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America’s bunker fantasy’ is woefully inadequate, as there are growing threats of nuclear warfare and climate catastrophe.

America’s bunker fantasy’ is woefully inadequate, as there are growing threats of nuclear warfare and climate catastrophe.

Man screams as he tries to ram open a door to a bomb shelter.

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 Langston Hughes, poet/writer, in 1965 coined the term..

“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 recommendation of the government is to take this measure: 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 by a Congress unwillingly to fund large sheltering measures on a large scale, the Instead, Kennedy administration decidedTo encourage private development of individual shelter industries and to establish Dedicated spaces in existing public buildings.

Although large public shelters have been built throughout Europe and the rest of the world, these shelters are still not adequate. Community bomb shelterAlmost everyone in America rejected it as communist. Sheltering was only available to the military, government officials, and those who could afford it. Public debates raged about the practicality and morality of private shelters. The morality and survivability of nuclear warfare was rarely discussed.

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. Jess vainly attempts to adapt during this story. the government’s basement and backyard bomb shelter initiativeTo his cramped urban neighbourhood.

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 couldn’t go in there and leave the children and Grandma out. … If the bomb does come, let’s just all die neighborly.”

The opposite of dying next door was the mainstream debate over the right to shoot someone you didn’t want intruding into your private shelter.

This debate was captured on film 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.

Man screams as he tries to ram open a door to a bomb shelter.
In the 1961 ‘Twilight Zone’ episode ‘The Shelter,’ neighbors turn against one another out of desperation.

Yet, Bob Dylan is a musician 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 or 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. The Wetherly family’s adopted and surviving members make their last meal, a sign of what they have already lost.

A woman and two boys pray around a candle-lit table.
The 1983 film ‘Testament’ was promoted with the tagline, ‘The cities were gone, the future abandoned. And the only thing they have left to hold onto is the people they love.’
Paramount Pictures

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’

Stories of active resistance, radical policies proposals and advocacy for change were all there to be told During the Cold War, and they’re certainly There are many today.

But most of the stories that get told, and especially on the biggest platforms, are still formed by the “shelter or die” scenario. This limits the possibility of change.

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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 does not mean that bunker fantasy stories are ineffective as tools for activism and 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.”

However, a better way to use the bunker fantasies today is to show how fragmented they really are. The more storytellers are able to recognize the limitations of certain forms, then the more viewers and readers will be able to conceptualize what the end of this 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. The apocalypse will not end human history, as you know. It has always been a part of human history.

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. Listening to the stories of people who have been doing it for centuries is a great way to learn how you can survive cataclysm and still retain your humanity.

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