News & Politics

Aaahhhhpocalypse Now!: 10 Dark Visions Headed Your Way

First, the bad news.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Pavel Chagochkin

Things are not looking good out there. Manmade climate change has already led to widespread devastation, with more unimaginable horrors on the way. For half a generation, the United States has been immersed in futile wars that have only made the world more unsafe, and recent saber-rattling suggests more conflict is on the horizon. This country has too many guns, too many prisons and too few people holding nearly all the wealth. On top of it all, a hotheaded bully is charged with deciding when to whip out our great big missiles.

This is no time for Pollyannaish optimism. Things will probably get worse before they get better, and the only way to ensure the latter is to come to terms with the former. Gloom and doom isn’t so bad if it serves a purpose. You have to contend with the darkest looming realities in order to have any hope of staving them off.

To that end, we’ve gathered some of the best—or uh, the worst—apocalyptic thinking out there. There’s plenty of bad news on economic, planetary and political fronts, and all of it is represented below. Consider it inspiration for figuring a way out of this mess. Here are 10 visions of the apocalypse—coming soon!

1. The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today...Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough. Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research; the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt. The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the geological record shows that temperature can shift as much as ten degrees or more in a single decade. The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.

2. How Trump could literally tweet his way into nuclear war with North Korea, by Laura Rosenberger

If our allies, partners and adversaries all attach meaning to Trump's words that are in no way what he intended, the problem isn't just one of mere confusion. Deterring North Korea from taking dangerous actions and reassuring our allies of the credibility of our defense are both critical. But both deterrence and reassurance are based on credibility and capability—and credibility requires clear signaling of intentions.

Trump's vague, blustery words, unattached to any strategy and without any plan to back up whatever he did mean, will undermine both our deterrence and our reassurance, which we have spent decades building. This could lead to miscalculation by North Korea or our allies. Such miscalculation could lead to war: Trump could literally tweet us into a nuclear war.

We know that Kim Jong-un is thin-skinned and will probably take Trump's comment about "this guy" as a personal insult. Or Kim may be confused—after all, just a few months ago, Trump said he would be "honored" to meet with Kim under the right circumstances. To be clear, I don't care at all about Kim's feelings. But I do care about whether an offhand, hotheaded remark could provoke Kim to take actions that would have real consequences. Picking a Twitter fight with a nuclear-armed dictator is not wise—this is not reality TV anymore.

3. We Have a Year to Defend American Democracy, Perhaps Less, by Matthias Kolb

The temptation in a new situation is to imagine that nothing has changed. That is a choice that has political consequences: self-delusion leads to half-conscious anticipatory obedience and then to regime change...Most Americans are exceptionalists, we think we live outside of history. Americans tend to think: “We have freedom because we love freedom, we love freedom because we are free.” It is a bit circular and doesn’t acknowledge the historical structures that can favor or weaken democratic republics. We don’t realize how similar our predicaments are to those of other people...

I wanted to remind my fellow Americans that intelligent people, not so different from ourselves, have experienced the collapse of a republic before. It is one example among many. Republics, like other forms of government, exist in history and can rise and fall...A quarter century ago, after the collapse of communism, we declared that history was over—and in an amazing way we forgot everything we once knew about communism, fascism and National Socialism...

The constitution is worth saving, the rule of law is worth saving, democracy is worth saving, but these things can and will be lost if everyone waits around for someone else. If we want encouragement out of the Oval Office, we will not get it. We are not getting encouragement thus far from Republicans. They have good reasons to defend the republic but thus far they are not doing so, with a few exceptions...I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less.

4. Noam Chomsky on the prospects for nuclear war under Trump

George Yancy: Returning to Trump, I take it that you view him as fundamentally unpredictable. I certainly do. Should we fear a nuclear exchange of any sort in our contemporary moment?

Noam Chomsky: I do, and I’m hardly the only person to have such fears. Perhaps the most prominent figure to express such concerns is William Perry, one of the leading contemporary nuclear strategists, with many years of experience at the highest level of war planning. He is reserved and cautious, not given to overstatement. He has come out of semiretirement to declare forcefully and repeatedly that he is terrified both at the extreme and mounting threats and by the failure to be concerned about them. In his words, “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”

In 1947, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists established its famous Doomsday Clock, estimating how far we are from midnight: termination. In 1947, the analysts set the clock at seven minutes to midnight. In 1953, they moved the hand to two minutes to midnight after the U.S. and U.S.S.R. exploded hydrogen bombs. Since then it has oscillated, never again reaching this danger point. In January, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, the hand was moved to two and a half minutes to midnight, the closest to terminal disaster since 1953. By this time analysts were considering not only the rising threat of nuclear war but also the firm dedication of the Republican organization to accelerate the race to environmental catastrophe.

Perry is right to be terrified. And so should we all be, not least because of the person with his finger on the button and his surreal associates.

5. Is America Past the Point of No Return? by Thom Hartmann

Has corporate/billionaire control of our republic reached such a point that it’s no longer reversible? Have we passed the tipping point where democracy dies? While Republicans are doing the will of their oligarch owners, replacing real scientists with industry lobbyists and shills everywhere from the White House to congressional science committees to the EPA, the media stubbornly refuses to report in depth on it, preferring instead to following the Worldwide Wrestling moves of our tweeter-in-chief.  

While climate change is ravaging the world, the administration of billionaire oligarch Donald Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate change agreement and is rolling back climate-protecting rules on behalf other oligarchs in the oil, coal and gas business so they can continue to use our atmosphere as a sewer.

From trying to destroy the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which has returned to consumers billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains from our country’s banksters), to gutting environmental laws, to preventing students from even declaring bankruptcy when their efforts to join the middle class by going to college don’t work out, the oligarchs who now largely run America are solidifying their power and their wealth. This is rule by the rich. It’s here. It’s now.

6. The Age of Anger, by Chris Hedges

Neoliberalism, in the name of this absurd utopia, stripped away government regulations and laws that once protected the citizen from the worst excesses of predatory capitalism. It created free trade agreements that allowed trillions of corporate dollars to be transferred to offshore accounts to avoid taxation and jobs to flee to sweatshops in China and the global south where workers live in conditions that replicate slavery. Social service programs and public services were slashed or privatized. Mass culture, including schools and the press, indoctrinated an increasingly desperate population to take part in the global reality show of capitalism, a “war of all against all.”

What we were never told was that the game was fixed. We were always condemned to lose. Our cities were deindustrialized and fell into decay. Wages declined. Our working class became impoverished. Endless war became, cynically, a lucrative business. And the world’s wealth was seized by a tiny group of global oligarchs. Kleptocracies, such as the one now installed in Washington, brazenly stole from the people. Democratic idealism became a joke. We are now knit together, as Mishra writes, only “by commerce and technology,” forces that Hannah Arendt called “negative solidarity.”

7. Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich, by Evan Osnos

Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. The author of “Chaos Monkeys,” an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.” Once he started telling peers in the Bay Area about his “little island project,” they came “out of the woodwork” to describe their own preparations, he said. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”

In private Facebook groups, wealthy survivalists swap tips on gas masks, bunkers, and locations safe from the effects of climate change. One member, the head of an investment firm, told me, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” He said that his preparations probably put him at the “extreme” end among his peers. But he added, “A lot of my friends do the guns and the motorcycles and the gold coins. That’s not too rare anymore.”

8. How the Student Loan Industry Is Helping Trump Destroy American Democracy, by Binta Baxter

[T]he untold story of student loan debt in the United States is that it is being used as a form of economic terrorism designed not only to redistribute wealth from everyday Americans to the elite, but to undermine and degrade American democracy as a whole.

Up until her confirmation as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos had financial ties to a large student loan servicer in contract negotiations with the Department of Education. PRWatch reported in January that one of the firms DeVos divested from, LMF WF Portfolio, helped finance a $147 million loan to a student debt collection agency called Performant, which had more than 346 complaints brought against it with the Better Business Bureau. The student loan industry is said to be worth $1.3 trillion in total debt owed according to Forbes.

9. Stephen Hawking Warns Trump Withdrawal From Climate Deal Could Turn Earth's Temperature to 250 Degrees and Bring Sulphuric Acid Rain, by Reynard Loki

"We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible," said Hawking, who is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. "Trump’s action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees and raining sulphuric acid."

Trump's decision to abandon the landmark agreement, which was signed by nearly 200 nations to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, puts the accord in jeopardy, as the U.S. is the world's second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China.

10. A Language Older Than Words, by Derrick Jensen 

It’s unavoidable: so long as we value money more highly than living beings and more highly than relationships, we will continue to see living beings as resources, and convert them to cash; objectifying, killing, extirpating. This is true whether we’re talking about fish, fur-bearing mammals, Indians, day-laborers, and so on. If monetary value is attached to something it will be exploited until it’s gone.

Also by Derrick Jensen, The Culture of Make Believe

Let's be honest. The activities of our economic and social system are killing the planet. Even if we confine ourselves merely to humans, these activities are causing an unprecedented privation, as hundreds of millions of people-and today more than yesterday, with probably more tomorrow-go their entire lives with never enough to eat. Yet curiously, none of this seems to stir us to significant action. And when someone does too stridently point out these obvious injustices, the response by the mass of the people seems so often to be...a figurative if not physical blow to the gut, leading inevitably to a destruction of our common future. Witness the enthusiasm with which those native nations that resisted their conquest by our culture have been subdued, and the eagerness with which this same end is today brought to those-native or not-who continue to resist too strongly. How does this come to happen, in both personal and social ways?

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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