I was seven or eight when I became convinced that the world was going to end. Twilight was foreshadowed in the things of a Christian cult my family belonged to — a document trove that proved government conspiracies, a survival equipment stockpile in a shed in my backyard, a house-full of Bibles in which the pages of the Book of Revelation were especially worried and tattered. Signs were everywhere: talk about the homosexuals marrying, government crackdowns on Branch Davidians, locator chips sewn into pets — it was like that script on a wall in the zombie flick 28 Days Later: “The end is extremely fucking nigh.”
Specifically, the world was going to immolate in a spiritual pogrom on every person who didn’t fit into a certain category. These people would be dragged to Hell and tortured for eternity. (Those who convinced me of this had different stories about the fates of infants or aborigines who were virgins to the concept of Jesus, but the gist was that, if you rejected Jesus, you would suffer.)
It was my Mom, a cult member who was not dogmatic but pious, who told me there was a way out — all I had to do was ask Jesus to save me from the sins of my flesh, and I’d go to Heaven, instead. He removes you from the violence inherent in the end, a spiriting away in which people find remarkable solace. I can’t count the number of times I heard people praising the Lord for the specter of the end of the world; they only wished it would arrive sooner.
“I just hope it comes in my lifetime,” a cult elder could often be heard saying.
It must, indeed, be endlessly comforting to know that if you follow the steps, you’ll be swept up in Jehovah’s benevolent arms and spend the remainder of eternity there; things are no longer up to you; the burden is lifted. You’re in your own little microcosm, and whatever happens to the world, your community, your circle of friends, your kids — you were going to be okay.
My Uncle Rick (a pseudonym), who led the cult in the 1990s and early aughts, was the most passionate of these people. He was so given to this feeling of Christian comfort that, more than once, he described to me how he’d abandon his family, a wife of decades and ten children, if God called him to. When it came to eternity, family could be happily lost in a pre-Heaven fugue, another freedom most people don’t choose to enjoy. Secular culture would no doubt have cast aspersions on Rick for this, but he didn’t follow worldly mores. That must have been extremely comforting.
But I wouldn’t know. I called Jesus into my heart and went through the motions and attended whatever church functions there were to attend and prayed and followed Christ’s teachings. I did service work, including my kid sister’s baptism in the Roaring Fork River in a January blizzard. Dad and I lowered her toward the stream’s bedrock. Her face washed over with black, icy water, and she came up cleansed. Retreating from this rite, we stumbled over chunks of basalt and sandstone in the stream toward the snowy bank where smiling cult members waited with blankets, and everyone was bound by the ties of community. I watched people speak in tongues. But doubt always nagged me, it seemed, more than other members of the cult. I had impure thoughts about girls I knew and questioned whether, put to Peter’s political test, I’d deny Jesus, like the apostle did. I questioned those things and was certain that I was the only one.
Unlike some other cults, ours had no central compound but gathered for thrice-yearly summits in remote locations — usually trailer houses parked on the fringes of towns in the high desert. One such retreat consisted of a mobile home with roll-out sides an hour drive over the washed out county roads and through an impassible-but-for-the-Lord’s-grace gully off of Skull Creek in Moffat County, Colorado, in the state’s far northwest. Just off the windswept corridor of Highway 40, Skull Creek’s only notable feature was one of the state’s most remote Department of Transportation depots, where that agency housed the local snowplows.
Far from any school, grocer, or hospital, the mother travailed in labor with her fifth child one night and had a close brush with death because the ambulance took too long to show up. That was her final pregnancy, to my knowledge. No matter, as the Lord would have it. She recovered; everyone’s okay, and distance from civilization kept everyone in order.
The father would brag at the summits that his two eldest boys would speak in tongues during daily morning worship before their homeschool lessons began, proof that the Holy Spirit had possessed them.
Dad marveled at these claims — “Those boys really have the Spirit!” — but I was inwardly incredulous. I didn’t see them speak in tongues, but even if they had done it, how do we know “the Spirit” was causing the phenomenon in the first place? The same boys’ father once put a hand on my shoulder and told me he could “feel the Spirit of the Lord coursing through you.” If such a thing was flowing through me, I said to myself, what a cheap dupe! I didn’t feel a thing. I now call this critical thinking, but back then such naughty intellectual adventures were abominations, and I didn’t report them.
I heard something on the news or maybe in a documentary about Jim Jones and had nightmares that cult elders forced me to drink poison so I’d end up in Heaven before the wicked fingers of the secular world grasped me. I kept this to myself, too.
But I kept on through the motions. I even disastrously tried to convert some of my first girlfriends. During my undergraduate studies at Colorado State University, I flirted with atheism and struggled with a drinking problem. I repented by attending prayer sessions with a Christian missionary who’d approached me on campus.
I needed to save my soul — the world was ending.
In fact, the world wasn’t ending in the way the cult believed it was. In all likelihood, there is no such thing as a God, let alone the one described in the Bible — a darkly insecure and filicidal authoritarian who is offended by the forging of lawn ornaments and the presence of menstrual cycles and who harbors a genocidal streak. That is an old, ugly story. Even many modern Christians, ill-adapted to such bellicosity, take much of the Christian story as metaphor.
The simple likelihood of His absence, however, does not equal a dearth of scary things to worry about. We don’t need biblical dictates to ruin things. We only need a tale that justifies our changing the world. Unfortunately, modern humans — those who have emerged in the last 10,000 years or so — are particularly fond of harmful stories. Historical religions were always a convenient narrative (which, for a few, had the happy side effect of leaving them at the top of the social hierarchy).
But religion became a decidedly inconvenient explanation for the world with the discovery of new information, derived from nascent sciences, that contradicted or made implausible the notion of any one God. Any person capable of being reasonable and honest about information was forced to reckon with the gulf between reality and the religion story. This is not to say that religion is not still hugely influential in the world, only that it is no longer the dominant story that dictates to humans how they should act. These days, humans generally structure the rules for communities and nations around moral understandings that are shaped by our experiences and that often conflict with religious dogma.
But we haven’t been required to give up on hierarchy just yet. Religion was replaced with the humanist story, which, like its predecessor, has always told us that the world is made for humans. It’s only a different way of looking at the world which allows us to live outside the boundaries that encompass all other species. Perhaps the world, according to this story, was not made in the sense of being created by a supernatural being. But it does, nevertheless, serve a purpose, and that purpose is not to advance the interests of bacteria, amphibians, hairy quadrupeds, or even most primates. No matter whether some man in the sky created the world, it exists for the betterment of humanity. In this story, the human is the ultimate form of life, and we still have to wrestle the world into compliance with what we think is best.
For the vast majority of human history — three million years of evolution — the tragedy of the commons kept human populations in check. The globe’s ecosystems kept it, sometimes violently, in balance with the remainder of life. But recently, since about 10,000 years ago, technological change has allowed the population to skyrocket, and as the population skyrockets, more people need more food, which causes the population to continue skyrocketing. There’s little we can do to stop it now that the train is in motion.
In his 1992 book Ishmael, novelist Daniel Quinn analyzes human history through brilliant Socratic dialogues between a telepathic menagerie gorilla and a writer pupil. The gorilla, named Ishmael, puts it this way: “At present there are five and a half billion of you here, and, though millions of you are starving, you’re producing enough food to feed six billion. And because you’re producing enough food for six billion, it’s a biological certainty that in three or four years there will be six billion of you.”
The increased number of people has come with vast benefits for some of them (clearly not the ones who are starving). Improved living standards — replete with refrigerators, automobiles, affordable college education, and cosmopolitan jobs — mean longer life spans. “For the first time in history,” writes Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in his recent book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “infectious diseases kill fewer people than old age, famine kills fewer people than obesity, and violence kills fewer people than accidents.”
Measured by the shortest ruler, these metrics seem like an amazing accomplishment. But Harari is glumly farsighted. This revolution in the way the world is run has created a terrifying spate of new crises that the most influential political system — liberal democracy — has no mechanism to address. It objectively improved global living standards, but it is threatening us by driving the ecosystem to ruin and creating technologies that we have no idea how to regulate. Better living standards, enjoyed within the confines of a consumer culture, come with higher carbon output, runaway dependence on new and potentially dangerous gadgets, and resource extraction at higher rates than the earth can sustain. Driven by the engine of economic growth, liberalism — the story that individual humans should be able to do what they want — is overtaxing the natural systems that sustain us.
Harari writes: “[E]conomic growth will not save the global ecosystem; just the opposite, in fact, for economic growth is the cause of the ecological crisis. And economic growth will not solve technological disruption, for it is predicated on the invention of more and more disruptive technologies.”
Harari sees crises that pose clear and all-encompassing threats — nuclear proliferation, the development of artificial intelligence, and, finally, climate change. The point is that the world we know is ending. Harari has declined in interviews and talks (available on YouTube) to be overtly morbid about the prospect of human survival — we simply don’t know what will happen — but there’s little question that we will change.
The religious apocalypse is probably a hyperbolic and inaccurate vision of how the world will end. I experienced an uncomfortable reality check when I realized this. Theretofore, I’d found security — even if everyone was going to die, even if I was going to go to Hell, even if voices wailed and teeth gnashed — in knowing what was going to happen. There are few people — and most of these few subject themselves to rigorous years of retraining their brains to think clearly — who are comfortable with uncertainty. We strive to save money for retirement. We groom our children for better professions than the ones in which we worked. Even nations that found their economies most solidly in the free market sketch out long-term plans for how they will play with other countries. So conditioned by world religions, the media, and Hollywood to feel confronted with the end of the world, we prep for doomsday in intimate ways.
In the 1990s Dad systematically packed a tin shed in our backyard full of survival equipment purchased from a local factory and army surplus. We made super-powered candles and canned fruits and vegetables; we hoarded ammunition, camouflage rain gear, dietary supplements. These stockpiles were similarly practical to ways in which wealthy people, alerted to the world’s physical crises, currently prepare — bunkers, seed banks, security teams, motorcycle fleets — only drastically scaled down to fit paltry budgets derived from hard physical labor. We were ready for a Red Dawn scenario (which would not be carried out by Russia but by the Clinton administration) or for a technological meltdown when all the computers would reset to zero at the year 2000 and global economic systems would collapse, bringing on the end of days.
But the most important fortifications for the cult were spiritual. Rick, who wasn’t as impressed with ammo stockpiles as some of the cult members, was the purest form in our cult. He was truly prepared, a right Koreshian fanatic. A former army gunner, Rick had lost most of his hearing next to firing cannon in Vietnam during America’s vile war against it. He seems to have lost much of his mind along the way, too. He recently wore a suit to his fourth daughter’s wedding, grudgingly, because, he told me, she had bought it for him. He danced with his wife and someone called out: “Rick and Deb: How did you have 10 kids? You have no rhythm!”
For most of my childhood, Rick had a great white beard and great pointed jet-black eyebrows: evil Santa Claus. He’d hug and play with his children. But he was also often physically and verbally violent with them, taking a belt to them when they disappointed him. It was simply a way of life, spanking children being one of the cult’s many ingrained regressions from modern secular society, whose ills were considered an onerous product of Benjamin Spock’s depraved teachings. If a child acted up, she needed a “good swat.” Rick would joke that a spanking paddle with holes drilled in it was best, as the holes eased wind resistance.
Rick had a tendency to explode and then break down emotionally. To culminate one of the cult’s meetings, he sat bawling at my parents’ kitchen table. I didn’t know what he was upset about, but I suspected it was the notion that some in the cult might not be true Christians, an omnipresent concern. Dad, in a moment of remarkable contact with the real world, embraced Rick and told him he might need medical attention for his apparent chemical imbalances. Attending a doctor was a heretical notion in the cult, an acknowledgement that maybe God didn’t have everything under control and that some secularly educated human might have the correct answer. Rick didn’t respond; he just wept a while longer. He loaded his family up in their beige early-eighties Suburban, and I have never heard the incident discussed.
Sometimes, Rick’s children were injured from horsing around in the street or falling out of a window. Rick took them to no hospital; he prayed for them. His faith that God will heal them has always been vindicated, to my knowledge, by full recoveries. Rick was unemployed and subsisted on the income of his wife’s lovingly-curated housecleaning enterprise and the unstable construction and beekeeping wages of his three youngest sons. He had no debt. Comparing himself to a better version of a corporate CFO or a government allocations board, he once said this reflects good financial management.
He was a birther when that conspiracy theory was popular in conservative groups, sending me chain emails about the illegitimacy of the birth certificate Barack Obama released in 2011. For being a separatist, he had strong political opinions.
Rick fully believed a second coming of Christ would uphold his “righteous anger” at world affairs. Rick’s famous wrath was indistinguishable from near madness. During the cult summits of the 1990s, it manifested in outbursts of violent yelling at whom I was never really sure. His outbursts were so intense that I could only register anger, never substance. At one gathering, which had seemed to be going well, the cult was praying in a living room. Maybe thirteen years old, I sat across the room from Rick. He said a few things that I don’t remember — I was busy fantasizing about one of the cult girls I had a clumsy crush on — and then Rick looked at me. He picked up a Bible and asked me if I wanted to be a “man of God.”
Not sure what to do, I affirmed.
His face flashed red, and he screamed, Well, why aren’t you? and chucked the Bible at my head. I ducked. The book fluttered behind a couch. The cult members looked in their laps. Some of the women wept. The men breathed heavily and kept their composure, because that’s what men do. The gathering ended. Mouths were flat.
At a later summit, one of the last, the members, about fifteen, were praying and weeping in Rick’s mobile home living area. Some inscrutably awful thing had happened — most didn’t know what the calamity was, just that something was wrong, an undercurrent we ascribed to the Devil.
Rick’s second eldest daughter, unprompted, rose from her seat on one of the couches. She walked to the kitchen. She gathered a large steel mixing bowl and two sponges and filled the bowl with water and homemade soap. In increasingly violent sobs, she shuffled around the living area’s floor on her knees stopping at each member to wash her feet. When the task was done, the bowl’s water was dark and opaque with the dirt of the lowest part of the human body.
“Look at it!” Rick’s daughter commanded, pointing to the jetsam. “That’s what we are to God!”
The washing of feet has a storied history in Christianity. It is done to signify humility, as when Mary Magdalene washed Christ’s feet, or when Jesus washed his disciples’. But the cult used it to illustrate what humanity was to God — a washbasin of refuse. Because the world was going to end at any moment, we had to make sure that our souls were cleaned. But we kept becoming mired in the pervasive world whose secular values increasingly insinuated themselves into our lives.
When the cult was waning, my parents were sinfully subscribed to a cable package that included Cinemax, which featured soft-core pornography films starting around 9 p.m. I was probably sixteen. The cult elder who had told me he could feel God’s spirit in my body, confronted me about this one day.
“I bet when your parents aren’t looking, you watch that nudity,” he said.
I denied it, knowing he was right.
“It’s too tempting,” he knowingly insisted.
I was guilty, found out — lust, lying, taking advantage of my parents, the thought crime of analyzing inconsistencies in holy texts.
I was not prepared for the world to end.
The Oxford Philosopher Nick Bostrom writes in the Journal of Evolution and Technology about a raft of hazards — twenty-three of them — to the future of the human species. These problems, which he calls “existential risks,” could eliminate humans and many other species or drastically and permanently curtail our potential to achieve “posthumanity,” a state in which we have transcended our physical bodies by uploading our minds into a computer or have morphed with machines or some other sci-fi-like remaking.
He divides these risks into four categories: bangs — we go extinct in a sudden disaster, either accidental or at the hands of some evil mastermind; crunches — we go on living in our current form, but cannot thrive, let alone evolve; shrieks — “Some form of posthumanity is attained but it is an extremely narrow band of what is possible and desirable;” and whimpers — we achieve posthumanity, but it separates us so drastically from our current values that we are unrecognizable as a species.
Bostrom lists a few very familiar catastrophes: nuclear holocaust is a bang, as is a “doomsday virus,” enabled by fantastic advances in genetic engineering, or an asteroid crashing into earth and creating a dust cloud that wipes out life on the planet; resource depletion is a widely-feared crunch; many have feared a global government that would repress human progress, a shriek; and a genocidal alien force that wipes out humanity is a popularized whimper. As well, each category had more obscure threats, like the idea that we live in a computer-projected reality whose plug could be pulled at any moment, destroying everything, or the “Accidental misuse of nanotechnology.” Each type of risk also includes a “catch-all,” an unforeseen possibility compensating for Bostrom’s failure to anticipate any catastrophe.
Though he mentions it a couple of times, climate change does not really factor in Bostrom’s analysis; he categorizes moderate global warming as a “global endurable risk” that most life would survive — same with biodiversity loss. These are grouped with global economic recessions and “dark ages.” The final bang is “Runaway global warming,” to which Bostrom dedicates a three-sentence paragraph.
Bostrom’s paper published in 2002, long before significant factions of humanity, quite recently, became arrested by the severity of the climate crisis, the first hurricane whose destruction was blamed, in some circles, on climate change, Hurricane Katrina, still three years away. So he may be forgiven for seeming glib about global warming and biodiversity loss,and he has gone on to modernize and hone his work at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.
But there are several threads in Bostrom’s work common with these two crises. I’ll talk about two. The first is that, like the existential risks he lists, a trial-and-error approach to solve climate change and biodiversity loss is not acceptable. “There is no opportunity to learn from errors,” he writes. “The reactive approach — see what happens, limit damages, and learn from experience — is unworkable. Rather, we must take a proactive approach.”
The second is that a global response is needed. This means that hoping in market forces to solve the problem is at best imprudent. The market has responded to public consciousness in the environment, sure. You see this in, for example, IKEA’s recent commitment to stop employing single-use plastics in its manufacturing by a certain date. But this sort of thing is short shrift when compared with the magnitude of the problem. So too, one government’s response is not enough. If the United States suddenly stopped emitting carbon, it would do very little to slow climate change. Even precipitous abstinence from fossil fuels by China, the world’s largest emitter, would not have much of an effect. David Wallace-Wells writes in his recent book The Uninhabitable Earth that American liberals who believe the United States can on its own solve climate change are conceited in the way only Americans are. This is why the Paris Climate Accord, weak as it was, was so important — it was the first time the need for a global response to climate change was nearly unanimously recognized by the world’s governments, no small consensus in the history of international relations.
I have given up on trying to save my soul. I don’t even think it’s there anymore, which was deflating at first. I wrestle instead with the robust ecosystem inside my apartment. In the spring of 2019, I was working on several writing projects that forced me to grapple deeply with the human place in the world. I studied human buildings and other environments created by humans and how wildlife transformed those domesticated places into wild ecosystems. The built world, a place intended for exploitation solely by humans, seemed like it was under siege from the life that surrounded it. There were all these creatures outside that wanted to be inside.
My investigation explored airports, college campuses, apartment complexes, public parks, racetracks, government buildings. You could insinuate this paradigm into any place that was designed by humans for other humans, and you’d find animals and plants trying to get in. A belfry will always attract a bat.
At first, the exercise was an academic one, separated from myself. I penned a long report on it and started sending it out for publication to so-far unanimous rejection. The downturned thumbs depressed me. Rolling over the stone to figure out where I’d gone wrong, I realized that I was not being honest with myself about my significant role in the story. If every other human living environment was subject to this rule — that wildlife will invade — wasn’t mine as well?
I took my dog to the vet one day for what I thought were allergies. She was scratching incessantly, and I had searched her for fleas. The doc nimbly fingered through the fur on her back and immediately found a flea. After this embarrassing realization that I’m not adept at that sort of thing, I took her home with medication and shampoo. I bought a high-powered vacuum cleaner for the carpets and scrubbed the furniture.
A month later, mice invaded. I bought traps, spread substances around the apartment that the internet told me would repel them, deep-cleaned again. I hid all the countertop food and got rid of the cardboard left over from my move. They didn’t go away.
The weather warmed up, and the cockroaches moved in.
I bought insecticide and sprayed several times, wiping everything down. Several large roaches turned up on my apartment floor, dead. They were gone for about a week before little ones started to return. I read PETA blogs about the cruelty and ineffectiveness of poisoning cockroaches. I cleaned yet more, got rid of some yellowing newspapers I never read, purchased a shelter cat to chase away the mice; but the deaths of habits are long and painful, and my apartment seemed to fall back apart all on its own. I drank at the problem, staying up at night to take footage of shadows skittering across my living area and obsessing over the ways in which my apartment seemed to molder. This little world, the first home I’d ever made on my own without the help of roommates or a wife, was ending.
I had to cobble it back together. But doing so in a healthy way required a better understanding of my environment. The complex I live in is old, and a creek strikes through it. Nature is like a vampire at my door but doesn’t care whether it’s invited. But probably a better way of looking at it is that I want to be in it. That’s why I chose this place when I moved to Dallas. Just off the balcony is a squirrel haven. Possums nest in a nearby tree that was split by lightning shortly before I moved in. When the creek evaporates during long summer dry spells, knots of juvenile diamondback water snakes, dozens of them, swarm to snag puddle-trapped minnows. Egrets and herons stalk the banks in search of the same food. I’m here because this of this ecosystem, one that’s rare in metroplex apartment complexes.
The wildlife would yet be here if not for me; I’m the interloper. I’ll leave the apartment someday. Whatever mess is here when I do — carpets marked with pet stains, a shelf that has buckled under the weight of a stack of magazines — the management will clean and replace and deduct the associated cost from my deposit. When I’m gone, someone new is going to occupy this space.
There is the fundamental difference between the religious story about the end of the world and the humanist story about the end of the world — and it’s important to state that one draws close to the truth. The Christians know the world is not long for our eternal existence, meaning that if we trash it, it’s going to burn anyway. I know the opposite, that I’m not long even for the apartment, and I should try to stay my messes. Likewise, humanists believe they have to create a way for the world to be sustainable for future generations. In a near enough future, we can deploy a vast mirror edifice into space to reflect sunlight to stave off more global warming or export a portion of the human population to another planet, which are both solutions that have been advanced by people who say they know what they’re talking about.
Ishmael’s pupil described a law for proper living, which every species in the world but humans can be found following. He calls it the peace-keeping law, and it has three rules: Don’t destroy all your competitors; don’t destroy your competitors’ food; and don’t deny your competitors access to all food. Breaking these rules is common — necessary — work among most agriculturalists. American ranchers lobby the United States government to kill predators, not to protect one flock but to exterminate each member of the offending species. Of course, if every animal, on the species level, broke the rules with such audacity, there would only be a few dozen species on the planet. In fact, if no species ever followed these rules, life would not exist in the form it currently does.
An incredible cognitive dissonance kicks in when I spray my countertops — from placid, vegan Aaron emerges an addled destroyer. This is not how I want to live. This isn’t exactly the equivalent of the Bureau of Land Management lacing wolf territory with cyanide bombs, as the Trump administration has recently admonished it to do. But it’s of the vein that other things are competing for what I have been conditioned by society to see as exclusively mine. My apartment has become zero-sum territory.
The end of the world is not a concept that’s paid attention only in Christian fundamentalist or environmentalist circles. The idea of a near-Mad Max scenario in which measures must be taken to guard against the vicious tendencies of other people is newly popular with the rich. A vigorous “doomsday prep” industry has sprung up among tech barons and finance tycoons in recent years, and a media frenzy has followed it. Most famously and widely-cited, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos in 2017 profiled the efforts of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to craft bunkers, establish food banks and arsenals, hire private security forces, and physically train themselves to withstand any social collapse that could result from a number of different ills. Environmental, social, technological, economic — these disasters eerily follow Bostrom’s postulations.
Girding for potential disasters is not a new phenomenon, of course. As Julie Turkewitz recently noted in a New York Times essay on this industry, Americans “built fallout shelters during the Cold War and basement supply caches ahead of Y2K.” But, Turkewitz writes, this is a full-scale money-making operation, and it’s making professionals from real-estate agents to bunker architects very wealthy.
One character in her story, real-estate mogul Larry Hall, is selling condos for $1.3 million a pop in a defunct Kansas missile silo, a type of fortification that also features prominently in Osnos’s piece. (The Turkewitz article, written more than two-and-a-half years after Osnos’s, strikes me as highly derivative of the latter reporter’s, though with some timely updates on the industry. Hall’s project, the Survival Condo, has the same name of a Kansas missile silo condo project Osnos writes about, too.)
Osnos writes that doomsday prep has undulated. After Barack Obama was elected to his second presidential term, “Conservative devotees, who accused Obama of stoking racial tensions, restricting gun rights, and expanding the national debt, loaded up on the types of freeze-dried cottage cheese and beef stroganoff promoted by commentators like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.” Some tech entrepreneurs have laser eye surgery so they don’t have to worry about messing with contacts or glasses when chaos hits; it’ll be one less thing to worry about.
There is even a doomsday prep market for those who can’t afford to spend $1.3 million on a bunker, can’t purchase an armored vehicle, or can’t make the salaries of a security detail. Writing in the Times in 2017, culture writer Alex Williams compiled a list of items most people can and some do afford to compile over time: a “bug-out” bag, $200 on Amazon and full of survival goods like body warmers and water-filtration tablets; unlubricated prophylactics for water storage; pet rabbits that can be butchered to harvest protein from. The companies that peddle these goods are essentially trafficking in turmoil. Their values go up when global tensions are higher. Good for the vultures. But it seems everyone else is missing the point.
Wealthy business owners in the tech industry and hedge-fund managers who are intimately plugged into large-scale economic trends are uniquely positioned to recognize the importance to societies of an organizing principle, a thematic thread that ties a whole polity together. They are also poised to see — through the magnifying lenses of their social media platforms — the fraying of social fabric before it is ripped apart. Robust political bodies, currencies, corporations, universities — at some level, these are social institutions that only work because people have faith in them. Should that faith collapse, what would be left but meaningless buildings, fluttering records, defunct greenbacks?
Osnos’s story was published two days after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States, which is often upheld as an undeniable portent of the collapse of the humanist story. In lieu of cooperating on a global scale with fellow humans, as the humanist story requires, some Western societies are dangerously walling themselves off from the rest of the world, a visceral reaction to the often life-altering side-effects of globalization.
“When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” Antonio Garcia Martinez, an ex-Facebook product designer who fortified a doomsday compound with ammo and solar panels, told Osnos.
Like his peers, Garcia Martinez is lucky in more ways than having an expansive social vantage. While many Americans are an unexpected bill away from homelessness, those who talked on the record with Osnos and Turkewitz have the fortune of being able to afford their solace. These people who pour vast financial resources, often subsidized by ordinary people through tax loopholes, into these escape capsules, are a microcosm of the humanist story, which has it that the world was made for the benefit of man. Wealthy doomsday preppers take that logic down a notch — earth was made for them, specifically.
Conversely, popular culture uses the idea of escape capsules for humanity not to downsize that story to a singular self but to magnify it, projecting it onto the entire universe. Hollywood blockbusters like Interstellar or the less-ambitious movie Moon, reaffirm that we are special. The next step from conquering the world is to conquer the solar system, galaxy, universe, to flee our dying planet. There’s a perverse moral story promoting conquest in this genre of storytelling: we’ve ruined our home, therefore it’s our responsibility to find a different one for future generations to thrive on and, if fate has it this way, ruin also.
The moralizing extends to the captains of the doomsday prep industry. Hall told Turkewitz that “I’m saving lives. … To me, this is something to feel good about.”
There’s a truism in writing that words left out speak more loudly than those included; Hall ignored the fairly obvious point that he was only saving a certain type of life, very meta of him. The social ethics of making millions from the specter of the end of the world subtly reflect the values of the industry’s customers, who state their antipathy for most humans more plainly. Osnos quoted Garcia Martinez: “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob. … No, you’re going to need to form a local militia.”
A basic rule I’ve discovered in life is that nothing will happen in the way I think it will. My cat has chased away all the mice; I’ve only seen one since I brought her home, and this one was stiff with rigor mortis on my hallway floor. My dog, Sweet Dee, doesn’t have lice at the moment. But the pair hate each other. The feline, who I named Charlie, puffed up at first sight of Sweet Dee. They danced around each other for a few days. Sweet Dee wanted to play, and Charlie would not have it, levitating to countertops.
But after a few days, Charlie got bored and figured out how to antagonize Sweet Dee without playing with her. The latter animal has a habit of sleeping with only her snout poking around a corner. Charlie sneaks up to the junction and scratches Sweet Dee’s nose; the dog snarls awake and snaps at air previously occupied by Charlie, who is now yards away, looking pleased with herself for having ruined a nap.
Sweet Dee is an aging holdover from my marriage. I had not wanted to get a dog, but my then-fiance insisted. After we divorced, I was in a better position to keep the pooch, and I brought her to Texas with me. Sweet Dee is getting old, about ten years, and Texas is an uncomfortable environment for a golden retriever. She recently got a nasty ear infection. The medication gave her an overactive bladder, and with a job keeping me away most of the day, she wet the carpet so many times that no amount of scrubbing removed the smell. It’s been weeks since she last peed in the apartment, but the stench won’t leave.
Resentment toward my ex-wife for this situation crops up every now and then. I know it’s wrong to think that way, so I try to think of it as an inchoate human reaction to any circumstance. I’d find something else to be angry about. But I’m still grossed out. I replace the resentment with thoughts of moving to another complex or becoming a hobo. Maybe I could go to a place with nice community gardens, and I could rent a plot, raise my own dinners from the soil.
But there isn’t really a good escape vessel. Everything else I’ve explored is cost-prohibitive or too sterile or much too far from my workplace — the juice is never worth the squeeze. Besides, there’s a community garden just up the road.
Starting my life in the knowledge that the world is going to end unleashed a powerful inertia. I’ve been an atheist for years, but I constantly have to remind myself that the world is not ending. It only took about a dozen days for my carpet to get musty; hopelessness aside, I have nothing but time to keep working on it.
Wallace-Wells starts The Uninhabitable Earth on an acerbic note, “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” But he goes on:
That we know global warming is our doing should be comfort, not a cause for despair, however incomprehensibly large and complicated we find the processes that have brought it into being; that we know we are, ourselves, responsible for all of its punishing effects should be empowering, and not just perversely. Global warming is, after all, a human invention. And the flip side of our real-time guilt is that we remain in command. No matter how out-of-control the climate system seems — with its roiling typhoons, unprecedented famines and heat waves, refugee crises and climate conflicts — we are all its authors. And still writing.
Note: This is part of my master’s thesis, which I’m slowly dissecting and publishing here.