Over the Christmas holidays I indulged in the festive pursuit of watching civilisation come to an end, courtesy of the film 2012. In it, a bombardment of neutrinos from the sun - or something like that - causes the earth's crust to heat up and shift around wildly. The science is vague, covered
by stock Hollywood scenes of grim-faced people looking at computer simulations, but the consequences are clear enough. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis ravage the earth, and destruction breaks out on an unimaginable scale, wiping out pretty much all of humanity except John Cusack and his handsome family. Needless to say, all this casts a huge cloud over our Olympic year.
But this type of apocalyptic meltdown isn't really "unimaginable" at all: it's been repeatedly imagined in a stream of box-office successes - Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow and the forthcoming This Time, We Really, Truly Are Screwed. Why is it so much fun to imagine all that we know and cherish being violently destroyed? It makes sense in the context of religious fanaticism or revolutionary zeal, maybe, but why do millions of people with cosy, prosperous, broadly enjoyable lives flock to see CGI visions of ten million people dying?
Maybe our cushy lifestyles make global disaster so titillating. It's hard to imagine film fans in Darfur or Zimbabwe thinking, "What I really need now is a glimpse of the abyss." But, for somebody like me, the closest everyday life comes to catastrophe is the chip-and-pin machine unexpectedly declining my card. Even in economically and politically turbulent times, many of us in England will confront nothing more awful in the coming year than a quarter-final exit from the World Cup. With this serene backdrop, the fantasy of global meltdown has a sort of nobility, like the strange charm the Blitz has for people who have never actually experienced war.
Or perhaps, deep down, we don't really believe that we are perishable. In 2012, most of our central protagonists survive the erosion of almost all the world's landmass, as well as plane and car crashes, vicious fighting and extreme weather, with barely a graze between them. They end the film setting sail for Africa, miraculously reprieved from calamity and the cradle of a new civilisation. Perhaps disaster movies aren't actually about disasters, but the idea that they can't touch us.
If so, we could be in for a shock: according to most scientists (the real, non-Hollywood kind), the world is on the brink of climate disaster. It's just a lot slower and more insidious than the events of 2012 and unlikely to fall so conveniently in line with Mayan prophecies, making it harder to get excited about. Still, I've got my survival strategy: I'm going to get as close to John Cusack as possible. That guy seems able to survive anything.
Mark Watson's column runs fortnightly
Next week: Sophie Elmhirst