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  • Writer's pictureLars Stannard

Is it the End?

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

Are you worried about the end of the world? I wouldn’t blame you for feeling that way. Every day it seems like we are slowly reaching a massive, collective, cultural panic attack. However, anxiety, particularly about the end of civilization, isn’t anything new. Psychologists have pointed out that we are in an anxiety epidemic — and have been for generations. [1,2]



And that makes sense:

The end of the world, the apocalypse, and capital-C Collapse have all been depicted time and time again in art throughout the human era. However, fears about The End have notably increased over the last 250 years. [3]

This is shown in the works of better-known artists like Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848), Otto Dix (1891 - 1969), Mary Shelley (1797 - 1851), Lord Byron (1788 - 1824), and Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528). Each of these artists have dealt with themes of the end as we know it within their art long before COVID, the ever-looming threat of nuclear war between global superpowers, the Doomsday clock, or our findings on existence-threatening climate change. Outside the arts, we get philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) saying quite cheerily that “only in the vast graveyard of humanity” would perpetual peace come about. [4] Anxiety about it all crashing down has been seemingly prevalent for as long as human history.


Destruction, by American painter Thomas Cole, from The Course of Empire (1833-1836)



On the contrary, we’ve seen a deluge of contemporary articles from media outlets such as Business Insider telling us it’s all going to be okay: that global neoliberal capitalism won’t burn out until the sun does, and that we young people need to just stop our incessant worrying. [5] Even papers in psychology journals say that everyone is just being alarmist, and that anxiety as a whole is “a prevailing social ethos that teaches people that anxiety-related symptoms are a socially and medically legitimate response to life in the modern age”. [6] Which, in the immortal words of magicians Penn and Teller, is bullshit.



The increase in anxiety — which is a legitimate and well-researched condition, contrary to what some might say — is well warranted. We’ve seen that there is a higher and higher chance of it all ending: runaway climate change, the greatest wealth inequalities in human history, the increasing threat of nuclear war, the global rise and return of fascism, the absolute failings of neoliberalism, and lukewarm (at best) governmental responses to crises such as pandemics and climate-change-related natural disasters. In their most recent statement, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight (the closest it has ever been to midnight/doomsday), and a report from Australian publication Breakthrough states that climate change poses an existential threat to life as we know it. [7,8] There is definite cause for alarm.

In a sense, Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man, may just be right: we may very well be at the end of history. Not because one economic and political system “won”, but because there might be nobody left to continue history.



All that said, humans have been notoriously wrong about the end of the world: Y2K, 2012, eclipses being interpreted as the end of the world, volcanic eruptions, world wars, incorrect predictions of the return of Christ, panicky tabloid articles about asteroids wiping out all life on earth — we have been abhorrently wrong hundreds of times. The end will come, sure, but it isn’t some singular event that spells the end of humanity. Collapse comes and goes in stages, often many of those stages happening simultaneously.



That’s what Russian-American political writer Dmitry Orlov writes about in his book The Five Stages of Collapse. Russian-born Orlov, who observed and witnessed the collapsing Soviet Union, has documented and outlined patterns that various collapses have. He writes about what Collapse looks like in general, not when or if it will occur (although he is certain it will occur, eventually). He writes how we may constantly be dipping our toes into every stage simultaneously and at varying degrees, and particularly focuses on the potential Collapse of the United States. Each stage serves more as a severity level, and they don't have to happen in succession — although they often cascade as a result of the previous stage. [9]


The stages look like this:

  • Stage 1: Financial Collapse: “faith in ‘business as usual' is lost. The future is no longer assumed to resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost”. This is akin to events like recessions, or even depressions, and are the most common form of collapse. We seem to be constantly in this stage of Collapse, or well past it.


  • Stage 2: Commercial Collapse: “faith that ‘the market shall provide' is lost. Money is devalued and/or becomes scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm”. We are starting to see this stage of collapse, which has primarily been driven by COVID: the rise of uncontrollable global inflation, and global supply chain shortages and issues.


  • Stage 3: Political Collapse: “faith that ‘the government will take care of you' is lost. As official attempts to mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political establishment loses legitimacy and relevance”. In this stage, corruption replaces government services as strongmen often try to reassert power and force people into authoritarianism and instil “order”.


  • Stage 4: Social Collapse: “faith that 'your people will take care of you' is lost, as social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum, run out of resources or fail through internal conflict”. Things like modern civil wars, where the only thing clinging on are very groups of people watching out for each other. A lot of apocalyptic fiction focuses on Social Collapse, whether intentionally or not.



  • Stage 5: Cultural Collapse: “faith that the goodness in humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, [and] charity. Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources. The new motto becomes ‘May you die today so that I can die tomorrow”. In this stage, histories, common cultures, spoken languages, memories, families, and humanity itself appear to break down. This stage seems the most unlikely, however, as a lot of it flies in the face of what sociologists generally consider to be human nature itself.



Orlov, in a 2013 blog post after his book was published, added a 6th stage of Collapse: Environmental Collapse: where faith in ‘the earth will shelter us and is our home’ is lost. Our planet is rendered uninhabitable as a result of our actions. [10] To me, this seems more likely than the 5th stage, but perhaps in the final days of a dying earth, the 5th stage comes right before the death of the last human.



But not all is doom and gloom. Orlov writes that one of the best counters to each stage are strong, caring, and altruistic communities of people that have each other’s back, without profit motive and within the spirit of mutual human cooperation. Things several philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists all widely agree started human civilization as we know it. Orlov also believes that resource consumption can be reduced to sustainable levels while maintaining a civilized, high standard of living — a sentiment that scientific studies are finding more and more possible by the day. [11,12]



So, is it The End?


Kind of.

But The End can also be completely avoided — provided we actually undergo the solutions outlined to curb climate change, disarm nuclear warheads, build strong altruistic communities, and shift away from the GDP-centric growth-only economic model. It’s a huge task that everyone needs to play a small part in, but I do believe that there are a lot of reasons to remain anxiously optimistic. The fight for a better future won’t die until every single human is dead.

Shall we get started?








References:


[1] Davey, G. C. L., Ph. D. (2018, November 6). Is There An Anxiety Epidemic? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-we-worry/201811/is-there-anxiety-epidemic


[2] Somers, J. M., Goldner, E. M., & Waraich, P. (2006). Prevalence and Incidence Studies of Anxiety Disorders: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Revue Canadienne de Psychiatrie, 51(2), 100–113. https://doi.org/10.1177/070674370605100206


[3] Moynihan, T. (2020, April 16). How much longer do we have left on Earth? The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/world-end-history-cosmos-apocalypse-universe-earth-a9456011.html


[4] Kant, I. (1999). Practical Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

page 320

[5] Udland, M. (2016, June 28). Everybody needs to stop worrying about the end of the world. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/stop-worrying-about-the-end-of-the-world-2016-6?op=1&r=US&IR=T


[6] Dowbiggin, I. R. (2009). High Anxieties: The Social Construction of Anxiety Disorders. High Anxieties: The Social Construction of Anxiety Disorders, 54(7), 429–436. https://doi.org/10.1177/070674370905400703


[7] Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (2022, January). At doom’s doorstep: It is 100 seconds to midnight: 2022 Doomsday Clock Statement. https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time/


[8] Breakthrough, Spratt, D., & Dunlop, I. (2019, May). Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach. Breakthrough. https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/148cb0_90dc2a2637f348edae45943a88da04d4.pdf


[9] Orlov, D. (2013). The Five Stages of Collapse. New Society Publishers.


[10] Orlov, D. (2013b, October 22). The Sixth Stage of Collapse. Club Orlov. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-sixth-stage-of-collapse.html


[11] Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T. M., Barnard, P., & Moomaw, W. R. (2020). World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency. BioScience, 70(1), 8–12. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz088


[12] O’Grady, C. (2018, February 6). If we gave everyone a decent standard of living, could we sustain it? Ars Technica. https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/02/a-basic-standard-of-living-could-be-environmentally-sustainable/?comments=1

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