Message of the Day: Population, Environment, War, Hunger, Disease, Human Rights, Personal Growth

Notes from the Apocalypse, The Atlantic Magazine, Apocalypse Nowish, Harper’s Magazine


As we come to the end of the first month of 2023, we are posting the cover story from the January/February edition of The Atlantic Magazine, bookended by the cover story from last month of 2022 in the December edition of Harper’s Magazine.

The subject is the Apocalypse.

In a general sense, collectively they present three perspectives:

Fight against the odds to create a better future for humanity and all life.

Wish for the end of humanity entirely, which by definition would erase any record of it ever existing, as soon as possible, for the sake of the rest of creation on earth and in the universe.

Work for the end of humanity in human physical form and create the continuity of it’s knowledge and best aspects through in effect creation of the transfer of these characteristics to AI which would theoretically exponentially amplify the positive and save and enhance the rest of creation on earth and in the universe.

The end of 2022 and start of 2023, brought to you by two of the finest magazines in existance with storied histories. Both focussed on the end of humanity and/or all life. Any day now.

We don’t agree with a number of things presented in these articles. However, we agree with much of the fundamental analysis of why Apocalypse appears imminent.

And of course we come down on the side of fighting to make all life, including human, survive and thrive.

We were tempted to do a somewhat massive annotation because we agree and disagree with so much of what is written in these articles.

However, our positions are clear from years of work and postings.

And the value of experiencing these articles by themselves is enormous.

So, here they are:


A disparate group of thinkers says we should welcome our demise.

By Adam Kirsch, The Atlantic Magazine, January/February 2023

painting of translucent human figure walking through field of flowers with bright blue sky and trees in background
Painting by Reynier Llanes. “The Poet,” 2021 (oil on canvas, 47 x 36 inches).

“Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.”

With this declaration in The Order of Things (1966), the French philosopher Michel Foucault heralded a new way of thinking that would transform the humanities and social sciences. Foucault’s central idea was that the ways we understand ourselves as human beings aren’t timeless or natural, no matter how much we take them for granted. Rather, the modern concept of “man” was invented in the 18th century, with the emergence of new modes of thinking about biology, society, and language, and eventually it will be replaced in turn.

As Foucault writes in the book’s famous last sentence, one day “man would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.” The image is eerie, but he claimed to find it “a source of profound relief,” because it implies that human ideas and institutions aren’t fixed. They can be endlessly reconfigured, maybe even for the better. This was the liberating promise of postmodernism: The face in the sand is swept away, but someone will always come along to draw a new picture in a different style.

But the image of humanity can be redrawn only if there are human beings to do it. Even the most radical 20th-century thinkers stop short at the prospect of the actual extinction of Homo sapiens, which would mean the end of all our projects, values, and meanings. Humanity may be destined to disappear someday, but almost everyone would agree that the day should be postponed as long as possible, just as most individuals generally try to delay the inevitable end of their own life.

In recent years, however, a disparate group of thinkers has begun to challenge this core assumption. From Silicon Valley boardrooms to rural communes to academic philosophy departments, a seemingly inconceivable idea is being seriously discussed: that the end of humanity’s reign on Earth is imminent, and that we should welcome it. The revolt against humanity is still new enough to appear outlandish, but it has already spread beyond the fringes of the intellectual world, and in the coming years and decades it has the potential to transform politics and society in profound ways.

This view finds support among very different kinds of people: engineers and philosophers, political activists and would-be hermits, novelists and paleontologists. Not only do they not see themselves as a single movement, but in many cases they want nothing to do with one another. Indeed, the turn against human primacy is being driven by two ways of thinking that appear to be opposites.

The first is Anthropocene anti-humanism, inspired by revulsion at humanity’s destruction of the natural environment. The notion that we are out of tune with nature isn’t new; it has been a staple of social critique since the Industrial Revolution. More than half a century ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an exposé on the dangers of DDT, helped inspire modern environmentalism with its warning about following “the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature.” But environmentalism is a meliorist movement, aimed at ensuring the long-term well-being of humanity, along with other forms of life. Carson didn’t challenge the right of humans to use pesticides; she simply argued that “the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects.”

In the 21st century, Anthropocene anti-humanism offers a much more radical response to a much deeper ecological crisis. It says that our self-destruction is now inevitable, and that we should welcome it as a sentence we have justly passed on ourselves. Some anti-humanist thinkers look forward to the extinction of our species, while others predict that even if some people survive the coming environmental apocalypse, civilization as a whole is doomed. Like all truly radical movements, Anthropocene anti-humanism begins not with a political program but with a philosophical idea. It is a rejection of humanity’s traditional role as Earth’s protagonist, the most important being in creation.

Transhumanism, by contrast, glorifies some of the very things that anti-humanism decries—scientific and technological progress, the supremacy of reason. But it believes that the only way forward for humanity is to create new forms of intelligent life that will no longer be Homo sapiens. Some transhumanists believe that genetic engineeringand nanotechnology will allow us to alter our brains and bodies so profoundly that we will escape human limitations such as mortality and confinement to a physical body. Others await, with hope or trepidation, the invention of artificial intelligence infinitely superior to our own. These beings will demote humanity to the rank we assign to animals—unless they decide that their goals are better served by wiping us out completely.

The anti-humanist future and the transhumanist future are opposites in most ways, except the most fundamental: They are worlds from which we have disappeared, and rightfully so. In thinking about these visions of a humanless world, it is difficult to evaluate the likelihood of them coming true. Some predictions and exhortations are so extreme that it is tempting not to take them seriously, if only as a defense mechanism.

But the revolt against humanity is a real and significant phenomenon, even if it is “just” an idea and its predictions of a future without us never come true. After all, unfulfilled prophecies have been responsible for some of the most important movements in history, from Christianity to Communism. The revolt against humanity isn’t yet a movement on that scale, and might never be, but it belongs in the same category. It is a spiritual development of the first order, a new way of making sense of the nature and purpose of human existence.

in the 2006 film Children of Men, the director, Alfonso Cuarón, takes only a few moments to establish a world without a future. The movie opens in 2027 in a London café, where a TV news report announces that the youngest person on Earth has been killed in Buenos Aires; he was 18 years old. In 2009, human beings mysteriously lost the ability to bear children, and the film depicts a society breaking down in the face of impending extinction. Moments after the news report, the café is blown up by a terrorist bomb.

The extinction scenario in the film, loosely based on a novel by the English mystery writer P. D. James, remains in the realm of science fiction—for now. But in October 2019, London actually did erupt in civil disorder when activists associated with the group Extinction Rebellion, or XR, blocked commuter trains at rush hour. At one Underground station, a protester was dragged from the roof of a train and beaten by a mob. In the following months, XR members staged smaller disruptions at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on New York’s Wall Street, and at the South Australian State Parliament.

The group is nonviolent in principle, but it embraces aggressive tactics such as mock “die-ins” and mass arrests to shock the public into recognizing that the end of the human species isn’t just the stuff of movie nightmares. It is an imminent threat arising from anthropogenic climate change, which could render large parts of the globe uninhabitable. Roger Hallam, one of the founders of XR, uses terms such as extinctionand genocide to describe the catastrophe he foresees, language that is far from unusual in today’s environmental discourse. The journalist David Wallace-Wells rendered the same verdict in The Uninhabitable Earth (2019), marshaling evidence for the argument that climate change “is not just the biggest threat human life on the planet has ever faced but a threat of an entirely different category and scale.”

Since the late 1940s, humanity has lived with the knowledge that it has the power to annihilate itself at any moment through nuclear war. Indeed, the climate anxiety of our own time can be seen as a return of apocalyptic fears that went briefly into abeyance after the end of the Cold War.

Destruction by despoliation is more radically unsettling. It means that humanity is endangered not only by our acknowledged vices, such as hatred and violence, but also by pursuing aims that we ordinarily consider good and natural: prosperity, comfort, increase of our kind. The Bible gives the negative commandment “Thou shalt not kill” as well as the positive commandment “Be fruitful and multiply,” and traditionally they have gone together. But if being fruitful and multiplying starts to be seen as itself a form of killing, because it deprives future generations and other species of irreplaceable resources, then the flourishing of humanity can no longer be seen as simply good. Instead, it becomes part of a zero-sum competition that pits the gratification of human desires against the well-being of all of nature—not just animals and plants, but soil, stones, and water.

If that’s the case, then humanity can no longer be considered a part of creation or nature, as science and religion teach in their different ways. Instead, it must be seen as an antinatural force that has usurped and abolished nature, substituting its own will for the processes that once appeared to be the immutable basis of life on Earth. This understanding of humanity’s place outside and against the natural order is summed up in the term Anthropocene, which in the past decade has become one of the most important concepts in the humanities and social sciences.

The legal scholar Jedediah Purdy offers a good definition of this paradigm shift in his book After Nature (2015):

The Anthropocene finds its most extreme expression in our acknowledgment that the familiar divide between people and the natural world is no longer useful or accurate. Because we shape everything, from the upper atmosphere to the deep seas, there is no more nature that stands apart from human beings.

We find our fingerprints even in places that might seem utterly inaccessible to human beings—in the accumulation of plastic on the ocean floor and the thinning of the ozone layer six miles above our heads. Humanity’s domination of the planet is so extensive that evolution itself must be redefined. The survival of the fittest, the basic mechanism of natural selection, now means the survival of what is most useful to human beings.

In the Anthropocene, nature becomes a reflection of humanity for the first time. The effect is catastrophic, not only in practical terms, but spiritually. Nature has long filled for secular humanity one of the roles once played by God, as a source of radical otherness that can humble us and lift us out of ourselves. One of the first observers to understand the significance of this change was the writer and activist Bill McKibben. In The End of Nature (1989), a landmark work of environmentalist thought, McKibben warned of the melting glaciers and superstorms that are now our everyday reality. But the real subject of the book was our traditional understanding of nature as a “world entirely independent of us which was here before we arrived and which encircled and supported our human society.” This idea, McKibben wrote, was about to go extinct, “just like an animal or a plant”—or like Foucault’s “man,” erased by the tides.

If the choice that confronts us is between a world without nature and a world without humanity, today’s most radical anti-humanist thinkers don’t hesitate to choose the latter. In his 2006 book, Better Never to Have Been, the celebrated “antinatalist” philosopher David Benatar argues that the disappearance of humanity would not deprive the universe of anything unique or valuable: “The concern that humans will not exist at some future time is either a symptom of the human arrogance … or is some misplaced sentimentalism.”

Humanists, even secular ones, assume that only humans can create meaning and value in the universe. Without us, we tend to believe, all kinds of things might continue to happen on Earth, but they would be pointless—a show without an audience. For anti-humanists, however, this is just another example of the metaphysical egoism that leads us to overwhelm and destroy the planet. “What is so special about a world that contains moral agents and rational deliberators?” Benatar asks. “That humans value a world that contains beings such as themselves says more about their inappropriate sense of self-importance than it does about the world.” Rather, we should take comfort in the certainty that humans will eventually disappear: “Things will someday be the way they should be—there will be no people.”

like anti-humanists, transhumanists contemplate the prospect of humanity’s disappearance with serenity. What worries them is the possibility that it will happen too soon, before we have managed to invent our successors. As far as we know, humanity is the only intelligent species in the universe; if we go extinct, it may be game over for the mind. It’s notable that although transhumanists are enthusiastic about space exploration, they are generally skeptical about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, or at least about the chances of our ever encountering it. If minds do exist elsewhere in the universe, the destiny of humanity would be of less cosmic significance.

Humanity’s sole stewardship of reason is what makes transhumanists interested in “existential risk,” the danger that we will destroy ourselves before securing the future of the mind. In a 2002 paper, “Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” the philosopher Nick Bostrom classifies such risks into four types, from “Bangs,” in which we are completely wiped out by climate change, nuclear war, disease, or asteroid impacts, to “Whimpers,” in which humanity survives but achieves “only a minuscule degree of what could have been achieved”—for instance, because we use up our planet’s resources too rapidly.

painting of human figure looking out into abstract universe of colorful daubs of paint on black background
Painting by Reynier Llanes. Home, 2022 (mixed media on paper, 70 x 59 inches).

As for what humanity might achieve if all goes right, the philosopher Toby Ord writes in his 2020 book The Precipice that the possibilities are nearly infinite: “If we can venture out and animate the countless worlds above with life and love and thought, then … we could bring our cosmos to its full scale; make it worthy of our awe.” Animating the cosmos may sound mystical or metaphorical, but for transhumanists it has a concrete meaning, captured in the term cosmic endowment. Just as a university can be seen as a device for transforming a monetary endowment into knowledge, so humanity’s function is to transform the cosmic endowment—all the matter and energy in the accessible universe—into “computronium,” a semi-whimsical term for any programmable, information-bearing substance.

The Israeli thinker Yuval Noah Harari refers to this idea as “Dataism,” describing it as a new religion whose “supreme value” is “data flow.” “This cosmic data-processing system would be like God,” he has written. “It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it.” Harari is highly skeptical of Dataism, and his summary of it may sound satirical or exaggerated. In fact, it’s a quite accurate account of the ideas of the popular transhumanist author Ray Kurzweil. In his book The Singularity Is Near (2005), Kurzweil describes himself as a “patternist”—that is, “someone who views patterns of information as the fundamental reality.” Examples of information patterns include DNA, semiconductor chips, and the letters on this page, all of which configure molecules so that they become meaningful instead of random. By turning matter into information, we redeem it from entropy and nullity. Ultimately, “even the ‘dumb’ matter and mechanisms of the universe will be transformed into exquisitely sublime forms of intelligence,” Kurzweil prophesies.

In his 2014 book, Superintelligence, Nick Bostrom performs some back-of-the-envelope calculations and finds that a computer using the entire cosmic endowment as computronium could perform at least 1085 operations a second. (For comparison, as of 2020 the most powerful supercomputer, Japan’s Fugaku, could perform on the order of 1017 operations a second.) This mathematical gloss is meant to make the project of animating the universe seem rational and measurable, but it hardly conceals the essentially religious nature of the idea. Kurzweil calls it “the ultimate destiny of the universe,” a phrase not ordinarily employed by people who profess to be scientific materialists. It resembles the ancient Hindu belief that the Atman, the individual soul, is identical to the Brahman, the world-spirit.

Ultimately, the source of all the limitations that transhumanism chafes against is embodiment itself. But transhumanists believe that we will take the first steps toward escaping our physical form sooner than most people realize. In fact, although engineering challenges remain, we have already made the key conceptual breakthroughs. By building computers out of silicon transistors, we came to understand that the brain itself is a computer made of organic tissue. Just as computers can perform all kinds of calculations and emulations by aggregating bits, so the brain generates all of our mental experiences by aggregating neurons.

If we are also able to build a brain scanner that can capture the state of every synapse at a given moment—the pattern of information that neuroscientists call the connectome, a term analogous with genome—then we can upload that pattern into a brain-emulating computer. The result will be, for all intents and purposes, a human mind. An uploaded mind won’t dwell in the same environment as we do, but that’s not necessarily a disadvantage. On the contrary, because a virtual environment is much more malleable than a physical one, an uploaded mind could have experiences and adventures we can only dream of, like living in a movie or a video game.

For transhumanists, mind-uploading fits perfectly into a “patternist” future. If the mind is a pattern of information, it doesn’t matter whether that pattern is instantiated in carbon-based neurons or silicon-based transistors; it is still authentically you. The Dutch neuroscientist Randal Koene refers to such patterns as Substrate-Independent Minds, or SIMs, and sees them as the key to immortality. “Your identity, your memories can then be embodied physically in many ways. They can also be backed up and operate robustly on fault-tolerant hardware with redundancy schemes,” he writes in the 2013 essay “Uploading to Substrate-Independent Minds.”

The transhumanist holy grail is artificial general intelligence—a computer mind that can learn about any subject, rather than being confined to a narrow domain, such as chess. Even if such an AI started out in a rudimentary form, it would be able to apply itself to the problem of AI design and improve itself to think faster and deeper. Then the improved version would improve itself, and so on, exponentially. As long as it had access to more and more computing power, an artificial general intelligence could theoretically improve itself without limit, until it became more capable than all human beings put together.

This is the prospect that transhumanists refer to, with awe and anxiety, as “the singularity.” Bostrom thinks it’s quite reasonable to worry “that the world could be radically transformed and humanity deposed from its position as apex cogitator over the course of an hour or two,” before the AI’s creators realize what has happened. The most radical challenge of AI, however, is that it forces us to ask why humanity’s goals deserve to prevail. An AI takeover would certainly be bad for the human beings who are alive when it occurs, but perhaps a world dominated by nonhuman minds would be morally preferable in the end, with less cruelty and waste. Or maybe our preferences are entirely irrelevant. We might be in the position of God after he created humanity with free will, thus forfeiting the right to intervene when his creation makes mistakes.

The central difference between anti-humanists and transhumanists has to do with their ideas about meaning. Anti-humanists believe that the universe doesn’t need to include consciousness for its existence to be meaningful, while transhumanists believe the universe would be meaningless without minds to experience and understand it. But there is no requirement that those minds be human ones. In fact, AI minds might be more appreciative than we are of the wonder of creation. They might know nothing of the violence and hatred that often makes humanity loathsome to human beings themselves. Our greatest spiritual achievements might seem as crude and indecipherable to them as a coyote’s howl is to us.

neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye, La Rochefoucauld said. The disappearance of the human race belongs in the same category. We can acknowledge that it’s bound to happen someday, but the possibility that the day might be tomorrow, or 10 years from now, is hard to contemplate.

Calls for the disappearance of humanity are hard to understand other than rhetorically. It’s natural to assume that transhumanism is just a dramatic way of drawing attention to the promise of new technology, while Anthropocene anti-humanism is really environmentalism in a hurry. Such skepticism is nourished by the way these schools of thought rely on unverifiable predictions.

But the accuracy of a prophecy is one thing; its significance is another. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers that the world is going to end in their lifetime: “Verily I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” This proved not to be true—at least not in any straightforward sense—but the promise still changed the world.

The apocalyptic predictions of today’s transhumanist and anti-humanist thinkers are of a very different nature, but they too may be highly significant even if they don’t come to pass. Profound civilizational changes begin with a revolution in how people think about themselves and their destiny. The revolt against humanity has the potential to be such a beginning, with unpredictable consequences for politics, economics, technology, and culture.

The revolt against humanity has a great future ahead of it because it appeals to people who are at once committed to science and reason yet yearn for the clarity and purpose of an absolute moral imperative. It says that we can move the planet, maybe even the universe, in the direction of the good, on one condition—that we forfeit our own existence as a species.

In this way, the question of why humanity exists is given a convincing yet wholly immanent answer. Following the logic of sacrifice, we give our life meaning by giving it up.

Anthropocene anti-humanism and transhumanism share this premise, despite their contrasting visions of the post-human future. The former longs for a return to the natural equilibrium that existed on Earth before humans came along to disrupt it with our technological rapacity. The latter dreams of pushing forward, using technology to achieve a complete abolition of nature and its limitations. One sees reason as the serpent that got humanity expelled from Eden, while the other sees it as the only road back to Eden.

But both call for drastic forms of human self-limitation—whether that means the destruction of civilization, the renunciation of child-bearing, or the replacement of human beings by machines. These sacrifices are ways of expressing high ethical ambitions that find no scope in our ordinary, hedonistic lives: compassion for suffering nature, hope for cosmic dominion, love of knowledge. This essential similarity between anti-humanists and transhumanists means that they may often find themselves on the same side in the political and social struggles to come.

 This article was adapted from Adam Kirsch’s book The Revolt Against Humanity. It appears in the January/February 2023 print edition with the headline “The End of Us.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

Adam Kirsch is the author of several books, including The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us.

. . .

Kiss the Son (detail, center panel of triptych), by Nicora Gangi © The artist

Apocalypse Nowish

I wanted to know what that was all about. My father was so dismissive of any form of religious thought that I was in second grade before I realized that some people believed in the devil, whom I had drawn for an art project. My teacher wouldn’t post my drawing on the wall with the others, on the grounds that it might offend Christian sensibilities, though it was a standard cartoonish red devil with horns, pitchfork, and pointy tail. I was nonplussed: surely Satan was a fictional character, like Santa Claus or Batman. (Of course he is, my dad explained that night, but not everyone realizes this.)

By seventh grade I was much better acquainted with religious belief, aware even of its stirrings within myself. Revelation still seemed as fantastical as my drawing. It’s a trip, sure—seven-headed dragons, lion-headed horses, and lakes of fire are inherently cool. But no one in his right mind could actually believe this stuff.

Not the dragon stuff, which scans as symbolic to even the dullest seventh-grader, but whatever the evangelicals thought the dragon stuff was a metaphor for. I knew they had notions on the subject, for they had briefly kidnapped me and made me watch a filmstrip about hell in what appeared to be a taco truck. This would have been a few summers earlier, in Salida, Colorado, in a park along the Arkansas River.

Anyway, I thought Revelation was deranged,1 and I loved it. “And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps.” Its closing lines struck me then and still strike me as immeasurably moving: “He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”

In the decades following Jesus’ death, the apocalypse2 was believed to be so imminent that Paul felt he had to hurry, complaining that barely had he begun to spread the gospel in one place when another beckoned to him. In the first few centuries of the Christian era, the world was “a dark house full of war,” as Anthony the Great wrote from the desert, and heavy shit was being revealed to prophets all over the place. Some of it has been passed down in text, such as the Secret Book of John, to whom “a figure with several forms within the light” appeared to tell of “what is, what was, and what is to come, that you may understand what is invisible and what is visible; and to teach you about the unshakable race of perfect humankind.”

Wild forms of millenarianism flourished in Europe from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century, as Norman Cohn and Christopher Hill have delightfully documented. The Second Coming was expected any moment; Antichrist was abroad in the land—he was the pope, or he was Martin Luther, or he was just the general vibe. “The judgment day is at hand,” proclaimed John Bunyan in 1658. The so-called Amaurians of the thirteenth century, precursors to the Brethren of the Free Spirit, held that they were living in the last of three ages, the Age of the Holy Spirit, which was to culminate in a series of catastrophes that would kill off most of humankind, leaving only a saving remnant who would become divine.

I’ve always liked them—the ranters, revivalists, the killer messiahs and flipped-out founders of communes. The camp meetings in the woods where young people would bark and howl and writhe on the ground and fall into trances that lasted for days. Jonathan Edwards in full gallop, reading the chiliastic signs.

I’ve been thinking about all this lately for obvious reasons. We live in a dark house full of war. Not that I anticipate the Christian eschaton—who needs divine revelation when you can google “more plastic than fish by 2050”? Nor have I been “black-pilled.” I didn’t ask to get “Eve of Destruction” stuck in my head. I desperately want us to get our shit together. We could build a free society that doesn’t view the planet as a profit engine. I just really doubt that we will. Climate disaster, economic collapse, war, resurgent fascism and nationalism, assaults on basic political freedoms, mass violence: all these mutually reinforcing in a sinister feedback loop, the structural stresses of capital’s death throes accelerating ecological catastrophe and exacerbating reactionary forces, which in turn further stress the structure. The collapse won’t be a single event, but a slide into what the world-systems analyst Giovanni Arrighi calls “systemic chaos.” Late-capitalist society is a coyote suspended above an abyss, believing he still stands on solid ground. We are in the interval before he notices he’s supported by thin air and plummets to the canyon floor.

The voluminous scholarship of apocalypse tends to follow a pattern. The Book of Daniel is cited, and Revelation; Zarathustra is wheeled onstage; the Sibylline Oracles perhaps are mentioned. It is noted that there are “apocalypses” or revelations (such as the Secret Book of John) which are not “apocalyptic” in the derived doomsday sense—Bruce Willis blowing up an asteroid to save the earth. Often apocalypticism is then differentiated from both millenarianism and eschatology.

These phenomena are then further delimited. The great Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov wrote that “The sense of the end is widespread in humankind. Humankind has an instinctive knowledge that the world will end, just as a man dies.” But apocalyptic traditions such as those of the Near East, from Zoroastrianism to Islam, are not universal. There is no Hindu equivalent of the “last day,” for instance, and “apocalyptic ideas entered Mesoamerican culture only after the arrival of the Europeans,” according to the scholar of religion Lorenzo DiTommaso. As the Lakota historian Nick Estes has noted, “Indigenous people are post-apocalyptic. In some cases, we have undergone several apocalypses.”

These are important distinctions. But I’m more interested here in what Raymond Williams termed a “structure of feeling,” the general drift, an atmosphere. If I confuse divine and secular, religious and political, in what follows, it’s because they’ve been all swirled together in my head since I read Revelation while avoiding Glenn, as they are in popular culture, where each is an allegory for the other: Neo in The Matrix is the Messiah; the spacecraft carrying the bombs to blow up the comet in Deep Impact is named the Messiah; Armageddon is called Armageddon. I don’t believe the New Jerusalem will descend from the heavens, but nor do I regard spiritual revelation as simply “a feeling inside,” as the ever-subtle Richard Dawkins put it, probably not with reference to Elton John.

During the apocalyptic summer of 2020, I was walking along the Rivanna River in Charlottesville, Virginia, when Jackson Browne’s “Before the Deluge” came up on my still-functional 2008 iPod:

Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature

Yeah, I know. Browne writes songs you want to hear again while also wishing you’d never learned English. But these lines evoked a certain structure of feeling, born in the counterculture of the Sixties, whose remnants I hazily recall from the late Seventies and early Eighties.

When I stayed with my mother growing up, I spent time with people who lived in school buses and people who claimed to be witches and people who followed the Dead and a guy who got free drinks in Leadville by passing for Bob Seger. They threw the I Ching and talked about ESP and smoked copious amounts of marijuana. They seemed ready to take off at any moment for just about any reason, and many of them did.

This milieu could be enticing for a kid—I could do whatever I wanted. But since the reason I could do whatever I wanted was that the adults around me were completely irresponsible, it was often a drag. I knew what an eviction notice was, I knew how to use food stamps, I knew not to trust cops. It was erratic; everyone was unstable. Still, wasn’t there something romantic about this pitiful rejection of what they called “the straight world”—or is it just nostalgia that makes me think so? But T. J. Clark calls nostalgia “that most realistic of interpretive tropes.”

There was a pervasive sense, entirely absent from my sojourns with my father in the straight world, that the whole system was headed for a crash, and you needed to be ready. Some of this was explicitly religious—the school bus folks expected Jesus’ imminent advent in the clouds—and some of it was political, but much of it was vague, something in the air, in the songs that floated through my childhood, shadowboxing the apocalypse. the end is nigh read the sandwich board of the street prophet in the comics of my youth, from MAD to Watchmen. I might be predisposed to believe the bridge is out up ahead, is my point.

This was the element in which I encountered The Late Great Planet Earth, Hal Lindsey’s 1970 eschatological bestseller. My mom or her roommates would leave books lying around, and I would read them, no matter what they were—Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Stand, The Amityville Horror. (Don’t give a ten-year-old a copy of The Amityville Horror.) I’d like to think that even then I admired the shamelessness of Lindsey’s gotcha opening:

This is a book about prophecy—Bible prophecy. If you have no interest in the future, this isn’t for you. If you have no curiosity about a subject that some consider controversial, you might as well stop now.

Lindsey had a snake oil salesman’s sleazy charm, and a pandering sense of scale: “When the reality of the moon landing really hit, it was awesome.” But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet: “There is another trip which many men, women, and children will take one day which will leave the rest of the world gasping.” This is the Rapture, when believers will be swept up to heaven, leaving behind empty beds, unpiloted planes, half-mown lawns, and unmanned information kiosks, before the coming of Antichrist. The Rapture has no scriptural basis besides an obviously metaphorical verse in Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians. (The literalists always forget that the preferred genre of the New Testament’s protagonist is the parable.) I didn’t really believe it, but it’s a hell of a premise.3 It left a permanent impression on my imagination.

This era saw umpteen popular paperback prophecies of parousia, many of which I read simply because they were there. My favorite was Salem Kirban’s now forgotten precursor to the Left Behind novels, 666, bearing on its cover the same verses that Iron Maiden cite in “The Number of the Beast.” And these had their umpteen popular secular counterparts, often no less absurd or tragic. In the early Sixties, while Billy Graham was informing crowds that they were living in the Last Days, U.S. News & World Report assured subscribers that their checks would still be good “if bombs do fall” and their banks get vaporized. William and Paul Paddock predicted that overpopulation would lead to Famine 1975!, a 1967 bestseller in which the authors regretfully conclude that “hopeless countries” like India and Egypt must be abandoned to their fate because “to send food is to throw sand in the ocean.” Paul Ehrlich was listening: his apocalyptic screed The Population Bomb opens with a racist description of “one stinking hot night in Delhi,” lent “a hellish aspect” by cooking fires, the streets “alive with people,” confessing that he and his family “were, frankly, frightened” as they rode safely in a taxi to their hotel. Rather than reflect on the legacy of colonialism, Ehrlich decided that there were just too many damn “people, people, people.” In the Seventies, more than one hundred million of them were sure to perish in a global famine.

There were also intelligent versions of the apocalyptic structure of feeling. Some were militant, like the poems in Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, which abound with practical advice for the revolution, a Letters to a Young Poet for the budding Weatherman:

store water; make a point of filling your bathtub
at the first news of trouble: they turned off the water
in the 4th ward for a whole day during the Newark riots


at some point
you may be called upon
to keep going for several days without sleep:
keep some ups around


there are those who can tell you
how to make molotov cocktails, flamethrowers,
bombs whatever
you might be needing
find them and learn

There was Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, which recounts with fascinated horror the advertised amenities of civil-defense preparations, a “combination family room . . . and family fallout shelter” comfortably accoutred with carpet, television, lounge chairs, and board games. A bourgeois nuclear winter for the nuclear family, as today’s sociopathic billionaires construct luxury bunkers in missile silos in which to ride out climate chaos. And Norman O. Brown’s strange, mostly forgotten Love’s Body, a mélange of mysticism, psychoanalysis, and apocalyptic rhetoric: Melanie Klein and William Blake, Augustine and Artaud, Kerouac and Mircea Eliade. “Thank God the world cannot be made safe,” Brown wrote, “for democracy or anything else.” Marcuse hated it.

Expecting the apocalypse has been an American pastime since the colonial era. Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man in Massachusetts, not far from where Jonathan Edwards discerned the scriptural prophecy of the millennium “plainly to point out America, as the first-fruits of that glorious day.” Henry Adams decided that the second law of thermodynamics applied to human history as a closed system. “The apocalypse has been announced so many times that it cannot occur,” as the situationist Raoul Vaneigem put it in his book on the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The end of the world is always around the next bend. Look out of any window.

So I’d be foolish not to scatter some asterisks. “Beginning to be the end it seemed,” writes Nathaniel Mackey. “Ending begun to be come to again.” “The imagination,” said Wallace Stevens, “is always at the end of an era.” And Robert Frost: “It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God.” Many ends of the world have come and gone. “When it appears that it cannot be so,” Frank Kermode noted in The Sense of an Ending, “they act as if it were true in a different sense.” What can I say, Frank, you got me.

The conflation of religious millenarianism and revolutionary politics is an understandable, if misleading, tendency. But I want to consider some arguments about how, precisely, they are related. A frequent aim of each is omnia sunt communia—all things in common (Acts 2:44)—and for each to achieve this aim requires the overturning of the existent social order, which is adjudged corrupt, never inaccurately. “The earth,” wrote the Digger Gerrard Winstanley in 1649, was created “to be a common treasury . . . a common storehouse for all,” but it “is bought and sold and kept in the hands of a few.” Christopher Hill notes that Winstanley envisaged “a state monopoly for foreign trade” after the abolition of private property, “one of the first things the Soviet government established after taking over power in 1917.” Engels saw in the ideas of the Anabaptist Thomas Müntzer, leader of the sixteenth-century Peasants’ Revolt in Central Europe, a precursor of modern communism. Karl Kautsky was less sure. The Great Awakening, wrote the Congregationalist minister Charles Chauncy in alarm, “has made strong attempts to destroy all property, to make all things common.”

The field guide to millenarianism remains Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium, that magical mystery tour of Ranters, flagellants, Free Spirits, messiahs, lesser messiahs, autocratic messiahs, disappointed messiahs, and anarcho-communists. Guy Debord, who admired Cohn’s book, nevertheless felt he had the wrong end of the stick, as he argued in The Society of the Spectacle:

So, contrary to what Norman Cohn believes he has demonstrated in The Pursuit of the Millennium, modern revolutionary hopes are not an irrational sequel to the religious passion of millenarianism. The exact opposite is true: millenarianism, the expression of a revolutionary class struggle speaking the language of religion for the last time, was already a modern revolutionary tendency, lacking only the consciousness of being historical and nothing more.

Eric Hobsbawm more or less concurs, finding Cohn’s study “vitiated by a tendency to interpret medieval in terms of modern revolutionary movements and the other way around.”

As the present essay attests, it’s hard to resist this sort of thinking. Thirty years after Hobsbawm slapped Cohn’s wrist, he was writing that

like the early Christians, most pre-1914 socialists were believers in the great apocalyptic change which would abolish all that was evil and bring about a society without unhappiness, oppression, inequality and injustice.

Maybe so. But I want to hold on to the slight difference between Debord’s and Hobsbawm’s corrections of Cohn. Hobsbawm faults him for interpreting the medieval in terms of the modern phenomena “and the other way around.” But Debord says Cohn gets the relationship exactly backward: one must read religious millenarianism in the light cast by modern revolutionary hopes, not vice versa. It’s not, as Cohn has it, that revolutionary struggles are religious; it’s that medieval millennial movements were revolutionary struggles expressed in the language of their time.

This is in one sense Debord turning Hegel on his head, asserting the materialist base of religious ideas. But I read it also as a statement of solidarity with the mad prophets on the burning shore: they often fought the good fight. The Bohemian millenarians of the fifteenth century, a contemporary chronicler relates, inspired fear “on all sides” that “the poor” and “the rough folk” would soon “turn against all who were decent and law-abiding, and against the rich.” As well they should. “I take for religion / / its joyousness, not its millennial / struggle,” Pasolini wrote. But the historian Paul Boyer is onto something:

Radicals seeking evidence of grassroots disaffection with the structure of modern society have ignored a rich potential source—the torrent of skeptical commentary by premillennialists, whose array of prophetic “signs” included social, economic, and technological processes so broad as to be almost coterminous with modernity itself.

It is not quite true that radicals have “ignored” these sources, but the point is well-taken. John Brown and Thomas Müntzer ventured (and lost) their lives agitating against tremendous systems of domination because of and not despite their religion. Of course, Frederick Douglass drew the sharpest distinction “between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ.”

Today’s apocalyptic structure of feeling differs from its predecessors in that it is totally pessimistic. “Remain calm,” communist theorist Bifo Berardi advises readers. “Don’t be attached to life, and most of all: don’t have hope, that addictive poisonous weed.” Nuclear warheads may or may not fall from the skies. Ditto Jesus. But the planet will get hotter. Even in the most realistically optimistic scenario,4coral reefs face complete die-off, sea levels rise, and entire species and ecosystems vanish. Extreme weather—storms, wildfires, floods, droughts—will become ever more commonplace. And of course it is the less optimistic scenarios that are more likely to come to pass.

Bulgakov denied that the “philosophy of history as the ‘philosophy of the end’ ” could be characterized as pessimism. “But neither is it optimism, for, within the limits of history itself, there is no resolution for this tragedy.” That is, nothing can be done until history is ended, in the transfiguration of the world through the parousia, the coming of Christ the King. At the risk of nullifying its true content, I would secularize, or historicize, Bulgakov’s insight.

As a synecdoche for the tragedy of our historical moment, consider a news item about the murder of nineteen schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas. One victim, ten-year-old Maite Rodriguez, was identifiable only by the green Converse sneakers she wore. She had drawn a heart on her right shoe. After the actor Matthew McConaughey, for some reason delivering a press briefing at the White House, made this detail known to the public, the shoes sold out as appalled consumers ordered them online.

It is impossible to understand a society whose response to the slaughter of children is to purchase green Converse sneakers as anything other than psychotic. It is impossible, I believe, to wish for such a society to continue—a society that is also bent on murdering as many other forms of life as possible, driving entire species extinct, rendering the planet uninhabitable. To say nothing of the millions of incarcerated souls, the hundreds of millions living in slums while the superrich eat like emperors on private jets. And on and on. No, “I always wanted this world ended,” as the communist Franco Fortini said.

Within the limits of history, there is no solution, whether we look to climate accords or philanthropic billionaires. Liberals stroll the fairylands of blue waves and Green New Deals or cling to the hope that science will save us, through geoengineering or nuclear power, carbon capture or magic beans. I think of Los, in Blake’s Jerusalem, “Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those Systems.”5 The crisis cannot be resolved from within the institutions that gave rise to the crisis.

Just this morning I read a book review in the Washington Post with an assertion that made me laugh out loud: “It’s likely that at least some people will survive climate change, and that 1,000 years from now their gadgets will make ours seem primitive.” Some people will survive climate change, sure. But is it “likely” that they will produce advanced gadgets a millennium from now? They’ll figure out a magical way to sustainably produce advanced technology without depleting natural resources and once again poisoning the planet? Perhaps they will also build starships to spread humanist values to strange new worlds.

Or perhaps the people left behind after climate apocalypse will have learned from our mistakes. I think of a scene from the television adaptation of Station Eleven. Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) is fielding questions from Alex (Philippine Velge), a young thespian born after a pandemic that erased civilization, about what smartphones were like:

“So how many plays fit on this one?”
“Alex, every play. All of the plays fit on it.”
“I wish I coulda had a phone.”
“They weren’t that great.”6

The series adapts Emily St. John Mandel’s surprise bestseller, itself part of a recent end-of-the-world boom. The Road, The Walking Dead, This Is the End, How It Ends, Melancholia, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, I Think We’re Alone Now, It Comes at Night, A Quiet Place, The Passage, The End of October, Survivor Song, Y: The Last Man—these are just a few that occur to me off the top of my head. The titles alone are a structure of feeling. And they keep coming, every day another title imagining the end, or what comes after the end, as if we keep trying to get it right—no, it will be like this . . .

It is seventy-five years since Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer lamented the tendency of people to take the status quo, “which they themselves constantly create,” as given, “a fortress before which even the revolutionary imagination feels shamed as utopianism, and degenerates to a compliant trust in the objective tendency of history.” The Marxist Helmut Reichelt, paraphrasing Adorno, called this seemingly given fortress “an objective structure that has become autonomous.” We can still demolish this structure—though the hour is getting late—but instead we search within it (not very hard, it must be said) for ways to ameliorate its effects.

I sure don’t know how to demolish it. I just know that the oil companies will not stop drilling unless we force them to, unless we take matters into our own hands, as Andreas Malm recently suggested in his ambitiously titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline. I just know that we can’t look to the state to save us, as even Malm ultimately does. The state is nothing if not the guarantor of the very property relations that got us into this mess in the first place. Anahid Nersessian, in a bravura reading of di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letter #7,” defines “action” in the poet’s sense as “a name for a concrete but open-ended intensity to which some unidentified people are giving everything they have for an unspecified amount of time.” Thoreau complained in his journal:

It galls me to listen to the remarks of craven-hearted neighbors who speak disparagingly of [John] Brown because he resorted to violence, resisted the government, threw his life away!—what way have they thrown their lives, pray?

What way will we throw our lives? The historian Mike Davis has imagined the horseman of pestilence telling a reporter on the White House lawn, “Your whole society is suffering from acute apocalypse denial.” The thing about wanting this world ended is you want it ended the right way. If we don’t end it ourselves, if we don’t stop those who are killing everything, it will almost certainly end quite badly, especially for the poorest and most subjugated among us. And what comes next could well be even worse. The George Floyd rebellion of 2020 remains, along with Occupy, Standing Rock, the Arab Spring, and several other scattered refusals to comply with the status quo, a bright beacon of possibility. But the disappointing issue of these, the reversion to the positive facticity of what exists—in no small part due to the other side’s overwhelming monopoly on naked force—conjures an image of the future in which, in solidarity with the dead, isolated subjects click to add shoes to their shopping carts forever.

And yet. Perhaps it is my early grounding in eschatology and the counterculture that allows me to see—not hope, not at all, but opportunity. Is it not when things are darkest, when all hope is lost, that one fights with abandon, shamelessly shoots for utopia? For then there is nothing left to lose. And I have heard that another word for nothing left to lose is freedom.

Michael Robbins is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Walkman.