The World Without Us (But Definitely With Jellyfish)

Jellyfish Apocalypse

In reviewing a new book about the biology of jellyfish and the changing human relationship to those enigmatic creatures, a writer at The Atlantic notes a tentacle-ful of ways that jellyfish remind us of the apocalypse. The jellyfish apocalypse is similar to more traditional end-times scenarios, including zombie outbreaks and climate change.

The swarms—or “blooms,” as jellyfish spawns are called—have zombie-like qualities. Buffeted by the waves and tide and traveling in aimless packs, jellyfish are “as close to automatons as anything in the animal kingdom.” Not unlike a rabble of the hungry undead, the writer continues, “the insidiousness of a jellyfish bloom lies in its amassed torpor—a monster more monstrous for lacking a center, each animal stewarded by no more than a basic set of compulsions (light, gravity, food, reproduction).” Think of harrowing scenes in zombie films when the isolated human survivor meets her inevitable fate, a relentless wave of the living dead in search of food crashing against insufficient, hastily-erected defenses. In cinematography, these scenes often recall those of sailors struggling but, at last, drowning.

To those whose anxieties fixate on environmental collapse instead of brain-munching horror, the opaque bodies of jellyfish evoke what the world might resemble after climate change knocks off civilization. Many scientists, as the book goes on to detail, suggest that the boom of jellyfish blooms may be due to climate change and pollution, both of which have damaged marine ecosystems and created harsh-yet-ideal conditions for the highly adaptive creatures.

“A jellyfish-dominated sea is conceived of as the sea of prehistory,” The Atlantic writes, and it is, “the preserve of simple animals—slimes, diatoms, pulsing dabs—and a reminder of a time when anything motile moved as a squiggle, scuttle, or ooze. Jellyfish have been around for at least 500 million years, probably longer.” Apocalypses of various types envision retribution in the form of the purification or recalibration of a world corrupted by social and political ills. Many scenarios involve a reversion toward a more natural Earth after the disappearance of human civilization. Massive schools of jellyfish encourage us to imagine a time when the ocean was not ruled by the puttering frigates of the maritime economy but something ancient and unfathomable, a primal intelligence unconcerned with humanity.

Books such as The World Without Us and World Made by Hand, as well as films such as Stalker, are great follow-ups for those interested in the resurgence of pure Nature as a post-apocalyptic outcome.

I, for one, welcome the jellyfish apocalypse and the dominion of our new invertebrate overlords!