Not with a Whimper but with a Bang Our dire predictions of “This is the way the world ends” and what they say about who we are.

Photo by Roma Kaiuk via Unsplash.

“Don’t little children, awakened one morning and told, ‘Now you’re five!’—don’t they wail at the universe’s descent into chaos? The sun slowly dying, the spiral arm spreading, the molecules drifting apart second by second toward our inevitable heat death—shouldn’t we all wail to the stars?”

 —Andrew Sean Greer in Less

 

Shouldn’t we all wail to the stars? The planet is burning, democracy is crumbling, the country is ripping apart, and it is all happening a lot faster than the cosmic calamity Greer describes above. Historians offer consoling examples of all the past traumas we have survived, bloody civil wars and world wars and earthquakes and plagues, expecting the long view to shrink our fears for the future. But those people only had one cataclysm, I wail. We have forty-three!

Besides, even in times plagued by multiple calamities, there were common beliefs to hold people together, institutions they at least thought they could trust. We have been standing atop a slippery pile of rugs, and one by one they have been yanked out from under us. There goes lovely religion. Next government. The heavily patterned justice system. Whoa, medicine and science at once. Then the market, the media, Silicon Valley, each with its own backing and agenda.

 

For years, psychologists have been telling us that much of our modern anxiety is an unfortunate hangover, an overreaction that dates back to our days fighting sabre-toothed tigers and (no lie) giant predatory kangaroos. Now that sort of hypervigilance feels necessary again.

Toppled, we lie on hard ground listening to daily accounts of all that is dying around us: the middle class, the great American experiment, liberalism, democracy, civility, the humanities, the nuclear family, widespread economic opportunity. Capitalism is late-stage. Species are vanishing (the Emperor penguin will go next). Climate crisis has hit the point of no return. Plague is rampant and reinventing itself faster than we can (I mean will) react.

We could pick teams, I suppose, and agree to each concentrate on only one threat. Staying oblivious to the rest might keep us sane. But it would also make us even more vulnerable. For years, psychologists have been telling us that much of our modern anxiety is an unfortunate hangover, an overreaction that dates back to our days fighting sabre-toothed tigers and (no lie) giant predatory kangaroos. Now that sort of hypervigilance feels necessary again.

If I were the one dying, I would spend time forgiving, asking forgiveness, finishing the bucket list, wringing the last bit of sweetness from what time I had left. But when entire ways of life are dying? My mind flips from one problem to the next until, exhausted and hopeless, I feel myself retreating, like a monk or a housewife, into my own four walls.

 

•  •  •

 

In Intimacies, Katie Kitamura’s character stands in a museum gallery, gazing at seventeenth-century still lifes, and learns that the brutal colonialism of the Dutch Empire was the real backdrop to those luminous paintings of grapes, tulips, a goldfinch, a goblet. “The relentless domesticity of these quiet interiors takes on a different meaning seen in that light,” Kitamura writes. “It means something, to face inward, to turn your back on the storm brewing outside.”

And so, I do. In our little domestic hobbit-hole, I can busy myself making the grocery list, scrubbing rust from the shower stall, laughing at the dog’s antics. Morally, my retreat is a self-centered copout. But in here, all is calm, and things still feel worth doing.

Are we safe or in danger? One of these realities must be an illusion—but which?

At least, they do until I read that a heat wave released methane from prehistoric limestone in Siberia. The southeastern Amazon is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs—which means the lungs of the planet are compromised. On July 27 alone, the amount of ice that melted in Greenland would cover all of Florida in two inches of water. The Colorado River, which supplies water to forty million people across seven states, is drying up. And the latest United Nations report predicts—as its best-case scenario—more fire, draught, flooding, violent storms, disease, and water shortages.

Time to fix dinner.

During the COVID lockdown, I wondered how we could be so cozy with people dying all around us. Now the difference between our quiet, lamp-lit private life and the shadows outside our window is so pronounced that it feels surreal. Are we safe or in danger? One of these realities must be an illusion—but which?

“In order to exist in the world we must and we do forget, we live in a state of I know but I do not know,” writes Kitamura.

We are learning to move in and out of doom.

 

 

2. The Angst

 

“Despair takes us in when we have nowhere else to go.”

—David Whyte

 

Our species decides it is doomed quite often. Botticelli was sure the world would end in 1504; Martin Luther said no later than 1600; Christopher Columbus said 1656. Jim Jones thought the world would end in nuclear disaster in 1967—then ended it for 909 people in 1978. Nostradamus held out for 1999. The rapture was scheduled for May 21, 2011. The Mayan calendar pinned the world’s end to December 2012.

What luxury, to have a definite date. Then I could plan—or stop planning. Or hide in a monastery, as they did in the Dark Ages. Our era is halogen-bright, surveilled, stripped of refuge. We know too much to rest easy, not enough to make a difference. Words like uncertain, unpredictable, volatile, unforeseen—these are our adjectives.

And humans do not do uncertainty well.

In a December 2020 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, forty-two percent of people in the country reported symptoms of anxiety or its partner, depression—almost quadruple the percentage in 2019. Anxiety about the future is contagious and self-perpetuating; once we start scrolling for doom, we find it and share it.

“Doomscrolling is an interesting phenomenon,” remarks Dean McKay, a psychology professor at Fordham University who looks hard at anxiety, depression, obsession, and compulsion. “You’re trying to get news, but you’re also trying to find information that might provide some optimism.” Instead, we find only alerts and conspiracy theories that spike our stress response, and when that happens chronically, “it fosters a sense of dread.”

In today’s news cycle, he adds, “it’s hard to distinguish fact from opinion, and the way in which our brains are stimulated is designed to keep us activated.” Guessing that he is blaming media hype for much of our panic, I ask if he thinks there are political reasons for emphasizing doom in order to galvanize a response, say, to climate change. My question flips him out of calm clinical mode, and he swiftly reminds me that “the urgency is legitimate.”

I feel reassured—we are together again, at the edge of the cliff. But then my reaction worries me. Do I want us to be doomed? Is this a narrative I need, because it will at least explain how frustrated and hopeless I feel?

Or does it also happen to be true?

Anxiety about the future is contagious and self-perpetuating; once we start scrolling for doom, we find it and share it.

“Some people are sleepwalking, and the sense of doom is not gripping enough for them,” McKay says. Others have a higher degree of sensitivity to danger and a stronger drive to avoid it. But all of us are ultimately susceptible. And when you cannot control an outcome and must live with a free-floating sense of dread, one day landing on the planet’s fate, the next day on malevolent AI or the Delta variant or terrorism or a collapsing grid or wildfires and droughts and tsunamis, you have only a few options. You go into overdrive, worrying and volunteering and running around like Chicken Little, or “you sell everything and move to Fiji and wait on the beach,” he continues, sounding tempted. “Or you fall into a deep, paralyzing depression, because what’s the point of anything.” Or you light candles, roll dice, clutch a rabbit’s foot, find ways (outside logic) to hope.

Twenty-six years ago, the astrophysicist Carl Sagan predicted that his children would see a time “when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

Or we stock up on canned goods.

 

 

3. The Preppers

 

“Persons who suffer from this sort of fear always prophesy the most terrible of all possibilities, interpret every coincidence as an evil omen, and ascribe a dreadful meaning to all uncertainty.”

—Sigmund Freud

 

A New Yorker cartoon shows a man and woman sipping cocktails on a COVID-safe patio. “I’m thinking of leaving the city,” she is saying, “and I’m looking for a partner who can fix anything, grow his own food, and work remotely.”

She is not alone. Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, bought himself 477 remote acres in New Zealand, just in case. Steve Huffman, cofounder of Reddit, had laser surgery because if society collapses, getting new specs might be tough. Some wealthy preppers are so Mad Max that they seem, as one online commenter put it, to want “to be the star of their own action movie.”

That sort of prepper is fun to caricature because they do the job for you, their exaggerated responses turning dread into comedy. But in truth, prepping has reached critical mass. No longer is this spotty, fringe, or uber-specific behavior. Off-grid housing is on trend, and there are headlines galore about “Why ‘Preppers’ Are Going Mainstream.” They include Trumpers and leftists, gun-rights advocates and organic gardeners. American in origin, the phenomenon has spread to Europe, where they wince at our emphasis on guns, aliens, and apocalypse. “We’re talking about real risks: natural disasters, sabotage, attacks and even financial and economic crises,” Clement Champault announced when he organized France’s first survivalist expo.

Finder.com surveys show the number of people prepping for doomsday more than doubling from the start of 2020 to the start of 2021, now reaching seventy-two percent of adults in the United States. When I examine the questions, I realize they are defining “doomsday” pretty loosely; their stats probably include people stocking up on toilet paper because of COVID. What is interesting, though, is the age breakdown: A full forty percent of the Silent Generation respondents were spending no money on prepping, and more than a third of the Baby Boomers did not bother. But only twenty-two percent of Millennials were not spending money on prepping. These are people who came of age during a recession and entered a pandemic without much faith that government, corporate America, and social institutions would take care of them.

Off-grid housing is on trend, and there are headlines galore about “Why ‘Preppers’ Are Going Mainstream.” They include Trumpers and leftists, gun-rights advocates and organic gardeners. American in origin, the phenomenon has spread to Europe, where they wince at our emphasis on guns, aliens, and apocalypse.

The Google trend line for prepping was flattish until it shot high at the start of 2012, the year the Global Language Monitor named “apocalypse” the most influential word in English. That ominous Mayan calendar was no doubt the main cause, but associated terms included “Frankenstorm” (Hurricane Sandy’s nickname), “global warming,” “fiscal cliff,” “rogue nukes” and “near-Earth asteroids.” That July, National Geographic began airing Doomsday Preppers. Episodes showed people prepping for global pandemic (they were early), hyperinflation and financial collapse, the New Madrid earthquake, rising sea levels, nuclear radiation, a Chinese financial takeover, biological and nuclear terrorism, an electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear detonation, and a tsunami wiping out the East Coast. These were people so hypersensitive to danger, they were sometimes prescient and sometimes nuts.

After 2012, prepping’s popularity zigzagged until March 2020, when it spiked along with COVID. Now there are giant circles of overlap between preppers and Trump supporters, anti-vaxxers, QAnon, and conspiracy theorists in general. All this fear and bracing influences our politics, adding to the atmosphere of distrust, polarized choices, and necessary rebellion. In 2016, Senator Lindsey Graham said he was running for the Republican presidential nomination “because the world is falling apart.”

Why the new vulnerability? Lewis Lapham traces contemporary, secular dread back to 1945, when the first nuclear test proved we now had an uncontrollable weapon that could destroy the entire planet. Today, we have other huge forces to contend with: AI, nanotech, biotech, surveillance, a precarious global economy. “With our current dependence on things from the electric grid to the Internet, things that people have absolutely no control over, there is a feeling that a collapse scenario can easily emerge, with a belief that the end is coming, and it is all out of the individual’s control,” says end-times scholar Cathy Gutierrez.

So are preppers taking healthy, constructive steps that will ease their anxiety, or are they just fretting?

“Most are just fretting,” McKay replies. “You can’t possibly anticipate which of the many possible disasters will pop next, so how far down that rabbit hole do you go?” Besides, he adds dryly, “it’s hard to be a prepper in New York City.”

It would be easier here in the Midwest, but I am not eager to survive anything worse than a bad storm or extended power outage. I am not sure I have the bandwidth. On Doomsday Preppers, you could learn (and you felt you had to learn) about aquaponics, tilapia, the west African dwarf goat, wood gas, wild edible plants, shipping container homes, close combat skills, primitive tools, seed banks, camouflage, edible insects and earthworms, gold panning, kosher MREs, and how to build your own bunker—or doomsday castle.

Lewis Lapham traces contemporary, secular dread back to 1945, when the first nuclear test proved we now had an uncontrollable weapon that could destroy the entire planet. Today, we have other huge forces to contend with: AI, nanotech, biotech, surveillance, a precarious global economy.

Bradley Garrett, the author of Bunker: Building for the End Times, writes about “the architecture of dread,” describing Larry Hall’s famous Survival Condo in Kansas, a “fifteen-story geoscraper that can be ‘locked down’ at a moment’s notice” and has a sniper post, an onsite armory, and a prison cell for unwanted visitors. Hall’s team has promised to send a Pit-Bull VX armored truck to pick you up when the time comes. This is the “everybody for themselves” strain of prepping, and it is profoundly selfish, giving up on prevention or mitigation or community cooperation and cutting straight to personal survival. (“How to Remove Rust From Your Guns”; “How to Make Prepper Fruit Cake That Can Last for Decades.”)

But there is another strain that is practical and often generous. I talk to an utterly reasonable, well-educated, middle-of-the-road prepper, call him David, who first became nervous half a century ago, when he realized he lived surrounded by nuclear power plants and nobody could tell him what the emergency plans were. Now, he tells me, “I carry fire-fighting equipment in my truck, so if there is a fire I can fight it safely.” He also carries a Stop the Bleed kit. “I’m not going to let somebody die with an arterial bleed in front of me.”

He says he has not yet needed any of this gear, just a few long-lasting candles for a power outage. But having the skills and equipment is a comfort.

David does not tell people he is a prepper. Quietly, in the Nineties, he hired a consultant, a Mormon in Utah. The Mormon church advises people to be prepared to live for a year off-grid; there is an LDS cannery in Bridgeton, Missouri, he tells me, where I can stock up (beans, oats, spaghetti bites, potato pearls).

He rolls his eyes at Oprah Winfrey’s 2019 recommendation, a $400 disaster kit called The Prepster Backpack by Preppi—which sounds like a present for a college freshman in the Eighties. The Strategist made its own list, including a tactical assault backpack, a jungle blanket, a respirator, a military compass, a guide to edible wild plants, a shovel (for, er, waste disposal), and some “morale-boosting macaroni and cheese.”

How much of the prepping impulse, I wonder aloud, comes from not trusting the government to take care of you?

“A lot,” David says with sudden emphasis. “That sense of civic duty has gone away, and there’s a strong distrust in what people are hearing from the government.”

Are people like me just in denial about the dangers that await us?

“Well, I think people are in denial about a lot of things,” he says, amused. “And people have a lot of other things to worry about. But if you just buy a little food at a time, or a short-wave receiver, it doesn’t have to be expensive.” The old “bug-out” notion of camping in the woods has been replaced by bugging in, surviving in your own house, he adds. “I do think people need to be more self-reliant. You don’t have to get overwhelmed. Look locally. You don’t start with nuclear war or EMP strikes. I would look at more practical things.”

I suddenly get the feeling he is pacing himself with me, like maybe there is a manual out there about how to slowly introduce newbies to prepping. He has the wrong student; I cannot even get the Heimlich maneuver right. David is someone people like me ought to hang out with.

And there it is—what I just said—the blithe naivete that is driving the others deeper into their isolated enclaves with ballistic panels, geothermal wells, and submarine batteries. They are Aesop’s ants, and they know full well that the grasshoppers who frolicked while the world was ending will be knocking at their barricaded doors asking for soup.

I will not blame them if they shoot me. I have made my choice.

 

4. The Desire

 

“Only part of us is sane. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings.”

—Rebecca West

 

There is no getting around it: Some folks want the world to end. Neo-Nazis love the idea of a social collapse and a race war. Fundamentalist Christians thrill to the rapture. For people who loathe their lives, apocalypse means a fresh start. For those who struggle to keep up with the world we have created, going off the grid sounds as carefree as sleepaway camp. Let the SHTF (prepper slang for “the day the shit hits the fan”); bring on TOTWAWKI (“the end of the world as we know it”). Hell, hit that Reset button now.

In apocalypse novels, when somebody yells, “It’s the end!” a tall, strong man with survival skills and forest wisdom intones, “No. It’s the beginning.” The original meaning of “apocalypse” was disclosure, not destruction. All will be revealed. Our fatalism will be validated. By anticipating the endtimes, we showed that we were not sheep or fools but the possessors of gnostic wisdom.

Today, powerless against chaos and uncertainty, we need that kind of closure fast. It even comes with a consolation prize: If we are the ones living in the Last Days, our lives will glow with significance. And if we have hated our life until now, apocalypse is a relief. Maybe even a fresh start.

The architecture of dread—the iconic bunkers, safe rooms, silos, and fortresses of our time—promises both disaster and salvation, Garrett points out. “The bunker is imagined by some as a chrysalis for transformation.” Much in the way that we baked sourdough bread or learned Portuguese during lockdown, people think they will enter the self-enclosed Boy Scout world they have prepared, a place where everything they need is tightly stored and each day pre-planned, and “emerge as a superior version of themselves.” They will have freed themselves from a culture they despise. “The orderly, planned space of the bunker is the antithesis of pointless acceleration and accumulation.”

In apocalypse novels, when somebody yells, “It’s the end!” a tall, strong man with survival skills and forest wisdom intones, “No. It’s the beginning.” The original meaning of “apocalypse” was disclosure, not destruction.

I close my eyes and try to feel that desire. That “sweet anxiety” Kierkegaard talked about, the way he associated dread with existential freedom and the fizzy, thrilling sense that anything is possible. Dread “does not tempt like a definite choice, but alarms and fascinates,” he wrote . . .

Nope. I like our old farmhouse way better than a bunker, and I would far rather repair this world than start over. Aware that this answer is too glib, I sit with it a little longer, let the prospect sink in, imagine it. All this misery, all these mistakes could dissolve like a sandcastle, history itself wiped clean. We would kick the last soft mounds aside and stand on firm wet sand, seeing one another fresh and whole, all of us new again, our skin shining.

Could we be redeemed, by which I mean granted enough innocence to try again? If only. The wealthy version of survival is not the least bit communal; it is a medieval castle gone underground, a gated community that has been hermetically sealed. And even those who go off-grid with more ideology than money tend toward isolation with their own kind.

We would not be starting over in freedom. Anything short of total destruction, and we would bring our baggage with us.

 

5. The Interregnum

“We do not have a fear of the unknown. What we fear is giving up the known.”

—Anthony de Mello

 

When the explorer Hernan Cortes came ashore, the Aztecs mistook him for the god Quetazalcoatl, due to return at the end of the world.

They were not wrong. Cortes’s arrival signaled the end of their world.

“The big story we used to tell ourselves, which was a story of liberal democratic universalism, has fallen apart,” writes David Mattin in New World Same Humans. “You can make a strong argument for characterising this collective moment as, first, a kind of ideological interregnum. We live in the empty space between the end of the old story and the start of whatever will take its place.”

Maybe that is why everything feels so apocalyptic right now. Maybe it is just too hard to live in the in-between, gripping our armrests, waiting for the next story to begin.

Until it does, we have only a giant tug of war to amuse us, one that grows more hostile by the day. “In a 2017 survey of 1,000 American adults, 20 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans agreed that the country would be better off if large numbers of Republicans and Democrats, respectively, simply died,” notes New York Times ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah. And that was before the mask and vaccine wars.

People on both sides see the future starkly: Either this, this, and this happens, or America is lost to us. Discussion feels so impossible that we lurch, bloodied, to opposite corners, and our frustration polarizes us further. We are doing just what Thucydides warned will destroy a democracy: dividing into camps and treating one another as enemies.

And I do it too. Part of my apocalyptic panic is feeling that there are so many people I can no longer talk to. I want to say “can no longer reason with,” but that tips my hand; they are just as sure I am the one not using my head. A flutter of panic rises in my chest when I hit these impasses, followed by so much weight on my chest, it would otherwise signal a heart attack. It is a heart attack, of sorts. All this emotion has no place good to go. The cheerful old “agree to disagree” no longer feels civilized; instead, it feels ominous.

The stakes feel too high, like we have been losing all night at the craps table, and the next land of the dice will either ruin or redeem us.

A freshly minted lawyer, Weston Liefer, meets me for a beer and confides how scared he was last November, how he kept refreshing his screen as the election results came in: “I had this sense that if we pick wrong here, it can all go downhill really fast.” His candidate won, but instead of feeling relieved, he sounds a little too grim for a twenty-five-year-old: “There’s no more civil political discussion. There are very few people nowadays I can talk to and it’s not going to devolve.” His words come out in a rush, the ideas flying, and there is a flush of relief on his cheeks, as though all this has been pent up. “You always thought that at the end of the day, level heads would prevail. Now you can’t even discuss the problem. And that feeds into this sense of are we going to be okay?”

As an undergrad, Liefer studied classics, especially Rome’s transition from republic to empire. “I see similarities that scare me,” he says. “There was the same kind of tension: ‘We don’t trust outsiders. We don’t want to give up what we think is rightfully ours.’ They had eighty years of civil war because of those tensions.”

His hope is that we will not need spears and shields; that our civil war will remain ideological. Remain civil. But so far, the only way I have been able to manage civility is to stop discussing politics and public health altogether, which hardly seems a solution. Just a few years ago, I could listen to friends’ fiercely independent rants or quirky speculative theories without losing composure. Now their ideas seem dangerous, because they mesh with larger movements that are destabilizing the whole world, blocking public health measures, creating hysteria. The stakes feel too high, like we have been losing all night at the craps table, and the next land of the dice will either ruin or redeem us.

 

 

6. Coping

 

“Despair is strangely, the last bastion of hope.”

—David Whyte

 

I pinch the roll of middle-aged comfort at my belly, pat the dense flesh of my upper arms, set bare feet on warm hardwood. I do not feel precarious. Zombie and alien invasions strike me as unlikely; so does a full-out civil war. I fully expect to live a few more decades, and the United States will probably muddle along that long, too (though there are days I think we should disband).

Yet I breathe in more doom every day.

We posit the end of the world because our world is ending, and we cannot yet imagine what will replace it—or how our grandchildren will cope. We have reached the end of our grand illusions—at least some of us have. America is not special after all; this country is as vulnerable to demagoguery, injustice, and poverty as any other. Growth cannot be infinite. Global warming is more than a cycle. We are all sailing into the unknown, and White skin does not guarantee a safe passage; neither does money, faith, or a bug-out bag.

On the other hand, so what if the American experiment ends, or we have to move to higher ground, or an asteroid lands in the middle of lunch? Maybe we take our tiny lives too seriously.

We are living at “the ‘hinge of history,’ an unprecedented period during which a catastrophic event such as rapid climate change, nuclear war or the release of a synthesised (sic) pathogen may bring an end to human and perhaps all sentient life on the planet,” writes Roger Crisp, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford University.

And then he asks, “Would extinction be so bad?”

Civilizations have collapsed before and been replaced. By succumbing to dread, we make fear a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of doing the hard work, ending our wasteful lazy polluting and beef-eating ways and figuring out how to talk to one another again, we just give up. Watch something dumb on Netflix, order a bamboo shirt. Fiddle while the Earth burns.

Yet there is no real escape; the evidence mounts up, and we work one another into a frenzy over it. Six times an hour, I swing between alarmist evangelism and detached resignation. Reading the news in separate offices, my husband and I trade emails with subject lines like “We’re fucked.” I decide that we have fallen into a slough of neurotic pessimism and open one of LitHub’s newsletters for a little escapist fun, some gentle literary distraction, a reminder of normalcy. The lead article is “What Do You Read When the World Is Falling Apart?” (Answer: historical thrillers.) The next newsletter offers me a link to “The Best Books About the Post-Human Earth.”

By succumbing to dread, we make fear a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“There’s a real cognitive dissonance as a person in the world,” Kitamura tells The New York Times. “Your consciousness can only accommodate so much, and certainly it’s been incredible to me how I can simultaneously be very worried about the state of democracy and also thinking, has the turkey gone off?” The worst, she adds, is that “whatever you do, it’s not going to be enough.”

What we can do, by sheer force of will, is force our minds to stay large. We can accept the need to stay informed even when it makes us feel helpless, and we can get used to shuttling back and forth between future dangers and present solace. It is not so surreal, I tell myself. It is just like going to work and dealing with a pile of emergencies, then coming home and relaxing. If I toughen up a bit, I can continue to hear dire news, absorb it, and analyze it, instead of deciding that things cannot possibly be this bad, there must be a conspiracy afoot.

Even Steven Pinker, that incurable optimist, concedes many causes for alarm. But Pinker,  a practical man, points out that “humanity has a finite budget of resources, brainpower, and anxiety. You can’t worry about everything.” Fold in aliens and asteroids, and we dilute the urgency of cutting carbon emissions.

Instead of trying to predict how soon the world will end or reaching for a static, reassuringly rigid worldview, we need to take in new information every day, brush our teeth with it, readjust our internal model of the world as we go. Until we make ourselves comfortable with novelty, uncertainty, and unpredictability, we will be caught in “a constant tension between the need for control and desire for certainty and the way the world operates,” McKay points out. “And the level of uncertainty is rising.”

He adds what is meant to be a soothing reminder: “The minute you climb into a car, you are living with uncertainty.” (Why do reminders of everyday dangers rarely calm me?) What he is trying to say is that “a lot of the uncertainty, we ignore.”

That, however, is the problem: We cannot, in conscience, ignore some of it. And the media will not let us ignore the rest. We might as well be living in Orson Welles’s radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, with the Martians invading all over again every morning. Our brains have a loose purchase on reality to start with; they trade in patterns and repetition. The more often we imagine apocalyptic disaster, the likelier it feels.

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