"More than machinery, we need humanity."
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.
It sure seems like things aren’t going particularly well out there, doesn’t it?
Before you answer that question, take a second to carefully consider exactly how you want to respond. After all, if you agree to readily with it (at least if you do so in a public forum) you may find yourself accused of trafficking in doomerism.
Doomerism seems to be everywhere these days. Where once the term (and its companion identification of doomer), was largely confined to discussions around climate change, the term is increasingly becoming a catch all for any and all glum pronouncements about the state of the world that shade into less than optimistic opinions about what the future will probably bring. There are climate doomers, and COVID doomers, and political doomers, oh my! If there is a serious issue around which some people are starting to vocally lose hope, than it seems that you will be able to find doomers (or, more accurately, those accused of being doomers) there. Senator Bernie Sanders has recently stated “we can’t give in to doomerism,” while Jane Costen (of the New York Times) devoted a recent newsletter to cataloging the wide variety of banners beneath which doomers seem to be gathering these days, and even as the climatologist Michael E. Mann notes that “good people fall victim to doomism. I do too sometimes” he suggests that “doom-mongering has overtaken denial.”
It is difficult to act as though everything is going wonderfully at the moment, and thus it may not be particularly surprising that a lot of the discourse surrounding serious issues is taking on a rather dreary tone. When confronted with a deluge of less-than-hopeful news stories, which are often being shared with morose sentiments on social media, it can certainly seem that doomerism is everywhere. And yet as we are warned of the scourge of doomerism, and advised to avoid it like toxic waste, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider what’s going on with all of these warnings about a new generation of sackcloth clad doom-sayers who are apparently everywhere.
[a few quick notes]
First, I do not consider myself to be a doomer or an advocate for doomerism.
Second, what follows is not (and should not be read as) an endorsement of doomerism but an attempt to consider what is and is not being said when the term doomer/doomerism gets thrown about (as is happening with increasing frequency).
Third, my research sits at the intersection of the history of technology and disaster studies—as such I spend a lot of time looking at the way that risks are discussed and framed, particularly as those worries reach the level of “apocalyptic” concern. Beyond this, much of my work also considers the history of technological criticism, which involves spending a lot of time reading over the work of individuals who were labeled “prophets of doom” even as they insisted that was not what they were. Which is to say, I spend a lot of my time studying the idea of impending doom.
Doomerism is a simple attempt to describe a much more complicated reality
Generally, doomerism is simply defined as the belief that all is lost, and that we are doomed. With the “we” in this formulation usually being treated as a stand-in for “all of humanity” or at least “civilization as we know it.” It is a straightforward definition, an easy way of summing up a belief that goes beyond a wary pessimism to embrace a fatalistic defeatism. With its focus on the inevitability of a grim “game over,” doomerism is framed as being a font of lethargy and apathy that accepts defeat and prepares to embrace the end. Or, to put it slightly differently, on a badly leaking ship navigating through perilous waters, doomerism is accused of being the belief that there is no point trying to repair the ship, or change course, or head for the lifeboats, or do anything other than sadly look out the windows and wait for the ship to go down.
Much of the appeal of the term doomerism seems to be bound up in its simplicity. It is a pithy shorthand for describing the miserable chorus of defeatists and the already defeated. Furthermore, the addition of the suffix “ism” serves to repackage these anxious feelings into a specific ideological worldview, with at least a core tenant (“all is lost”) that is supposedly shared by all the doomers. To the extent that some people feel they are increasingly encountering others giving voice to bleak perspectives (which is fair), the term doomerism provides a convenient shorthand for describing (and denouncing) all those woebegone flagellants.
Though the term doomerism appears to describe a worldview that is shared by its advocates and adherents, it would be better to see the term doomerism as an attempt to put a name on the perception that the emotional tenor of discussions has changed.
While the accused adherents of doomerism are often treated as being impervious to nuance and too quick to look for simple explanations, the term doomerism is itself sorely lacking in nuance and too quick to slap a simple explanation on those who are deemed to be doomers. Rather than engaging with actual arguments and anxieties, or genuinely considering what is being advocated for, the term doomerism works to affix a disqualifying label on a wide range of individuals—many of whom do not see themselves as being doomers. As the label of doomerism increasingly shifts out of climate change discourse to also be applied to the pandemic and other political struggles, the label of doomerism flattens significant differences between groups, ideas, and their critiques. Even as doomerism is elevated as a simple way of describing all of those who believe that “all is lost,” it winds up being used to label numerous different groups who aren’t really saying that. Indeed, the accusation of doomer winds up being broadly applied to figures disappointed by the Biden administration’s lack of urgency on climate change, groups who have the audacity to note that the pandemic hasn’t ended, and individuals who think that it isn’t enough to tell people to vote. Beyond flattening the differences between these various groups, the idea that these are all manifestations of a single ideology, the ideology of doomerism, turns attention away from what these people are actually saying and what they are actually arguing for and puts all of the attention on the tone in which those comments are made.
At core, doomerism is defined as the belief that all is lost. It is a simple and straightforward label that is eagerly affixed to a variety of individuals…regardless of whether or not those individuals actually believe that all is lost.
The idea that “the world is ending” is old, but doomerism is new
There is nothing particularly new about groups and individuals believing that the world is ending. History provides no shortage of instances where large or small numbers of people genuinely seemed to believe that the end had arrived. For much of history, and in many cases, these apocalyptic attitudes were closely bound up with religious ideas—but there are certainly other instances (which really became more prominent in the mid 19th century) wherein some also believed that humanity would be responsible for bringing the end about themselves. The overall fortunes of these various movements have varied widely overtime, some groups developed (at least for a time) sizable followings, yet the point is not to provide a comprehensive list of every apocalyptically minded group but to merely emphasize that apocalyptic groups are not particularly new. And such groups and individuals have a tendency to keep popping up across time (and place). Granted, the idea that “the end is near” tends to be one ascribed to haggard men yelling from street corners or strange religious groups in bizarre matching attire—we know there are people out there who genuinely believe the end of days is at hand, but we imagine (not incorrectly) that they can be mainly found grumbling at the societal fringe.
What gets presented as doomerism tends to be a sort of secularized apocalypticism that consists less of bearded men buying bunkers and more of dejected young people writing “we’re doomed” on social media. What is new about doomerism is not the belief that everything is going to come crashing down, but the sense that this attitude is migrating from the societal fringes and into mainstream discourse. Plenty of scholars study the figures on the apocalyptic fringe, and many journalists enjoy presenting the occasional story of such figures (“look at how weird these people are”), but such coverage rarely rises to the level of needing to warn against the scourge of doomerism for it is understood that such groups and their beliefs are on the fringe. The term doomerism is an attempt to concoct a new name not for those who are constructing bunkers and prepping for the end times, or for those who have gone all in on conspiracy theories, but for a shift in tone wherein many of those who are normally expected to be advocating for progress seem now to believe that we are in the midst of regress. Doomerism is the name for something that feels like a trend—albeit one that is not defined by a certain style of jeans, or everyone following a certain apocalyptic thinker, but instead by many people making bleak statements online.
Doomerism puts a name to the perception of a shift wherein pessimistic assessments of world events become more commonly voiced. What is new here is not that there are people who believe the world is really about to end (full stop), those people have pretty much always existed, and they still exist at the fringes today. What is new about doomerism is that today when people feel pessimistic about the state of the world they don’t just grumble under their breath, they state it online where those sentiments are seen by others. Because of the understanding that there is something different about these people and the stereotypical “doomsday preppers” there is a need to find a new way to describe them. Thus, doomerism.
The term doomerism is not about defining a particular belief, it is about defining people
The loudest and clearest advocates for the idea of doomerism are not people who think that all is lost, but the people who are accusing other people of believing that all is lost. Doomerism is not so much a coherent ideology or actual movement as it is a set of ides that some people project onto those with whom they disagree. Here, it doesn’t really matter whether or not a particular individual thinks of themselves as a “doomer” (or actually believes “all is lost”), what matters is that they are labeled a doomer by someone else—with that someone else probably being a person with a bigger platform or more clout. To respond to the accusation of doomerism by stating that you are not a doomer will not achieve much, the albatross has already been hung around your neck.
One of the functions of the term doomerism is that it sets clear boundaries for what passes as acceptable commentary. In the present moment it is understandable to be feeling anxious, and even to be feeling a bit down some of the times, but this anxiety and depression must still be conducted in the approved manner. A cup of worry, a teaspoon of despair, a tablespoon of grief—it is not so much that certain emotions are completely prohibited as that they are only permitted in certain amounts, and that they need to be balanced out by a complimentary supply of more positive feelings. And should the balance be off, one can protect oneself by making a self-deprecating comment about having a moment of doomerism, or one can be reprimanded as a doomer. Of course, the problem that arises here is that it can be quite difficult to figure out exactly the right way to express concern without being accused of doomerism. The recipe isn’t clear, and to the extent that it exists at all, it is always changing.
There is a real power in being able to label other people as doomers. In the act of bestowing this label, the accuser is able to draw out a clear contrast in which their own expression is the correct one whereas the other view is treated as an expression of disreputable doomerism. While it is certainly true that anyone can call anyone else a doomer, the ability to make this label stick is held most firmly by figures with larger platforms: prominent individuals in the climate movement can wield the term “doomer” (and the block button) to banish those who sound a bit too depressed, and commentators with easy access to marquee publications can deride as “doomers” anyone who is still wearing a N95 mask when they go grocery shopping. To be able to label someone else as a doomer, and to have that label stick, is to be able to police the boundaries of a particular discourse and set the terms for what are and are not acceptable viewpoints. After all, when someone calls you a “doomer” or refers to your arguments as “doomerism,” they aren’t paying you a compliment.
To be clear, there really are people who call themselves doomers, and there really are people who believe that “all is lost.” But that does not mean that these people are actually particularly numerous or particularly influential. Furthermore, it seems that many of those who have taken to calling themselves “doomers” have done so as a sort of rebellious retort to figures who accuse anyone who disagrees with them of doomerism. Certainly, self-described doomers can be found online, and some of them can be rude in heated online discussions (note: being rude in heated online discussions is hardly confined to doomers), but there is little evidence to believe that there is genuinely a mass movement of doomers being built. To the extent that doomers exist, they do not have their hands on the levers of power—the halls of political power (at least in the US) are filled with deniers and delayers, but how many doomers are there in Congress? To say it again, there really are some people who identify as doomers, but there are far more people who don’t identify as doomers (or believe that all is lost) who have found themselves labeled as doomers for the cardinal sin of sharing a depressing article or asking a prominent commentator a question in a pessimistic tone. When encountering the term doomerism it is vital to recognize that it is not only being used to describe a particular belief, but that it is being used to define a particular group of people. And as such it is important to consider who it is that is assigning that label and why they are doing so.
To a certain extent, if doomers did not exist their opponents would have to invent them. After all, doomers provide their opponents with a perfect figure against which to contrast their own views, and who they can appear wise and moderate in comparison to. Of course, there really are some doomers out there, but their ranks have been greatly exaggerated thanks to those who are eager to accuse anyone they disagree with of doomerism.
Doomerism is not a particular point on a spectrum, it is the spectrum
One person’s committed activist is another person’s doomer. One person’s statement of concern is another person’s doomerism. One person’s earnest attempt to sound the alarm is another person’s doomerism. And those who denounce others as doomers will likely find themselves derided as doomers by someone else. To the extent that doomerism functions largely as a way of describing others, it is all too easy for a person to find that they are being called a doomer…regardless of whether or not they see themselves that way.
The basic definition of doomerism is, of course, the belief that all is lost. But a more accurate definition of doomerism would be that it is a worldview that is somewhat more pessimistic than the worldview of the person making the accusation of doomerism. Or, it is a relatively similar worldview but stated in a manner that is somewhat more pessimistic than the world view of the person making the accusation of doomerism. One prominent person in the climate concerned community may label someone in their mentions as a doomer, even as a climate delayer may see the aforementioned prominent person as a doomer, even as a climate denier may label the climate delayer as a doomer—and, to be clear, that initial “someone in their mentions” probably does not see themselves as a doomer.
When it comes to matters of serious concern that (justifiably) generate impassioned responses it can be very difficult to determine the exact level of concern that it is warranted. And thus the accusation of doomerism can be haphazardly thrown about at any expression of concern that someone sees as slightly excessive. As was previously noted, framing others as doomers may function as a way to police the boundaries of discourse around a particular topic, but even having more than a passing concern for a particular topic is often enough to make one seem like a doomer to those who just aren’t that concerned.
Part of what allows doomerism to be such a useful term is the ease with which it can be tossed around as a descriptor. But this flexibility is precisely why it is worth being very careful with the term, for those who use it to describe others can quickly find that it is being used to describe them as well. And this is something to be particularly attuned to as the term doomerism moves more and more into mainstream political discourse. Those who have smirked as an acquaintance squirms as they try to argue that they are not a doomer and that they don’t really believe that all is lost, are likely to find themselves unhappily doing the same wriggling when someone else denounces them as a doomer.
Contrary to the simple definition often ascribed to it, doomerism is not a clear coherent spot on the spectrum of concern. Rather any point on the spectrum of concern can be labeled the spot where doomerism begins by someone on the opposite end of the spectrum.
When we talk about doomerism we risk glossing over the underlying issues
One need not believe that the end is near, or that all is lost, to believe that things aren’t going so great at the moment. From climate change to the pandemic to the spread of monkeypox to the rollback of reproductive rights to the growth of white supremacy to the faltering of institutions to the spread of misinformation to…the list goes on and on. There are plenty of things that are worthy of serious concern at the moment. To be clear these are very real issues that are imperiling people’s lives right now at this very moment—these are not potential threats to a hypothetical future, they are dangers to people today. And though it is possible to respond to many of these current issues with some variation of “it’s not that bad” or “it isn’t that bad yet” it is worth recognizing that many of these problems are already considerably worse than many people ever though they would become (and “it’s not that bad yet [for me]” does not mean that it is not yet already that bad for others).
We are facing numerous very serious issues at the moment. Decrying doomerism often functions as a way of shifting attention off of the issues themselves, even while making it seem like those issues are being discussed.
Doomerism is framed as excess. While there are some who use the accusation of doomerism to mock those who are even moderately concerned, it is more common to see the accusation of doomerism used as a way of saying “it isn’t really that bad” or “it won’t really get that bad.” Here, it is not so much a matter of denying the existence of the source of concern, but of trying to push forward a reassuring sentiment regarding the source of concern. Rather than engage with the forces that are leading more and more people to feel increasingly pessimistic, a focus on doomerism treats the pessimism itself as the main problem. In other words, the problem isn’t that there is still a pandemic going on, the problem is that people are still hung up on the fact that there’s still a pandemic going on. Thus the attention gets shifted off of the problems and placed instead on the emotional responses to those problems. This creates a cycle wherein worrying begets worse worrying which in turn begets worse worrying which eventually so completely burns people out that they become apathetic husks who sit at home awaiting a grim end that they have accepted as inevitable. Yet such a focus on worrying begetting worrying tends to overlook the ways in which the worsening of real world conditions has given rise to that worrying.
As the terms doomer and doomerism have increasingly entered mainstream discourse they have been eagerly taken up as a way of acknowledging the existence of genuine hazards while swiftly pivoting away from an attempt to really grapple with those hazards. After all, it’s easier (and more fun) to mock those who seem to be overly concerned than it is to really consider what it is that is driving their concern. In a society where the prevailing response to problems is “don’t worry, go shopping!” those who are worried and refraining from shopping must be denounced for their refusal to “live with it” and “get back to normal.” Thus, the problem that doomerism names is not the underlying issues that give rise to anxiety, but the anxiety itself.
The accusation of doomerism hides real debates and disagreements
Anyone who has spent much time in and around activist or organizing spaces/social movements knows that disagreements between activists are not really that uncommon. Even within a movement where all of the activists are supposedly drawn together by their shared commitment to a given cause it is quite common to find that individuals often have different analyses, a range of perspectives, and conflicting ideas about what should be done. In such spaces there will be some who think the situation is more dire alongside others who think the situation doesn’t really look that bad, there will be some who carry a weariness gained from years in the movement and others displaying the ecstatic energy of having just joined, and even as the people involved may be united around a particular cause they may be deeply divided around what is to be done about it. Protest marches or blockades? Electoral politics or community organizing? Create a podcast or distribute pamphlets on the corner? Get arrested on purpose or try to fight for an issue through the courts? All of these tactics or none of these tactics? And there will often be a great deal of argument over which of these tactics work best. After all, activist movements do not have unlimited time or unlimited resources and so they must be strategic in terms of what they are doing.
Within activist movements accusations of doomerism often function to occlude serious debates and disagreements around tactics. And oftentimes to suggest that a certain tactic has failed, or that a given movement needs to consider altering its tactics, can result in the label of doomer coming out. This frequently plays out the most strongly in questions around engaging with electoral politics, wherein those who have given up on electoral politics as an avenue for change are accused of having given up entirely. Indeed, as the term doomerism moves further away from activist circles it tends to be used more and more as a way of describing those who have lost faith in the capabilities of the institutions of liberal democracy.
There are very real disagreements within activist movements, and very real disagreements amongst activists. Heck, a lot of activists think the activists they are sitting next to are quite annoying. In facing a range of very serious problems, there are inevitably going to be disagreements between activists about what is to be done. And some of those disagreements are going to involve one person or another saying something like “I don’t think marches are that effective” or “voting isn’t sufficient” or “we’ve been trying that tactic for years and it hasn’t stopped the situation from getting worse.” These are genuine points of debate, and they are debates that can often get quite contentious, but too often throwing around the term doomer just serves to make it seem like saying “I don’t think this will work” is synonymous with saying “nothing can possibly work.”
Of course, activists are always on the lookout for things that will cause their movements to crumble. And there is often genuine worry that overly pessimistic voices will extinguish the hopeful embers that are so important for any activist movement. Thus, doomerism is sometimes seen as a dangerous infestation that threatens to destroy a movement from within by spreading despair. Nevertheless, movements cannot simply ignore those within their own ranks who are losing hope, and labeling someone a doomer does not do particularly much to rekindle feelings of hope within that individual.
There are certainly some activists out there who feel pessimistic about the state of the world. But if they genuinely believed that all was lost, if they were truly hardcore doomers, than they probably wouldn’t be engaging in activism at all. There are a lot of people who get labeled as doomers (and even many who call themselves doomers) who are still out there trying to do the work. And it’s easier to sit in a comfortable chair and label someone else a doomer than it is to go and do the difficult work.
Responding to a cry for help with an insult doesn’t achieve very much
Imagine the following scenario: one day you are going about your regular affairs when you receive a message from a friend. In the message your friend admits that whenever they look at the news of late they feel increasingly beaten down. Things, to them, look pretty bad out there, and they are starting to worry that things are just going to get worse. They confess to you that they are starting to lose faith in the future, and that things are feeling increasingly pointless to them. To your knowledge this particular friend does not struggle with depression, and though you would not describe them as an excessively optimistic person, you also certainly wouldn’t describe them as an ardent pessimist either. So, how would you respond to their message?
Chances are you wouldn’t respond to their message by saying “shut up doomer” or “okay doomer” or “I refuse to engage with doomers” or “you’re starting to sound like a doomer.” After all, this is friend, who sounds like they could use some help, or reassurance, or just a sympathetic listener—the idea that you would respond by insulting them or belittling their concerns seems like a harsh thing to do.
Granted, this matter does get more complicated when the person expressing those feelings is not a friend directly (and privately) contacting you. It is not uncommon (or morally wrong) to feel that you have a greater obligation to be there for your friends than you have for a random person with a cartoon avatar who has just responded to one of your tweets. Climate scientists are not social workers, epidemiologists are not religious leaders, academics who study a particular subject are not necessarily therapists, journalists who cover politics are not psychiatrists—it is wrong to expect them to be able to provide sensitive and thoughtful counseling to every anxious person who replies to them or contacts them. Yet mocking (and then blocking) those who are expressing a feeling of hopelessness does not do terribly much to snap people out of those feelings of hopelessness. And simply replying to a cry of despair with a mountain of scientific studies and an assurance that everything is going to be okay, is not necessarily going to be enough to counter a sentiment born not from a lack of faith in science but from a lack of faith in a society’s ability to act upon the science in a timely manner.
Many of the sentiments that get grouped together under the heading of doomerism should potentially be seen as cries for help. These public expressions of despair are frequently statements of the deep misgivings people are feeling, and sometimes represent confessions that one is feeling uprooted and rudderless. To the extent that these statements are made in online spaces there may be a degree of anonymized freedom, where people feel that they can state their worries without the fear of being deemed a party-pooper by their friends at home. Feelings of despair and depression can easily lead to a person feeling extremely isolated and alone, which in turn can exacerbate these expressions of despair and depression—and yet by putting these emotions out there, by being willing to state them, individuals are able to send out a signal flare that this is where they are. And by looking at the other flares flying through the sky they may be able to get a sense that they are not alone in feeling hopeless. Sometimes the best counter for doomerism is to simply say “I understand how you feel. I often feel worried too.”
There are trolls, and conspiracy fans, and people who just like to argue, and bad faith arguments, and delayers, and minimizers, and deniers, and much else out there. And no one is really under any particular obligation to devote their own time or their own mental/emotional resources to arguing with such people. But at the core of the arguments around doomerism is a sense that what makes doomerism significant, and what makes it worthy of attention, is that it is something increasingly cropping up in progressive/activist spaces—that it is a threat precisely because it is appearing amongst those who one would generally see as allies. When someone tells you that it’s hopeless because the lizard people are controlling everything from their secret base on the Moon—yeah, you should probably ignore them and move on. When someone tells you that they aren’t willing to show up to any more climate actions because they feel hopeless (and they feel too many activists have stopped taking pandemic precautions)—well, that might be a person it’s actually worth having a conversation with. You don’t need to agree that everything is doomed, in order to listen empathetically to why a friend (or ally in a movement) is feeling that way. There are a lot of committed organizers and activists out there who struggle with feelings of despair, even as they maintain a positive façade, and sometimes what those whose spirit is flagging need to hear is not a lecture on the importance of optimism but an acknowledgement that you can feel despair and still keep fighting.
To give hope to those losing hope is difficult. But you probably aren’t going to do it by responding to those losing hope by rolling your eyes and sighing “ok doomer.”
Not every person who says “we’re doomed” online really means it
When doomerism is inveighed against, the phenomena is frequently treated as a largely online activity. There are references to tweets, or YouTube videos, or Reddit threads, or Facebook posts—any amount of offline doomerism appears miniscule besides the mountain of online doomerism. Here it is worth restating that many of those who are accused of doing doomerism do not see what they are doing that way, and do not see themselves as doomers—but a more important point might be to simply note that not every comment made online should be taken at face value. Or, to be clear, a person writing the comment “we’re doomed” above an article they are sharing about something bad happening, is not necessarily saying that they really and truly believe that the end is near and all hope is lost. Such a statement could be meant as a joke, it could be intentional hyperbole, it could be an attempt to raise awareness in the hopes that doing so will lead to people taking action, it could just be an instance of trolling, and it could also just be a reflection of that person feeling particularly depressed in the moment when they made that comment.
It would be foolish to suggest that what people do and say online does not matter. But it is equally foolish to interpret every glum pronouncement made in an online space as evidence that the person making that statement believes the world is ending.
The future is uncertain (for better or for worse)
At risk of making a point so obvious that it is banal, nobody really knows what will happen next. Things can get better, things can get worse, or things can keep going the way that they are going now. Furthermore, if one is willing to make the seemingly unthinkable move of looking to history one will find that there is past evidence of things getting better, and things getting worse, and things continuing to plug along for a time. And in considering “better,” “worse,” and “staying the same” it is essential consider which groups of people those descriptors are really covering. Of course, this very uncertainty provides ample space for disagreement as well as ample space for anxiety. For the future is shrouded in an infinite number of “what ifs?” and each of those “what ifs?” in turn spawns its own multitude of “what ifs?” Beyond history, the nature of much scientific forecasting feeds easily into this as the range of presented possibilities provides space for some to advocate for the more optimistic potential outcome even as others argue for the more pessimistic outcome.
Doomerism is treated as a belief that looks at the future and anticipates that it will be worse than the present. And generally it is treated as anticipating a future that will be dramatically (catastrophically) worse than today. It takes a look at the scientific projections and concludes that the worst case possibility is going to be the most likely outcome.
Some critics of doomerism reply by simply countering this grim view of the future with an optimistic vision of the future, a certainty that things will get better, and a can-do attitude that treats the various problems facing humanity as ones that the species will be able to solve. Such optimism looks at those scientific projections and concludes that the political and social will necessary for the best case scenario to unfold will be mustered before it is too late.
At the same time, the most compelling critics of doomerism emphasize the unwritten nature of the future in order to argue that what the future holds will be shaped by what people make of it. Thus, these critics warn that doomers risk bringing about the collapse they fear by refusing to do everything possible to stop that future from coming into being. Here the critique of doomers represents a critique of apathy, which sees doomerism as a belief that leads people to give up hope, and to stop trying to do anything to fight for a better future. This is likely the strongest form of critique of doomerism. Granted, there is still the danger that this critique winds up painting disagreements over “what is to be done?” into accusations that people want to give up entirely. In a moment such as this, there is a great deal of work that needs to be done—and just because a person decides that they are done investing their time in one particular tactic, doesn’t mean that they aren’t pouring that energy into other tactics (that can also be quite worthwhile).
There will always be some who feel more optimistic about the future, there will always be some who feel more pessimistic about the future, and there will always be some who split the difference by emphasizing that the future will be what we are willing to make it. In moments when things seem to be going well it is likely that more people will feel optimistic about the future, and by the same token, in moments when things seem to be going badly it is likely that more people will feel pessimistic about the future. When times are good, pessimists tend to be ignored: to the extent that their glum pronouncements are even heard they are simply scoffed at while they are banished to the fringes of polite discourse. When times are bad, pessimists need to be tamed: to the extent that some of their past grim pronouncements have been proven correct, it becomes essential to argue that they won’t be right going forward, to treat them as exaggerators, and to firmly usher them back to the fringes of polite discourse while delivering a stark warning to any who might consider following them back to the margins.
Or to put it slightly differently, when things are going well, nobody needs to bother devoting much time or energy to denouncing those in the throes of despair; but when things aren’t going well suddenly everyone seems to be concerned about the danger of doomerism.
In the midst of a climate crisis, and the rollback of reproductive rights, and a pandemic, and the increasing mainstreaming of white supremacist ideas, and a pox, and surging fascism, and assaults on civil rights, and rising rents, and attacks on the LBGTQ community, and rampant high-tech surveillance, and mass shootings, and much else—it can be easy to believe that the future (at least the immediate future) looks bleak, because our present looks and feels pretty bleak. And to say “it isn’t really that bad” is insulting to anyone who has just had their rights stripped away, who can no longer safely be who they are in the place they live, whose home has been destroyed by a climate exacerbated disaster, who is struggling with long COVID, and these are but a few samples of the sorts of suffering people are dealing with at the moment.
It is unclear what precisely the future holds for us. It could be better. It could be worse. Alas, the discussions of doomerism have less to do with attempting to forecast the future than they do with an attempt to discourage a sentiment in the present. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what those who are derided as doomers are really saying, nor does it matter how many genuine doomers there really are, because doomerism is less about describing a coherent ideology or a specific group of people than it is about defending an optimistic vision of the future at a moment in time when the daily news makes that optimism difficult to sustain.
Doomerism is not going away any time soon. This is not because doomerism is a particularly accurate description of some well-organized group of ne’er do wells that must be defeated out there, but because doomerism is a term that captures a feeling that many of us are wrestling with internally.
It is not that we are living in a crisis of doomerism. It is that we are living amidst so many crises.
A Coda, of sorts
“It is not up to us to complete the task, but we have no right to abstain from it.” – Mishnah, Pirkei Avot.
Be Afraid! But Not that Afraid? – On Climate Doom
A Review of “The Uninhabitable Earth”
A Review of “We’re Doomed. Now What?”
The Sky Isn’t Falling – Jonathan Franzen, Doomer?
Jonah, Cassandra, and the Doom-Sayers – Re-reading Lewis Mumford During the Pandemic