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I’m writing this on a train. Looking out the window, I reflexively scout for raised, defensible structures away from main roads. I’ve done this since I was 10, planning for when the time came. I thought a lot, then, about when the time came. I planned how, when the nuclear strike began, my parents, five siblings, and I would initially squeeze into the only room in the house two doors away from the outside, how long we’d last with a bathtub full of water to drink, and how soon we should strike out for somewhere safer.
Imagining the apocalypse is something agreeably drastic and cleansing to do with your fear. But it doesn’t survive contact with reality. When my school closed for a couple of days because of Chernobyl, we treated the potential wind-borne radiation as a snow day and spent much of it playing in the fields.
There’s something in the air, right now. As the far right are normalized by mainstream media and toxic hard-men consolidate their power, it has become clear that the “end of history,” when capitalist democracy everywhere was just a matter of time, was itself a historic anomaly. And those postwar decades, when states actively and successfully shaped capitalism into something that served people and not the other way around, seem to have slipped from our grasp. Historians and political scientists warn that the tide of history has turned, that the future now flows from the east, and that it is very much like the authoritarian past.
Elsewhere, we leapfrog not from agrarianism into the high-tech, high-skills economy, but from feudalism into sleazy oligarchy. Silicon Valley startups are emerging with business models that bake in the assumption that democracy has maybe 20 years left to run, and they are attracting serious backers and serious money. We are collectively losing faith in our future at the precise moment humanity as a whole needs to think decades and centuries ahead.
Living Our Worst Nightmares
At critical moments, the dark fantasies we indulge in reveal our imagined enemies. In the 1960s, British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss noticed that some English postwar novels featured “cozy catastrophes,” where triffids/endless winter/viruses and the government largely wiped out the working class. Postwar British life, with the National Health Service and expansion of education and the welfare state, had disrupted the class system in ways the already privileged found hard to accept. So some of them just imagined the barbarous masses away. Jo Walton describes the bittersweet aftermath:
The survivors wander around an empty city, usually London, regretting the lost world of restaurants and symphony orchestras. There’s an elegiac tone, so much that was so good has passed away. Nobody ever regrets football matches or carnivals. Then they begin to rebuild civilization along better, more scientific lines.
The British postwar cozy catastrophe is the missing link between the zombie movies we love today and early 20th-century high-modernist horror of cities, mass transit, and popular culture. It arcs all the way back to the millenarian thinking that flourished during the Black Death as an ecstatic imagining of impending doom. Millenarianism pops up everywhere humans feel oppressed. It imagines that the religious, political, and social wrongs of the current order will be washed away in a cataclysm that spares only the righteous — who then build a new utopia.
Pockets of the millenarian disease are spreading, and this time, they’re coming after democracy. Chris Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower, said Steve Bannon wanted to use far-right propaganda to destroy society before building it up again in the image of the far, far right. In the UK, some “lexiteers,” leftists who support Brexit, foresee an economic and political failure out of which the phoenix of pure socialism will surely rise. Their unlikely allies are the disaster capitalists who usher in nationalist crises, confident they’ll turn a profit on it. After the revolution, it will all be different, and the select few will start again, this time along scientific/socialist/racial purity lines.
“Drinking the Kool-Aid” means downing artificially sweetened poison in a ritualistic act of collective suicide.
In the Phillipines, Turkey, Russia, Hungary, and Venezuela, the hard men insist democracy is a pretty sham that we use to usher in different flavors of corrupt authoritarianism. Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s embrace of finance capitalism, they insist “there is no alternative” to disaster and no alternative to them. Duterte, Erdogan, Putin, Orban, Maduro—all offer the dark seduction of Armageddon while holding themselves out as the only thing standing between us and it. There’s a reason both the old, hard left and the newish hard right believe Putin is the answer to the questions they think no one else is asking.
It feels “strong” to think absolutely everything is shit and to imagine smashing it all, going out in a blaze of glory to a background of dawning horror on the faces of everyone who didn’t enrich you or valorize you or give you sex. But we shouldn’t mistake this for any more than what it is; an adolescent jerk-off fantasy shaped by criminal politicians into national suicide cults.
They want us all to go down with them. We refuse.
Thinking the Future Is a Dystopia Is Helping to Make It One
There is a kind of postapocalyptic fiction that gets how serious this all is but doesn’t start with an orgasmic death drive that tidies everyone difficult or messy out of the picture. It even articulates a positive potential future.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel New York 2140 imagines an Earth where the sea level has risen by a couple of hundred meters, destroying countries and lives and playing havoc with coastal property values. It describes our current future; millions have perished, and the 400 richest people on the planet own half its wealth. New York in 2140 is a hip, woke Venice, full of domestic refugees trying to stay afloat in a sinking world. Its people are inventive and energetic, even though each successive technological mitigation for climate change is gobbled up by financial capitalism’s metastatic growth.
Robinson explains a lot of why this is the way it is. He dramatizes how corporate finance formulae and company accounting rules discount the future and disincentivize action to arrest climate change. Discount rates are like compound interest rates in reverse: The higher we set the discount rate, the less we think our assets will be worth in the future. If you run a country or a planet like a business, the further into the future you look, the higher the risk to your assets and returns, so the less they are worth as time goes on. Or, as Frank Ackerman puts it, high discount rates make it hard to see the costs we are imposing on the future.
Capitalism discounts the future as it destroys it. This is as obvious as air and just as hard to see.
The sociologist Erik Olin Wright, writing about whether to tame or blow up capitalism, says, “Neoliberalism is an ideology, backed by powerful political forces, rather than a scientifically accurate account of the actual limits we face in making the world a better place.”
He’s right. How we discount the future is a political choice that privileges us, today, over future generations. Our slavish reverence for the peculiar form of capitalism we have unleashed is nothing more than a fairy tale we tell as we feed our children to the big, bad wolf.
New York 2140 is no fairy tale; it’s a counter-story that tells the unshiny truth while casting bread crumbs of hope. It follows a colorful band of characters well placed to influence events. (It’s a marvelous read, with cheeky urchins tracking Melville’s ghost, hackers of little clue, engineering accomplishments, doughty public servants, unusual couplings, and polar bears loose on an airship.) A lesser novel would have had its feisty protagonists turn the ship of state. New York 2140 does something much smarter and harder. It shows how we might all course-correct together, eventually, even as we continue to cock things up.
The Instinct to Look the Other Way
Our ability to think clearly about the future is clouded not just by metastatic capitalism underpinned by arbitrary accounting rules, but also by our individual and collective denial of mortality in a culture where dying mostly happens offstage; the end of “the end of history” and the apparent fact of democracy in retreat, globally; the old saw that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism; and the dawning knowledge that the future will be worse than the present, and that it’s our fault, and that the reasons we can’t change what we are doing seem fundamental to who and what we are.
The future is becoming unbearable. Is it true that all we have left are consequences?
The British writer Greg Norminton (whose novel The Devil’s Highway follows an old Roman road from ancient times into the climate-changed future) says the consolation of feeling rooted in places that will flourish after our deaths is slipping:
We don’t realise, on the whole, how much the continuity of a place matters to us, how consoling it is to feel, as people have for most of history, that however short our lives may be, the world as we knew it will outlast us. Whereas on current trajectories, many if not most of us will have to suffer the psychological dislocation of abrupt changes. I think the intuition of what is coming operates as a kind of anticipatory grief.
There is a high psychological cost of our collective eyes-wide-shut despair to the people who truly understand what is coming. David Buckel, the LGBTQ and environmental activist who burned himself to death in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, said his “early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.” But for most of us, the wrongness and weirdness of climate change are just background buzz on a frequency we can’t quite tune in to.
Glen David Gold, pointing out how the weather just seems broken, says:
The sky looks wrong. The wind comes from the wrong direction. The clouds are forming patterns I’ve never seen. We’ve had what sliver of the average rainfall this year? Maybe 4%? I feel that we as a species recognize this. It’s impossible to be a creature with a heartbeat and not recognize that something that should fundamentally never be out of sorts IS out of sorts. And that we’ve done it. And the response, if you accept this, is a kind of shame and anger and depression and mourning, solastalgia.
Perhaps the strength of climate denialism comes from the energy it takes to deny not just evidence, but our deepest intuition. Something is terribly wrong, but many people’s instinct is to run and hide away in a mythical past.
But think about the relief that comes when the deadline is imminent and there’s no choice but to do the work, or that strange euphoria that broke out in Britain when World War II was finally declared. Nobody loves a phony war. Everyone thinks they’ll be hero in the real thing, once it at last begins.
Yet it turns out it’s not just impending catastrophe, but the idea of heroism itself that’s the problem.
We All Die, and That’s Okay
My favorite postapocalyptic novel is George R. Stewart’s 1951 Earth Abides. In it, scientist Isherwood Williams (nicknamed Ish) survives a plague and eventually starts a new family and community in the ruins of suburban California. His hope for the future is wholly invested in a child who is intellectually curious, like him, and who might be able to revive some of the old ways and technologies. It’s an observant and reflective novel, full of the “how stuff would probably work” thinking that makes science fiction the true literature of ideas.
Ish starts out as a scientist-savior of humanity, figuring there is just enough time to raise a generation to turn back the clock to before the disaster. But he ultimately has to make his peace with the fact that civilization as he knew it is dead, there will be no heroic rescue, no going back, and the people around him are mostly fine with that.
The 1950s may have been the last decade we could complacently believe the Ecclesiastes (1:4) maxim that “men come and go, but earth abides,” but Stewart’s basic message is correct.
The people who come after us don’t have to do better than us, or think well of us, for them to be essentially okay. And us all throwing a big “let’s blow it all up” hissy fit because we fucked up and we can’t bear to look at it is just teenage nihilism that we need to grow out of already. Coming to terms with what we have done means dumping the egotistical death drive of the mass shooter or far-right politician and gathering the maturity to look our individual and collective deaths straight in the eye and say, “Okay, we get it now. We get it. It’s not about us.”
Have you ever stood in a crowded place like a town square or an airport meet-and-greet and thought, “Every single person here is going to die”? Morbid, eh? More of us should do it.
I live in an early Victorian terraced house in the UK. It’s never been a tenement, so probably a hundred people have called it home in the almost two centuries it’s been standing. Nearly all of them are dead. The people are already born who’ll live there when I’m dead. The head of this country’s anachronistic state has already been born who I’ll never see on the throne and to whom I’ll seem as old as someone born in the 1930s seems to me.
We’re all going to die. The morning will come when those who have loved us put on dark clothes and cry and get on with the rest of their lives, seeing movies we’d have loved, depending on gadgets that now seem to us ridiculously unnecessary. Our deaths matter to us and those who love us, but they don’t fundamentally matter.
Once, while my husband was deployed to Afghanistan, I asked him on the phone if he was doing okay about someone we knew who’d recently been killed. “Oh, you know,” he said, “you know,” and quoted his regiment’s unofficial mantra:
Everything matters. Nothing matters terribly.
The soldier’s death mattered very, very much to him, and (not but) he and others were nonetheless carrying on their shared purpose. Otherwise, what had been the point of any of it?
What will outlive us, individually? Plastic. Perhaps some genes. The bacteria that act as a species-level enabler for everything we are. Some ideas, maybe, or songs, stories, pictures, the memories of us others hold, until they go, memorials like a community flower bed or a named scholarship, for a while, anyway. Less concretely: ways of being, a fitness for the world that those who flourish pass unremarked to their offspring via the epigenetics of love — the sunny inverse of patterns of trauma and abuse transmitted through the body, even unto the third generation. Predation.
And our species? Buildings and bones, maybe. Our nuclear waste and the warning signs we hope people of our deep future, or other species altogether, will decrypt. Snatches of radio-transmitted voices slipping through the vacuum of space. Perhaps some bacterial payload we’ll launch in a decade or so, trying to seed life on other planets, even in other solar systems. Or just the anomalous levels of carbon dioxide and methane in our atmosphere that will reveal, for a time, that complex forms of life were here.
Pride and despair are two sides of the same coin. Our collective denial and despair about the future we have built is preventing us from cracking on and sorting it out. We need to get over ourselves. The world we know will end, in both small and big ways. We ourselves will end. But that doesn’t matter, terribly.
Our mortality is the greatest enabler we have of positive, ongoing change, if only we can face it, if only we can understand that we don’t get to see the end of the movie, because, if what we do works, the movie won’t have to end. We’re not the protagonists. We’re just the foreshadowing. We need to hold the knowledge of our own deaths up to the light and turn it around to see each shining facet, then take the certainty that we are both finite and imperfect deep down inside of us—and put it to work.
The Apocalypse Is Already Here
Along with pride, we cannot indulge in despair. The duty of hope means despair is unethical.
The apocalypse is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.
Ask a Syrian from Aleppo, a Palestinian child, a refugee at the UK’s Yarls Wood detention center, a schoolteacher in the Donbass, or a relative of those who perished in Grenfell Tower in West London.
Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West, about a Syria-like conflict in a world where portals unpredictably appear and transport people across the planet, shows just how strange and wrong it is that, via the internet, we can see and be seen by almost anyone, but in a world where goods, services, information, and capital flow like water, it’s people that are trapped.
Exit West is the opposite of a 1950s cozy catastrophe that gives the chosen a fresh start. It’s explicitly about the fact that catastrophe is here, is gathering speed, and that it is pure chance who is caught up in it. As the novel’s characters disperse around the world via the portals, London and San Francisco must come to terms with an apocalypse that refuses to stay within the confines of the 9:00 news. Hamid’s novel is neither cozy nor placidly reassuring, but it has within it the stirrings of hope:
The locality around Marin seemed to be rousing itself from a profound and collective low in those days. It has been said that depression is a failure to imagine a plausible desirable future for oneself, and, not just in Marin, but in the whole region, in the Bay Area, and in many other places, too, places both near and far, the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.
Those of us lucky enough to have our families and homes intact, minimal health problems, and some kind of political agency do not get to throw up our hands and say it’s too hard and sooooo depressing. Or to naively trust in there being a “right side” of history that will ultimately prevail.
We need to put down our vain and complacent hero stories so we can understand that we are not the heroes of the story of humanity and that the story is not going to end when we do.
We are going to die, and not in a blaze of nihilistic glory, and in the meantime there is the work. The work is what we have.
“I am the green shoot asking for the flower”
History isn’t forged by great men, not by swollen-balled autocrats and peacocking shitgibbons. It’s made by people, lots and lots of people. That’s why it’s called structural change.
One of the greatest novels ever written is about a gifted young woman who yearns for the chance to “reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self.” In a pietistic, self-abnegating kind of way, the heroine is like adolescents who crave an angry and ultimate truth. But Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke is forced by life’s merely average-sized woes to put aside her vanity. She is one of the first fictional protagonists to truly learn and grow. Middlemarch famously ends with George Eliot’s reflection:
[F]or the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
That needs to be us. The ones in unvisited tombs who did what was morally essential because it was right and because we were able, no more and no less.
What Do We Need to Do?
There is no getting around this: Obscene inequality is wrecking social and political order. Inequality within societies is an extinction-level event. Capitalism itself must change if democracy is to survive—indeed, if any basically just and humane civilization is to flourish. Climate change is just as big a “super-wicked problem” and deeply linked to our chosen, rapacious forms of capitalism.
We need to think and act radically. “Sensible centrism” cannot even see the whole of the problem, let alone fix it.
We will succeed at defending democracy by doubling down on it, by offering something bigger and better to believe in than the fear of the power vertical. Fear only motivates people to say no. Social media is okay for negative campaigns but ineffective at building coalitions. We need to do that hard work ourselves, both in person and by putting technology in the service of both deep and nimble ties.
We will continue to experience regressive revolutions. We will have to devote whole lifetimes to quelling them.
Lessons will not stay learned. China has already forgotten the lesson of dictators who can’t be removed. Russia, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, and others have forgotten that authoritarianism always ends in tears. Everywhere we see the reopening of settled questions: Is racism bad? Do trade wars damage economies? Is the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement worth protecting? But this time with the added twist that these questions are largely asked in bad faith. We will just have to keep hammering the answers home.
Just pointing out bad things will not be enough. Life is not a Richard Curtis movie, where calling out the problem basically fixes it. Problems will not disappear when we articulate them in a beautiful and heartfelt way. (Note to self.) Our shared Anglo culture is not nearly as instrumental as it thinks. Words are just words. Talk is just talk. Journalism is only ever the essential first step.
We will need to work relentlessly on evidence gathering, litigation, enforcement of rules, and campaigning to put and keep the corrupt out of elected office. In the United States, the UK, and elsewhere, there are people in office today who need to be in orange jumpsuits tomorrow. This time, there must be no clemency. People of bad faith cashed that check a dozen times over. From now on, it bounces.
All of this is the opposite of naive. Naivety is thinking you will win by building walls, reneging on deals, insulting your allies, and going it alone in a volatile, zero-sum game world. Naivety is the denialism that thinks the future will be as you imagine the past.
By learning from those a decade ahead of us in resistance, we will hack the power vertical. Our horizontal ties will build trust, make us less fearful, and help others to build courage and resist authoritarianism in every way they can.
We don’t need to cut problems down to size but appreciate their scale, complexity, and wickedness and find nonobvious allies to work on them. Building coalitions is organizationally effective and forces us to see issues the way others do, helping both to find and sell novel solutions and more deeply bed down progressive change. Horizontal power bases change the world, because when you’re in one, you will never be alone.
“Identity politics” is human politics. There is no zero-sum game of freedoms and rights. And as they keep opening up new fronts in the culture wars, we will keep challenging ourselves to learn and grow and insist on everyone’s basic equality and worth. It’s not easy. It’s a process. But with curious minds and open hearts, “we” will keep getting bigger and stronger. As Mohsin Hamid has said, each equality expansion helps: “As you expand each equality, men and women, gay and straight, it helps the other equalities, too.”
There is so, so much to do. It will be hard, and we won’t get there in our lifetimes. The least we must achieve is to pass just enough forward to those who’ll come after us and do things we can barely conceive of. And maybe, this time, the planet won’t get saved at the end of the disaster movie, but at the very beginning.