"Doesn't the End of Nature also mean the End of Us?" one of my young writing students asks, echoing a fatalism that both frightens and compels the next generations.
I study this young man with his black hoodie sweatshirt, his brooding Twilight eyes. Tongue piercings and tattoos mark his rank in what sometimes seems like an army of aboriginal adolescents.
One tattoo -- two stylized bloody fang punctures on his neck -- illustrates his devotion to the Undead. His recent short story began, "I am a Vampire. I am the last of my kind."
How do we answer this question from a generation that has grown up with AIDS, ecological catastrophe and suicide bombers? A generation that is both environmentally savvy and despairing. A generation that weighs its future with an eye to extinction.
Google "human extinction" and in 10 seconds -- a geological blink of our species -- you'll see 7 million hits. "Human Extinction" now has its own Wikipedia page. There is even a Voluntary Human Extinction Movement proselytizing "Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth's biosphere to return to good health."
Do vampires ever breed the old-fashioned way? Without dying? I find myself wondering as I stall for time to respond to my student. Has he fallen in love yet? Does he ever want to be a father? Is vampirism a form of birth control?
Is this bleakness a simple coming-of-age phase? The way we Sixties youth believed love-ins and sit-ins and war protests would save the world? We sang, "What the world needs now is love." But the refrain now bookending Boomers sing, "What the world needs now is death." Or, is this real grief over what is about to be gone?
"Human extinction within 100 years warns scientist," declares a typical article. Professor Peter Barrett, of New Zealand University predicts in 2004 that if we do not change, ecological catastrophe and climate disasters will doom us by the end of the 21st century. In other words, stop sucking the Earth's blood.
Given such dire environmental predictions, how do we change? How do we nurture our next generations? As I gaze at my student's glossy Mohawk, I realize that his generation has already changed. In their imaginations, in their popular stories, in their expectations, they have died. Before they have really lived, they have declared themselves the Undead.
Perhaps they are practicing for our extinction. Or preparing.
Television and films offer teens an entertaining extinction primer: Looking for love in all the wrong places? Try the romance of Twilight. Keeping a diary of high school days? Take a note from The Vampire Diaries.
In this hot TV series, Mystic Falls High School proms and parties are populated with werewolves, vamps and witches. All of the super-human teens are sulky and beautiful. They're probably wearing "Urban Decay" make-up. They multi-task friendships and romantic alliances like channel surfing. They shift into vampires when aroused, hungry, or angry. Love bites can kill. But you won't die. Full moons call forth the wolves within -- who struggle not to become an endangered species.
Suddenly I remember teaching environmental conservation in an inner city middle school with its Weapons Free Zone posted everywhere. "I am an endangered species," a student informed me almost casually.
"Do you really think you're going to die out?" I asked the 12 year old.
"No," she answered. "It just feels that way."
Maybe this fascination with the Living Dead is a coping mechanism, a way of engaging their imaginations, given all the end-of-the-world predictions. If you already know what it feels like to be human (i.e., dead), then maybe you can shift species and live on forever. Perhaps it's just an adolescent form of the denial that drives all ages.
A successful YA literary agent, Jessica Sinsheimer, explains, "It's about eternal youth. Vampires aren't bound by laws of nature. They remain young, attractive, and nearly indestructible forever - they lead existences that are the opposite of the teenage state of threats from all directions."
My young student, like the Earth, feels threatened and perhaps all these vampire fantasies are early signs of ecological euthanasia. Is there an ecology that includes vampires in realistically facing our own extinction? Probably not.
But as long as we're using our imaginations, why not expand our story lines? Maybe in all of this apocalyptic fervor about the end of the Earth and us, we might try to imagine other futures for ourselves besides extinction. Now, that's entertainment! And I don't mean more reruns of True Blood.
At last I have an idea of what to tell my student. A pretty dark character, one might say of him. But I also happen to know that he is a serious musician. He is studying Bach's "Cello Suites" and secretly, he adores Glee.
I refer him to the Wikipedia "Human Extinction" site:
It is important to differentiate between human extinction and the extinction of life on Earth. Of possible extinction events, only a pandemic is selective enough to eliminate humanity while leaving the rest of complex life on earth relatively unscathed.
"Well, it may be the end of us," I tell him, "but the Earth will never end. Why don't you write a song about it?"
He takes this in. He purses his lips and the little silver rings give his expression a darkly comic glint. "Cool," he nods. "I can live with that."~
Brenda Peterson's 16th book, the new memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, is one of The Christian Science Monitor's Top 10 Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010. She is at work on a YA novel with no werewolves or vampires. www.IWantToBeLeftBehind.com
"Human Extinction within 100 years warns scientist," http://dc.indymedia.org/newswire/display/114245/index.php
The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement: http://www.vhemt.org/
Follow Brenda Peterson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BrendaSPeterson