Have we irreparably destroyed the world

End of the world

Eva Horn

To person

Dr. phil., born 1965; Professor at the Institute for German Studies, University of Vienna, Universitätsring 1, 1010 Vienna / Austria. [email protected]

"Look around you, at today's world. Your house, your city. The surrounding land, the pavement underneath, and the soil hidden below that. Leave it all in place, but extract the human beings. Wipe us out, and see what's left How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap on it and our fellow organisms? "[1]

The idea of ​​an earth "relieved" by humans, which the bestselling author Alan Weisman puts forward in his non-fiction book "The World Without Us", has recently enjoyed a symptomatic boom. Weisman, whose book inspired the successful television series "Life After People", designs a future history of decay of the cities and architectures that surround us in a thought experiment, under the fictitious premise that suddenly all people have disappeared from the globe. Weisman tells how houses and prominent structures crumble when exposed to nature without human maintenance: concrete will crumble and bridges will collapse. Weisman presents a view of a world that would finally be freed from the "pressure" of humanity; nature takes back its space.

The question is why are we looking at this, why do we want to know. Why do not only non-fiction books - from Jared Diamond and Harald Welzer to Ulrich Beck and Peter Sloterdijk - indulge in gloomy predictions of an "end of the world as we knew it" (such a recurring title)? Even more recent films are intoxicated by catastrophes: In 2009, Roland Emmerich prophesied in his blockbuster "2012" that this year the world would perish from super volcanism and drifting continents. Last year Lars von Trier celebrated in "Melancholia" that the end of the world can also be a wish fulfillment - the wish of a melancholy disposition that can only recognize the bad and ugly in everything living and has nothing to lose. And this year, films appeared in the USA that suddenly no longer stage the apocalypse as a collective disaster but as a small, intimate drama: Lorene Scafarias "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" or Abel Ferraras "4:44 Last Day on Earth ". The end of the world becomes the intrusion of finitude into everyday life, an intrusion that in "Seeking a Friend" still has a certain liberating effect; "4:44", on the other hand, only shows that the end of the world would not change anything in our routines (and is accordingly boring). But this end of the world boom is symptomatic in any case: We dream, it seems, of our own extinction, of the possibility of disappearing again without a trace at some point. We imagine ourselves as the last human.

Future as an experimental space

Since the romantic era, modernity has dreamed of the end of man as the ultimate downfall. The catastrophe at the end of all time becomes an experimental space that puts people through their paces - one last time. The future was by no means always a space for experiments, but rather the place of an expected fate, the end of the world a final world judgment. Only with the passing of the history of salvation and with it a future that has always been written and inexorably approaching us does modernity look into the uncanny darkness of a future that is both open and unpredictable. In view of this darkness, what she has developed are methodical procedures for anticipating what is to come - from probability calculations and statistics to scenarios and simulations. Design these prognostic forms of knowledge possible Processes, conceivable, but by no means certain events or developments: what could be? One can say that futurity is a mode of knowledge in conditionality. In addition to scientific prognoses, one way of thinking about this futility is fiction: procedures that paint, narrate, and invent the future in order to make them a space for reflection on very present problems, for example in the form of scenarios that try to create stories of future development processes tell; in the form of thought experiments that illuminate a hypothesis that cannot be tried out empirically in theoretical thinking; or in the form of literary or cinematic imaginations that sketch out a future situation in detail and let their protagonists speak.

The end of the world, the end of all time, is one possibility to use this scope imaginatively. It thinks of the future as a catastrophe. [2] The last humans are the subjects in this thought experiment. The moment of downfall shows what man once did will have beenwhat "remains" of the human being, how he will have changed as an individual body and mind, like human civilization at their end could look like - and above all: What a person actually is when the familiar and contemporary civilization is taken from him. What development opportunities are open to people? How will his body and mind transform in the long run? Which technologies or cultural practices will fundamentally change what humans are and can do? How will the social change? How resilient is human civilization?

Romantic blackout

It is no coincidence that this form of the end of the world appears as an experiment on the horizon in romanticism. First of all, it is about working through the figure who shaped the history and future thinking of the West for centuries: the idea of ​​the end of the world and the world judgment from the John's apocalypse. This had designed the end of the world as a great judgment over all living and dead, but also as a departure to a New Jerusalem. In romanticism, future ends of the world are imagined for the first time, which are no longer a Last Judgment, but a mere end, extinctions without a new beginning. Jean Paul's "Speech of the dead Christ down from the world structure that there is no God" (1796) lets the dead rise again to tell them then that no Father God will judge and redeem them: "We are all orphans, me and her ". [3] In a particularly radical way, Lord Byron's poem "Darkness" (1816) shows.[4] Byron designs an experimental arrangement that subjects people to a catastrophic stress experiment: the sun has gone out, the world is suddenly in cold and dark.

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.

First of all, panicked humanity burns everything it has: cities, palaces, forests:

And they did live by watchfires - and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings - the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
And men were gather’d round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;

Byron depicts the panic and despair of mankind with some precision. First the institutions of the social order are destroyed, then the last resources are burned. Byron's "dream" no longer focuses on the last human being as a creature of God, but as a social being. The darkened earth becomes a crisis experiment that shows what political institutions, religious symbols and human ties are worth - namely nothing. The people gather around the last fires, but in this emergency community, Byron sees this more clearly than many of today's disaster thrillers, no new form of solidarity arises. The catastrophe erases all passions except fear. The disaster throws people back on selfishness and despair, howling and gnashing of teeth. What follows are bloody fights for food:

And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glow himself again: a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;

What Byron's doomsday scenario aims at is a reckoning with the optimistic anthropology of the Enlightenment. Love, friendship, compassion - the great virtues of the 18th century - fall away from people like costumes. What remains is the human being as the wolf of the human being. Byron already sees the last people as cannibals - a motif that will appear again and again in numerous doom scenarios: "The meager by the meager were devoured", the starving people attack other starving people. Byron's darkening of the world throws a pale light on the nature of man as a moral and political being, which in the end will have been nothing but fearful, selfish, unreasonable, loveless.