The Apocalypse Will Not Be as Cool or as Deadly as You Hope - 2023
There are many potential apocalypses, and when people imagine them they imagine that everyone will die. On the contrary most people will live, and it will be messy and miserable.
After returning from Gen Con I vowed not to travel again for a while, but then out of nowhere a friend of mine invited me to the annual conference of the Deep Green Resistance (DGR). He described them as “anarcho-communist-primitivists who oppose industrial civilization itself”. I looked for information about the conference online and I didn’t find anything. When I mentioned this to him he told me that it was a secret conference.
A secret conference of anarcho-communist-primitivists! How could I possibly resist that!? It sounded like the most interesting and strange thing ever.
Not only did it sound strange and interesting, it was strange and interesting. The organizers graciously granted me permission to write about it. I intend to dedicate a full post to the experience at some future point, now that I’m really, truly, and finally done with traveling until December. But I mention DGR now because they’ve a perfect example of the topic of this post. Accordingly, as part of the edits and polishing I normally do when I pull something from the archive, I will also be putting in references to DGR here and there where it’s appropriate.
The subject of this post is endings. Whether it’s the ending of a trend, a nation, (industrial) civilization, or of all life on the Earth. But my subject is also to a certain extent about extreme thinking in general. We might even give it the title “Thinking About the Middle is Difficult.” We might, but we didn’t because, whatever its accuracy, that title is kind of lame. The actual title I choose is cooler as evidenced by the fact that it actually has “cool” in the title.
To begin with, bad events come in different forms. I have, on many occasions, talked about various cataclysms, catastrophes and disasters. All of them are bad, but they are not equally bad. I’ve talked about a peaceful dissolution of the United States into fiefdoms; I’ve speculated about a jobless future where people have lots of time, but little meaning; I’ve spoken about how hard it is for nations to remain intact; sounded the alarm about nuclear war, and examined the probability of earth being struck by a comet.
All of these are significantly different in their impact, (no pun intended) but we’re often not aware of these differences. For those who are fans of the status quo—people who are happy going to a job, collecting a paycheck and binging The Office on the weekend—it’s easy to lump all catastrophes into a single category of “disasters I hope to avoid”. However within this broad category there are many useful divisions, one of the most important being between catastrophes humans would probably survive, and catastrophes that would definitely result in our extinction.
Not only is this an important distinction, it’s one that is frequently drawn incorrectly. People place many events into the extinction bucket that don’t belong there. They equate 90% of people dying with 100% of people dying. In fact, the disaster of just 10% of everyone dying is so horrible that people often emotionally equate that with 100% as well. I understand why but when you’re talking about human extinction the difference between 90% and 100% is the whole point.
And it is here that I would like to introduce one of the major themes of this post. People want their catastrophes to be simple. They don’t want cataclysms that require numerous demanding sacrifices, but which, for someone with sufficient resources who makes all the right choices, are ultimately survivable. They want cataclysms which are undemanding, where it doesn’t matter what they do. They want to be able to sit on the couch and watch the latest episode of Only Murders in the Building secure in the knowledge that TV, or something better, will be around forever, or, alternatively, they want to know that one day it will all end suddenly and they’ll be dead and free of care without ever having to actually exert themselves in between those two points. Perhaps this portrait of the average individual is a stretch, but if it is, it’s not much of one.
As an example of what I mean by this, let’s look at global warming, if it’s going to be a disaster people want it to be a true apocalypse. Something which scours the Earth of the wickedness of humanity. Though actually, as I already pointed out, this vague longing for global warming to wipe out humanity is really not about whether people are wicked or not, it’s about the fact that it’s far easier to toss up your hands and say, “Well we’re all going to die, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Then it is to really figure out what you should be doing and then do it.
John Michael Greer, who I reference frequently, described the state of people’s thinking about global warming in this way:
It’s a measure of how drastic the situation has become that so many people have fled into a flat denial that anything of the kind is taking place, or the equal and opposite insistence that we’re all going to die soon so it doesn’t matter. That’s understandable, as the alternative is coming to terms with the impending failure of the myth of progress and the really messy future we’re making for those who come after us.
This is a post about messy futures. Most visions of the future are not messy. A future where uninterrupted progress continues until we reach technological utopia is a clean future. But also futures where we all die from global warming or an out of control AI are pretty clean as well. However, none of these options are likely. It’s far more likely to be messy, and hard, and full of unexpected difficulties.
DGR provides an excellent example. They want to end industrial civilization. On some level that sounds very simple, very “clean”. (It’s actually clean on many levels since one of their primary objections is the amount of pollution and harmful waste generated by that civilization.) I can grant that there might be some end state that is conceivably both simple and clean, but getting there would be very, very messy.
While the DGR end state is incredibly radical, they are similar to many other people in wanting a simple future, or in imagining no future at all. As I have already pointed out, any plan for preventing global warming is ridiculously difficult, meaning, as Greer said, most people default to one of the two extremes: Imagining that there’s no global climate change or imagining that it’s an extinction event. *Guess which category DGR falls into.) There is very little acceptance of or consideration of the middle. The climate is changing, and it’s going to be extremely messy, but it’s not going to scour the Earth of humanity, to say nothing of all life.
From the simplest microbe to most complex water flea (31,000 genes as compared to humans 23,000), life is remarkably tenacious. The poster child for this tenacity is the Tardigrade, also known as water bears. Allow me to quote from Wikipedia:
Tardigrades are one of the most resilient animals known: they can survive extreme conditions that would be rapidly fatal to nearly all other known life forms. They can withstand temperature ranges from 1 K (−458 °F; −272 °C) (close to absolute zero) to about 420 K (300 °F; 150 °C) for several minutes, pressures about six times greater than those found in the deepest ocean trenches, ionizing radiation at doses hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for a human, and the vacuum of outer space. They can go without food or water for more than 30 years, drying out to the point where they are 3% or less water, only to rehydrate, forage, and reproduce.
You may be thinking that this is all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t matter how tough the tardigrade is, there are some catastrophes that even it couldn’t survive. If the Earth itself is destroyed like Alderaan in Star Wars, or more realistically by some giant comet, the tardigrades will perish like all the rest of us. While that would certainly slow things down. It by no means guarantees the end of life. To illustrate my point, one of the big worries about any trip to Mars is contaminating it with earth-based bacteria. Given how tenacious life is, most scientists think Earth-life gaining a foothold on Mars is more a matter of when than if. There are some, in fact, who will allege the exact opposite, that life started on Mars and then spread to Earth. Either way, the point is, many scientists think that life spreading from one planet to another is not only possible, but very likely, particularly when you consider that it has had billions of years in which to do so.
As long as we’re on this tangent, it’s instructive, and interesting, to describe how this sort of thing happens. The details are fascinating enough that they could easily form the basis for completely separate post. But, essentially, every time there’s a large enough impact, material is flung into space, and if the impact is big enough things can get flung all the way out of the Solar System. You might be skeptical at this point, and that would only be natural. I mean even if material from Earth gets ejected all the way out of the Solar System, how much material is it really and how much of it would actually end up on an exoplanet as opposed to floating in the interstellar vacuum forever? Because unless you can show that a significant amount actually ends up on another planet, then you’ve just moved the extinction of life from the end of the Earth to the end of the Solar System.
Well, as it turns out some scientists decided to run the numbers, with respect to the impact 65 million ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And what they found was very interesting.
The scientists wanted to know how much of the ejecta from this impact would have ended up in various locations. Among the locations they looked at were the Jovian moon Europa (a promising candidate for life) and a super-earth orbiting Gliese 581.
For the answer to the first they discovered that almost as much material would have ended up on Europa as ended up on the Moon, because of the assistance Europa would get from Jupiter’s gravity. The scientists estimated that 10^8 (100 million) rocks would have traveled from Earth to Europa as the result of that explosion. But what was more interesting is what they discovered about the Gliese 581 exoplanet. According to their calculations 1,000 Earth rocks would have ended up there, though after a journey of a million years. A million years is a long time, and astrobiologists generally think even the most hardy life can only last 30,000 years, but given all of the above do you really want to bet that life is confined to the Earth and nowhere else?
That ended up being quite the tangent, but the impact/ejecta stuff was too interesting to leave out. The big thing I wanted to get across is that whatever the cataclysm it probably won’t wipe out all life. Also given its frequent appearance in this space I should also point out that this is another reason why Fermi’s Paradox is so baffling. (Well not for me.) All of this is to say that even if all life on the Earth is completely destroyed, whether in 5 billion years when the Sun expands or in 7.5 billion years when it engulfs the Earth or whether Earth’s surface gets completely sterilized by a high energy gamma ray burst, life will find a way, as they say.
However, when people imagine apocalypses what they are mostly worried about is the end of all humans, not the end of all life, and admittedly humans are not as resilient as the tardigrades. Unlike them we can’t handle hard vacuum, or temperatures from 300 °F to −458 °F. Even so humanity is a hardy species, with lots of tools at its disposal. Humans have survived ice ages and supervolcanoes and that was when the most technologically advanced tools we had were fur clothes and flint spears. Now, we have vast amounts of knowledge, underground bunkers, seed vaults, guns, and nuclear power. Of course the last item is a double edged sword, because in addition to (relatively) clean power it has also given us very dirty weapons.
In the past I have used nuclear war as something of a shorthand for THE apocalypse, as an event which would mark the end of current civilization. And consequently you may have gotten the impression that I was saying that nuclear war would mean the end of humanity. If you did get that impression I apologize. What I intended to illustrate was that large enough disasters are just singularities of another sort.
These days people use the world singularity almost exclusively to describe an AI singularity, but it’s really a principle that can be applied much more broadly. The term comes from astrophysics, specifically the idea that you can’t see past the event horizon of a black hole—singularity being another word for black hole.
This is what nuclear war, and extreme climate change are, events where it’s hard to imagine what the world looks like after they’ve happened, singularities. And this difficulty arises because they’re both incredibly messy. In many respects this is why the AI singularity has become the dominant version of the singularity. It’s more simple than the other two.
Lots of people imagine that humanity can survive global warming, far fewer believe that humanity will survive a nuclear war, and yet, absent some unforeseen supercalamity (the ignition of the atmosphere for example) we will. It would be an enormous tragedy, but nuclear war all by itself would not mean the end of our species.
Why is this important? Because it’s another example of the same thing we saw with global warming, people assume that it’s either not going to happen or that if it does they’re going to be dead so it doesn’t matter.
Though, there also seems to be a third group who feel like if it does happen and they do survive that it will be awesome. That it will be one long desert chase scene involving impossibly cool cars with flame throwing double-necked guitar players attached to the front, like in Mad Max. Or that it will involve lots of guns and zombies like in the Walking Dead. Or perhaps that it will be some sort of brutal, all-encompassing dictatorship, like in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But if it is, they always imagine that they would be part of the resistance.
What they don’t imagine, as part of any apocalypse, is slowly sinking into despair and eventually overdosing on heroin. Or standing in long bread lines, waiting for a small amount of food, with no guns or glamorous resistance fighters anywhere to be found. Or unemployment at above 20%, and being homeless and hungry. And of course all of these things have already happened or are happening in decidedly non-apocalyptic situations. It’s sheer madness to assume that things would be better during an actual apocalypse. But once again, people assume it either won’t happen or they’ll be dead, not that they’ll have to wake up every day with an empty stomach, not knowing where their next meal is going to come from.
The most common question I got from people after returning from the DGR convention was, “Won’t a lot of people have to die if industrial civilization ends?” Or as my son put it:
Have you talked with any of them about the inherent big question with anarcho-primitivism? (how they square their desired state of being with the inability of those modes of living to support the world population at anywhere near its current size)
My response was:
Their basic argument is Malthusian. Yes, there will be a vast number of human deaths in transitioning to the desired state but the sooner we do it the better it will be for nature in its totality. The longer we go the more people will die, the more species will disappear and the harder it will be for the Earth as a whole to recover.
Industrial civilization will collapse eventually the sooner it does the less apocalyptic it will be.
To be fair, conceivably they’re correct. Generally speaking the Malthusians have never previously been right, but perhaps this time they are. But to return to my central point, this analysis involves an awful lot of messiness. And of course that’s a giant euphemism. It involves the death of billions of people.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about climate change and nuclear war. They’re easy to discuss because they’re well known. But there is another bit of messiness to consider. There are all sorts of catastrophes out there that we can predict only dimly or not at all. In such a situation it’s easy to abstract them into either temporary inconveniences which have no impact on the fundamental awesomeness of the future or, alternatively, the end of the world. But the most likely outcome is not awesomeness or extinction, but rather a lot of messiness. Messiness of exactly the kind we’re dealing with right now where the scope and devastation of the catastrophe is understood only slowly e.g. social media, plastics, modern populism, etc. But also messiness at a level humanity hasn’t experienced for centuries, messiness we’re woefully unprepared for because people assume that it either won’t happen or that if it does we’ll all be dead.
Whether that’s temporary or long term, whether it’s nuclear war, global warming, or something like the 2007 crisis, in all of these situations there is a good chance you would survive. Nuclear war is the ultimate “everyone dies” event in most people’s minds, but even here you would have a better than even chance of surviving. The question is not would you survive, but how long would you survive. My go-to disaster book, Global Catastrophic Risks, illustrates the point, in a quote about the effects of an all out war on America.
In addition to the tens of millions of deaths during the days and weeks after the attack there would probably be further millions (perhaps further tens of millions) of deaths in the ensuing months or years. In addition to the enormous economic destruction caused by the actual nuclear explosions, there would be some years during which the residual economy would decline further, as stocks were consumed and machines wore out faster than recovered production could replace them… For a period of time, people could live off supplies (and in a sense, off habits) left over from before the war. But shortages and uncertainties would get worse. The survivors would find themselves in a race to achieve viability… before stocks ran out completely. A failure to achieve viability, or even a slow recovery, would result in many additional deaths, and much additional economic, political, and social deterioration. This postwar damage could be as devastating as the damage from the actual nuclear explosions.
Notice that this assessment is not just a repeat of Private Hudson’s quote from Aliens. “That's it, man. Game over, man. Game over!”, but rather a very sober assessment which points out that a lot of people would live and there would be many long years when things are desperate and horrible.
People have been misled in the other direction as well. There’s a large genre of apocalyptic fiction which seems to suggest that some people will survive, but only a select few. These survivors will emerge into a world where they get to do all of the cool things and none of the hard things. Guns and canned food are plentiful. And all the boring, soul-crushing aspects of modernity are done away with.
These fictional worlds imagine that it will be particularly cool if you're prepared for it. To an extent that’s the core appeal of something like DGR. They imagine that when industrial civilization does collapse, having foreseen the collapse they will be in a position to live as they always imagined. In communion with nature, without all the grubby bits of capitalism and industry. It’s an appealing vision, but it largely skips over all the horrible messiness that would accompany civilization’s death.
Perhaps we’ll be lucky and the future will just be awesome. But if it’s not, it’s far more likely to be messy and complicated. If you imagine the apocalypse and think, “well whatever, I’ll be dead” my message is that there’s a good chance you’re going to be very alive, and very disappointed.
You know what’s not disappointing? Donating to this blog. I can personally vouch that several people who’ve done it have described it being followed by a warm satisfied glow. Though It may have been indigestion. Apparently my blog causes both.