Exactly what’s going to bring the world as we know it to its knees? Assuming humanity doesn’t succumb to a coma from too much Guitar Hero or too many Wii video games, I obsess about two _Mad Max–like scenarios. The first is total environmental collapse. Most likely this will come to pass through global warming, which will so radically reconfigure the earth’s habitat and natural resources that war and food shortages will lead to mass disease, death, and destruction. The other environmental route to collapse is one caused not by global warming (at least not directly), but rather some other already-lit fuse.
Consider the hardworking honeybee. This small but essential insect, which is responsible for fertilizing 90 different farm-grown foods, is mysteriously fading away. When you realize the implications, your stomach begins to tighten. Well, mine does. Say good-bye to food as we know it. It turns out that fruits and nuts, as well as certain grains, like corn, are particularly dependent on the honeybee. The prospect of losing my favorite corn-based snack, Bugles, or my favorite peanut butter cookie, Nutter Butter, only adds to my doomsday stress. When you think of it that way, it’s easier to see how the elimination of one critical species could bring the whole of Creation tumbling down upon itself—like removing the wrong apple from a case at Kroger and triggering an apple avalanche.
The second potential path to the world’s demise is thermonuclear war, with perhaps a garnish of chemical weaponry tossed in for extra misery. WMD in the hands of those who believe that killing people by the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, is pleasing to—and even encouraged by—their god amounts to nearly certain disaster. Nukes in the hands of terrorists is just a matter of time, which means it’s just a matter of time before they start using them. It’s akin to giving a porn mag to a horny teenage boy. He’s bound to, uh, use it. You’d do better to bet against gravity.
Theology aside, I’m certainly not alone in the belief that our days are fading fast. Some scientists and activists have been shouting about this for decades. Other warnings go back centuries. During the uplifting “Armageddon Week” on the History Channel in January, I learned that, in the 16th century, Nostradamus predicted that the world will end on the Winter Solstice (December 21) in 2012. Interestingly, that’s the exact date that the highly evolved Mayan calendar comes to an end. (Note to self: If we’re still here in 2012, do not begin Christmas shopping until December 22.) I’m not one to put much stake in prophecies—beyond my own, of course. But a coincidence like this is enough to send a shiver down even the most hardened empiricist’s spine, especially when you consider that December 21 is also the birthday of actor Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Jack Bauer on the doomsday TV drama 24. This may very well be a case of art imitating death.
The eradication of humanity is a horribly disheartening and depressing topic, I know. When I talk about the End Times at home, my wife calls me “Donny Downer.” I respond that a more fitting nickname would be “Realistic Ralph.” But the fact is, I am barely capable of contemplating the realities of an impending doomsday because I love life, and I’m nearly as frightened of death as I am of Steve Chabot’s comb-over. My greatest hope is that my daughters, nine months to 14 years, will live long lives without having to eat tree bark from nearby French Park for sustenance. I hope I’m wrong about this doomsday stuff, though just about every time in my life when I wished I was wrong (e.g., when I stood before the entire congregation at St. William Church thinking my fly was down), I turned out to be right.
CONVINCED THAT OUR days are numbered, I could quit my job and embrace a life of leisure waiting for the clock to expire. But since my family and I enjoy certain luxuries, such as satellite radio, high bandwidth Internet connectivity, and Yagööt frozen yogurt, I can’t forgo a paycheck, though I am not as aggressive with my 401(k) contributions as I once was. It’s hard to squirrel money away for 2030 and beyond when you’re skeptical about there ever being a 2030, let alone a beyond. Why do I bother to save any money at all? Just because I believe the world is about to fall off the edge doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to hedge my bets. (That’s my pragmatic west side upbringing showing through.)
Since I need to keep my job, and I want to be a great spouse as well as a great parent, that pretty much rules out another popular doomsday depression management technique: getting and staying drunk. If nuclear or biological weapons are going to be our collective downfall, a constant buzz is particularly attractive; it takes the edge off. Besides, a good buzz can help one manage the constant drone of Wolf Blitzer giving us the blow-by-blow and chatting via satellite with other pretty talking heads, the world’s great cities behind them, under water, on fire, or just plain gone.
No, I think it best, all things considered, to just go on working and living. About the only positive thing I can do with all my anxiety is direct it toward something constructive, specifically the creation of a doomsday shelter to keep my family safe, or at least a bit more comfortable than we would otherwise be, when global disaster strikes. Why worry about extending one’s life and the life of one’s family members during Armageddon?, you may ask. Well, I like having some control over when I perish rather than leaving that in the hands of a terrorist who commences nuclear war, or a calving glacier that seals the deal on global warming. Another reason is that it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds. Will the Ohio River boil? Will gas prices shoot above $50 gallon? Will Bill Cunningham stop his incessant yapping?
As with just about everything in life, except possibly SPAM, home-based bomb shelters have come a long way since the Cold War. Now you can have a multi-room, underground shelter custom built, complete with its own energy, waste, and air management systems. One company even refers to their shelters as “suites.” It’s a great marketing ploy. Somehow the end of humanity seems a bit easier to deal with when you’re holed up in a “suite” versus a run-of-the-mill concrete bunker. Relaxing in a suite is the more civilized way to ride out the end of civilization. But if you go this route, don’t brag about it. Otherwise, when disaster strikes, everyone is going to want to hang out in your suite since you’ll have the spare room, the wet bar, the Ping-Pong table, et cetera.
There are, however, at least two major problems with these high-end shelters that I can think of. The first is that they cost so much you’d need to supplement your income to afford them, perhaps by becoming a black market dealer of weapons-grade uranium. The second is that for these underground systems to work, they’re dependent on a few pipes that stick out of the ground to facilitate airflow. Those jealous neighbors without a safe place to hide might find clogging your airholes the most satisfying way to spend their last few minutes on earth. With this in mind, I intend to secure a more manageable—and defensible—position in my basement.
WHILE MY SHELTER is not yet fully equipped, I have begun to gather all the necessary items. The good news is that my diet pretty much already consists of pre-packaged “food” with a half-life of roughly 5,000 years: Little Debbie snack cakes, Slim Jims, and Cap’n Crunch. I also have a camp stove and fuel for boiling rice, beans, and pasta. To keep my radio, portable TV, and flashlights operating, I have enough batteries to power a medium-sized city, or all the vibrators at the Hustler store, for a week. I’ve got lots of heavy-duty plastic sheets and duct tape, too, for keeping out unwanted deadly chemicals and nuclear fallout. My brother-in-law sells asbestos removal equipment, so I’ve already spoken to him about some gas masks and protective bunny suits. Since my family keeps our board games in the basement, we should have plenty to keep us occupied as we wait out the initial disaster and the resulting civil unrest. If thermonuclear war is our downfall, a game of Risk will seem especially apropos; if it’s global warming, Don’t Break the Ice.
Doomsday digs are of little value if you can’t protect yourself within them, particularly since catastrophe on this scale is almost certainly going to engender a return to a Wild West mentality. So I’m thinking about getting a gun. Well, actually, two: a handgun to shoot any neighbors who make a move on my rice cakes, and a shotgun to hunt deer and squirrel. I’ll need a Rambo-sized knife, too, to field dress my kills and convert their pelts into something useful, like animal-skin briefs. (Things will get mighty cold when the millions of tons of dust kicked up by nuclear explosions darken the skies.) Truth is, I don’t think I could shoot another person, unless for some strange reason I was looking through the protective plastic of my shelter and saw Dick Cheney trying to break in.
If, as I fear they might, my predictions come true in the next five years, I will retain some small measure of satisfaction in knowing I was right. We all have to hold on to something, even to the bitter end.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue.