Ten years ago I was sitting on my couch and thumbing through a novel when I felt it shift beneath me. For a moment I thought I’d somehow moved the couch even though I’d been lying perfectly still.
I considered some other possibilities for a few surreally long seconds as the world continued to vibrate around me when the answer dropped right into my brain as if from above: this was an earthquake. Earthquake. The word loomed large in my mind, but I couldn’t comprehend it, not quite.
The word didn’t match my context. I was living in Washington, D.C. and earthquakes happened in the Midwest, in California, somewhere else. I read about earthquakes; I did not experience them. The world kept shaking and then my mind began moving exceptionally fast. This was happening, now, and I needed to do something about it, now.
I fumbled about my memories for tips from childhood, books I’d read, anything, everything. Was I supposed to hide under a table? Huddle in the tub? I stumbled around for a moment and then it was over. Immediately I questioned whether it had happened, but I heard words of confirmation from the hallway just outside my door.
I stepped outside my apartment and my neighbours were looking at me with expressions that matched how I felt. Was this the end? Or merely the beginning?
The information came flowing from every direction: the news informed us that the earthquake was relatively powerful, 5.8 on the Richter scale. It was the largest earthquake in our area in one hundred years. Aftershocks would likely follow.
On my laptop I saw videos from grocery stores that showed shelves shaking and produce dropping to the floor. On social media people reported that large cracks had appeared on the sides of buildings and people shakily recounted what they’d been doing at the precise moment they felt the tremors.
No one stated the obvious, perhaps because it was so obvious: something deep in the Earth—something potentially malevolent; something that could plausibly make our lives infinitely more difficult or end our lives altogether—had awoken. It if came to it, we had no idea how to make it go back to sleep.
It’s not that we were unprepared for disaster. Because of Hollywood we possessed memories of calamities that hadn’t yet happened but inevitably would.
When the Russians or terrorists or Chinese or Martians finally decided to destroy our city we knew precisely how the White House would look as it blazed to the ground, how the Washington Monument would sound—a grinding, almost metallic wail—as it collapsed on itself. But we had always expected the worst to come from the sky; we had not anticipated the possibility that our apocalypse would greet us from below.
“An evaluation of our potential futures indicates that whatever we do now, our lives will be different in a few years”
Yet the earthquake had happened, and more would likely happen, and now we had new fears to catalogue alongside the old ones. In the hours following the earthquake I studied earthquake safety measures until I was satisfied I would be prepared for whatever came next. Then I waited. And waited.
We heard word of aftershocks in neighbouring towns but those of us living in D.C. never felt them, not really. Our fears faded, and all manner of things surged in to replace them. Political debates. The latest shenanigans on our favourite reality TV shows. A new pop album, neighbourhood gossip, the love lives of distant celebrities.
A few days after the earthquake I found myself at a dinner party with friends and we exchanged stories and laughter over glasses of wine. The earthquake didn’t come up.
We are (for the most part) a visual people living in especially visual times, and it’s difficult to remain wary of unseen threats. But we have no choice—we live in an era in which many unseen threats are loping into view. We’ve endured a global pandemic for almost two years and many of us accept the fact that an environmental collapse of some kind is waiting for us just around the corner, and then the sudden vibration of the earth reminds us that of the ever-present threat of some underground menace suddenly manifesting into our lives.
There is a distinct possibility that despite how difficult and troubling our lives are now—the social distancing and masking and constant sanitising—we are living in the final moments of what our descendants will longingly call The Good Times.
What is our responsibility to the future? To ourselves, today? And to our future selves? A clear-eyed evaluation of our potential futures indicates that whatever we do now, however quickly we respond to the various threats bearing down on us, our lives will be dramatically different in a few short years.
There is a popular line of argument that laments our seemingly nonchalant approach to this future; here we are, they say, living our lives as usual, doing all the things we’ve always done—shopping, gorging ourselves on television, attending dinner parties—despite everything we know about how our future might unfold. We must change everything about our lives now, they say. We must work relentlessly to create a different future.
I happen to agree with this view. That said, I also happen to believe we must continue to engage in more leisurely activities, we must enjoy what we have while we have it.
If there is a chance our worst fears will come to fruition, or even something just short of our worst fears, we have a responsibility to ourselves now, to our future, and to our future selves to generate memories of life as it is today, memories that will sustain us and animate our dreams in the dark days ahead.
For it is likely that more threats—originating from the air and water and yes, also future tremors from the underground world as well—are waiting for the perfect moment to reveal themselves.
We will need our memories to reconstruct a viable human experience. We will need them to remember how things were and how they might be once more. So this is my advice to you, dear reader: after your days of protesting fossil fuel companies and mastering every detail of the environmental bills your political representatives are considering, watch as many movies as you can. Enjoy the street festivals and concerts. Attend as many dinner parties as you can. Humanity is depending on you.