Maybe the end of the world isn’t the end of the world.
Not long ago, I listened to a lecture on climate change. The lecture went as one might expect. There was a warning of impending ecological catastrophe and talk of the “Anthropocene,” suggesting that our age—the age in which humans dominate the Earth—is coming to an end. At the end of the talk, there was a discussion period. At one point, a young academic stood up and said simply, “Let me tell you something: We will not be missed!”
—from Imagining the End: Mourning and Ethical Life (Harvard University Press, 2022), by Jonathan Lear, the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor on the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy
So it happened. An apocalyptic event wiped out 95 percent of the population and all the cultural, political, and social knowledge they carried. The survivors are scared, in some cases weak, and at a loss for what to do next.
A look into the future? Nope. It’s 500 years ago, in what is now Latin America, when a combination of disease, war, and forced religious conversions destroyed much of what people understood as their world. But the creation stories of that time don’t reflect defeat, says Edgar Garcia, an associate professor in English—and the fact that “there are still creation stories being written at that time itself says something.”
In the spring of 2020, Garcia had just finished teaching a course on the Popol Vuh, the K’iche’ Mayan creation story. Trapped at home at the start of the pandemic with the reading he had on hand, he wrote Emergency: Reading the Popol Vuh in a Time of Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2022).
“Apocalypse is a very Christian concept,” he says: “the idea that the world might end once and forever.” In Christian writing, this is sometimes called novissimi, or newness after which there will be no more new things—a term used “alongside doomsday and revelation.” But not all cultures see the world through that lens. In the Popol Vuh, Garcia says, “There is no novissimi. There is a persistent quomodo. In what way will people now remake it all.”
So it happened. What then? Quomodo?
In conversations with faculty in the humanities and social sciences about the possibility of apocalypse, two themes came up again and again: the need for radical imagination and, above all, the need for hope.—Ed.
The apocalypse is already here
When Eduardo Leão, PhD’22, a humanities teaching fellow in Romance Languages and Literatures, was growing up in Brazil in the 1990s and 2000s, “I felt like everything was possible, and Brazil was the country of the future,” he says. That changed with the political and economic crises of the 2010s and then the pandemic.
Leão wrote his dissertation on Latin American science fiction. In the eight dystopian novels he analyzed, “I saw that there were glimpses of possible answers” to the environmental and other crises that the world is facing.
What kind of answers?
For example, moving away from an anthropocentric view of the world. An openness to a society where we’re not at the center, where we have a deeper notion that we’re more interconnected with the nonhuman world. Indigenous groups throughout the Americas, for instance, have known this for ages.
We’ve become very cynical—how can a book change the world? But literature and art in general help us imagine possibilities. Ursula K. Le Guin once said there was a time when people couldn’t imagine a world where the king wasn’t in power, and yet here we are. Much in the same way we can’t imagine a world where we don’t live in a capitalist society.
Wouldn’t utopian novels be more helpful?
The 20th century gave us a lot of important dystopias: 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and so on. We know how to imagine the worst. So a time has come to imagine the best, or at least the better.
There’s an underlying trend in the eight novels I wrote about—a shift from dystopia to a more critical utopia. Utopia fell out of fashion because it was really prescriptive. It was usually a narrative where a person, usually a man, meets someone from a utopian world, and this person explains to him how that world works. That’s not very interesting because there’s no conflict. The new utopia is a process of engaging with existing problems: coming up with hypotheses and proving or disproving them. Artists are coming to the conclusion that just being pessimistic will not cut it anymore.
How do cultures that have already experienced crisis understand the apocalypse?
In Brazil, Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian leaders say, we’ve already been living the apocalypse for 500 years.
The Western world is finally thinking, hmmm. Maybe the things we’ve been doing were not quite right. Maybe the way we’ve been exploiting nature and the way we’ve built our economy is not the best solution for the world. In a sense, the Indigenous communities and Afro communities are saying: Yeah. We’ve been trying to tell you this for a couple of centuries.
Victoria Saramago, an associate professor in Romance Languages and Literatures, specializes in the environmental humanities. In 2022 she spent a lot of time thinking about the end of the world while coediting a special issue of the Journal of Lusophone Studies called “Narratives of the Apocalypse.”
Do you talk with undergraduates about the end of the world?
I teach a course on the Amazon. When we think about what has been going on in the Amazon, for centuries actually, unfortunately, until the present—genocide, loss of biodiversity, all that—it is really heartbreaking. I had students who were just in shock.
It is a very big crisis, the one we are facing, and unfortunately the politics of our time is definitely not catching up with the scale. We need to face the facts and develop our ability to empathize with people around the world who are already suffering the effects of ecological crisis. But just having a catastrophist attitude is not going to solve anything. In order to live, we need hope.
My parents’ generation used to say, “This is a problem that our children and our grandchildren are going to face.” In the current generation of College students, there is a much stronger awareness that the climate crisis is a reality. This is our problem. Now.
What did you learn from editing “Narratives of the Apocalypse”?
How diverse the thinking about the apocalypse is. We have articles on Brazil and Portugal, on Angola, on Mozambique. Different parts of the Portuguese-speaking world.
Apocalypse means so many different things. From more traditional thinking about the end of the world, the physical world, the end of humanity, to the epistemological—the extinction of ways of thinking and of living.
A crisis, a better world
In 2022 Adom Getachew, a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science, edited an issue of the Boston Review called “Imagining Global Futures.” The issue began with a bleak editors’ note: “The global present is wracked by crisis. War in Ukraine and Ethiopia draws on. Climate change becomes ever more dire. Public health remains fragile, and the toll of human displacement continues to rise.” Yet the focus of the issue was to discover “how crises can generate new possibilities,” she says.
Were there any good ideas?
Yes. One of the authors wrote about the Rojava, a Kurdish experiment in self-government. In the midst of this horrific civil war in Syria, here is a community that has innovated and thought about how we might govern collectively. It’s incredibly egalitarian. It’s a sort of model. I’m very interested in the ways that experimentation at the local level might generate new kinds of possibilities for the global or the national.
We take the experiences and practices of places like the United States and Europe as a kind of economic and political model for the rest of the world. One would not think that the state of Rojava would be the site to rejuvenate our ideas. Yet here is this exciting, profound experiment in thinking about self-rule—council systems, direct democracy.
Are you hopeful for the future?
That’s a hard question. The challenges we face in the world are big, difficult, existential questions: climate change, etc. But I feel inspired by the ways that this moment has generated new ideas, approaches, and political and social movements.
Do your College students seem hopeful?
The worldliness of my students is inspiring. They’re really alive to the crises and dilemmas of the present. That also makes them incredibly impatient.
In Intro to Genres: Africana Speculative Fiction, Julie Iromuanya, an assistant professor of creative writing, asks her students to treat each assignment as a thought experiment. Don’t just use your imagination, she tells them, but think about how your story engages with a current reality. Like all speculative fiction, Africana speculative fiction imagines the future, she says, but it also particularly reimagines and thinks through the past.
“In imagining the world of the future,” she says, “we’re also imagining ourselves.” And while that imagination can be a way of working through current anxieties, it can also hold the key to our future. “We keep fighting off or staving off our impending doom.”
There are eight billion people in the world, Iromuanya notes. When facing a seemingly intractable problem like climate change, “If we can put those eight billion heads together and imagine ways of fighting this common enemy? That’s how we succeed,” she says.
“My hope comes from students, definitely. They’re really thoughtful; they have really creative, interesting ideas. They’re facing new challenges that have never been faced before, and it’s shaping them in ways we haven’t even imagined yet.”
What if the end isn’t really the end?
“An alternative idea to an abrupt ending would be a nonmonumental negative future, which is just that it keeps getting worse for everybody,” says Joseph Masco, professor of anthropology and author of The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post–Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2020), among other books.
He imagines a scenario in which “more people are more stressed and living less well,” he says. “It doesn’t have the complete ending of an existential danger, but it’s a really stupid way to organize life and to live.”
Why are we more captivated by the idea that the world will end in a dramatic fashion—an asteroid hitting the Earth or a nuclear holocaust—than the much likelier scenario of a gradual decline? “These other modes are powerful precisely because they go to the ultimate extreme of an all-or-nothing moment, and that is deeply, deeply part of American culture,” Masco says.
Apocalyptic narratives have “always been central to certain religious traditions,” he says, “but after 1945, the atomic bomb becomes a way of managing domestic and international ideas about the future via existential fear.”
Asked to imagine an economic apocalypse, economist Damon Jones, an associate professor in the Harris School of Public Policy, suggests several possible scenarios: the collapse of financial markets, inequality becoming so stark that it leads to societal unrest. “The climate is another example of scarce resources—like if water becomes scarce.”
The more you think about the end of the world, he says, “the more discouraged you are from trying to do things that can stop it.” But he thinks maybe—to circle back to creation myths and critical utopias—society could look to writers and artists to radically reenvision the world in a time of crisis.
Would economic apocalypse be sudden?
A thing that is scary to think about is a slow death of civilization. For example, in the places where some of the wealthiest people live, it’s now very common to see people who are homeless. Even in Washington, DC, in front of the White House.
A version of a slow death of society might be where people with wealth and resources become really good at just making poverty invisible. I feel like that is a type of collapse of civilization—that we have basically become completely numb to suffering.
In The Matrix, there are these people in bubbles. They think they’re in the real world. It’s not the actual world they’re experiencing, but they’re happy in the simulation. How different is that from building a bubble around yourself and ignoring a growing group of people who are suffering?
Why can’t economists come up with solutions?
You need a good idea, and you need a society that people feel part of, where they are invested in a general public well-being. I don’t know if economists have the answer.
Economists think about what is needed for people to trust each other enough to have transactions. We focus on making sure that if I sell you something and you give me money that it’s not fake money. We focus on making sure that if I buy something from you, I get to keep it. There’s a lot of attention to protecting my private benefits. A much more difficult problem is ensuring a general public orientation.
So where could solutions come from?
A lot of wealth is being concentrated in STEM, but some of this visionary skill is not on that side of the brain. We have to keep pouring resources into our creative institutions, our creative tools, our creative people—even when we don’t fully understand what they see. Higher education is thought of as a place where that type of investment is, but it’s not automatic. It’s not guaranteed.
If we are going to rely on people who have been very comfortable for a very long time to get us out of a crisis, we might be in trouble. Hopefully we can right the ship.