or failures of the zombie’s anatomical integrity during the act. Not to mention questions of what could qualify as “consent” in that case. Do zombies have rights as reanimated people? In the absence of courts, does this pondering about civil liberties even have merit? These are the kinds of things I think about. Late at night. By myself. All alone.

Ahem, let’s get back to the matter at hand. Nicholas Barber, writing for BBC News, in 2014 authored a piece on why zombies are so gosh darn marketable these days, and traced the origins of modern-day zombie lore and the spiritual genesis of works like Night of the Living Dead, the godfather, if you will, of the zombie flick, and World War Z, based on the book by Max Brooks, which had a big opening at the box office. As Brooks and George Romero would explain, there is a psychic and metaphorical dimension to the threat of a zombie apocalypse. Think about the context of each creative work. Romero remarked about his breakthrough film that its screenplay was crafted within the framework of “a good deal of anger, mostly that the Sixties didn’t work.” This is to say that conformity to societal norms, aspired to without reason and with a mind to utterly destroy those elements which do not fit neatly into overall puzzle, is a dangerous force. Flash forward to the 2010’s, and Max Brooks echoes many of the same sentiments. As he is quoted in Barber’s essay:

We’re living in very uncertain times. People have a lot of anxiety about the future. They’re constantly being battered with these very scary, very global catastrophes. I think a lot of people think the system is breaking down and just like the 1970s, people need a ‘safe place’ to explore their apocalyptic worries. They can’t read stories about real plagues or nuclear war. That’s too scary. That’ll make them turn away. Zombie stories give people the opportunity to witness the end of the world they’ve been secretly wondering about while, at the same time, allowing themselves to sleep at night because the catalyst of that end is fictional.

Indeed, the likelihood of a zombie apocalypse, logistically speaking, is fairly low, which lends itself to zombie stories being part of an escapist horror sub-genre. I do tend to sympathize with the notion that fear about an uncertain future and vague notions about humanity’s destructive capabilities do probably factor into the connection so many of us have with The Walking Dead et al. By the same token, though, I think a smaller but not insignificant cadre of followers of zombie fiction appreciate it not from a sense of overwhelming dread and having to watch like a rubbernecker looking at a car crash, but more as individuals secretly wishing for it to happen. You probably have one or more people you know convinced he or she could not only survive, but thrive, in the zombie apocalypse.

I tend to think this is easier said than done, and that a certain degree of underestimation of the danger zombies present is inherent in this line of thinking, and/or an overestimation of one’s personal abilities. In isolation, the living dead, because of their slow rate of motion, singularity of purpose leading to lack of nuance in strategy, and their corporeal instability, are theoretically easy to resist. When hordes of the undead rain down on you, however, the sheer mass of decaying flesh and gnashing teeth substantially increase the probability one stands to be bit and infected, or otherwise dismembered by the crowd. It’s as with bees or wasps. One bee? Barring a moderate to severe allergy, not a problem, even if you do happen to get stung. Should you upset the whole hive, however? Now it’s a bigger deal.

Besides this reality—if I may even use such a word—there is also the psychological and emotional realization that comes with most of who and what you love being gone, not to mention the bleakness of a post-apocalyptic world and the unending drone of swaths of zombies moaning and dragging along the Earth. I recently had a conversation with someone about whether or not we would survive the zombie apocalypse, and both of us were less than optimistic about our fates. I submitted that physically, my general awkwardness and state of being woefully out of shape would likely doom me, but the person with whom I shared this dialog opined that she wouldn’t be able to stand the grimness of it all, and would probably end things on her terms in that event. So, for all of you folks jazzed up about the end of the world, um, consider it might not end up as all that it’s cracked up to be.

Moreover, still concerning the mindset of those who invite the apocalypse, perhaps there is also some yearning for a simpler existence, and arguments about the virtues of a simpler existence versus the rewards of being able to live in a world replete with amenities are duly noted here. In the zombie apocalypse, there are no cell phones. There are no work deadlines. There is no waiting in line at the DMV. Your only obligations are to stay alive and to keep as many people in your camp alive as long as possible. Bleak? Sure. But there’s also a clarity and singularity of purpose in this scenario. Get the zombies before they get you. And who are you anyway in this new post-apocalyptic world? Well, that’s up to you, isn’t it? Before the apocalypse, you were a mild-mannered retail worker. After the apocalypse? You’re one of the world’s foremost zombie killers! Shit, yeah! I can see the appeal. It’s a chance to start over again, in a world that itself is starting over in a strange way. It’s a chance to go back. A chance to make America great again.

Wait, what? We started with Donald Trump causing the apocalypse, and now we’ve come full circle in discussing why people might wish for the end of the world as a means of a rebirth of sorts? What’s the connection here? Among the Trump supporters who haven’t been duped by the real estate magnate into believing he can fix the economy because he has lied, cheated and stolen his way through his career and celebrity, there are those who are taken with his notion of bringing this country back to a “better” time. Looking back through the right glasses, things tend to appear that much rosier. Back then, life was simpler. As in the zombie apocalypse, there were no smart phones. There was no such thing as ISIS. There was no Black Lives Matter. No one talked about climate change. Men were men, women were women—there was none of this “transgender” nonsense. Life was, well, simpler. Wasn’t it?

See, that’s the thing about nostalgia. At the very heart of the word, it’s bittersweet. There is the return home—the nóst—represented by our desire to return to a happier time full of success and one that makes us feel at ease, but then also the algia, the pains of realization that we will never get back to that revered age. With Donald Trump and his supporters, there is a sense of nostalgia for a quieter time when people didn’t talk about their feelings, or have facts and figures at their fingertips. When political correctness wasn’t a necessity. When more people spoke English. When white folks didn’t feel like they had to apologize for that fact, and nobody railed about “institutional racism” and privilege. It was better then, right?

Better for whom, exactly? For everyone who waxes poetic about the “good old days,” consider that a lot of the problems we face in 2016 were there decades ago. We just talked about them less or hid them more. And the world we once knew? Like an Earth populated by the walking dead, it’s not coming back. It’s changing. People are changing. Their bodies, their faces, their minds. It’s scary. Change often is. But there’s a choice to be made. You can stubbornly stand against the tidal waves of change and hope not to be knocked over, or you can get on board the boat of togetherness and ride those waves to shore. Either way, it’s a rocky journey, but I believe there’s a right and a wrong “side” to be on, if you will. And I, for one, would rather be on the boat than rooted on the shore trying to push those waves back from where they came.

If Donald Trump does somehow become President of the United States, the world would, in all likelihood, not end, but it stands to put us on a dangerous track of mindless conformity for the sake of some vague nationalist agenda. Like the zombies of popular lore, we’d be ambling along, on a drive to consume everything in our path. AMERICA IS #1! F**K THEM FOREIGNERS! LET’S BLOW THE SHIT OUT OF THOSE AY-RABS! Sure, we might not be thirsting for literal human brains, but I’m sure George A. Romero, for one, has seen this movie before.