I don’t know anything about zombies, but I promise that I am not using the word just to increase my blog’s search rankings. It’s my kids who like zombies, and love forcing me to try things I am sure I will not like – gentle revenge for my forcing them to try new foods, new books, and new experiences from the minute they were born. I’m used to having pop culture forced on me. A teenage friend made me listen to her record collection, a college friend was determined that I would like (if not love) Bruce Springsteen. I think I should be able to draw the line at blood and gore (Dexter and zombies, to be specific), but Tom and Rachel do not agree. In the case of the TV series The Walking Dead, I’m glad.

Tom figured out that zombies have a social message and then found the perfect passage to get my attention:

The world we knew is gone.

The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility.

An epidemic of apocalyptic proportions has swept the globe causing the dead to rise and feed on the living.

In a matter of months society has crumbled, no government, no grocery stores, no mail delivery, no cable TV.

In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.

It comes from the cover of the graphic novels that The Walking Dead, now a hugely popular TV series, is based on, and although the split infinitive makes me cringe, I am fascinated by this line: “We are forced to finally start living.”

Tom was right. This fits perfectly into one of my big questions, How to live? It echoes a familiar worry, that in the pursuit of progress and wealth, physical comfort and technological advances, we have deadened ourselves. The search for purpose and for sensation, for meaning and feeling, can be seen in the rise of extreme sports and frenzied pursuit of celebrity, as well as in traditional sources like religion and mind-altering substances. One section of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land struck me the first time I read it:

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

My company once published a book called the Encyclopedia of Millenarianism and Millennial Movements. That’s when I learned how common it has been for humans and human societies to focus on the end of the world, and to hope for divine (or perhaps alien) intervention.

What can we learn from The Walking Dead, apocalyptic movies, and even from apocalyptic environmentalists?

Apocalyptic scenarios offer the possibility of a way out. Since I became an accidental environmentalist, by being commissioned to write Home Ecology, I’ve meet lots of people who live conventional lives, doing conventional jobs, who fully sympathize with and understand that we face critical environmental problems and need to make big changes. But they don’t themselves have the drive that leads people to start movements, join communes, renounce society. They choose instead to offer encouragement and support to those who will venture into new territory. I’ve had friends who encouraged me (and other activist types) to take risks and do unconventional things they would never do themselves – live on an intentional community, give up a city career, homeschool. Watching or reading about the zombie apocalypse offers similar vicarious experience and lets us imagine ourselves facing challenges far more dramatic and life-or-death than anything in our comfortable and predictable 21st-century way of life (which is far safer and more stable than anything experienced by human beings up till now).

the-walking-dead-comicThere are three aspects of life that stories like those in The Walking Dead that we want in our less-dramatic lives, and that I think we ought to be striving for as we think about the human future.

1. Focus. In disasters of any kind, life becomes simpler. We know what matters most to us personally (what we save in a fire or flood, whom we turn to and want to protect) and practical choices become far more obvious. Modern life is cluttered and distracting. Disasters and apocalypse are the ultimate call to simplify, and that can be powerfully attractive.

2. Feel. The lines from The Waste Land I quoted above are about commuters going into the City of London, where Eliot worked in a bank as a young man. We can think of a line of commuters into any city – the blank faces, the earbuds, the Angry Birds – and see just what he saw. Dull routine without passion or joy. Not so in apocalyptic situations: in them, life is lived with intensity and feeling, albeit because the chances are that “tomorrow we die.”

3. Connect. This last, of course, is community, the subject that my son knew would make me pay attention to The Walking Dead. Apocalyptic narratives present a powerful reminder that our human connections go far beyond anything that Facebook or Google+ offer, and remind me of a poem written some 500 years ago by John Donne (1572-1631), in English perhaps the most eloquent statement about community, in good times and bad:

No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main. . . .

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

Wide open spaces with dispersed bands of humans struggling for survival is also a characteristic of these stories, which makes me think that they show our imbedded desire, deep in our DNA, for the kind of community our earliest ancestors experienced. But modern urban and even rural life is very different from that, though the part of the United States I spend much of my time in offers a surprising sense of space. Back in January when Tom was visiting, we drove to Boston together to hear Caroline Reeves talk about philanthropy in China. It was early on a winter’s morning and the Mass Pike (the Massachusetts Turnpike, the main highway across the state) was almost empty. I didn’t think anything of this but Tom, used to crowded China, said, “You could film a zombie movie on this highway!”

Technology connects us in new ways (I’ve been Skyping with Tom in Beijing while writing this piece) but it also isolates us profoundly. It’s possible to live in the 21st century without any connection at all to our neighbors. But the answer isn’t cinematic catastrophe, whether zombies or aliens or climate change. Our charge, I think, is to meet those fundamental human needs – for focus, feeling, and community – without courting disaster. And there are simple ways to do so – starting with lifting our heads from the smartphone screen and nodding hullo to a stranger.

Thanks to Berkshire Publishing’s designer Anna Myers for finding my illustration for this posit. It is a Totentanz (dance of death) mural, which pairs the living and the dead. This particular mural was a multi-generational work spanning centuries, the first iteration done in 1463. The original mural was destroyed in the fire-bombing of Lübeck by the English during WWII. This image was restored by Alice Myers from black and white photographs of the panoramic one in the Marienkirche in the town of Lübeck for a multi-media presentation that you can read about at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6h0wU4pmojw.