Analyzing the End of the World

Via the excellent What the End of the World Looked Like (click on picture for ink)

Originally published 14 October 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

A message to participants in my class on The Politics of the End of the World.

How should we understand the “end of the world”? Answering this question matters. We can imagine plentiful ends of the world. This might seem like an oxymoron: how can there be more than one end of the world? On reflection, however, ends of the world are all around us (and behind us and in front of us). There have been several different “ends of the world” for life on Earth: the BBC lists five major extinction events, for example. Moreover, ends of the lines for species are commonplace: roughly 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are extinct. And if we turn to the future, we can mark out several different physical impending ends of the world, from the cessation of Earth’s ability to sustain life to the dissolution of stars to, in a hundred billion years or so, the likely heat death of the universe. All of these, and more, rank as “ends of the world” from one vantage point or another.

So the first task we have to do is establish the vantage point that we want to take in discussing various ends of the world. In doing so, we don’t want to participate in the sleight of hand that STEM-y types often unconsciously (or not) engage in: the equation of “the end of the world” with some physical or biological process that leads to the death of the human species, or near enough as to make no difference. We also want to consider the social processes that can lead to ends of the world. Sometimes, these are equally cataclysmic. Consider the fate of Yiddish-speaking civilization. Despite the valiant efforts of survivors and revivalists, Yiddish culture was largely extinguished during the Holocaust (the site is propaganda, but the point at the link isn’t really). If we take the broader point that the death of a language means the end of the worldview and culture associated with that language (a debatable point, but a not unreasonable one!), then we are faced with the fact that more than 90 percent of these social worlds have ended or will soon.

What other kinds of social “ends of the world” can we imagine? Some of them might include

  • The agricultural revolution, which Jared Diamond has described as “history’s greatest mistake” and which arguably led to the demise of the social world humans are best fitted to: relatively egalitarian networks of extended clans
  • The civil rights movement and the end of American de jure racial segregation — what we would, in other countries, call “Apartheid”; how did people bring about this end, how did it feel like to live through this end?
  • The extinction of religions as human religious imaginations have become more homogenized through conquest, secularization, and conversion; there remain significant pockets of minority religions in the Middle East, for instance, but ISIS and more regular states are quickly driving them to extinction.
  • The collapse of the Soviet Union and the concomitant death of Socialism in an institutional, revolutionary, global form. (Imagine being on the other side of the End Of History.)

As I mentioned at the beginning of class, my working definition for the “end of the world” is a moment at which ingrained habits and expectations change so dramatically that it is difficult or impossible to conceive of returning to the status quo ante. All of these definitions meet the criteria. Yet this definition leaves open important questions, like the scope (how large is the “world” that is ending),  pace (how fast does the world end?), the physicalityinevitability (can we change the end of the world or are we stuck with it?), knowability (do we know about the end of the world beforehand or only in retrospect?), and even the desirability (do we find the end of the world to be morally desirable or not, and for whom is that desire true?) of the end of the world.

Putting Politics at the Center of the End of the World

We could approach these issues from many directions, but in this class we’re talking about politics. So you want to think about how the apocalypse you envision will directly be manifested through politics, and how independent political dynamics will affect how people respond to (or create) the end of the world. The more specific your idea of politics is, the more believable and realistic your conception will be; the more careful you are in observing and theorizing about social reality, the more specific your idea of politics will be. Take, for instance, the way that people in Contagion and World War Z respond to the impending catastrophes: they’re not merely responding as stock characters to the end of the world, as in Invasion USA!, they’re actually acting as a bureaucrat, or a scientist, or a UN official would. Throughout, by the way, you should be using the Bostrom and Cirkovic readings in order to bring much greater specificity to your apocalypses.

How does the end of the world collapse? Especially what role does politics play? We’ve seen different examples of this:

Politics as cause: Invasion USA!Dr Strangelove

In Invasion USA! and Dr Strangelove, very different political processes lead to the end of the world. In Invasion USA, the key process is the unwillingness of the American people to submit to the demands of constant vigilance–they are too soft and peace-loving to make the sacrifices that freedom requires. (Think about the irony there!) When coupled with the (kind of unrealistic) depiction of the German- or Russian-speaking enemy as a relentless aggressor, this leads to the collapse of American institutions in the face of the invasion. (A much better text on this that shares fundamental assumptions about American weaknesses is Red Dawn (1984), which drew on experiences of guerrillas like the mujahideen in the anti-Soviet War to show how American teenagers would respond to a Soviet invasion.) By contrast, in Dr Strangelove, the key political elements are the vast overpreparedness of the Soviet and American states, and the ways that  the day-to-day requirements of constant near-war could lead to an accidental nuclear war. The drama here is mostly at the elite level in the War Room and in the Air Force base, but note that the actual apocalypse requires a bomber crew to follow orders: what if they hadn’t? What if they had decided to not launch nuclear weapons? And that leads to a discussion of why people follow orders in the first place–which is essentially a political question.

Politics as contributor: Contagion and World War Z

In the two “plague” texts we’ve dealt with, politics plays a role in contributing to the end of the world. In particular, different forms of government and political arrangements are shown to explain why societies are better or worse at responding to the threat. An ideal government (especially an ideal world government) might have been able to respond more quickly, but the film and the book both wager that no such government exists. In consequence, normal, everyday failures of governance (smuggling people, smuggling organs, allowing the free press, letting private corporations profit on medicines, etc.) are seen to be preconditions for catastrophic societal failures. Even the everyday bureaucratic politics of the CDC and the US Department of Defense are depicted as contributing to failures at a society (and species-)wide level. Yet politics also plays a role in explaining how people beat back and recover from the plagues: the American state manages to survive the Contagion and organize a response, while in World War Z different state institutions respond differently to the same threat and consequently survive (or not) differently.

Politics as effect: The War GameOn the Beach

Finally, we’ve seen politics as an effect of the end of the world. On the Beach and The War Game focus on the aftermath of apocalypses and how political institutions struggle to maintain relevance. If the end of the world isn’t quite total, there will still be a society, and that society will have to manage people, resources, and territory in the aftermath. What kind of struggles will that require? How will different institutions adapt? What special challenges will prove difficult to cope with–and what will prove easier to overcome (or, perhaps, even salutary)?

Politics As The End of the World

Later on, by the way, we’ll deal with politics as the end of the world, as with The Handmaid’s Tale: what if the world didn’t “end” in the nuclear-war, plague-virus, asteroid-smashing sense but in the strictly social sense? You could also speculate how pieces of knowledge (the proof of extraterrestrial life, knowledge about how to precisely manipulate DNA, the advent of AI, etc) could lead to an end of the world as people and societies must rethink their values—a process that would have equally transformative

When you’re dealing with these big political themes, then, you should try to deal with them using what you know, or can suppose, about the political world. How do people respond? How do the institutions and cultures in which people live affect their responses? Thinking about questions like these might draw you into comparative thought-experiments. These could take the form of cross-national comparisons (World War Z asks “how do different countries respond to the same apocalypse?”); they might also take the form of applying insights from different eras of development to explaining how a resource-deprived world might operate (as in Julian Comstock, which we will read later). You might also seek to use a standard apocalypse (e.g. asteroid-induced climate change or plague) to ask questions about how different societies across time would respond to the same apocalypse. This could shed light on how normative values and beliefs affect humans: would/did people in Ming China have understood an asteroid-induced tsunami in the same way as people today? What does that mean about how societies work?

Putting People at the Center of Politics

To get at these questions, you need to put people in the center of politics. Consider:

  • A high-status, high-wealth individual (Bill Gates)
  • A high-status, low-wealth individual (Dalai Lama)
  • Low-status, high-wealth (really successful plumber)
  • Low-status, low-wealth (a homeless person)

How would their position in political structures affect them during an apocalypse? How would it change afterward? (The War Game and World War Z highlight these ideas, as will Station Eleven.)

This is one tactic you can use to make the end of the world feel like a realistic proposition (because it is). As in World War Z, the end of the world won’t happen to a blank canvas: it will have to be manifested in the world as it exists right now  (or will exist, or would have existed). That means that you can’t wildly extrapolate different sets of changes or have everyone forget their past as they confront the end of the world: people have to come from somewhere. So, for that matter, does the physical environment: the post-apocalyptic rubble was once the Empire State Building, and how does that make people feel about it? (One setting for an end of the world: how did people living in Rome after the Empire feel when various popes and local nobles started cutting up the Colosseum for use in their own palaces?)

Remember: the world has changed plenty of times, but many of the endowments of human beings remain the same. We can still read The Illiad and kind of understand how these people acted, even though the Hellenic world is now long past. The more careful and concrete you are in thinking about human beings in the end of the world, and not as toy soldiers to be moved around by some external force, the better off you will be to understand people.

The Point Is To Change the End of the World

And here we get to the real point of all of this. By making you think hard about how actually existing people and social structures respond to extreme conditions, you will also be thinking hard about how societies and people work. That might just be interesting enough in itself. But that’s not quite all. Societies have been preparing for the end of the world since the beginning of the world. The mental toolkits they have used to understand and predict those ends of the world have changed greatly. In the European Middle Ages and Renaissance, religious images predominated and provided a justification for religious authority in secular society; as scientific arguments competed with religious ones, they undermined the basis of that authority and therefore transformed society (as Perry Miller argued in the first reading for this class.) Even changes in how we imagine the end of the world can therefore transform how we live in the world. (If that seems strange to you, think about how people lived through the Cold War, or why environmental activists want us all to start driving Teslas!)

Marx (or probably Engels, who wrote all the best lines) once wrote that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” You have a similar challenge: the point is not only to interpret the end of the world, the point is to change it. Kubrick didn’t set out to make Dr Strangelove because he thought it was a funny situation: this was a political act meant to change the world he saw. (The same goes for every other text we’ll read here, even Invasion USA!) 

The only way to do that is to bring your imagination and hard work to creating a realistic end of the world—and therefore thinking through its implications for us today. Doing so will require you to be precise about your claims, even if you present only a narrow view of the apocalypse/post-apocalypse/pre-apocalypse. The more grounded and thoughtful you are, the more worth your work will have–for you and, maybe, for society.