Anti-Apocalyptic Methods for Apocalypse Studies

It is possible to think about the apocalypse without thinking apocalyptically? Humanities methods that include practices of consultation, consent, dialogue, critique, speculation, and sharing can be applied towards the comprehension of the existential or apocalyptic risks of the world while also resisting these. Even to address apocalypse one needs a method. Our methods need to be built from democratic, participatory, and hopeful means of interpretation and engagement – even when they are applied to the study of the dystopian destruction of these very practices.

In recent decades, a new philosophical field has arisen oriented towards the study of existential risks. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University and the leading proponent of this field, defines an existential risk as “one where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” This definition, from an essay written in 2002, has remained prominent in the development of existential risk studies. Note, however, the strange wording: the primary value is not specified as human life, nor all life, but “Earth-originating intelligent life,” which perhaps in the future could be some form of artificial intelligence. Note also the association of existential risks with not just the annihilation of “intelligent life” but anything that would “permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” This definition suggests that any socio-political tendencies that would forestall or prevent the furthering of intelligence towards ultimately techno-utopian ends also should be treated as an existential risk.

“Is it possible to think about the apocalypse without thinking apocalyptically?”

Bostrom’s 2002 essay on existential risks did provide important arguments for how to study any apocalyptic scenario, near or far in time and place, including hypothetical future crises. His essay lists already known risks including nuclear war, pandemics, runaway global heating, and a comet strike, while adding speculative ones including the notion that we are in a computer simulation that could be shut down, or that a superintelligence of our own creation becomes destructive even despite our best intentions. Bostrom certainly has been right to emphasize that all these existential risks require urgent study and should be of paramount importance across all levels of decision making. But Bostrom’s work is shaped of the field of existential risk with terms that are too limited and lack a robust self-critique.

In our book Calamity Theory: Three Critiques of Existential Risk (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), Derek Woods and I argue that the methodology that Bostrom uses is based on problematic definitions of key terms and neglectful of how existential risk studies must be based on collaborative and anti-exploitative approaches across the humanities and the sciences. We claim his work is founded on a narrow set of philosophical principles focused primarily on utilitarian maximization, probabilistic scenario planning, and transhumanist advocacy. As a result, Bostrom’s thinking has a built-in bias towards spectacular apocalyptic events with remedies of technological salvation and misunderstands the need to attend to the hard, everyday work of building a shared world together.

“We don’t need to change the existential structure of existence or the planet to ‘save’ these.”

The limitations of methods in the field of existential risk inspired by Bostrom make for analyses of apocalyptic events too blunt and unnecessarily callous to historical events of mass violence (including genocides) that Bostrom categorizes as “catastrophes” but not ultimately existential risks. This kind of existential risk thinking does not provide sufficient care towards those whose lives and lifeways across the planet continue to be threatened existentially on a regular basis in being marginalized, subject to racist and colonialist policies, and forced to carry the burdens of exploitative and extractivist economies.

Our book discusses how the methods by which we assess and respond to apocalyptic scenarios needs to build in practices that enact a better way to live cooperatively. We can make a pathway towards an anti-apocalyptic and ecologically sustainable planet. This will require not just ecological infrastructure – renewable energies, more bikes, fresh water for all – but also ecological methods based on environmental justice principles of reciprocity, consent, collaboration, critique, imagination, and sharing the burdens and benefits of living on a planet together.

These practices don’t need spectacular new forms of superintelligence or human enhancements – Bostrom’s answers to apocalypse are themselves laden with apocalyptic and anti-democratic potential. We don’t need to change the existential structure of existence or the planet to “save” these. Providing people existential tools and time to be creative and participatory and not be exhausted will make the world safer.