“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”
-The First History of Man, Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015
In post-apocalyptic fiction, signs of an animistic culture are often plentiful in the set dressing; from skull motifs to more subtle expressions of sympathetic magic, to taboos which define when it is safe to travel through an area due to unseen natural forces that demand respect-lest one perish. In these worlds people live in a reality strangled of meaning; stripped of all but the most basic diversions and amusements, choice, and even hope.
Isaac Marion’s post-zombie apocalypse novel Warm Bodies illustrates an America in which people survive by sheltering in huge sports stadiums. Supplementing their diets with vitamin pills and barricaded against outside forces; scouting parties must invade dangerous territory-the former cradle of suburbia, in order to extract supplies.
A sharp cultural contrast to this is the nuclear wasteland of Dimitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 series, in which the last vestiges of humanity eke out an existence in Moscow’s vast and sprawling underground rail network. The people of the tunnels farm pigs and mushrooms and must forever remain vigilant against the mutant creatures that constantly test their defenses; an outwards force pushing inwards. Meanwhile political conflicts tear apart the communities within.
Apocalyptic fiction presents fears for the future unique to the inhabitants of the culture it was born from, but it also has a unifying philosophical theme; what does it mean to be human, and what is the point of being alive? People do not simply fight to live another day; they struggle to nourish their souls with scraps of beauty, love and meaning.
In these inhospitable worlds, the rules for survival have changed; nature is no longer abstracted and the ability for people to adapt the environment has become limited-a dire predicament for anyone from a wealthy post-industrialized culture.
One of the things that makes this genre so appealing to me is that this lifestyle shift usually brings with it a return to an animistic worldview of unity with the natural world.
The recent Mad Max: Fury Road has some beautiful examples of a fictional post-apocalyptic animist culture.
It’s a film in which a band of eco-feminists fight the forces of war, patriarchy and greed against a post nuclear-exchange desert landscape. Also car chases. And explosions.
Between explosions, we get a glimpse of the social order of the War Boys. They ritually scar their bodies with engine schematics, and their medical professionals are referred to as ‘organic mechanics’, displaying an inextricable unity with their vehicles. They have an oral tradition of storytelling in which dying a good death is of utmost importance, combined with a belief in reincarnation and the need to be deemed worthy-a worth which is determined by their usefulness to their master. A film lush with symbolism, this blending of human and machine is of vital importance-the tyranny of Immortan Joe positions this as a method of control and objectification-as a means to strip away autonomy. People are things, and things are disposable.
The skull motif is ever-present; the skeletal form of Furiosa’s missing arm is painted on the side of the war rig, the sickly war boys are hairless and white, and the very symbol of Immortan Joe’s rule is a blending of the steering wheel and the skull. Skeletons are things, and things do not deserve respect.
When Furiosa learns of the destruction of her childhood haven, she rips off her prosthetic arm and howls in despair. This completes her symbolic rejection of her service to Immortan Joe, which had stripped her of agency and personhood. But just as we are now unable to colonize other planets, there is nowhere left to go; the salt flats extend eternally like the inhospitable emptiness of space.
So our heroes turn back to the Citadel to take back the world. The symbolic relationship between Furiosa and her arm has changed; when she straps it back on, she is reclaiming a right to live in the world cooperatively, interfacing with it with respect, and as a part of her. She is no longer a resource to be exploited.
As Nux’s war paint wears off, we see him as an enslaved child, made terminally ill by the folly of dictators. Finally, he is able to find his better self in service of a great and sincere sacrifice.
It’s no coincidence the Keeper of the Seeds, member of the resilient and free Vulvalini, tried to save as many plant species as she could-not just crop varieties directly useful to humans.
‘Who killed the world?’ asks Angharad, and the answer is damning.
In these fictional scenarios animism flourishes because there can be no disconnection from the land; it is an actor itself and not merely acted upon. The stakes are always high; the natural world must be respected. So fraught with danger, the apocalyptic landscape represents a world that humans have made almost uninhabitable for themselves as they stare down extinction. Be it over wealth inequality, war, climate change or resource scarcity, fictional apocalypses are almost singularly the result of human hubris.
For me, a core part of my modern pagan animist beliefs is respect, cooperation and balance. The importance of respecting the natural world, as a part of us and not an outside resource should be self evident-if we muddy up our biosphere, everyone suffers. My animism is inherently environmentalistic, but everyone should be concerned with the plight of the natural world, regardless of their spiritual alignment.
Mass-scale, global environmental exploitation needs to be curbed. Let’s hope we can make it happen before the advent of a nuclear wasteland.