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Anxiety and the apocalypse
email no. 6
CW: This post touches on climate disaster and COVID, among other apocalyptic scenarios.
I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I know it wasn’t more than seven or eight years ago. A friend had started working at a science museum in southern Oregon, and they were pitching events to try out in the summer. The idea was (I think) to do an outdoor screening in August. Their boss said it was a no-go. August was forest fire season, and so outdoor events were too unpredictable. There was too high a chance that air quality warnings would force the event to cancel.
Both of us found it so alien to be planning around forest fires that way. In my mental mapping, fires were a freak occurrence, not an annual expectation. I couldn’t picture living somewhere where dangerous levels of smoke were just a given every summer. Weather is supposed to be what makes the outdoors predictably inhospitable, and in my mind at the time, forest fires weren’t tied to weather. They were one-offs events.
2018 is the first year that I remember smoke having a major impact on Calgary’s skies. The city looked apocalyptic. The sun and moon glowed the same shade of blood red. Air quality warnings meant cyclists on my daily commute wore masks—mostly improvised, like bandanas, but occasionally ones I realize were N95s, now that COVID-19 has made me so much more familiar with masks. The orange-red sky, ominous haze and masked riders made the river path feel unreal, especially on morning rides, when my half-awake mind had trouble making sense of the dystopian B-movie aesthetic manifesting itself around me. In the evenings, it made for spectacular sunsets, and a feeling of guilt for finding beauty in an obvious disaster.
Three years later, smoke season already feels normal. Not as normal as the weather; I’m not that resigned to it, yet. But it’s no longer an anomaly to have stretches of summer where I’m told to avoid going outside because the air is poison, because vast swathes of the continent are on fire. It doesn’t feel like a disaster anymore. A disaster is a shot out of the blue, a rupture in your sense of how the world works. The fires aren’t a rupture anymore, they’re a recurrence.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the end of the world. Probably too often. A lot of people I know have been. Maybe most people. This past year and a half has felt closer to the end than any I can remember, and the skies swimming with smoke right now aren’t helping any.
Still, I actually had to stop and think to remember the last year that didn’t carry at least a whiff of Armageddon. It’s been there at least from 2016 onward; Trump’s election prompted plenty of conversations on whether these were the end times, and each year after gave new reasons to wonder if that was the case. Climate change has loomed for longer than that, but I can’t remember the point where it went from feeling like an abstract threat to an inevitability. One-off events like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis held that sense of destabilizing the world, but not necessarily pushing it over the brink, at least from my own memories of them. Best case, the lingering existential dread has been here for five years now, but it’s likely longer.
I’m hardly in the first generation to worry that we’ll be the last. I was eight years old and living in Winnipeg when the Cold War ended. Being so young and relatively isolated from any really major centres, I never felt the sense of impending doom that in some ways defines the stretch from the mid-1940s to 1991. It’s as alien to me as it is to the students in Tom Nichols’ Atlantic piece “I Want My Mutually Assured Destruction,” an article where he describes the frustration of trying to teach a new generation to “understand some of the smothering fear of living in a world on the edge of instant oblivion” (and where I learned that Timbuk 3’s “Future’s So Bright” is about inevitable nuclear annihilation).
Instant oblivion. A blinding flash, a moment of revelation, and what once was, no longer is. The fear that defined the Cold War is of an unambiguous event of unimaginable destruction, killing billions and inverting the stable, predictable world into one where the air is poison, where the only safety is in underground confinement, and (at least in most post-apocalyptic fiction), where the veneer of civilization disappears in favour of bitter survival.
The power to destroy the world in a flash hasn’t disappeared, which should be terrifying, but without the Cold War to drive it, that narrative occupies a lot less space than it used to. The new fear is equally existential, but more gradual, and much more ambiguous. It’s an apocalypse of environmental degradation, changing weather patterns, and increased disease. Societal collapse not all at once, but a gradual failure of institutions, cascading disasters and unexpected feedback loops. It is disrupted food chains and colony collapse disorder, subtle changes and sudden tipping points.
It’s a disaster that, like the one in William Gibson’s novels The Peripheral and Agency, is “multi-causal, and it’s of extremely long duration,” and one that “if [it’s] going to happen, it’s already happening. It’s been happening for at least 100 years.” What makes his “Jackpot” so frightening is that it isn’t something that happens, it’s everything that is happening; the end of the world as we know it is also the inevitable consequence of the world as we know it.
For some reason I keep wondering—and I recognize that this is depressing and a somewhat unfair question—which of those fears is harder to live under. Is it worse to make plans in a world that you believe is likely to be wiped out in an instant, or one that you’re dreading having to watch fall apart? Does it make it better when you have time to get used to changes that would’ve been inconceivable just a few years ago? Does the fear that your own actions are contributing to that destruction make it harder to act, or is it worse to feel that you have absolutely no control in the matter? Not that it matters which is worse; each is unbearable in its own way, and we still live with them both.
Ultimately, the feeling I get is that humanity has never been good at figuring out where we are in any given story. We think we’re at the end when we’re actually in the middle, confusing our wishful thinking for genuine progress. Or we think we’re at the very beginning of a story, when we’re dealing with the consequences of actions taken decades earlier. The thing is, though: beginnings and endings aren’t real, they’re narrative conventions, simplifications of vast, complex systems of cause and effect that are necessary because if you’re going to start a story, you have to start it somewhere.
The nuclear war of the Cold War was both an ending and a beginning: the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of a post-apocalyptic age. Climate catastrophe and its ensuing natural disasters, pandemics, and mass extinctions are neither endings nor beginnings. There is no sudden revelation, no moment of clarity when all your worries are made manifest. Instead it’s a fear that the moment has already passed, or it will pass without our noticing; that we won’t act, or that we will but it will be too late, or won’t be enough. It’s the questioning of individual unlikely events, wondering whether they cross the threshold from statistical fluke to new normal. It is ambiguous and ongoing, and that is a very different kind of fear.
I’ve tried for a few days to figure out where to end this essay without it just feeling excessively bleak. The only thing that feels right is an anecdote that doesn’t really relate to any of what I’ve been talking about, at least not in a way I can pin down as concretely as I’d like. But it’s where the essay wants to end, so here it is anyway.
Last year, while walking on a warm winter day, I decided to play a game with my perception. It’s a little hard to explain, as experiential things often are, but basically it involved spending as much of the walk as I could with my eyes closed and trying to let my attention stick to one sound for as long as possible. The idea was to try to be aware of when a sound entered my field of perception and when it left, and to follow it through that entire process.
What surprised me about that experience was how there was always something new to capture my attention. I’d hear a plane overhead, its engines overwhelming all the sound around me. It filled my perception so much that when it started to fade, I assumed all that would be left was silence. After all, the plane was the only sound.
That was never what happened. The plane would fade, and I’d hear nearby traffic. The traffic would fade, and I’d hear an echo of the river carried by the wind. Someone would walk by, talking to someone beside them, or yelling into a phone. Their voice would fade, and in the new quiet, I’d hear a bird fly by, the air silent enough to hear the sound of their wings. In theory, it should be obvious that there’s always something to hear. In practice it felt like a strange coincidence, that something would always arrive just in time for my perception to latch onto it.
There was a pleasant continuity to it all. Each sound picked up where the previous one left off, and each yielded to the next in a seamless stream. It was a tapestry of sound, extending in every direction, with my awareness skimming its surface like a flashlight in darkness, and the more I tried to focus on individual sounds, the more connected they became.
PS: After I wrote this, I saw this comic from The Sprawl’s Sam Hester, which gets at similar worries in a much more concise way. If you don’t follow Sam’s work, you should; her comics are thoughtful, inquisitive, honest, and alive with ambiguity.
Music for the end of the world:
Before he found global success as a solo artist, Vangelis was in Greek prog-rock band Aphrodite’s Child, and their final album was this loose adaptation of the Book of Revelations
A cover of a song by Bahamian artist Exuma, this is Simone at her most unsettling, beginning with a vision of a future “there is no oxygen in the air” and becoming more abstract as it progresses.
Angry, paranoid psychedelic soul from the dawn of the 1970s. The title track was sampled on the Beastie Boys’ “Get it Together.”
If you’re going to pick a voice for the apocalypse, Tom Waits has to be near the top of that list. The opening track from 1992’s Bone Machine finds the singer at his most terrifying, ranting about crows as big as airplanes, three-headed lions, and the death of the Earth.
Former teen idol and eventual avant garde legend Scott Walker translates Bergman’s film into a mini-epic of swooning strings and his impressive baritone.
Kurzgesagt’s description of Optimistic Nihilism has stuck with me for a few years now. I know some people find their videos bleak, but I see them as strangely comforting.
Another strange comfort: listening to smart people talk seriously about potential disasters. Talking Politics has a trilogy of episodes that take the idea of the end of democracy seriously, but also explain why the most commonly cited lessons of the past might not apply to us directly now. Listen to How Democracy Ends, Democracy for Young People, and The Copernican Principle
I’m taking July off The A.M. to give myself more time to enjoy the summer. Older episodes are available at https://soundcloud.com/theamcjsw, https://theam.ca or https://cjsw.com/the-a-m, and are uploaded weekly (or will be, starting again in August)
Monday Shorts is a blog series I write and curate for the Quickdraw Animation Society, sharing independent animated shorts that deserve a wider audience. There are 150+ entries over on the QAS site, but here are a few of the more recent shorts we’ve shared (which, in retrospect, are at least somewhat relevant to this entry’s theme), plus links to my writeup on each.