All this talk of government shutdown has me thinking (again) about the end of the world. I can’t explain my curiosity about doomsday—my MFA graduate lecture was titled “To Hell in a Hefty” and dealt with jeremiads of all shapes and colors. I often find myself saying, “Oh well.”
I heard once that levels of nitrous oxide—N2O—are rising nearly one hundred fold in the Indian Ocean. Before that instant, I thought of N2O as laughing gas, the stuff dentists use to anaesthetize patients. I didn’t know nitrous oxide existed in nature, and, apparently, it shouldn’t much. It comes from fertilizer run-off.
Nitrous oxide, the story explained, may be a double threat, depleting the ozone layer and contributing to green house gasses. The atmosphere grows more permeable to radiation while it holds more radiation in as heat. Which is to say, forget global climate change, nitrous oxide will kill.us.all.
Sometimes I stagger punch-drunk through the paper, taking every blow because I’m too weary to get out of the way. Past a certain point, all the bad news becomes one warning—love your family, love your life, the end is nigh.
It’s more accurate to say humanity is in trouble, and I’ve written before about the planet without us, one filled with bird and insect sounds and collapsed houses and high rises barely visible beneath vines and spring green trees. Smears of algae will run down streets littered with the carapaces of cars enveloped in morning glories. The air will smell like orchids in bloom, heavy and fertile.
In E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, the main character Margaret Schlegel Wilcox repeats her sister’s quip that, in the end, the world will be “a desert of chairs and sofas,” and that version is more clever, a massive Ethan Allen catalog, all the settees and breakfast nooks artfully intact. Objects d’art scrupulously well-positioned, if dusty.
I much prefer slanting mellow light across a subtle plaid to the image of my family sitting around, sunburned and steaming, laughing our asses off on N2O.
Okay, so maybe that’s a step too far. Once I begin to think of people I love, any end time seems too harsh to contemplate, too painful and real. Yet that’s where my mind goes, and wouldn’t it be great if thoughts of family saved us from our crazy flirtations with catastrophe. But I’m not the only one who thinks catastrophe, in the abstract, is fun to consider. And some people are self-centered enough to overlook everyone else.
Once I had a dream that I was going to a photo exhibit of pictures taken with telephoto lenses from Manhattan rooftops. The photographers shot images of families through the windows of their apartments. Some caught the families eating or arguing or laughing over a board game like a Milton Bradley advertisement, but the longer I walked the walls of the gallery, the more photos depicted bodies bathed in television glow, strewn like sacks of flour around a white fire. The TV screens and their broadcasts never appeared, just mid-flicker radiation illuminating the slack, open-eyed faces of the recumbent.
I had some trouble getting back to sleep.
In the news stories I encounter, people are data, not individuals as complex as my wife and children. No one, despite the best journalistic effort, is anyone I know. Predictions of economic collapse, monster storms, rising sea levels, and impossible droughts and floods are just ideas, vast forces scything us down gently. The temptation to feel fatalistic is strong. What can be done? To everything—turn, turn, turn—there is a season…
W. S. Merwin contemplates his death in his poem “For The Anniversary of My Death.” He speaks somewhat wistfully about the way, even in the ugliest moment, life can surprise us with simple beauty—in Merwin’s case, a wren singing. After three days of rain, the bird’s song finds him, “bowing not knowing to what.” Try as you might, catastrophe can’t remain abstract. There’s so much to cling to here.
I have a friend who is more frightened of death than anything else. I’m not. I know my time will come. What bothers me more is thinking that, each year, as the anniversary of my demise passes, I’m wasting my time here.
What can I do to respond to great, abstract forces? I can’t march on Washington or single-handedly reduce the carbon footprint of the planet. I recycle. I shrink my environmental effect yearly by walking and watching my wastefulness. I support environmental groups financially. I’m nice and vote, as best I can, only for those who seem to seek something rather than seek to ruin what rivals want. But I’m not an industrialist, a congressman, a CEO, or anyone with any sort of power. Those people are hard at work. My actions are desperate faith.
And so fatalism seems valid. Though doing nothing much feels cowardly, may make me part of the problem, and will hasten ends I envision, all the hope I have left is to elude regret, to try to love it while I’m here.