Whether it’s zombie outbreaks, nuclear wastelands, or climate change, people love post-apocalyptic stories. Examples include books like The Road and A Canticle for Leibowitz, TV shows like The Walking Dead and Jericho, video games like Fallout and The Last of Us, comics like Y: The Last Man, and movies like Mad Max, I am Legend, World War Z, Book of Eli, and The Postman. The causes and effects differ, but what these stories share is the setting of a world after civilization has fallen, with people living in brutal conditions where everyday survival is a struggle. The themes are dark and dour, yet these stories are extremely popular. The question is: why are people so drawn to post-apocalyptic stories?
I don’t think it’s because people actually want to see the world end (most people at least), but because it’s a fantasy of wanting to go back to simpler times when all you had to worry about was surviving.
People are happier when they have a purpose in life. After an apocalypse, it’s clear that your purpose is to survive. But today, in our modern civilized society, most people don’t have to worry about everyday survival. We have no essential purpose. Instead, we must find our own purpose, through working jobs or creating art or advancing science or helping others, or whatever particular life path we choose.
That’s easier said than done. It’s difficult to find a purpose in life and create your own meaning. That’s where so much existential dread and anxiety comes from. When you have time to sit back and contemplate your life, you realize there is no inherent purpose to it all.
For some, that’s depressing. But what they fail to realize is that you can create your own purpose in life. In fact, you have to. That’s the only meaning in life—to create your own meaning. For each person that will mean something different (career, family, service, art, etc.)
Modern life can be anxiety-inducing: worrying about money, rent, bills and having to work a job you hate just to get by. Post-apocalyptic life is difficult on the surface because everyday survival is a struggle. But that life is also simpler in that all you have to worry about is survival. There are no jobs, bills, politics, or government bureaucracy. It’s just pure survival, plain and simple. All you have to think about is finding your next meal and a safe place to sleep at night. That can be extremely difficult in practice, depending on the severity of the post-apocalyptic environment, but it’s simple in theory: eat, sleep, survive, repeat.
There’s an evolutionary reason we are drawn to that lifestyle. Humans evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to live in small tribes of hunter-gatherers. Both biologically and psychologically, that is the most natural way for humans to live: in the wild, close to nature, finding your own food, and always being with a group of people you know and trust. That lifestyle is difficult but fulfilling, both physically and psychologically. It’s why people still hunt, camp, and farm their own food even though they don’t need to for survival.
Post-apocalyptic stories are fun, but you don’t need a nuclear war or zombie outbreak to get the benefits of that lifestyle. You can design your life to live more naturally. But more important than that, you must find a purpose and meaning in life. Then you definitely won’t yearn for the collapse of civilization—though you can still enjoy fictional stories set after an apocalypse.