Words by Hettie O’Brien.
The phrase “unprecedented times” has become an axiom for the present, but it’s less an accurate description than a banal truism. After all, a condition of thinking about the future is that we assume our own moment stands in extraordinary relation to it, and that we must be living through the end. But we might never know when the end has really arrived.
Last year, the number of people preoccupied with the end of the world grew from a core group of religious fundamentalists and conspiracists to include just about everyone, as the fast clip of 24-hour news announced the terrifying consequences COVID-19. A poll of American citizens conducted in the first months of the pandemic found that 29% of adults think there will be an apocalyptic disaster in their lifetime.1 This could be a sudden event—an asteroid, a nuclear war—or an accumulation of incremental catastrophes, the climate crisis being the most obvious among them.
And yet, despite everything, it was still possible—if you worked from home—to switch off: to play video games, cook dinner and ignore the news. This is what makes the idea of doomsday so difficult to grasp. People have been worrying about the end of the world since the beginning: The idea is everywhere and nowhere at once, always on the horizon, never having arrived. Thomas Moynihan, an intellectual historian and author of X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction, believes our idea of the end times underwent a profound shift during the Enlightenment, when people started to think about the end of the world in terms of human extinction rather than judgment day. “The central insight of the Enlightenment is the idea that values are something that are made by humans,” he tells me.
When we are dead, those values die with us. Nothing is harder to imagine than nothing, which is why a supernatural apocalypse is intuitively easier to grasp than a secular extinction event that wipes out humanity, such as a deadly pandemic or an astrophysical disaster. Apocalypse is a leveler where everyone will be judged equally in the eyes of God (and even rich fossil-fuel executives will meet with fiery wrath). Annihilation, on the other hand, is a void—the absence of everything we know.
“People have been worrying
about the end of the world since the
beginning. It is always on the horizon,
never having arrived.”
Where apocalypse offers the sense of an ending, the losses we now face—in the shape of extinction and environmental breakdown—are better understood as “the ending of sense,” Moynihan says. In the 20th century, after two world wars and the creation of the atomic bomb, fears about the end times came to be motivated less by biblical superstitions and more by a pragmatic anxiety that humans might actually be the authors of their own ends. Moynihan refers to these human-made disasters as “doomsday” scenarios, a term which gained currency during the Cold War, when it was used to refer to the potential fallout from nuclear weapons.2
The clearest (and most gimmicky) encapsulation of this fear is the Doomsday Clock, which resembles a quiz-show timepiece and is supposed to indicate the spiraling threats to humanity in the form of things like artificial intelligence, nuclear war, climate change and pandemics. It’s set every year by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, an organization founded in 1945—immediately after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima—by scientists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project. The hands of the clock are always set before midnight, signaling the point of human catastrophe, but how many minutes and seconds before midnight depends on how optimistic the scientists are feeling. In 1991, after the end of the Cold War, the clock was set at 17 minutes to midnight. Currently, we have 100 seconds left before the end starts.3
“No amount of canned beans will allow
you to escape the reality that everyone
around you is dead.”
But for whom is the world really ending? Those who seem most concerned by these eventualities—the smooth-faced Silicon Valley billionaires buying up New Zealand, doomsday preppers and James Murdoch (the youngest son of Rupert Murdoch, who is rumored to have built an “apocalyptic” bunker in Canada)—tend not to find themselves at the sharp end of the last days.4 Theorizing about the end of the world “can seem like [a] pastime for white, male, rich middle-class professors, whereas the world has already ended for lots of people across history,” Moynihan says. Taking doomsday seriously is an indulgent mental exercise that presupposes humans would have a reasonable idea of how it will actually play out. That’s why planning for the end times can seem hysterical; no amount of canned beans will allow you to escape the reality that everyone around you is dead.
Popular culture has tried to address such fears. In a 1965 essay about science fiction films, the American essayist Susan Sontag described the “lure of generalized disaster” inherent to such movies, which allow a release “from normal obligations” and give an outlet for “cruel or at least amoral feelings.” Films about the end of the world tend to either be set during a sudden and cataclysmic event, as with the freeze of The Day After Tomorrow, or after the event itself has occurred. And in The Last of Us, a video game first released in 2013, the player traverses a post-apocalyptic version of America, fighting off zombies in a survivalist fantasy.5 But we rarely see the end of the world as it will likely occur: an incremental descent into a worse version of now.
There are a few exceptions. Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film, has been widely praised for its dystopia, a deathly amplification of the present.6 And I’d wager that the lesser-known Years and Years, the HBO drama set in Britain during the 2020s, is similarly effective. The program follows an extended family into the next decade, as they navigate the perdition of Britain’s hostile environmental policy, a rapidly decaying biosphere and the consequences of automation. The series works because these events simply provide the background to the show’s narrative: Its focus remains on the family members and their relationships with one another.
Although bad things do happen (a nuclear explosion takes place, an authoritarian politician is elected prime minister, the glaciers have already melted), life goes on, and the family is still forced to endure its attendant banalities. When their father dies, knocked down by a “Rideroo” bike at the age of 69, it’s not the collision that kills him but a scratch on his hand that develops into sepsis. “They tried all the antibiotics, but they don’t work anymore,” says his son.
Will we even want to think about the end of the world after the pandemic is over? If those who spend the most time worrying about an apocalyptic event are, paradoxically, the furthest removed from its consequences, then those closest to disaster tend to find enjoyment in other forms. During the First World War, the French painter Claude Monet devoted his time to his panoramic oil paintings of the water lilies in his garden at Giverny. From his house, he could hear the gunfire in the distance and would see wounded soldiers trudge down the road. “I’m a bit ashamed,” Monet wrote near the end of the war, “thinking about little researches into form and color while so many people suffer and die for us.”
Amid the dry invective of social media and the briefings of dazed politicians pronouncing daily death statistics, it would hardly be surprising if people didn’t want to think about the apocalypse anymore. Right now, aren’t form and color, beauty and escapism, what we’d all rather be thinking about? In other words: If you need me, I’ll be looking at the water lilies.