Living Well at the End of the World
Updated: Mar 17, 2020
The sand has shifted beneath our feet. Over the span of six weeks, the rapid spread of COVID-19 has boarded up public space, brought social and professional calendars to a standstill, and shocked global markets. It isn’t just the virus, either. COVID-19 and its fallout have cast a spotlight on everything from racism to corporate greed to ableism to factory farming.
There can be an uneasy validation in seeing so many progressive concerns flood into the mainstream, but it can also be overwhelming. How can we fight along so many different fronts at once? How do we battle on when our own sense of security is under siege? What can we do when the world is crumbling around us? An approaching apocalypse seems to call for something more potent than self-help articles and work-from-home guides. Maybe all that's left to do is check Twitter, and Facebook, and Twitter, and Facebook...
But we are not the first to wait, socially distanced, for the final piece of punctuation to arrive. And there is hope in the thought that we won't be the last. If we are to live well at this end of the world, then it is useful to remember that time rarely offers so tidy an ending as Armageddon. Time endures. Someone might need you tomorrow.
For many reasons, human beings like to know where they’re going. Whether it’s some version of an afterlife, or an unquestioned belief in the liberal project, present action is often justified by the belief that we are moving towards something clear – something almost inevitable. These beliefs help us make sense of the present – the destination shedding light on the directions we’ve taken. For those whose vision of the future is unthreatened by COVID-19, for example, it is easy to maintain the status quo. It’s killed less people than the flu, after all.
If your vision of the future is bleak, however, a sense of certainty in what’s to come can be discouraging. Forecasts and warnings can look more like writing on the wall than probabilities or speculations. This is especially true for those who have experienced a chronic lack of power at every stage of the political process. What are we to do, for example, when the climate keeps heating up and fossil fuel companies are recording record profits? For those uniquely threatened physically or mentally by COVID-19, the present moment can be a source of immobilizing anxiety.
Beneath utopic and dystopic promises alike is a more basic assumption about the way time works. Stories like these envision time as moving in straightforward and sequential ways, discrete moments passing by within the ether. The past gives way to the present, which moves definitively towards the future. More importantly, apocalyptic visions presume that there is a single, overarching timeline enveloping us all. There will be a moment, of liberation or condemnation, and we will experience it as one.
Yet the reality is a little more complicated. For starters, time doesn't move so linearly as we'd like to think. Past, present, and future are not discrete units of experience to be worked through and discarded. Instead, they are a series of interwoven threads which blend together in all kinds of interesting ways. While apocalyptic stories can make it seem like the future is coming to wipe the slate clean, the reality is that the past and present are much harder to get rid of. The fallout of Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn't go away when the war ended. Legacies of colonial violence continue to have disastrous implications today. At every turn, we find ourselves haunted by what Karen Barad has called "material traces" of the past, "written into the very fabric of the world." The past never stays dead. There is no such thing as closure.
It is just as misleading to tell stories as though there is a singular, finite timeline enveloping us all. Individuals experience time differently and these competing experiences can't be merged into a single, cohesive temporal narrative. While many of us might feel like our lives are speeding up, for example, the reality is that there are large swaths of people whose jobs consist of waiting and killing time so that they can service the high-paced lifestyle of others. Taxi drivers, hotel cleaners, and frequent fliers experience airports differently and, most importantly, unequally.
An apocalypse is no different. Our levels of exposure and vulnerability to something like COVID-19 depend on a slew of other socioeconomic factors that keep some of us protected at the expense of others. Experiences of the fallout will be different, too. Even as federal governments begin preparing massive stimulus packages to revive a bouncing dead cat, there is doubt whether this lifeline will be long enough to reach those at the bottom. Obsessing over the end of the world can distract us from this more nuanced reality. It can give the false impression that we are in this together and distract us from the social, political, and economic injustices which give some of us a better chance than others. "Imagining the world as under threat," writes Ted Tovine, "reinforces our projection that the world exists."
With no overarching timeline, it suddenly seems nonsensical to discuss the all-encompassing end that our utopic visions and dystopic fears suggest. As Timothy Morton writes in his book Hyperobjects, "the idea of world depends on all kinds of mood lighting and mood music, aesthetic effects that by definition contain a kernel of sheer ridiculous meaningless." The tardigrades and cockroaches will outlive us all. Even as sea levels rise, species go extinct, and we continue drilling for oil, the earth keeps spinning for somebody (or something) somewhere else. Thinking more carefully about this diversity of lived experience can help to dispel the illusion that we are approaching a final collective act. There is no simple horizon coming to offer us closure. And most importantly, there is no deadline on responsibility.
None of this is to say that consequences don’t matter. COVID-19 is already having a global and irrevocable impact, and there are prices to pay for centuries of resource depletion, economic inequality, and environmental destruction. But these consequences don’t all arrive at once and they don’t come to collect indiscriminately. Many have already been paying our debts, and the future is bleaker for some than others. Instead of Armageddon, there are a million tiny worlds balanced on a precipice each and every day.
Our responsibility for these worlds reaches beyond the confines of our solitary temporal experiences. Just as the apocalypse has already arrived for some, so too do the consequences of our decisions extend well beyond the horizon of some simple finale. Decisions we make about nuclear waste today will have ramifications thousands of years from now. A 1.5C rise in global temperatures will have implications for wildlife and vegetation long after human beings have disappeared from the planet. In some ways, we live forever whether we like it or not.
It is a scary thought, to be sure. But it is a different type of fear than the one which looms beneath the surface of our dystopic tendencies. Instead of the anxiety which says there is nothing left to do, we are faced with the realization that there is still a lot to do. That there will always be something left to do. Perhaps too much to do. Somebody, somewhere, still depends on you, and me, and us. As Greta Thunberg recently clarified, “it’s never too late to do as much as we can…. There are of course no magical dates for saving the world.” The seas will rise – because of what we’ve done – but how we handle the emerging wave of climate refugees, food shortages, and economic precarity is still to be decided. Time persists. There are others who will need us tomorrow.
So what does this all have to do with COVID-19?
First, it means accepting that there will be consequences. Many people will suffer and die because of COVID-19, most of whom are already vulnerable because of social and economic reasons. Instead of discounting this suffering as part of a larger temporal scheme – like a government conspiracy, or God’s judgement, or population control – it means recognizing that we didn’t get here by accident. It means recognizing the way that healthcare policies, poor hygiene, and factory farming have all contributed to the spread of COVID-19 and its devastating impact on families, businesses, and governments. Instead of letting the future sweep away the past and present, it means accepting that these moments are more interconnected than we would like.
Second, it is important to recognize that COVID-19 is not a moment to eventually be abandoned to the bowels of history. By all accounts, the social, economic, and political consequences of COVID-19 will be more extensive, harder to unravel, and indefinite. Local businesses will close. Families and communities will suffer irreplaceable loss. The precarious will struggle to be remembered as global economies rush to hit the reset button and revert to business as usual. How we handle the fallout will depend on how prepared we are for a series of futures that are different, interconnected, and incomplete. There is no final victory against the end of the world.
While COVID-19 may not end us, however, it can change us. With no deadline on responsibility, we can take the time to learn important lessons – lessons we probably should have learned last time. As others have already highlighted, COVID-19 has shed light on many arbitrary and harmful policies that we can likely do without. It has also showcased the weaknesses in a global economic system that fosters financial precarity, maintains racial and gender-based inequality, and withholds necessary accommodations for those with disabilities.
Finally, abandoning our obsession with closure means realizing that, while you may not be able to do everything, there are ways to endure. No threat, COVID-19 included, offers anything so final as an apocalypse. Instead, we remain responsible, as we always have been, for those we encounter – those tiny worlds hanging by a thread. You may not be able to end global warming overnight, but you can buy groceries for your elderly neighbours. You can donate non-perishables to local foodbanks. You can push back against those who would try to capitalize on a pandemic, including corrupt politicians, pharmaceutical companies, and this guy. You can build grassroots relationships with the people around you who believe that kindness and generosity are more important than profit. And yes, you can take care of yourself.
Thrown into a violent, chaotic, and suffering world, it is easy to feel suffocated and insignificant. The writing on the global wall can make it seem like there is nothing left to do but wait for it all to come crashing down. But there is hope and purpose in the fact that nothing is so final. Somewhere, time persists. There are people who will need us tomorrow. There is work left to be done.