It is time to embrace extinction!
On first blush, this idea might sound terrifying and extremist. However, when I say, “it is time to embrace extinction,” I don’t mean we should sit down and passively watch as species—possibly including ourselves—are whisked away in what many are considering to be the sixth great mass extinction. Rather, what I mean is a concept put forth by Sarah E. McFarland in Ecocollapse Fiction and Culture of Human Extinction.
McFarland argues that reading stories about human extinction can result in “empathetic intelligibility.” Essentially, these stories allow us to play out our potential extinction in order to better engender empathy toward ourselves, the people around us, and other species. As a result, these stories provide us a space to address the sense of loss that comes with contagion and climate crises.
Interestingly, this is where zombies are important.
The Last of Us
For example, Neil Druckmann’s 2013 videogame The Last of Us has several moments that fit within McFarland’s concept of embracing extinction.
For those unfamiliar with The Last of Us, it is a zombie videogame that takes place twenty years after the initial zombie outbreak. It follows Joel as he seeks to deliver an immune Ellie to a group called the Fireflies. The Fireflies claim they can synthesize a cure from Ellie’s immunity. The game is largely about the developing bond between Joel and Ellie as they battle zombies and make their way across the infested American landscape.
In one scene, Joel and Ellie are in the midst of an abandoned city when they come upon a herd of giraffes, peacefully munching on the new growth that has overtaken the landscape. These animals are from the long abandoned local zoo, of course. Instead of fighting, the player (playing as Joel during this time) is meant to calmly pet the giraffes. Instead of feeling sympathy at the presumable end of the giraffes, the player is meant to admire their peaceful existence in an apocalyptic landscape. Instead of noticing the loss of human inhabitants in the city, the player is meant to acknowledge how human absence leads to the thriving of other species. It is a moment where one can embrace extinction in multiple capacities.
While zombie narratives always already strive to embrace extinction, many tend to fall prey to our ideologies of hope—the idea that in the final moments, someone or something will save us.
Overcoming Hopeful Imperatives
Hope is a large part of what drives our individualist, survivalist frameworks and therefore stands in the way of developing the necessary empathetic intelligence that is part of embracing extinction.
What I mean is that the focus on what “I” want and need, especially in times when I feel threatened, results in a lack of empathy (consider the hoarding of toilet paper during the early weeks of Covid-19). The hope that someone, somewhere will save us from the lack of toilet paper means that I can eschew the responsibility of hoarding less or giving up my own.
This hope is not only unrealistic (especially when we look at zombie narratives where the survivors often don’t make it in the end), but it is detrimental in its idealism. It means we resist acknowledging that we may be part of a mass extinction event—we hope our eventual extinction is not true. Therefore, we neglect to focus on our current impacts on the environment, which consequently might actually mitigate our eventual extinction. We hope too much and therefore neglect to take into consideration the benefits of embracing extinction.
Mobilizing our Zombie Narratives
At the beginning of this year, I wrote “We need zombies now more than ever,” where I promised to address a question put forth by my colleague Michael Cameron in his piece, “Revisiting our fascination with disaster.” Cameron asks, “How do we mobilize the dystopian products of our imaginations toward the achievement of utopian ends?” and I briefly asserted, “that we should consume (so to speak) more zombie narratives!” I would like to answer this question by pointing out the possibilities put forth in these narratives, such as the value of embracing extinction. These narratives provide us with concepts, tools, and ideologies that can aid us in better understanding how to live with contagion, climate crises, and so on.
After a year of following along with me while we consumed many zombie narratives, I would like to think that you can now better mobilize “dystopian products”—both with and without zombies—toward some sort of “utopian ends.”