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It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel ...
Actually, I’m not sure how I feel. Fine definitely isn’t it. Exhausted? Worried? Complacent?
Early on in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven one of the main characters and his brother get this lyric stuck in their head as they wait out the flu that is killing everyone. I read the book last week, because it had been on my to-read list for awhile and something else I’d seen recently mentioned it. I haven’t seen the TV adaptation and I had completely forgotten the book had ended up on my to-read list in the first place from a list of books about pandemics.
While reading I was struck by the thought that our fiction of apocalypses tends to favor the sudden shift, the definitive days after which it is impossible to deny that everything is different.
Lately, things feel like an apocalypse in slow motion and, reading Station Eleven, I realized that I feel a weird envy for that very clear moment of change. Right now, it is clear that things are changing, but unclear exactly how much. I wonder what it is like to know for sure that the world as you knew it is gone?
I’ve long thought that every recent generation of young people in the United States has had good reason to believe that their world, the world they know, has been on the verge of ending. Two world wars, followed by wars in Korea and Vietnam, followed by the cold war, followed by global climate change. Plenty of crises to convince us of our doom.
I have also long used that thought to console myself that any sense of doom I feel is probably overblown. The world is changing fast and at any given point the world as I know it will almost certainly be significantly different in 30 years, but imminent collapse of the structures and institutions I’ve relied on is unlikely. Right?
Of course, the fact that I’m even asking the question this way tells you a lot about who I am. It suggests a life lived with a sense of safety and at least some faith in institutions as a starting point. It belies the fact that I am writing this as the citizen of the country dropping the bombs in the wars mentioned above, rather than a citizen of one of the many countries reshaped by war or colonialism. Perhaps, then, some of my discomfort comes merely from trying to peer past my own sense of security and understand the harms caused by the institutions I have spent my life regarding as functional–or, at the very least, not fully dysfunctional. The very core of white privilege is not having to recognize or think about the ways that white supremacy shapes virtually all the functions of our society.
So let’s acknowledge that my persistent feelings of unease about the future are equivalent to standing at the edge of a cliff and complaining that the soil feels unstable all the while ignoring the masses already trapped in the crevasse, already subject to failed institutions and the threat of state-sanctioned violence.
Nonetheless, even if I compare myself to others who, like me, have spent most of their lives relatively safe I find that I feel profoundly out of step in my unease.
I continue to be deeply concerned about COVID. I will not eat indoors at restaurants. I mask indoors and in many situations outdoors. I am still unwilling to fly because while air exchange is terrific while the plane is in the air, it is not when the plane is on the ground (and it is hard to find a highly protective mask to fit a five year old’s face). I remain convinced that the risk of long-term health effects after infection–and, particularly, repeated infections–is high. I recognize that vaccination protects well against death and hospitalization but I don’t think we fully know how well it protects against other risks.
Around me I watch people “return to normal.” Concerts. Restaurants. Travel. The chances of spotting a mask in my friends’ social media pictures seems to decrease by the day. I recognize that many of these friends have decided that the risk is worth it, and I can’t argue with that. After all, the public health messaging is basically that the pandemic is over. The barriers to remaining cautious are high.
I worry, though, as the number of people I know who have been infected multiple times increases and the number of cases of people I know personally with long-COVID slowly ticks upward. Where are we headed at a population level? There’s increasing evidence of increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and pulmonary embolism after COVID infection. It remains to be seen how much vaccination reduces that risk, but even if the increase in risk is small with each infection, the risk of repeated infections adds up. Meanwhile, in the US, life expectancy has already dropped for two years in a row.
I find it hard not to wonder how long we can just let this disease circulate, largely unchecked, without devastating consequences for the current economy. I don’t mean inflation and modestly increased unemployment. I mean how long until it’s hard to keep the basic infrastructure of cities and essential supply chains functioning because there aren’t sufficient workers?
Even if I’m wrong about the pandemic, the political situation of the country feels similarly like a slow-motion train wreck. How many rights will the Supreme Court dismantle? How long will it take them? How long until an insurrection of the sort attempted January 6, 2021 succeeds?
And, of course, even if the pandemic and politics turn out ok, there’s still the climate to worry about.
In all of these things there is simultaneously the possibility of utter disaster and room for real, meaningful societal changes that make things better. We could take the pandemic as an opportunity to provide better indoor air quality, provide sick leave (not just paid sick leave, but sufficient paid sick leave), strengthen our economic safety nets, and move toward a universal design model of disability access. In the political realm we could make real strides toward dismantling the existing dysfunctional white supremacist systems and replacing them with more equitable ones. When it comes to climate, there are possibilities of technological advances that pull us back from the brink and make our lives on Earth more sustainable than they have been.
I am burying my nose in books lately. In part because my kindergartener keeps bringing home viruses–that, so far, do not appear to be covid–and I have given in to the exhaustion of that, but also because I am looking for hope that I can’t find in the headlines. I am looking for a roadmap, a way through the unease toward something better. I bury myself in fiction to remind myself that even in crisis humans survive and thrive. Even in the slow unraveling of the known day-to-day there is joy and love.
It’s escapism and I feel a bit guilty for that. Shouldn’t I be doing something to make things better? But I don’t know what to do, and anyway I’m too tired right now to do anything that isn’t immediately necessary for work or caring for myself and the rest of the household. So the reading phase will probably last through the winter, at least, as I try to rally and regain my energy and my equilibrium.
My reading list is shifting in the direction of prison abolitionism, Black feminism, and hopeful speculative fiction. I’ll happily take recommendations for any of the above.