It was December 21, 2012, and 14-year-old Shaarvari Shreenath was convinced that the world was ending. The date was regarded as the end of a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mayan calendar, and the media was rife with hypotheses of cataclysms that would soon ensue. “I remember hugging my friends, and saying to them, ‘If I don’t see you tomorrow, this is how I feel about you’,” says Shreenath. It’s been more than 10 years since — the world has not ended, but that sense of foreboding has never left the now 25-year-old from Chennai.
There were always issues cropping up: first it was 2012, then the ice caps were melting, the Great Barrier Reef was dying, and most recently, the pandemic. “Our generation has had to deal with these troubling situations all our lives,” she says. No wonder she firmly believes the apocalypse is imminent. “It’s not a question of whether it will happen or not. It’s just a matter of when, how and what we will do when it does.”
Born between 1997 and 2012, the first Gen Zers came of age around the time of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which listed out the devastating impacts of a projected 1.5°C global temperature rise. Since then, ever worsening headlines about the climate crisis — supported by extreme weather events across the globe, from drought and floods to hurricanes and wildfires — have led Zoomers to be caught in a feedback loop of feelings of doom.
Is it any surprise that Gen Zers and young millennials are showing signs of a unique obsession with — even a celebration of — the apocalypse?
Their lives are saturated with doomsday-themed films (A Quiet Place,Don’t Look Up), TV shows (Snowpiercer,Resident Evil), and books (The New Wilderness, The Wall). Songs like Phoebe Bridger’s ‘I Know the End,’ which released in the middle of the pandemic, have resonated with youngsters across the world, with lyrics like: No I’m not afraid to disappear/ The billboard said ‘The end is near’/ I turned around, there was nothing there/ Yeah, I guess the end is here. The last couple of years also witnessed a surge in the popularity of video games such as Plague Inc., where players get to be a virus/bacteria/fungus, and the main objective is to infect as many people as possible.
These cataclysm scenarios reflect in their online conversations and sense of humour, too (think the Simpson meme on this being not only the hottest summer of our lives, but also the coldest summer of the rest of our lives). This year’s Oscar-winning Everything, Everywhere, All At Once has a black hole destroying the universe as the characters debate the meaninglessness of life. And most recently, HBO’s The Last of Us — a post-apocalyptic drama series based on a video game which is set in a future where a fungal infection has infected humanity, spawning zombie-like creatures and societal collapse — caught Zoomers’ attention, hitting 837 million minutes of viewership within a week of its premiere, surpassing every other HBO show to date (except Game of Thrones).
Don’t look to the West
Chahat Rana, 26, a health journalist from Delhi, was one of many who binged The Last of Us. Having spent the past few years covering the pandemic, she says that though the show often “got too real”, she couldn’t stop watching it. “All the while I was thinking, ‘Could I survive something like this?’, ‘Will I be among the few who make it?’” says Rana. “It’s scary, but there is also a silver lining. It shows you the best of humanity in the worst of times.”
“As we experience heat wave after heat wave, the youth can feel the climate crisis in their own bodies. No wonder they are pessimistic. I’m somebody who hopes for an apocalypse — because it will force people to rethink the system we live in. As long as a system works for the majority, there’s no real need for an alternative. But the moment it breaks down, a lot of people will get up and start asking questions. An apocalypse is necessary because we need that push.”Shyam SunderEnvironmentalist
How do you perceive it?
At a time when society and the planet aren’t ‘working out’ for many young people — a consequence of processes they did not initiate, and over which they have little control — perhaps there’s a certain sense of catharsis in consuming apocalyptic content.
Kopal Nanda, 27, an eco-influencer based in Lucknow, loves post-apocalyptic entertainment. When she is not growing, and learning from, her plants — her Instagram is full of experiments, and insights into optimum sunlight, soil and water — she kicks back with shows such as the 2021 fantasy drama Sweet Tooth, in which a boy who is half-human and half-deer sets off on a perilous adventure in a post-apocalyptic world. Contrary to popular perceptions of negativity, these shows make Nanda feel optimistic. “There is a sense of how after everything is destroyed, you can start afresh. It’s a new beginning.”
Writer Janice Pariat agrees. She says that the word ‘apocalypse’ doesn’t mean the end. Etymologically speaking, it refers to an ‘uncovering.’ “Perhaps we’re drawn to apocalypses not because they’re the end of the world, but because we’re hoping there will be some kind of revelation,” says Pariat.
On the flip side, however, for many others, post-apocalyptic themes are terrifying. When Khyati Mehta, 17, was younger, she remembers reading a book that stated that the ice caps are melting and all coastal cities will be flooded. She was petrified. Today, as a member of the Goa chapter of the FridaysForFuture movement — a youth-led movement started by environmental activist Greta Thunberg (the India chapter, with 46,000 followers on Instagram, has been campaigning recently for #SaveJoshimath and #SaveMollem) — that fear has reduced, but not completely abated. “I see children in Delhi unable to go to school because of smog and pollution, and that gives me the chills,” says Mehta, who hasn’t opted to go for therapy yet. She addresses her eco-anxiety with concrete action: by planting trees or signing a petition.
“The tone of pessimism has only created fear. In my class, I try to uncover the relationship between our emotions and the natural elements; [help them] form a vocabulary of kinship with nature. You need an economy of attention — you just need to notice the wind and the water. ”Sumana RoyProfessor of Creative Writing, Ashoka University
On the opposite coast of the country, Sumit Majumdar, 20, from Kolkata is part of the Bengali Antinatalists. The society, which has over 1,000 followers on Facebook, believes that in a world full of suffering, it is morally wrong for humans to procreate. Add to that the worsening climate crisis, and giving birth becomes absolutely indefensible, he says. “If I don’t have children, I’ll also be reducing my carbon footprint in this world exponentially, since I’ll be eliminating my children’s, grandchildren’s and great grandchildren’s share,” he says.
Holding up a mirror to people’s anxieties
Defining and tackling the problem
Sarah Jaquette Ray, a teacher of environmental studies in California, called Generation Z ‘The Climate Generation’ in a 2020 article for business magazine, Fortune. She stated how “for many youth, climate disruption isn’t a hypothetical future possibility; it is already here”, and that today, psychologists “have created a new vocabulary to describe these feelings of despair, including solastalgia, climate anxiety, eco-grief, pre-traumatic stress, and psychoterratic illness”.
Sonali Gupta, a clinical psychologist based in Mumbai and the author of Anxiety: Overcome It and Live Without Fear (2020), says she’s seen a substantial increase in Gen Zers and young millennials suffering from eco-anxiety, which is characterised by a chronic fear of environmental doom. “In 2014-15, there were hardly any clients who came to me suffering from eco-anxiety. That was also around the time that I first heard of this phenomenon, and started understanding how it surfaces in sessions,” she says. “Now there’s terminology and vocabulary around it, and more dialogue than ever before, which makes it easier for youngsters to bring it up in sessions.” According to her, eco-anxiety usually comes up as part of larger anxieties. “Suppose someone is struggling with sleeplessness. I’ll ask them why — they will say work, relationships, and climate change.”
Parents are becoming aware of this now. “Sometimes, they reach out to understand how they can help their kids, and as a therapist, I ask families to decide on one or two actions that they can take at a micro-level to reduce anxiety: whether it’s responsible consumption or sustainability.” For instance, one of her clients started a book club, where they read books centred around the environment. “It was a brilliant way of talking about their climate-related anxieties, and meeting like-minded people, concerned about the same things as them.”
Anxiety can strike at a very young age. Bengaluru-based psychologist Mamta Jain narrates the story of an 11-year-old brought to her clinic who was hoarding plastic: every time he saw plastic, he would pick it up and bring it home. It had reached a point where he would get hysterical each time someone used plastic. “Why? Because he had learnt in school that plastic isn’t biodegradable, and was going to kill the planet,” says Jain, adding, “We need to be very careful how we introduce children to news like this — if not done properly, it leads to panic and anxiety.” In the last few years, she has seen the number of cases of eco-anxiety rising. One of the ways to tackle this is in schools itself. “Every time you introduce kids to a problem, propose a solution,” she says, adding that in this way, children won’t feel like the problem is unsolvable. Do her clients watch apocalyptic content? Turns out the answer is yes. “They could be cathartic [for some] as they offer a release for their own deepest, darkest fears,” she says.
Politics of passivity
“I always follow the words of advice shared by Jane Goodall, ‘Do not allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the crises. Start small, engage with your community, take individual actions, be a part of the solution.’ This has helped me and several others to deal with climate anxiety.”Dia MirzaActor, producer and UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador
Hope for the future
Children’s book writer Bijal Vachharajani is not stumped by the younger generation’s obsession with the apocalypse. “Look around us! It’s not a surprise at all. But to me, the question is how do you translate that into hope and action,” says the author of Savi and the Memory Keeper, a YA book about grief, the climate crisis, and the healing power of nature. “I find that young people have a lot of questions, and while they do have access to information now, there needs to be more spaces for nuanced conversations about the climate crisis, about our future on the planet, and action — whether it’s collective or individual. Fiction, music and films can play a huge role in addressing concerns and offering imaginative ways of looking at our future lives. For me, the most important thing is to offer hope.”
It’s a point of view that Abhayraj Naik, an environmental activist and professor of climate justice at Azim Premji University, echoes. He believes the effect of apocalyptic scenarios is to expand our imaginative horizons. “We are trapped in false narratives, propagated by capitalism, consumerism and patriarchy. The first step to transformative change is to free the imagination from that. And whether apocalyptic scenarios cause hope or despair, they undeniably shake up the imagination — and that’s what we need,” he says.
Coming up with hands-on projects that address the climate crisis is an important tool. When directed to his students, it brings solutions of all kinds to the table, from climate-tech business solutions, protest and resistance movements, to arts and filmmaking. Naik is positive of one thing: young students working in the climate space today are some of the most hardworking and fearless people he knows. “Spend time with them, and you’ll feel the opposite of pessimistic. The apocalypse will be the furthest thing from your mind.”