What Does “The End of the World” Mean?, by Roy Scranton

This is an excerpt of a recent essay by Roy Scranton entitled “Beginning with the End” which was published at Emergence magazine. Scranton is the author of We’re Doomed. Now What? and Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. His writing has been an important influence on me over the past two years. This latest essay is a slog though. It comes in at around 6,500 words and inexplicably intertwines the writing of British literary critic Frank Kermode. I believe there’s enough here to save though, so I have cut it down to what I think is its 1500-word essence.


“The world is ending.”

… One has an intuitive sense of what one means when one invokes “the world,” which is something like the subjective imagination of the sum total of contemporary human existence, overlapping with any number of historical, geological, and religious narratives about the past, and also likely stamped with the image of the planet itself, the “pale blue dot” we all know so well from pictures, the globe whirling on its brass spindle.

My “world” will inevitably differ from yours, both of ours from Angela Merkel’s, and Merkel’s from that of Abdullah Yusuf, a 27-year-old Bangladeshi lab tech who described to a reporter from Al Jazeera his fears about catching COVID-19 on public transit. Nevertheless, despite what are likely significant differences between each person’s sense of their “world,” the word “world” points to something shared by every human being, a mutually constructed and concurrent co-existence happening within recognizable spatial and temporal bounds. No one says “the world” to mean Mars or the Incan Empire. One might say “the world” to mean specifically the planet Earth, but this would be idiosyncratic and easily misunderstood. Likewise, one could say “the world” to mean “the natural world,” but the very need for the adjectival modifier “natural” suggests that the two terms are not synonymous. “The world” typically means the human world, our world, the world as we know it, the collectively imagined global chronotope of the now.

And what does it mean for something to end? To end is to finish, to come to completion, to cease, to no longer be involved in a particular process, to no longer exist in the same form. Science tells us that while mass and energy change into each other, nothing is ever lost, so from a cosmic point of view, to end means merely to change. But we do not live our lives from a cosmic point of view: we live in mortal bodies, among mortal bodies, forced to confront the mystery of death, which is, almost certainly, our primary sense of the end of something, and thus our primordial sense of the end of anything. Thus we might say that “the end,” any end, is a metaphor for our own.

… If we take “the end” as a metaphor for “death,” then we could take the end of the world to mean human extinction, or at least significant mass death. If, on the other hand, we take a more cosmic point of view, the end of the world could mean merely that “the world”—our mutually constituted sense of the collective now—is changing into something else, perhaps no more or less than a new world, a new now, a different collective sense of human life. Taking the proposition in either sense, we can hardly make sense of it without attending to the realization that the world has already ended, over and over, for countless peoples and epochs. The world of paleolithic hunter-gatherers ended with the emergence of cities and agriculture. The world of Tang-dynasty China, in which Laozi and Confucius may have been contemporaries, ended too. So did the preliterate world of the eastern Mediterranean brought to life in Homer’s Iliad, long before Plato was himself witness to the end of the world that came after Homer’s, as literacy transformed Greek conceptions of being. Countless worlds were destroyed forever through the so-called Columbian Exchange, some erased even from memory. The world of medieval European apocalyptists, the world of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, the Zoroastrian world, the Aboriginal world, the world of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Mayan world, even the patriarchal, Eurocentric world of donnish sophistication in which Frank Kermode felt so at home—all gone, though they live on, absorbed into and remembered by the world we live in today, the world of global fossil-fueled capitalism, a world swiftly coming to its own rather messy end. …

… In order to cope with numerous accelerating ecological crises, primarily global warming, climate change, and biodiversity collapse, we must completely transform global human society. The options we face are widespread social collapse caused by ecological upheaval, or a swift, radical, wholesale revolution in energy infrastructure, political systems, economic structures, and cultural values—all around the world. The scale of this problem cannot be overstated: even with the very best outcome, we would still have to cope with a complete reorganization of human collective life, as well as, thanks to the time lag in the carbon cycle, decades if not centuries of significant planetary warming from greenhouse gases already in the oceans and atmosphere. It’s not too much to say that at this point the end of the world—the dissolution of this specific human lifeworld—is a given, and the real question is what sort of world comes next.

The fact of the matter is, as science tells us and prudent reflection confirms, we do not know the future. We do not know how quickly the planet will warm in our lifetimes. We do not know whether it’s too late to change. We do not know whether our civilization can survive the next century. We do not know how many species will eventually go extinct. We do not know how long the earth can sustain more than eight billion humans. We do not know when our cities will collapse. We do not know how chaotic the next several decades will be. We do not know what kind of planet we’ll be living on in 2050. We do not know how our grandchildren will survive. We do not know when the world will end. We do not know what we’ll find on the other side. We do not know who or what will live there. And what’s more, we cannot know. The future we face is utterly unprecedented, an impenetrable obscurity, a vast and dismal cloud of unknowing. ….

There is another way: Accepting unknowing. Embracing the void. Recognizing the limits of human knowledge. Relinquishing our consoling fictions about the future. Acknowledging the transience of the present and seeing in the death of what is the birth of what will become.

The Neoplatonist thinker Plotinus called the way of unknowing apophasis; Zen Buddhists call it kenshō or satori; philosopher Jonathan Lear called it “radical hope.” We might call it, in this case, apophatic futurism: a commitment to a future existence which by definition cannot be described. Apophatic futurism recognizes that we cannot know how climate change and ecological catastrophe are going to transform our world, how human civilization will change in response, how human beings will adapt to the new world of the Anthropocene, or who we will become in the future—yet it also remains committed to some future human existence, no matter what form that existence takes, no matter who that human is. Perhaps the least consoling form of consolation, this via negativa might also be the one most responsible to reality and the idea of collective human endeavor. Insofar as apophatic futurism insists on the impossibility of saying what the future holds, it is a kind of nihilism, a total negation, a learning to die, a great “No.” It accepts the end of the world as given. Yet insofar as apophatic futurism rejects all the spurious fictions of apocalypse which clamor to claim our faith, the utopian and the dystopian, the heavenly and the hellish, it remains committed to the possibility of a new world yet to be born.

We do not know the future. We do not know what the world will be like in a hundred years, or fifty, or ten. We do not know how our descendants will survive, and we do not know what fictions they will need to make their lives bearable. The future, like the past, is a foreign country, but one whose borders are forever closed to the present. What we do know is that all living things suffer and all living things die, and that so long as humans exist on earth, there will be a world in which they live—a subjective imagination of the sum total of contemporary human existence. The world of the future will likely be unrecognizable to those of us alive today, just as the world we live in today would be unrecognizable to Homer or Laozi or even Frank Kermode: human worlds survive for generations, but not forever. Like everything else, this too shall pass. The truly revelatory content of our apocalyptic fictions is that the world is always ending, has always been ending, just as we are always dying—we spend our lives caught in the doorway between death and birth. There is no solution to the riddle of existence, nor to the inevitable fact of extinction: no amount of sophistication can ultimately justify the suffering that is being. All we have is compassion, patience, and the recognition that every possible human future begins with the end of what came before.

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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