At the end of the Academy Award-nominated film “Don’t Look Up,” with a meteor hurtling toward Earth, the movie’s three scientist-protagonists gather with family and friends for a last supper around a dinner table in central Michigan.
Having exhausted their efforts at action, they eat the food they’ve prepared and purchased, give thanks and pray before “dying neighborly” – to borrow a phrase coined by poet and writer Langston Hughes in 1965.
“Dying neighborly” was something of a common refrain in the small number of stories told by those writers and artists in the 1960s and 1980s who recognized the dangers of nuclear war but were unwilling or unable to accept the only measure recommended by the government: to buy or build your own shelter and pretend that you’d survive.
These stories didn’t get as much attention or acclaim as “Don’t Look Up.” But they continue to influence how the climate emergency or nuclear war is depicted in books and films today.
Shelter or die?
Faced with a Congress unwilling to fund large-scale sheltering measures, the Kennedy administration decided instead to encourage the private development of the individual shelter industry and to establish dedicated spaces within existing public structures.
Although in Europe and elsewhere, vast public shelters were built, the community bomb shelter was almost universally rejected in the U.S. as communistic. As a result, sheltering was available primarily to the military, government officials and those who could afford it. The practicality and the morality of private shelters were debated publicly. The morality or survivability of nuclear war itself seldom was.
Hughes’s phrase comes from “Bomb Shelters,” one of his “Simple Stories.” These were brief and humorous vignettes of the serious issues faced by Jess and Joyce Semple, a fictional working-class Black couple living in Harlem. In this story, Jess vainly tries to adapt the government’s basement and backyard bomb shelter initiative to his cramped urban neighborhood.
With so many people living in every rooming house, “Even if the law required it, how could landlords build enough shelters for every roomer?” he wonders. “And if roomers built their own shelters – me and Joyce living in a kitchenette, for instance. … How would we keep the other roomers out in case of a raid?”
Jess then imagines Joyce’s response following an air raid test: “Thank God, you’re saved, Jess Semple! But let’s tear that shelter down tomorrow. I could not go in there and leave them children and Grandma outside. … If the bomb does come, let’s just all die neighborly.”
The opposite of dying neighborly was the mainstream debate over the right to shoot someone you didn’t want intruding into your private shelter.
This debate was dramatized in a 1961 episode of “The Twilight Zone,” in which desperate neighbors storm the entrance to the basement shelter of the only suburban family with enough foresight to build one.
Yet as musician Bob Dylan recalled of the mostly working-class region of Minnesota where he was raised, nobody was much interested in building shelters because, “It could turn neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend.”
Resignation and retreat
The binary Cold War equation of “shelter or die” meant that the only story that effectively expressed resistance to the premise of nuclear weapons was to die with dignity, according to one’s values.
And it meant that stories of resistance were nearly always elegiac retreats to traditional values of community, religion or family that echoed the hodgepodge collective at the dinner table in “Don’t Look Up.”
In Lynne Littman’s low-budget 1983 drama “Testament,” the citizens of an isolated northern California community cling to their liberal small-town values until they succumb to nuclear fallout from a war viewers never see. Near the end of the film, the surviving and adopted members of the Wetherly family make their last, meager supper a testament to what they have already lost.
In Helen Clarkson’s 1959 novel, “The Last Day,” the members of a Massachusetts island community pool their resources, take in urban refugees, and even tolerate dissenting voices as they die peacefully, one by one, from nuclear fallout.
‘We’ve already survived an apocalypse’
But most of the stories that get told, and especially on the biggest platforms, are still formed by the “shelter or die” scenario. This constrains the way change is imagined.
Whether it’s a meteor strike, climate disaster or nuclear war, the end has nearly always been told in the same way for over 60 years: abruptly, hopelessly and completely. Any solutions tend to be limited to the kinds of short-term reactions or speculative technological quick fixes we see in “Don’t Look Up” rather than long-term change or human-centered initiatives.
Until culture finds effective ways of telling other stories than the one I call the “bunker fantasy,” it will be difficult to sustain effective action in response to the climate emergency or the persistent threat of nuclear war.
This is not to say that the bunker fantasy story is useless as a tool for activism or change. As the popularity of “Don’t Look Up” demonstrates, the specter of instant apocalypse can be galvanizing and focusing on a large scale. And in the right hands, its form can be bent toward messages other than “shelter or die.”
But a better use to which we can put the bunker fantasy today is to show how partial a story it really is. The more storytellers can learn to recognize the limitations of certain forms, the more open readers and viewers may be to conceptualizing what the end of the world means.
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I don’t think it’s an accident that the examples I’ve found of “dying neighborly” all come from marginalized perspectives: African Americans in Harlem; rural working-class communities in the upper Midwest; female writers. In many ways, these people – as Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo speculative fiction writer Rebecca Roanhorse observes – have “already survived an apocalypse.”
In other words, if you’ve experienced genocide, slavery, colonizing, patriarchy or the explosion of an atomic bomb, you don’t need the specter of imminent destruction to focus your attention. You know all too well that apocalypse is not the end of human history. It has always been part of it.
When survival is something you’re thinking about every day of your life, apocalypse is not a newly emerging threat but an ongoing existential condition. And perhaps the best way to learn how to survive cataclysm while retaining your humanity is by listening to the stories of those who have already been doing it for centuries.