“There are tranquil ages, which seem to contain that which will last forever,” the philosopher Karl Jaspers once wrote. “And there are ages of change, which see upheavals that, in extreme instances, appear to go to the roots of humanity itself.”
Ours is clearly an age of upheaval. As war rages in Europe and the world counts the cost of the deadliest pandemic in living memory, an ominous mood reigns over the earth. After years of economic turmoil, social unrest and political instability, there is a widespread sense that the world has been cast adrift — like a rudderless ship in a terrible storm.
For good reason. Humanity now faces a confluence of challenges unlike any other in its history. Climate change is rapidly altering the conditions of life on our planet. Tensions over Ukraine and Taiwan have revived the specter of a conflict between nuclear superpowers. And breakneck developments in artificial intelligence are raising serious concerns about the risk of an A.I.-induced global catastrophe.
This troubling situation calls for new perspectives to make sense of a rapidly changing world and work out where we might be headed. Instead, we are presented with two familiar but very different visions of the future: a doomsday narrative, which sees apocalypse everywhere, and a progress narrative, which maintains that this is the best of all possible worlds. Both views are equally forceful in their claims — and equally misleading in their analysis. The truth is that none of us can really know where things are headed. The crisis of our times has blown the future right open.
The doomsayers would probably beg to differ. In their perspective, humanity now stands on the eve of cataclysmic changes that will inevitably culminate in the collapse of modern civilization and the end of the world as we know it. It is a view reflected in the growing number of doomsday preppers, billionaire bunkers and post-apocalyptic television series. While it may be tempting to dismiss such cultural phenomena as fundamentally unserious, they capture an important aspect of the zeitgeist, revealing deep-seated anxieties about the fragility of the existing order.
A changing climate, a changing world
Climate change around the world: In “Postcards From a World on Fire,” 193 stories from individual countries show how climate change is reshaping reality everywhere, from dying coral reefs in Fiji to disappearing oases in Morocco and far, far beyond.
The role of our leaders: Writing at the end of 2020, Al Gore, the 45th vice president of the United States, found reasons for optimism in the Biden presidency, a feeling perhaps borne out by the passing of major climate legislation. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been criticisms. For example, Charles Harvey and Kurt House argue that subsidies for climate capture technology will ultimately be a waste.
The worst climate risks, mapped: In this feature, select a country, and we’ll break down the climate hazards it faces. In the case of America, our maps, developed with experts, show where extreme heat is causing the most deaths.
What people can do: Justin Gillis and Hal Harvey describe the types of local activism that might be needed, while Saul Griffith points to how Australia shows the way on rooftop solar. Meanwhile, small changes at the office might be one good way to cut significant emissions, writes Carlos Gamarra.
Today these fears can no longer be confined to a fanatical fringe of gun-toting survivalists. The relentless onslaught of earthshaking crises, unfolding against the backdrop of flash floods and forest fires, has steadily pushed apocalyptic sentiment into the mainstream. When even the head of the United Nations warns that rising sea levels could unleash “a mass exodus on a biblical scale,” it is hard to remain sanguine about the state of the world. One survey found that over half of young adults now believe that “humanity is doomed” and “the future is frightening.”
At the same time, recent years have also seen the resurgence of a very different kind of narrative. Exemplified by a slew of best-selling books and viral TED talks, this view tends to downplay the challenges we face and instead insists on the inexorable march of human progress. If doomsday thinkers worry endlessly that things are about to get a lot worse, the prophets of progress maintain that things have only been getting better — and are likely to continue to do so in the future.
The Panglossian scenario painted by these new optimists naturally appeals to defenders of the status quo. If things are really getting better, there is clearly no need for transformative change to confront the most pressing problems of our time. So long as we stick to the script and keep our faith in the redeeming qualities of human ingenuity and technological innovation, all our problems will eventually resolve themselves.
These two visions, at face value, appear to be diametrically opposed. But they are really two sides of same coin. Both perspectives emphasize one set of trends over another. The optimists, for one, often point to misleading statistics on poverty reduction as evidence that the world is becoming a better place. The pessimists, by contrast, tend to take the worst-case scenarios of climate breakdown or financial collapse and present these real possibilities as unavoidable facts.
It is easy to understand the appeal of such one-sided tales. As human beings, we seem to prefer to impose clear and linear narratives on a chaotic and unpredictable reality; ambiguity and contradiction are much harder to live with. Yet this selective emphasis gives rise to accounts of the world that are fundamentally flawed. To truly grasp the complex nature of our current time, we need first of all to embrace its most terrifying aspect: its fundamental open-endedness. It is precisely this radical uncertainty — not knowing where we are and what lies ahead — that gives rise to such existential anxiety.
Anthropologists have a name for this disturbing type of experience: liminality. It sounds technical, but it captures an essential aspect of the human condition. Derived from the Latin word for threshold, liminality originally referred to the sense of disorientation that arises during a rite of passage. In a traditional coming-of-age ritual, for instance, it marks the point at which the adolescent is no longer considered a child but is not yet recognized as an adult — betwixt and between, neither here nor there. Ask any teenager: Such a state of suspension can be a very disconcerting time to live through.
We are ourselves in the midst of a painful transition, a sort of interregnum, as the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci famously called it, between an old world that is dying and a new one that is struggling to be born. Such epochal shifts are inevitably fraught with danger. Yet for all their destructive potential, they are also full of possibility. As the 19th-century historian Jacob Burckhardt once noted, the great upheavals in world history can equally be seen “as genuine signs of vitality” that “clear the ground” of discredited ideas and decaying institutions. “The crisis,” he wrote, “is to be regarded as a new nexus of growth.”
Once we embrace this Janus-faced nature of our times, at once frightening yet generative, a very different vision of the future emerges. No longer do we conceive of history as a straight line tending either up toward gradual improvement or down toward an inevitable collapse. Rather, we see phases of relative calm punctuated every so often by periods of great upheaval. These crises can be devastating, but they are also the drivers of history. Progress and catastrophe, those binary opposites, are really joined at the hip. Together, they engage in an endless dance of creative destruction, forever breaking new ground and spiraling out into the unknown.
Our age of upheaval may well result in some global catastrophe or even the collapse of modern civilization — but it may also open up possibilities for transformative change. We can already see these contradictory dynamics at work all around us. A pandemic that killed millions of people and nearly led to economic collapse has also empowered workers and ramped up government spending on vaccine development, which may soon give us a cure for cancer. Similarly, a major European land war that has uprooted millions and unleashed a global energy crisis is now inadvertently accelerating the shift to renewable energy, helping us in the fight against climate change.
The solutions we pursue today — on global peace, the clean energy transition and the regulation of A.I. — will one day come to form the basis for a new world order. It is impossible to predict where these developments will lead, of course. All we know is that our civilizational rite of passage opens a door to the future. It is up to us to walk right through.
Jerome Roos is a political economist, sociologist and historian at the London School of Economics. His next book is a history of global crises.
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