How imagining our own extinction may save us

Religious and mythological visions of the end of the world may be common, but the scientific concept of human extinction has a more urgent history. IDEAS explores the link between imagining extinction and acting to avert it — from Mary Shelley's pandemic novel, The Last Man (1826), to visions of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, to cli-fi (climate fiction) of today.

In Mary Shelley's 1826 novel, The Last Man, a pandemic threatens humanity in the late 21st century

Romantic painter John Martin envisioned the end of humanity in this 1849 painting, The Last Man. A popular theme in 19th century, with Mary Shelley's dystopian novel and Thomas Hood's satirical poem also bearing the title, 'The Last Man.' (Wikimedia Commons)

*Originally published on March 4, 2021.

In 1816, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley looked out at a darkened sky and contemplated the end of life on earth.

While sheltering from the storms caused by the global fallout of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia, they produced some of the first English-language literature about the threat of human extinction.

"I think it's the most important idea we've ever discovered," said Thomas Moynihan, the author of X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction. Since then, the looming threat of extinction has been woven into our art and politics, and is even more pertinent today in the face of catastrophic climate change.

Romantic poet Lord Bryon begins his 1816 poem, Darkness: 'I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars.' (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At the time, however, the thought that humanity could go extinct — not at the hands of a vengeful God, but because of a random disaster or our own actions — was an unfamiliar and destabilizing idea, Moynihan told IDEAS.

But it also gave new urgency to thinking about collective responsibility. 

An era of 'cosmic nonchalance'

In pre-Enlightenment Europe, many leading thinkers were under the spell of the Principle of Plenitude, which held that any species that disappeared would eventually reappear in another time or place. 

Charles Lyell, a leading Scottish geologist, argued extinction was merely an "interval of quiescence" and that dinosaurs would someday return. "The huge iguanodon might reappear in the woods, and the ichthyosaur in the sea, while the pterodactyl might flit again through the umbrageous groves of tree-ferns," he wrote. 

Moynihan calls this an era of "cosmic nonchalance." But during the Enlightenment, that comforting fiction began to fall away. 

Thomas Moynihan of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute examines the thinkers and writers who first contemplated the possibility of human extinction in his book X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction. (Urbanomic/Submitted by Thomas Moynihan)

As scientists studied mammoth bones, they began to understand that extinction was irreversible. Revolutions across Europe also contributed to the sense that the future could be radically different from the past. Philosophers began to see the universe as a place that was not inherently moral or just. 

And as writers grappled with the threat of extinction and feeling of precarity that goes with it, they also began imagining solutions. Lord Byron, for example, imagined that humanity might be able to develop technology to ward off incoming asteroids. 

Mary Shelley's 1826 novel The Last Man, about a pandemic that nearly wipes out humanity in the late 21st century, "emphasises the ways that … both what we do and fail to do in politics will inevitably shape the trajectory of a plague and its many consequences," said Eileen Hunt Botting, author of Artificial Life After Frankenstein.

Shelley also juxtaposes the selfish behaviour of the populist leader Ryland, who flees to save himself, with the "more cosmic perspective" of the main character Verney. 

Mary Shelley's 1826 novel, The Last Man is considered to be the first piece of dystopian fiction ever published in English. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"I think all of us, like Verney, are faced with this big choice. Are we going to immerse ourselves in our nation and our selfish passions or desires, or are we going to try to think big and think for the good of the whole?" Botting said. 

When she wrote The Last Man, Shelley was also grappling with extinction on a personal level. Her husband, Percy Shelley, three of her children and Lord Byron had all died. In a journal entry in 1824, she described herself as "the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me."

But according to Botting, Shelley used the novel and her journals "to write her way out of a dangerous fiction: that nothing can be done in the face of disaster."

'We cannot see as far as our weapons will reach'

When Mary Shelley and Lord Byron were writing about extinction, the idea was still firmly in the realm of science fiction. But that changed forever in August 1945.

"What the [nuclear] bomb did was that it made extinction into an actual pressing policy issue. It suddenly became something that was actually on the horizon for most people," said Moynihan. 

An atomic cloud during the 'Baker Day' blast at Bikini Island, July 25, 1946. According to professor Eva Horn, ‘the main idea of the atomic bomb is to be the weapon to end all wars, a weapon that is so powerful that war can no longer be waged.’ (National Archive/Newsmakers)

According to Austrian philosopher Gunther Anders, one of the chief barriers to preventing humanity from wiping itself out was our limited imagination. 

"His point is that humans may be very able to develop very destructive forms of technology, but not very able to imagine the consequences. That's what he calls apocalypse blindness," according to Eva Horn, author of The Future as Catastrophe: Imagining Disaster in the Modern Age. 

"We lack imagination and that's why we would be behaving in a kind of irresponsible way, because we cannot see as far as our weapons will reach," Horn maintains. "[So] authors and filmmakers try to imagine that moment of global annihilation in many different ways."

But many films from the early decades of the Cold War, like Dr. Strangelove, ended with a mushroom cloud — an image that she says fails to capture the true meaning of extinction.

"It's overwhelming, it's huge, it's very abstract. It does not depict the true events and effects of an atomic explosion near your home in it in a real way."

In the 1980s, new fictional representations of nuclear annihilation emerged — ones that rejected a bird's-eye view and instead illustrated the agonizing real-life consequences of a nuclear strike. The 1983 film The Day After, about how a nuclear strike affects the residents of a small town in Kansas, and the 1984 BBC movie Threads, about a nuclear strike on Sheffield, were two influential examples. 

"Some people are just fried or burnt. Others die from hunger, die from radiation, from cancer. It's a long, long, long, protracted nightmare. But that's what really brings atomic fear close to home," Horn said. 

'Climate catastrophe …. is also a problem of the imagination'

Today, Horn argues we continue to experience a form of the "apocalypse blindness" Anders diagnosed during the Cold War.

"Even with robust climate science ... everybody's like, 'oh, yeah, the climate is changing. That's so bad.' Nothing is done about it. That is a very specific form of blindness that I would call knowing something without believing in it," she said. 

If all we have is dystopic narratives, we are surrendering our imagination.- Vandana Singh

Today, the emerging genre of cli-fi — or climate fiction — often tries to make the consequences of humanity's current trajectory more visible. 

"Climate fiction is very much presentist. It's about addressing near-future implications for the current carbon emissions path," said Melody Jue, an associate professor of English at the University of California Santa Barbara. 

She's interested in how fiction — and "performative science fiction," like a 2009 underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives held to illustrate the threat of rising sea levels — can "perform a future that could happen with the intention of trying to defer or to subvert that future from coming into being at all."

But in our dystopia-saturated age, some of these warnings may have lost their power.

"Dystopian literature can warn us. 'Look at what's coming, let's get to work, let's pay attention.' But if all we have is dystopic narratives, we are surrendering our imagination," asserts Vandana Singh, a physicist and writer of speculative fiction.

"What I like to think about is how do we muddle through, figure out our ways through and beyond our current dystopic situations."

Many of the short stories in Singh's collection Ambiguity Machines deal with the threat of ecological disaster. But they also illustrate other ways of living — like how a city could donate energy to the grid, rather than consuming it, or how societies could be built around a kinship relation between humans and non-humans.

Physicist Vandana Singh also writes speculative fiction. Her most recent book is a collection of stories entitled, Ambiguity Machines. (Pamela Schossau/Small Beer Press )

"Climate catastrophe, which is also a problem of the imagination, makes us think that whatever future is in store for us must necessarily be an extension of current ways of thinking, living, organizing societies. I call this the reality trap," said Singh.

"Speculative fiction [shakes] us loose from this trap of the imagination so that we can think about other realities and other futures."

'An existential life raft' 

In 2016, Vandana Singh and her colleagues at the Centre for Science and the Imagination climbed up to the top of a mesa in Arizona. 

"We enacted the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's climatic moment when she and her friends gathered together in response to that very strange year without a summer. She wrote Frankenstein and Lord Byron wrote the poem Darkness, which is so, so very relevant to our times," said Singh. 

"On that mesa in the dark with the light of our cell phones, we read out Lord Byron's Darkness to each other. We made the pledge to write a story about our own much more dire climatic moment, which resulted in this book called A Year Without a Winter

Mary Shelley's apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, was not well received when it was published in 1826, but it resurfaced in the 1960s to more acclaim. (Wikimedia Commons/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Eileen Hunt Botting says that Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man also has a new resonance today. "I think she's throwing us an existential life raft in the middle of the second wave of our pandemic." 

"I think Mary Shelley would be with us spiritually today and just saying, 'Hold on. We're going to make it through this. We just have to use our imagination to find a way out.'"

Guests in this episode:

Thomas Moynihan is an intellectual historian at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute. He is the author of X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction

Eileen Hunt Botting is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Artificial Life After Frankenstein. 

Eva Horn is a professor of modern German literature and cultural history at the University of Vienna, and the author of The Future as Catastrophe: Imagining Disaster in the Modern Age.

Melody Jue is a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Wild Blue Media: Thinking Through Seawater

Vandana Singh is a speculative fiction writer and an associate professor of physics at Framingham State University. Her books include Ambiguity Machines: And Other Stories. 

*This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

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