When I first started HBO’s The Last of Us, I had little knowledge of the video game and did not expect anything beyond cordyceps-infected zombies and Pedro Pascal. Like many of my peers though, I got sucked into the show and experienced a whirlwind of emotional turmoil every Sunday that left me feeling hollow and wanting more. It’s the perfect morbid distraction from daily life, and is undoubtedly one of the better shows I’ve watched in the last few years. But, one thing I did not expect was how much the series made me think about sustainability.
In my opinion, a sustainable society is one that can operate without impeding on the natural processes that surround it. Eco-friendly communities only produce what they need, they are free from high levels of consumerism and excessive resource consumption. Sustainability extends beyond direct environmental impacts as well; green societies are able to support the livelihood of all members, regardless of profession, identity, or otherwise. All voices are heard and recognized, and decisions are truly democratic. Ideally as well, there is a general culture of respect among everyone, and public goods would be cared for by all. It sounds like an idealistic concept for sure, but I was surprised to see how often my views of sustainability appeared in the show.
I’m sure most people probably don’t think too much about the environmental situation amongst the variety of horrors that main characters Joel and Ellie face on the regular; it’s not even something that I dwelled on until the halfway point of the series. Most scenes occur either in the wilderness, within a quarantine zone (QZ), or inside some abandoned city. Viewers see several scenes depicting the dilapidated cityscapes and crumbling modern infrastructure, absent of human presence. This is all to be expected in a post-apocalyptic setting where the human race has shifted its focus from developing the world to instead trying to survive it. But, despite this hellish landscape, I could not help thinking about how this cataclysmic event forced humanity to adopt more sustainable ways of living, and how this connects to our modern day climate crisis.
During episode 6, Joel and Ellie travel to one of the quarantine zones in the western United States. This QZ was perhaps one of the only ones we get to see in much depth, but it serves as the perfect example for how sustainable living was achieved on a community scale, a practice which was incredibly rare prior to the fungal outbreak. The townspeople created their own economic system that was based on bartering and trading, the U.S. dollar was totally obsolete. The lack of physical money meant that no one had large shares of wealth and no one was attempting to make a profit off of their transactions. Instead, everyone focused mainly on obtaining only their needs, and they were mindful of what others around them needed too.
This QZ also drew all their power from a nearby dam which the townspeople repaired themselves. Water is a much more environmentally-friendly energy source than fossil fuels, and even when gas was used it was only done so when absolutely necessary. No one possessed a car either, all transportation was done either on-foot or by horseback. All things considered, the town was as close to carbon neutral as they could get while still enjoying basic amenities.
Even the governmental structure of this QZ met my idea of sustainability. While I would say the other quarantine zones followed similar day-to-day practices as the town in episode 6, they certainly did not have sustainable government systems. One of them is controlled by FEDRA, a corrupt authoritarian regime which was widely hated by the residents, and another was controlled by a group of FEDRA-usurpers, who also kind of sucked in the end. But, the town in episode 6 is different. They had a totally democratic system free from any totalitarian or complacent government, with quasi-elected leaders and defined roles for the citizens. It may not have been perfect, but for me it was a breath of fresh air compared to the governments we had previously seen (or experienced).
What really got me thinking about all of this though was how ominously similar it felt to our current climate crisis. As someone studying the environment, I question what the future of our planet looks like every day. I want to make change in the world for the better, but when I think about how little people seem to care I start feeling hopeless. We can’t create a sustainable world when the government, the businesses, and even most of the people are complacent. I fear that the only thing that will actually force human society to earnestly pursue a sustainable world is a cataclysmic event, just like in The Last of Us. While I doubt brain-controlling fungi await us in the future, I do think widespread weather catastrophes, food shortages, species extinctions, or any other climate-induced effect will. Regardless of what happens, I do applaud The Last of Us for reminding me of the power of human resilience, and I can only hope that we as a species can come together to make real change for the future to avoid the very real horrors presented in the show.