How to think against the apocalypse

Part two in a three-part series on how philosophy contends with our possible annihilation.

How to think against the apocalypse

Part two in a three-part series on how philosophy contends with our possible annihilation.

Recently, I have found myself overcome at times by a certain melancholy. Sometimes — typically, when I am otherwise at my happiest, when I am feeling most content and secure, like everything in my life might finally be coming together — I am overcome by a wave of sadness, almost a sense of unfairness, that I have not been allowed to do this at a time when the world wasn't on the verge of collapse. When I am lying with my partner and place my hand on her belly, hard and round with our son floating in it, living inside her in his little balloon, I think: wouldn't it have been nice, to be able to bring a child into a world not marked by looming disaster? Wouldn't it be good, to feel when I hold him for the first time that our new family will never be separated by events beyond our control; that this new human individual will definitely be able to live a life that is peaceful and flourishing — a life that any soul could be thrown into and think: well this, this life, this life is definitely worth living.

But then I wonder: is this delusional? Have there in truth been any human beings, ever, who could confidently assume that their lives, and their children’s lives, would turn out for the best?

Historically, only a tiny percentage of the human race has been allowed to live lives defined by anything other than poverty and want. “Far from bearing the character of a gift,” Schopenhauer tells us in his essay “On the Vanity and Suffering of Life,” “human existence has entirely the character of a contracted debt... To enter at the age of five a cotton-spinning or other factory, and from then on to sit there every day first 10, then 12, and finally 14 hours, and perform the same mechanical work, is to purchase dearly the pleasure of drawing breath. But this is the fate of millions.” Nowadays, yes, most developed countries have eliminated child labor — but only within their own borders. The wealth of the rich, which our society continues to propagandize as the reward for “hard work,” is little more than the crystallized form of the torture and murder of the rest of humanity.

It is in part for this reason that Schopenhauer concludes, famously, that we exist in “the worst of all possible worlds.” But in a way, for Schopenhauer our world suffers from being not quite bad enough. “For possible,” he tells us, “means not what we may picture in our imagination, but what can actually exist and last... this world is arranged as it had to be if it were to be capable of continuing with great difficulty to exist; if it were a little worse, it would no longer capable of continuing to exist.” In Schopenhauer’s light, complete destruction might actually be a good thing — since at least it would end the pointless cycle of suffering and desiring and violence and oppression which, as he claims, characterizes all human life. But instead, we are doomed to constantly confront the spectre of extinction: always fearing it, but never quite finally being seized by it.

It is hard to look back at the grand scope of human history and conclude that we were ever in any real way free from the threat of apocalypse. Words like “apocalypse” and “Armageddon” have an old, weighty quality, presumably something to do with their Biblical etymologies; they feel, on our lips, like long-sealed prophecies. There is something ancient about the end of the world. Even before the man-made destruction of all human life became possible with the advent of the atomic bomb, biblically or otherwise religiously-informed apocalypse events were prophesied with remarkable regularity. Almost all religious traditions have an eschatology — that is, they are concerned in some way with the end times. Some cultures, like that of the ancient Aztecs, thought the end of the world had already happened — in their case, on multiple occasions.

You might object that the similarity is only superficial, since climate change (and the Bomb) are real threats, unlike, say, the King of Terror descending from the sky while riding Halley’s Comet. But I'm not sure where exactly the line should be drawn: the end of the world was at least real enough to haunt earlier generations, in the sense that it caused them to undertake various courses of action (at times this has meant taking steps to prevent the apocalypse; at others, to welcome it or bring it about. Currently our species seems, at the very least, to be torn). At any rate, it makes sense to say that the human condition is eschatological. There is something about us (some manifestation of the death-drive, perhaps), which inclines us to anticipate the end of all things.

The majority of professional philosophers can be considered “for the Apocalypse” simply insofar as their work has nothing to do with it.

In the “Dedication” to his book Minima Moralia, Adorno situates his work in “a region that from time immemorial was regarded as the true field of philosophy,” but which has more recently “lapsed into intellectual neglect, sententious whimsy and finally oblivion: the teaching of the good life.” Adorno wanted to revive this teaching for an age in which, as World War II and the Holocaust had proved, “there is life no longer.” “What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.” A contemporary Adorno would seek to do this in a context in which life,regardless of how diminished it has become, is threatened with extinction.

All of which is to say: if, as per the previous installment in this series, we want to work out how to think more humanly, we need to figure out how to think with the apocalypse in mind.

How might this work? As Nietzsche suggests, all knowledge is grounded in a particular perspective, rooted in a background of tradition and informed by particular interests. This being the case, the seriousness of our contemporary situation demands we subject our own perspective to critical scrutiny. Which side are we really on? In our words, in our actions, in our hearts of hearts — are we for or against the apocalypse?

What would it mean for our thought to be “for the apocalypse”? Obviously, one could openly welcome it. Treat it as a movie where you're cheering on the bad guys. But that sort of accelerationist response is perhaps the least interesting one: cow-like capitulation to prevailing conditions, encased somewhat drably in the trappings of radical aesthetics and pseudo-philosophical rebellion.

The manifesto of the perpatrator in last month’s Christchurch massacre has provoked a fair bit of talk of “eco-fascism” — the other right-wing response to the climate crisis besides either welcoming it or flatly denying it is happening. Ostensibly, eco-fascists would align themselves against the apocalypse, lamenting the man-made destruction of nature. But fascists, as ever, look for the solutions to the problems that the existing system of power is bringing about in that very system’s entrenchment. The majority of eco-fascists are openly anti-human, advocating to solve climate change by keeping human life “within strict limits,” typically along racial (and/or national) lines. This is the most intense, violent idiocy: a genocidal solution to a looming extinction event, after all, would simply be a way of carrying on the apocalypse by other means.

Perhaps the majority of professional philosophers can be considered “for the apocalypse” in a quite different way: simply insofar as their work has nothing to do with it. Climate change and the atomic bomb both represent potential man-made apocalypse events: the key difference between them is that whereas nuclear Armageddon would most likely be brought about by someone (or some institution) actively deciding to do something, climate change will become an increasingly serious problem unless we actively do something about it.

It therefore seems quite unacceptable, to be lucky enough to have one of the few jobs still available where one is able to dedicate oneself wholesale to the life of the mind, only to dwindle this opportunity away by spending it arguing with a handful of other nerds about the finer points of metaethics, or the correct reading of Kant. I don't have a problem with these pursuits as hobbies (each to their own: they're not for me), but if you make your living out of them it means a spot is taken up — a spot which someone not determined to ignore the forces that are driving humanity towards extinction could presumably use instead. (Perhaps if any sort of positive political program could be associated with this sort of professional intellectual hobbyism, it would be a closed, stoic acceptance that evil will happen anyway, so we may as well live our lives as best we can while coming to terms with it. But this not only seems foolishly fatalistic, it also seems callously individualistic — as individuals we might give up, and tend to the inside of our own heads, but what gives us the right not to fight for everyone else?).

The range of perspectives set actively against the apocalypse comes to seem almost vanishingly narrow. Only one thing might be enough: actively dedicating one's thought to the invalidation of the systems and forces which are conspiring to bring climate change about, which maintain it as a problem at once totally man-made and utterly impossible for human beings to do anything about. Whenever an idea confronts us, we must think: where does this idea come from? What material interest, or dormant prejudice, informs it? And where is it going? If its logic is allowed to play out, what would this idea do? Who is this idea “with,” as it were: in the interests of who, or what, does it ultimately align?

Doing this to the degree necessary might be difficult. Most of us must work to live, which usually ultimately means working for someone who might well have interests which align with disaster. At some point, one is probably going to have to compromise — perhaps, indeed, in ways one is not even openly conscious of. Perhaps, given such a harsh standard, every single human being alive today will be found lacking. But the point, surely, is not to be individually “in the right”: I know people like to feel this way, but given the seriousness of our situation, it seems almost childish to care about it. If our attempt to think against the apocalypse gives way to judgemental pronouncements on each other as individuals, the evil will have already won. The point ought not be to find a way of definitively meeting whatever standard we set, but rather to find something to hold ourselves to which might actually — even if we realize it only partially — achieve something.

Perhaps we can take as our model here Walter Benjamin's vision of “historical materialism.” “The historical materialist,” Benjamin tells us in his essay “On the Concept of History,” “(recognizes in) a historical object... the sign of a messianic arrest of happening... a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.” For Benjamin, the study of history ought to be taken as an opportunity to redeem it, to ease the sufferings of those the march of “progress” has killed, tortured, and enslaved. The fact of climate change obliges us not only to fight for the past but for the future too: we must set ourselves against every dystopia our present moment seems determined to tend towards. This is how to think eschatologically in the best sense: against the apocalypse.


Can we truly think about climate change at all?

Part one of a three-part series on how philosophy contends with our possible annihilation.
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Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.