The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world ... it is also the end of a way of knowing the world. "When a world ends, its systems and stories come apart, even the largest of them: the stories that promised to explain everything, the systems that organized all that could be said to be real. It’s not that those stories had no truth in them; it’s not that there was no reality in the description of the world those systems offered. It’s that they couldn’t hold. The things they valued betrayed them; the things they left out came back to haunt them."
'In these times, all we can do is be a sign,' a father tells his daughter in Ben Okri’s novel The Freedom Artist. 'We have to help to bring about the end of the world.' We must do this, he goes on, so that a new beginning can come. 'But first there must be an end.'
Many kinds of end are possible. My friend Vanessa Oliveira wrote a book ... in which the focus is not on saving modernity, or bringing it down, or rushing to build what comes afterwards, but doing what we can to give it a good ending. To let it hand on its gifts and teach the lessons that may only become apparent as the end approaches. This must be accompanied by the work of midwifery: assisting with the birth of something new, unfamiliar and possibly (but not necessarily) wiser, and avoiding suffocating this new world with our projections. The philosopher Federico Campagna speaks about living at the end of a world. In such a time, he suggests, the work is no longer to concern ourselves with making sense according to the logic of the world that is ending, but to leave good ruins, clues and starting points for those who come after, that they may use in building a world that is -- as Vanessa would say -- 'presently unimaginable'.
I don’t write to announce the end of the world or to change the minds of those who are convinced that the world as we have known it can be saved or made sustainable. I write for anyone who has found themselves, as I have, needing to make sense of what is ending, how we can talk about it and what tasks are worth taking on in whatever time it turns out that we have.
Something is coming over the horizon: a humbling from which none of us will be spared, that will not be managed or controlled, but will leave us changed.
Before it is over, I suspect, we will need to learn again what it means to take seriously things that are larger or smaller than were allowed to be real or significant, according to the scales and systems of modernity. We will need to dance again with the rhythms of cosmology, to be carried by the kind of stories and images in whose company – as the mythographer Martin Shaw would say – a universe becomes a cosmos. We will need to remember that we are not alone and never were, that we are part of a world of many worlds, only some of which are human. And we will need to rediscover that any world worth living for centers not on the vast systems we built to secure the future, but on those encounters that are proportioned to the kind of creatures we are, the places where we meet, the acts of friendship and the acts of hospitality in which we offer shelter and kindness to the stranger at the door. In this way, even now, there may be time to find our place within the vastly larger and older story of which we always were a part.
Dougald Hine is the author of At Work, in the Ruins. Excerpted from "First There Must Be An End," Kosmos Journal 2023.