"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Except this star there is nothing, I thought, and it
Is a wasteland.
It is our only refuge and this
Is what it looks like.
First, the bad news: the world is going to end.
But, don’t worry, there’s plenty of time. Really, an almost inconceivable amount of time. Around 4.5 billion years’ worth of time.
Alas, after those billions of years have elapsed the dying sun will turn into a red giant, which is a process that the planet Earth is not going to survive. It will be the end of the world. Not just “the end” for whatever lifeforms are calling Earth home 4.5 billion years from now, but for the planet itself.
But that’s not the point.
That isn’t what people usually mean when they talk about “the end of the world.”
History is filled with groups and individuals who were convinced that the world was going to end. Though such premonitions were at times cast into a vaguely defined future, it has also been quite common for various groups to express confidence that they would see the end of the world in their own lifetimes. Granted, such an “end” did not usually entail a full stop, so much as it represented the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another. In some cases, this meant that god (or gods) would arrive, deliver judgment, and inaugurate a new era; in still other cases history was seen as cyclical, and thus each phase would gradually come to a conclusion so that the next phase could begin; often, the “end” was a condition of a prophecy that needed to be fulfilled so that something else could begin; and in some instances the talk of an “end” was an attempt to explain the catastrophic occurrences that were playing out in the world at the time.
Furthermore, it should be noted, within many of these “end” scenarios, those who spoke most animatedly about it believed that they would in some way be the beneficiary of this “end.” The wicked would be brought low and the meek would be rewarded, suffering would be redeemed, balance would be restored, the dead would be reborn, an age of darkness would be replaced by an age of truth, and so forth. This is not the space to provide an exhaustive catalog of apocalypses foretold, yet the key thing to understand when considering how “the end of the world” was thought about for much of human history is that this “end” was usually not seen as being brought by human forces. Certainly, humans could act (or be compelled to act) in ways that would fulfill some of the conditions outlined in a particular prophecy, but “the end” would in most cases be brought by forces other than humans.
In this situation the key part of the phrase was not “the world” but “the end,” and what mattered most was the way in which this “end” also represented a beginning.
Clearly this is something of an oversimplification. But, funny though it may sound to say it, there is a long history to “the end of the world.” A basic understanding of some of the recurrent themes and shifts of that history is useful for making sense of the present.
Starting around 1945 there was a dramatic shift in the way that “the end of the world” was discussed. With the arrival of the atomic age (which was announced to the world by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), suddenly “the end of the world” ceased to simply be a concern for the religious fringe and became a topic of concern and conversation even amongst the top scientific minds of the day. You need not dig particularly deep into the things being written about the early atomic age to unearth numerous individuals stating that humanity had now seized on godlike power, without simultaneously attaining the godlike wisdom necessary to ensure that such power would be used responsibly. And as the arms race ramped up, with the A-bombs swiftly being dwarfed by H-bombs, there seemed to be compelling evidence to back up those grim premonitions. The fear over what a full scale nuclear war would do to the world shifted the focus in “the end of the world,” from this occurrence being a religious end that would bring about a new beginning, to simply being the end. Nuclear war was not the trumpet that would bring in the kingdom of god, it was the roar that would bring an end to all things. The key element here being that now “the end” would not be brought by god (or gods) but by humanity.
This was no longer divine judgement or the fulfillment of a prophecy, it was human hubris gone catastrophically awry.
In the twentieth century, the threat of nuclear annihilation was not the only source of concern for how humanity might bring about its own end. Long before Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission, there were already those who sought to raise the alarm that humanity’s meddling with the planet could lead to dire consequences (with many of these voices pre-dating the twentieth century). And even as voices were raised about the dangers of nuclear weapons, so too rose a chorus of voices warning about the possibly perilous impacts of the other ways that humans were reshaping the planet. There was the threat of nuclear winter, but there was also the threat of a “silent spring” – and avoiding the former did not mean that the latter ceased to be a threat. While the apocalyptic danger of nuclear war was clearly tied to an overwhelming negative (horrific acts of war), the growing environmental concern was linked to the many negative consequences of things that on their faces seemed less negative. One of the grim ironies of scientific work in the twentieth century is that much of the research that was conducted to make sense of what would happen in the event of a nuclear war provided fresh insight into the fragility of the ecosystem and how humanity had already meddled with it to a dangerous degree. The environment that had once been a source of abundance and life was steadily being transformed into a hazardous zone, and the very forces of progress (scientific and technological advancement) were largely responsible for this transformation.
“End” ceased to be a signal of the start of some new preordained era. Instead the attention shifted to “the world,” and to a recognition that what humanity was ushering in could well be the world’s end. And one did not need to put any stock in the book of revelations, to understand that such an end would be bad for human beings.
By the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, the apocalyptic concern du jour has undergone something of a transformation from the concerns that had been dominant for most of the twentieth century. Of course, the threat of nuclear weapons is still very much out there (and will be out there as long as these weapons exist), and occurrences in international politics occasionally draw more attention to this matter—but most school children today are not learning to “duck and cover.” Rather, at the start of the third decade of the twenty-first century the primary “end of the world” concern is an environmental concern: namely climate change. Of course, there are plenty of other things happening that lead to apocalyptic anxiety (dystopian technology, the rise of xenophobic authoritarianism, the widening wealth gap), but few routinely rise to the level of fear that climate change can evoke. While there are certainly many who were preoccupied with the dangers of climate change long before the present, a major turning point in the public awareness arguably occurred in October of 2018 when the UN’s IPCC released the report from which the main takeaway has generally been “we have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe” (as the Guardian put it).
Warnings about the end of the world are easy (and happily) dismissed when they are shouted by ragged men with sandwich boards bellowing on the street corner, but when it’s the IPCC and other scientific bodies saying it…well…it’s harder to ignore.
Compared to past instances of fears over “the end of the world,” climate change has resulted in a reaction that represents an odd balancing act from those most committed to combating it. Namely, the bulk of them have been extremely cautious in deploying the doom and gloom terminology that were often deployed by anti-nuclear war activists and parts of the environmental movement in the twentieth century. Indeed, a hallmark of much work by the climate concerned has been to devote time to distancing themselves from those who openly think climate change means “the end of the world.” The climate concerned even have their own term of derision to put down those who are overly glum and not sufficiently committed to fighting to the last breath, that term is “doomer.” This pushback largely comes from a position that identifies a key distinction between past “end of the world” scenarios and climate change, namely that climate change is not a distinct one off event, but the result of a cascading series of millions of small events. For it’s not really that “we have 12 years” and then it ends. After all, if not enough is done in 12 years’ time there will still be work to be done in that 13th year. Granted, the images of flooding from Indonesia, and fires in Australia, that have started 2020, certainly provide stark apocalyptic visuals.
Yet, in keeping with broader thinking about “the end of the world,” one of the significant things about climate change is that it turns “the end of the world” from an event into an ongoing process. And it is a process that we can fight, or with which we can be complicit.
Most apocalyptic scenarios tend to be highly anthropocentric. Which is not entirely surprising considering that the apocalyptic thinking with which we are most familiar is the work of humans (rabbits might have their own stories about the end of the world, but we don’t know them). In religious versions, there is a god (or gods) who is deeply concerned with human lives and takes some form of action in response to humanity. The apocalyptic myth may feature a demigod figure who in some way courts their own downfall, but this figure is often a stand in for humanity. In the modern scientific apocalyptic, humanity is the bringer of its own doom (meaning that humanity has the power to do this). Both visions see humanity as being somehow necessary to the planet, and thus see a planet without humans as being devoid of meaning (insofar as it is devoid of us, the meaning makers). It is essential to note that such anthropocentric apocalypses (the religious and the scientific) do not represent the only ways that cultures have contemplated the planet and their relationship to it. Yet such anthropocentric apocalypses continue to be the dominant views in the background of most contemporary discussions of “the end of the world.”
In fairness, a certain degree of anthropocentrism is understandable, and it is not inherently a bad thing. Put slightly differently, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with humans being concerned for the well-being of other humans – unless this concern starts to privilege only certain groups of other humans, or unless this concern fails to recognize how reliant on other forces human well-being is. However, when contemplating “the end of the world” it is useful to remember that “a world without humans” and “the end of the world” are not synonyms. For much of the history of planet Earth there were no humans on it. And viewing the long history of the planet as being a process that has culminated in human beings, is rather self-centered. It may not be fun to contemplate, but there may well be a time in the future when there are no humans on the planet again. The planet (probably) does not weep for the dinosaurs, and it will (probably) not weep for us–though this doesn’t mean that we are not entitled to weep for ourselves. If you go to a natural history museum you can see the bones of creatures that wandered this planet long before humans, and it isn’t impossible that someday human bones will be discovered by a lifeform that comes after us. Importantly, the point is not to encourage misanthropy or nihilism, but when contemplating the end of the world it is essential to keep in mind that what we’re generally thinking about and talking about is not really “the end of the world,” but rather “the end of our world.”
Or, to put it another way, when people talk about “the end of the world,” what they’re really talking about is “the end of the world as we know it.”
Unfortunately, rather than clarifying the matter, affixing “as we know it” to “the end of the world” just serves to open up a whole other set of problems and questions. Granted, the problems and questions that it opens up are precisely the sorts of things that one needs to wrestle with.
These questions include (but are not limited to): who is the “we” in “the end of the world as we know it”? Who is included in this “we” and who is excluded from this “we”? To what extent do people (even those who should know better) project “the world as I know it” into being synonymous with “the world as everyone knows it”? What are some of the different ways that “the world as we know it” appears to the different we(s) of the world? What is genuinely meant by “know it”? In what ways is “know it” bound up with the present? How is “the world as we know it” different from “the world as our great-great-great grandparents knew it”? In maintaining “the world as we know it” what will the implications be for “the world as our great-grandchildren will know it” What events and historical factors have shaped “the world as we know it”? If it’s important to hold onto the “we,” is the only real way to think about “the world as we know it” to focus on some basic scientific points about the climatic conditions necessary for the survival of human beings? What happens if “we” is expanded beyond narrow anthropocentric definitions? Would “the end of the world as we know it” really be “the end of the world”?
All of these questions (and many others) need to be considered, though few of them will provide simple solutions. Luckily, the world isn’t over yet, so we still have time to search for answers.
To think about “the end of the world as we know it” is to think about the future. Indeed, this focus on the shape of things to come is one of the elements that unites religiously inflected apocalyptic premonitions with the scientifically inflected impending doom anxiety of today. Here, the concern is with “the end” precisely because “the end” has not yet come. Its outlines can be seen on the horizon, the signs of its approach can be discerned, but it is not yet here. If “the end” had already happened, there would not be nearly as much need to grouse and grumble about its coming. After all, if “the end” had really happened, there wouldn’t be any need (or any people) to worry about it.
The focus on the future is still present in the pivot from “the end of the world” to “the end of the world as we know it;” however, switching the focus to “as we know it” demands that attention be directed backwards as well. And when one looks back one finds plenty of instances in which people (and peoples) experienced, endured, or were destroyed in “the end of the world as they knew it.” There are too many of these instances to name, and there is a risk of flattening out vital differences between events if they are incautiously lumped together. Suffice to say that most of the galling blood soaked chapters of human history involve one group of people experiencing “the end of the world as they knew it” at the hands of another group of people. Many peoples throughout history have already experienced their apocalypse, many groups of people throughout history have seen “the world as they knew it” reduced to ash, and for many groups of people throughout history (and today) “the end of the world” is not a curio for scholarly musing but a memory that they feel within their bones.
“The end of the world as we know it” is not merely something ahead of us, it is also something that is behind us, and it is something that is all around us.
The “prophet of doom” is an oft maligned character. Cassandra, Jonah, the boy who cried wolf, chicken little, the stereotypical idea of the unshaven man with a sandwich board reading “the end is nigh”—these are not heroic figures.
Generally speaking, people don’t like to be told that “the end of the world as you know it” is near. And this makes quite a bit of sense, as many people are quite comfortable with the world as they know it. Even if they may recognize that there are many deficiencies of that world, there is still a temptation to bristle when one is told that in the future you may need to do something extremely outlandish like, say, eat less meat, fly less, or stop buying a new phone every eighteen months. Granted, “prophets of doom” have been met with varied reactions throughout history, there have been periods when such figures were thought to cause peasant uprisings and so they were killed by those in power—but today they’re more likely to just be ignored. And yet if the twentieth century has taught us anything (and it probably hasn’t) it is that we should not be so quick to ignore those warning of calamity. We, or our forebears, were warned about many of our present predicaments (including climate change) quite a long time ago by figures who were often derided in their time as “prophets of doom.” Perhaps, the present would look quite different if such figures had been taken more seriously.
Of course, many prophecies of doom don’t come to pass. And, to be clear, that is a good thing—we should be pleased that an all-out nuclear war hasn’t happened to definitively test the nuclear winter hypothesis. And, of course, many a prophecy of doom is riddled with reactionary views and foul politics. Yet, at the very least, such prophecies (and such prophets) should remind us that the world around us, indeed the world “as we know it” is much more fragile than we like to think.
Yes, there are some who are always shouting about wolves.
But, we should not forget that there are a lot of wolves out there.
Here is a massively broad claim that is difficult to back up with iron clad peer-reviewed evidence, but which still seems to be true: more and more people are coming to the conclusion that they are currently living through “the end of the world as we know it.” The signs of this aren’t particularly difficult to discern, you just need to look at the environment section of any decent newspaper to find plenty of articles laying out the ways in which the planet is going to look very different twenty years from now. And according to the venerable Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists we are now only 100 seconds to midnight–closer than we’ve ever been before.
What matters is not this information, but what one does with it.
“The end of the world as we know it” is not the same thing as “the end of the world,” and this means that it need not necessarily be a reason for despair. To be clear, one should be careful about avoiding apocalyptic romanticism and fantasizing about building a better world on the ruins of this one, but that is not the only approach here. After all, there are many areas of “the world as we know it” that could stand to be improved dramatically. “The world as we know it” is built upon imperial extractive anthropocentric worldviews that have generally treated the planet as an infinite source of raw material and as a toilet—a world that is guided by a different view would be quite different from “the world as we know it.” Throughout history “the end of the world” was often seen not only as an ending, but also as a beginning, and that is worth remembering in this moment.
4.5 billion years from now the world is going to end. There’s not much point in thinking about that now. But we’re currently seeing “the end of the world as we know it” playing out in real time all around us, and there’s a lot we can still do to determine what comes next.
100 seconds to midnight is not a lot of time. But midnight need not mean certain doom, it can also presage a new dawn.