Many of those concerned with climate change in the Anthropocene have a story they tell about that moment the scales fell from their eyes and they realized just how fucked we are. Mine came in the summer of 2013, reading reports on likely climate trends from the World Bank and the International Panel on Climate Change. What I realized was that severe to extreme global warming was already locked in the climate system, second-order effects of such warming would be catastrophic, and a business-as-usual pathway over the next two decades would almost certainly lead to the end of civilization as we know it and very possibly the extinction of the human species. Business as usual suddenly seemed horrific, though no less inevitable, and the world I thought I’d known transformed around me. What had been sure was doomed. What had been safe was lost. What had been prudent was now folly.
It was a revelation.
Revelation is, of course, the etymological meaning of the word apocalypse, from the Koine Greek ἀποκάλυψις, meaning “to uncover or reveal.” It comes down to us through the Judeo-Christian tradition primarily associated with the Revelation to John, the final book of the New Testament, in which God imparts a vision of the world’s end and subsequent resurrection. Infamously psychedelic and cryptically allegorical, the Apocalypse of John describes the opening of the seven seals; seven angels blowing seven trumpets; a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads; another beast, from the sea, also with seven heads and ten horns, but with ten crowns, like unto a leopard except with bear’s feet and a lion’s mouth; a woman with a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication, whose forehead is conveniently labeled Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots, and Abominations of the Earth; plus famines and plagues and war and death and so on, ending with God’s creation of the New Jerusalem, where all the resurrected Christians live happily ever after.
Today, when we use the word apocalypse, we typically mean something less weird and baroque, though often just as mythic—more focused on fantasies of destruction than with ideas of revealed truth or Christian allegory. Yet crowding the top ten Google hits for the word, among articles on “How the 1% Are Preparing for the Apocalypse” and “What to Eat After the Apocalypse,” are several websites about En Sabah Nur, an ageless being from ancient Egypt and the world’s first mutant. After rebelling against Pharaoh Rama-Tut and his General Ozymandias, he renames himself Apocalypse and then sets out across the Marvel world, starting wars, fighting Thor and Dracula, and eventually coming face to face with the X-Men. Perhaps our visions of apocalypse will always be weird and baroque: the blankness of the canvas inspires wild elaboration.
But the question of whether imagining the end of the world is the same as imagining life in the Anthropocene remains a vexing one, and it is on this point that the two predominant meanings of apocalypse (leaving out Marvel’s supervillain) diverge. The revelation that global warming offers is actually a much more complicated, obscure, and protracted affair than stories of global doom can typically manage. For instance, The Day After Tomorrow (2004), one of the most notable, if least convincing “cli-fi” films, condenses the collapse of the Larsen Ice Shelf, the shutdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, and disruptions of the polar vortex into a ludicrous few days in which giant vortices layer the northern hemisphere with sheets of ice. On the other hand, many so-called cli-fi novels evade the problem entirely by jumping right to the postapocalyptic dystopia, though it’s true that more and more writers are trying to foresee how we might get there from here.
What such foreseers find, though, is that the Anthropocene revelation is not only opaque but contested, as each haruspex draws their conclusions from shifting sets of constantly changing signs. Today’s arguments rage around how high the seas will rise and how fast, whether storms or drought are the bigger danger, whether mitigation might be successful, who will be hit the hardest, whether to call our era the Capitalocene or the Anthropocene, what climate change means for the human–nature binary, whether global warming is a hyperobject, and whether rising temperatures will mean Anthropocene democracy or Malthusian wars for lebensraum, water, and oil. Tomorrow’s signs will be yet more ominous and the arguments will shift accordingly, with no greater clarity than before.
The hardest thing about seeing our future isn’t the black swan—that high-profile, hard-to-predict event that retroactively changes everything—or the complexity of the climate system or even the fact that humans are wired for repetition, adaptation, and rationalization. The hardest thing about seeing our future is that we cannot see our present, and if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going. The Wall Street Journal, the global scientific community, the vast library stacks at Harvard and Princeton and the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale, the prodigious computing power of Google’s far-flung servers, the GPS in our phones, and a complicated mixture of animal cunning, acculturated ressentiment, and sheer profligacy all combine to imbue the cosmopolitan world’s modern Homo sapiens with a blind arrogance unequaled in the natural world since Tyrannosaurus rex peered out over his late Cretaceous empire and roared a roar which, if we could but capture it, Google translate might render as “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” The hardest thing about seeing our future is how much we think we know about our world, and how little we know about ourselves.
At some level, we sense this. Somewhere, deep in our lizard brains, we can tell that the business-as-usual world of seemingly omnipotent human technology with which we’ve surrounded ourselves is a house of cards, built on sand. Hence the appeal and power of those weird, baroque, dreamlike intuitions that come to us, piercing the veil of illusion we call our knowledge, as revelations—or fantasies—of the end.