I write a lot about consciousness, enlightenment and the potential humanity has to rise above its conditioned patterns, because if I only wrote about politics and media propaganda I’d be accomplishing nothing but helping the anti-establishment fringe feel good about itself while waiting for human extinction. I can’t do this thing honestly and sincerely without periodically pointing to the dangers on the horizon, and to what I perceive as the only off ramp in sight.
Human society is clearly at its most interesting point ever. Billions of human brains are now interconnected in real time by the internet, we’re realizing on mass scale that all the rules of society were invented by dead people long before any of us got here, and we’re seeing that we are free to re-write those rules in a way that benefits us. From popular grassroots examinations of socialist ideas, to cryptocurrencies and an evolving understanding of what money is, to redefining social institutions as ancient and ingrained as marriage and gender identity, more and more people are saying in effect, “Hmm, it looks like all those old thoughts we’ve been using to describe our reality are causing some problems. Let’s find new ones.” It could be described as a collective awakening to the fact that reality and our conceptual model for it are two very different things, and the model is as flexible as your ability to change your mind. We’ve never seen anything like this before as a species. We’ve literally never been here.
We are in uncharted, unprecedented territory. When you’re in uncharted, unprecedented territory, there’s no valid basis for ruling out any conceivable possibility. Stodgy intellectuals may say “Hurr, yes, this is very similar to the Bulgarian Wheat Rebellions of 1809, so this will likely turn out the same” or whatever, but they’re wrong, because it isn’t. The past can be a useful tool for predicting future outcomes, but in an entirely unprecedented situation, that is not the case. Anything is possible.
Writers have long faced the apocalypse. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written approximately four thousand years ago, imagines Earth flooded by angry gods. Flash forward a few centuries, and Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells bring us their own visions of the end of the world. In more recent years, novelists like Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Octavia Butler have carried on the tradition. Each of these writers shares the idea that the end will come quickly, sparked by an event that tumbles the pillars of civilization like dominoes. It takes little to understand why visions of sudden apocalypse—as opposed to a long, drawn-out one—are popular: a quick and dirty end to everything absolves us from having had anything to do with it. If we never saw the apocalypse coming, how could it have been our fault?
T.S. Eliot offers a different outlook. In 1925, the poet wrote in “The Hollow Men” that the world will end “not with a bang but a whimper.” It’s this idea of a slow death in which everyone is culpable that captures most accurately Roy Scranton’s thoughts on the end of civilization as we know it. The author, an Army veteran who holds a PhD in English from Princeton University, has written much about two of humanity’s biggest existential threats: climate change and war. In 2015’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Scranton combined memoir and science writing to express what it was like to return home from war-torn Iraq only to watch the world succumb to hazards even larger than Al Qaeda: hurricanes imperiling coastal cities; economic and political conflicts giving way to riots; plagues, droughts, and famine causing suffering in every corner of the planet. Global warming, writes Scranton, is at the heart of all of this, and we have long passed the point of being able to stop it. Two years later, he authored his debut novel, War Porn, which is told through the different perspectives of American and Iraqi soldiers and civilians and throws into question what it means to be ally or enemy, victor or victim.