Acquiring A Taste For Ashes

by Mike O’Brien

It’s a bountiful feast for discriminating worriers like myself. Every day brings a tantalizing re-ordering of fears and dangers; the mutation of reliable sources of doom, the emergence of new wild-card contenders. Like an improbably long-lived heroin addict, the solution is not to stop. That’s no longer an option, if it ever was. It is, instead, to master and manage my obsessive consumption of hope-crushing information. I must become the Keith Richards of apocalyptic depression, perfecting the method and the dose.

Structure is important. Historical time-frames help. Covid is bad, and current, and a direct threat to me, but a once-a-century pandemic arriving right on time shouldn’t disrupt my worrying on a macro level. I’ve budgeted acute anxiety for just this kind of thing.

The protests in the US are full of promise, both for good and for ill, but the systemic problems whence they sprung are old news. The uprising should have happened decades ago. They may happen again, for the same reasons, decades hence. Waiting for the US to realize necessary and inevitable progress is a mug’s game.

I confess that I’m very Euro/America-centric in my socio-political doom-tracking. I really ought to give fair due to Indian ethno-nationalism, Russian counter-intelligence, African famine, Arab revolutions and South American neo-fascism. Sorry, I’m Canadian. After worrying about the US and the UK, there are barely any hours left in a day.

One important step towards adopting a sustainable, livable practice of worry is to depersonalize and dehumanize myself as a subject. The Stoic’s trick. To experience history as an observer only, and try to figure out what a “better” or “worse” world would be, not merely “better for” or “worse for”. I can’t erase the fact of identity from my observation, but at least I can simplify things by excluding personal considerations. I am eligible for so much unjust privilege that calculating the personal cost of justice would be an interminable grind. I don’t care, I’m barely here. I’m barely me.

I’ve got some gourmet, top-shelf, world-historical angst to return to, if I can manage to shake off the febrile mania of 2020. AAA-rated global fears, Bostrom’s and Roubini’s choicest cuts. The kind of worry that puts you back on a classical wavelength, communing with predecessors who believed in a world that was called into being and would be called out of it, in historical time. Who believed that their island or coast or valley was the world entire, and that “The End Of The World As We Know It” was quite simply the end of the world.

Maybe being Canadian is helpful, in terms of displacing yourself from the centre of importance. Seeing from a pseudo-American perspective, in parallax view. A population smaller than California’s, claiming a territory larger than the United States. An absurd conceit for a country, and unlikely to last this century. At least, that’s my sense, and it tinges other claims of national and territorial stability with shades of futility and delusion. It helps banalize the redistribution of borders and of peoples, rendering them imminently thinkable and inevitable. If you’re not lucky enough to be Canadian, a cursory study of history can provide a similar sense of impermanence.

I recently told a friend that I’m trying to stop caring about what people do to people. That’s not because I don’t think that it’s important. Rather, it’s that it is a bottomless pit of care that consumes all my worry, the logic and narrative of human agency and subjection being too relatable to ignore. Binge-watching history in real time.

My worry is meant for something greater, I tell myself. I will worry the worries of the future. Ecological anxiety is a good fit; it ties into my taste for scientific reading, follows large time-scales, it puts a political and ethical gloss onto my innate affection for animals. And it permits a space of imagination wherein humanity and its problems are cleared away, not by any Malthusian tyranny, but just as a matter of course. The glimmer of hope at the edges of many post-apocalyptic visions consists in this: that what cannot be fixed in us will pass away.

(Incidentally, the worlds of Fallout, A Canticle For Leibowitz, and other fixtures of post-apocalyptic fiction are, in an important sense, inter-apocalyptic, as enough of humanity survives to repeat its existential gamble.)

The more I try to adopt a whole-Earth, long-run frame of worrying, the less I am preoccupied by climate change. It still poses the greatest near-certain threat to human civilization, and to presently existing ecosystems. The worst-case scenarios continue to prove more likely, and worse, with every new report. But it’s a threat to order, to consistent patterns, and to the complex forms of life that depend on such patterns. It is less so a threat to life as such.

After the short term die-off of species that cannot adapt quickly enough to climate change, I presume that adaptable forms of life would exploit those vacated spaces in ecosystems. Of course we’re more attached to the animals that disappear, for reasons of familiarity and a naturalism that views past and present landscapes as correct. But the whales and the mountain gorillas and the koalas weren’t always around, and they were going to disappear someday. Something came before, and something will come after. To borrow an amoral deflection, “that’s life”.

I’m not the first eco-anxious wretch to imagine flipping a switch and magically disappearing humanity and its traces from the Earth. Back to the garden, clean skies and unbroken landscapes, a world without pollution and without perpetrators thereof. That may have been an option one hundred years ago, in the sense that it was even imaginable as a solution. But it is not an option in the nuclear age. If humanity abandoned its post as stewards of nuclear technology, the resulting breakdowns could effectively end life on Earth.

So, terrestrial life is stuck with us. And we’re stuck with ourselves, even in dreams of a better future. Maybe that’s a good thing, the closing of a suicidal escape hatch that was more about redemptive sacrifice than effective restitution anyway. At a minimum, we’d have to maintain some kind of industrial and research capacity to dismantle nuclear technology and sequester it. That means industry, energy and administration. And robots. We’ll probably want to do most of it with robots, of a less melt-prone construction than the ones employed at Fukushima.

Nuclear disaster trumps climate change because it threatens the very category of “life”, rather than just lives. Of course, climate change makes all kinds of industrial disasters more likely, including nuclear ones, so it’s not a binary choice. And these dangers aren’t separated by epochs, but sedimented and intertwined. But these are my worries, so I’m allowed to choose my own heuristics.

Despite my tireless efforts, I’m still not worrying big enough. Lots of things are potentially worse than nuclear disasters. Asteroids smashing the Earth off-orbit. Black holes. Abrupt changes in the volume and location of the Earth’s subterranean molten bits. Anything involving the sun. Some of these are inevitable, like the sun dying and exploding. Some seem statistically inescapable, like asteroids, volcanoes and earthquakes. And that’s just the things we know about. (If you know of other existential threats with near-1.0 probability in the next million years, please keep them to yourselves. I’m busy.)

This confronting of the inevitability of global extinction (barring sci-fi interventions, which I can’t discount) undermines my more pedestrian ecological worries. To whit: If all life on Earth will cease at some point, and the existing biome of Earth will disappear long before that, and both these things are true regardless of human presence, then we’re off the hook. Not for the harm done to each organism, and not for the destruction of valuable natural kinds like species and ecosystems; we still have to wear the sackcloth for those. What we are absolved of is something like the killing of a god, the ending of something that would have, and ought to have, persisted forever. We’re merely responsible for the slaughter of countless mortal creatures, and we’ve proven ourselves quite capable of living with that.

There’s a danger of complacency here. We’ve seen a similar complacency in certain people’s dismissal of Covid deaths among the elderly; what is inevitable is acceptable at any time. As if each life is a meaningless lost cause, so long as it is mortal. That is the defeated slump of a thinking that presumed total control and total responsibility, and in the end found itself impotent and absolved. Maybe this is just a phase, a mid-way point between profound religious faith and a thoroughly worked-out secular sense of the world. Pope Francis, in his encyclical on environmental stewardship entitled Laudato Si, writes of “the meaning of our earthly sojourn”. Trust religious people to have some perspective on how to live a life between the beginning and the end of the world.

I still worry about the whales. Not that they could have lived forever and now won’t. I worry that there will be fewer of them and that each of them will live less. I worry that they’ll disappear sooner than they would have otherwise. I worry that we had a chance to be better and we blew it. I worry that we’ll be the last intelligent life left on Earth, and we’ll have no-one to talk to but ourselves.

So far as we know, Covid isn’t an existential threat (knock on wood). But I doubt humanity would have bungled its response to any lesser degree if we had compelling evidence that it is an existential threat. I no longer have the comfort of believing that governments have some emergency reserve of competence, which they set aside during normal periods of grifting and bumbling. I guess they weren’t playing dumb after all. Maybe this kind of disillusionment only afflicts the naive and credulous; I can imagine the old world rolling their eyes at my lament: they were supposed to save us, it’s their job! I guess even the forestallers of the Apocalypse can simply be bad at their jobs.

That’s a worrying thought, too, but at least it isn’t new, so it’s less distracting. I don’t have time for distractions now; I worry about staying furtive and shallow in a failed gambit to limit the depth of my despair. A fear of commitment (how embarrassingly common). I suppose I should be ruled instead by a fear of leaving a life un-built, and settle down with a worry that completes me. There’s a lot of fish in that sea (unlike the real seas, which are being precipitously emptied of fish). The good news about the end of the world being so agonizingly slow is that there’s still time to make it mean something. I hope.

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