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At low tide, my sons and I like to build a sand city in the surf. Over the summers, we’ve become quite good at building systems that can withstand the rising tide. Dikes, levees, and canals keep the water away from a central hill, typically decorated with shells and feathers, and other treasures found on the beach. Each wave will weaken the system, but through hard work, we restore it before the next wave hits.
The North Sea, where we typically play this game, ebbs and flows with a tide difference of one-and-a-half, two meters. Not quite the expected sea-level rise for the coming decades, if we’re lucky, but not far from it either.
Hard work only gets us so far. There is always a tipping point where we cannot restore the outer dike before the next wave hits. We retreat, fortify the inner walls, the hill itself. But, carelessly, we take the sand from the canals, which collapse. Seepage cannot flow away anymore, weakening the overall structure. Then, unexpectedly, a wave hits a few meters from our fortress, rolls over the beach, and comes in from the back. We’re fighting on two fronts now. We have to deepen the canals and raise the dikes but cannot use the soaked sand from one for the other.
It goes fast now. Every incoming wave threatens the sea dike and the seepage canal. Then both are gone, and only our hill remains. The seashells and feathers have long gone, hidden beneath extra layers of sand or crushed by our feet while we rush to save what we can. The hill starts breaking down under the force of the tide. We give up.
I’m reading Andri Snær Magnason’s magnificent On Time and Water (thanks, Merlijn). I’ve also finally fallen for Netflix’s algorithm and started watching Vikings, which they were right to recommend. So, yes, the end of times is on my mind, served with a Nordic flavor.
Religions old and new have detailed stories for the end of time, from the Christian revelations with its horsemen, the Norse showdown between giants and gods to Zuckerberg’s Metaverse.
I read the Book of Revelation in my early twenties, encouraged by a devout friend. What always strikes me in the apocalypse is how the end is preceded by unbelievable suffering. It is not enough to put a full stop to human existence; the end needs to hurt. I think this is something we forget to tell when we talk about what the world looks like when all ice has melted: we forget that this terrible new world is preceded by unprecedented suffering.
Even if we somehow avert the worst, the journey back to normalcy may be a rough ride. If you haven’t read it, I recommend Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent. The book describes Europe in the decade after the Second World War. While V-day marked the end of the war, it sparked a decade of unimaginable horrors for millions on the continent. It is astonishing that on these ruins, a union was built.
(I still hope to find 100 million one day to create a game set in this decade. It will combine a story like The Last of Us with the open world of Red Dead Redemption but set in the chaotic, multilingual madhouse of central Europe in the fall of 1945.)
I know why Netflix recommended Vikings. I’ve binged every season of The Walking Dead they’ve released. They may even know (through some deal with Dropbox) that I once wrote a multi-thousands words essay on the role of culture in TWD:
“Th[e] absence of cultural institutions [in the communities in TWD] is not to say the fictional characters, or by extension, their creators, do not appreciate culture, value new ideas, or recognize what these institutions and the ideas they stimulate can mean for the community. The only remaining doctor in a hospital in Atlanta prominently displays Caravaggio’s The Denial of Saint Peter in his room. He picked it up outside a museum and loves the early 17th-century painting. Playing a traditional card from the conservative handbook, he relies on a painting from a now-lost civilization to provide something solid in a highly versatile world. Michonne, a sword-wielding group member of Rick, fiercely critiques a contemporary art exhibition she visited before the zombie apocalypse. (The exhibition included something that looks like a gorilla driving a car.) Later, she picks up a colorful kitsch sculpture of a cat because she considers it too beautiful to leave behind.”
I never published this, thankfully.
Vikings and TWD are the same show, one set before the modern era, the other after it. Ragnar Lothbrok and Rick Grimes are very different leaders (Ragnar is more like Negan), and I miss TWD’s Carol and Daryll as characters. And there are no zombies in Vikings: Furthermore, I don’t see much difference—Europe before enlightenment and North America after it is both savage continents.
The story of Ragnarök is fascinating, as is all of Norse mythology. I do not claim to understand it.
“Brothers will fight and kill each other,
sisters' children will defile kinship.
It is harsh in the world, whoredom rife,
an axe age, a sword age,
shields are riven,
a wind age, a wolf age,
before the world goes headlong.
No man will have mercy on another.”
Unlike what the Marvel Universe wants to make us believe, Norse mythology contains very few stories with a neat ending, clear distinction between right and wrong, and wholly good characters. Thor, Loki, and Freyr all have different faces, conflicting interests, and are prone to making mistakes. They all die in Ragnarök. The end time is a moment for many of their dues and earlier mistakes and unfinished business to come hurling back at them.
On the beach, I’m not that interested in what happens in the end. We know what happens in the end. The thrill is what comes before.
We can learn from what comes before. The learning curve is the mistakes we make while fighting destiny. For the Vikings, an example is the poor job the gods did in chaining the wolf Fenrir, which then hastens their demise once it comes. For us, a thousand years later, at the shores of the sea we shared with them, it is the wet sand we take from our canals. It is holding on to a doomed position.
In the telling and retelling of the end times, we learn and share valuable lessons that help us avoid some of the worst outcomes. Instead of painting beautiful or horrific pictures of what comes after the climate catastrophe, we may want to spend some time thinking about what comes before.
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