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The Desired Apocalypse

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There's something weirdly appealing about the post-apocalyptic vision. It started with Alan Wiesman's The World Without Us, the gentle disappearance of all humanity on earth, replaced by a flowering New York. It wasn't long before sketches of the post-humanity city appeared in New York Magazine, the focus of a promotion for I Am Legend. The post-apocalyptic city picture became a genre; Tokyo Genso's post-apocalyptic Tokyo went viral, while the post-apocalyptic city pic became a photoshop tutorial. Art took on the post-apocalypse, with Swoon's Swimming Cities of Serenissima invading the Biannalle. Serious books filled the Alan Weisman niche, with Bill McKibben's Eaarth painting a different earth for us to live on, while James Howard Kunstler's new much-publicized critique of humanity, Too Much Magic, predicts peak oil, the death of the automobile and the fall of the global economy as we know it.

Of course, the strangest thing about this post-apocalyptic obsession is that the post-apocalypses we see are almost always beautiful. Kunstler predicts the repopulation of quaint old ports like Troy, New York, as the riverboat and rail trade revive. In his post-apocalypse, the beautiful buildings will be saved, while the strip malls and superhighways will fall. And indeed, there is more than a tinge of romanticism in many of these visions; some combination of Burning Man-style, radical self-reliance and the slow show of the old steamboat culture, before iPhones and the 24-hour election cycle.

In many ways, this is reminiscent of the culture that spawned the Whole Earth Catalog: late '60s conviction that society was on the verge of collapse, combined with a liberal, oddly techno-utopian sentiment that this didn't have to be so bad; we could isolate ourselves from the ugly world and build our own farmsteads of geodesic domes. It's an odd kind of wishful thinking, to fantasize the beauty of a slower world while at the same time trusting technology to forestall the true, ugly disasters of the traditional post-apocalypse: disease, lacking sanitation, mass famine. A clean slate is always romantic, after all, and it's lovely to think of a world where electronic isolation and a scenic train trip are more than just decadence. But there's a hypocrisy to Kunstler's charge that we're a society more mired in fantasy than reality, when the art that surrounds his post-apocalyptic world plays off precisely our desire to envision ourselves in a world other than the real.