Diese Seite ist nur auf Englisch verfügbar.

In the spotlight: Taylor Dotson

What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?

My first thoughts were “They have a research center for that?!” But I was also very curious. As a scholar, I don’t have much interest in esoteric minutiae. I don’t do boring. And you can’t get any bigger or exciting than studying the end of the world. It wasn’t very difficult to write an application, especially as I had already started digging into the idea of the apocalyptic on my own. 

I had just finished up another research stay in Leipzig studying biodiversity change. That’s an area, like the climate crisis, where apocalyptic scenarios abound. Some even worry that the planet faces an impending “sixth mass extinction” event. I was excited about the opportunity to dig deeper into the perception that environmental challenges pose existential risks to humans.  


Image Taylor Dotson

What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you? 

I think of myself as a recovering apocalyptician. Fifteen years ago I was very concerned about climate change and peak oil, to the point of losing sleep when I thought about climate refugees, or about if, where, and how I might ensure a good life for my future children.

Now I’m less certain. That uncertainty has come not only from being surprised by the resilience of humanity, but also from my disciplinary perspective. After earning my PhD in science and technology studies, I am critical of how science gets used to present certain political claims as beyond dispute.

I still have concerns about humanity’s environmental future, but those worries as now colored by both skepticism and hope. 

What is your fellowship trying to achieve, which questions is it addressing, and with which methods?

While I’ve been at CAPAS, I have been exploring how the idea of the apocalypse shapes people as political beings, specifically for environmental challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss. How is apocalyptic thinking in tension with democracy? Can or should democratic societies be more responsive to cataclysmic anxieties, or seek to redirect them?

My approach is often called “middle range theory.” I don’t aspire to construct grand narratives like famous social theorists. Rather, my aim is to synthesize theory and existing empirical data to arrive at practical insights and recommendations, which are hopefully usable by a broader range of people, not only by academics. 

I hope to come away with some reasonably well founded ideas about how we might better respond to apocalyptic worries. These shouldn’t be dismissed as paranoid or irrationally dystopian. Yet, they rarely seem to lead to productive politics. Is a more inclusive, hopeful, and democratic apocalypticism both possible and sustainable? 

How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
During my early research, I focused a lot on the question of how organizations, governments, and societies deal with complex and risky change. How might we better govern next generation nuclear reactors? What steps should desert states take when considering using recycled oil and gas wastewater?

One of the biggest barriers to responsible action is certitude. When people involved in complex undertakings think they know more than they do, bad things happen. 

I increasingly saw that same overinflated sense certainty as defining American politics writ large, especially after the 2016 election and during the pandemic. In light of my research, I felt that a politics of certitude would leave Americans collectively less capable of responding to the complex problems that they faced. 

My worry is that apocalypticism only worsens the politics of certitude. I applied for a fellowship with hope that my time here would challenge those worries, and help me develop a more nuanced and perhaps even optimistic understanding of apocalyptic thinking. 


Taylor Dotson is Associate Professor of Social Sciences at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in the United States. His research focuses on the intersection of science, technology, and politics, specifically on public issues involving large-scale or global risks.