Everyday brings a barrage of stories. Each story offers a small clue. Each clue hints at one overwhelming fact: we are living in a convergence of transitions to a more dangerous age. The grey face of thousands of extinctions—of species, of ways of life, of humanity—stares us in the face.
One of these transitions is apparent whenever we step outside: planet-scale ecological collapse. This type of collapse has never happened in the 300,000 years that humans have existed. Regional ecological collapses have crushed empires and wiped whole cultures from the planet, yes. But none so far have spanned the globe.
At the same time, the economic order that has governed nations and markets for half a century appears to be breaking. Corporate capitalism shuffles along while autocrats are seizing governments and inflaming violent uprisings all over the world. The carbon industrial form of production on which the largest economies have depended for their material survival for nearly two centuries will have to be abandoned in the next decade if we’re to stave off runaway climate change. Abruptly shifting this system will have far reaching technological, social, and political consequences that few are grappling with honestly.
This is the first time all these forms of change have converged on this scale. It’s not just the spatial planetary scale. It’s also a temporal scale: this transition is happening at breakneck speed. And it’s also a population scale. Never before have so many billions of lives risked such change. And the population-scale doesn’t stop with humans. Collapse threatens a greater proportion of species than have gone extinct in human history. It’s the scale of our weapons. It’s the scale of our cities. The behemoths are all off kilter.
Beyond scale, this transition is also qualitatively different. Instead of an ecological collapse from which some populations are spared, we now risk a collapse that threatens human extinction. Instead of the dawn of a fascism that will surely one day be overthrown or a monarchy whose destiny ends at the gallows, we are risking the rise of oppressive political forms that could linger for many generations. Instead of a progressive revolution in our form of economic production to some promising new technology, we court a devolution to an over-burdened agrarian system that ultimately culminates in mass famines, privation, and enslavement. In past dark ages, one could nurture hope for a new dawn. Today, with the permanence of extinction, that hope is less credible.
Is bringing a new magazine into the world to grapple with this transition beneficial?
Really, what’s the point? Many have written about experiencing this genus of collapse; about the fall of empires and the rise of new techniques for tyranny; about the profound consequences of shifts in material modes of production.
But perhaps there’s something to be gained from writing about this new species of transition. We’re all hyper-connected and aware of what’s going on while seemingly less able to deal with the problems being presented, less able to conceptualize them, less able to find our place within them. We are standing in one of the most critical twenty-year windows humanity has ever experienced, and few seem to understand this era’s place in humanity’s timeline. And yet we’re everyday reminded of our peril.
So what is a magazine in the face of this? Almost nothing. It can only be a space for trying to contend psychologically and emotionally with such massive change. And to offer glimmers of what might be possible. We can benefit from new words written to comprehend this new form of transition.
Only in grappling with change deeply and openly and deliberately will we have any chance of averting the worst crises now rumbling at the gate. Wild imagining is necessary for our survival. Only in thinking aloud something better can we hope to build it. Instead of a necrocene of destruction and pain, the new times struggling to be born could be a more beautiful world that nurtures life and promotes broad freedom. The prologue to achieving that more beautiful world entails imagining it in all its coarse textures, summoning every bloody, gritty, saccharine, precious, beautiful, grimy granular detail while simultaneously recognizing the severity of the situation we find ourselves in for what it is. Yet a crisis at this scale demands we produce big writing able to encapsulate such big problems.
There are questions we hope to tackle in this magazine that we don’t know how to ask yet. There are other questions that haven’t occurred to us. But some topics we aim to cover include:
- What does “progress” mean? Who gets to decide this? Is it something we must collectively agree on?
- Is it possible to build an ecologically sustainable society based on principles of fairness, freedom, and equality that is also technologically advanced? What would that require to build? Are the physical resource limitations of the planet too great? What are the difficult questions that must be answered to realistically build such a place?
- Is it likely that humanity can exercise the individual and collective will necessary to avert collapse? Do we have the cognitive capacity to exercise that will? Do we have the administrative capacity to exercise that will collectively? Or are we just a force of nature destined to burn itself out?
- Each revolution in humanity’s mode of production—foraging to agrarian, agrarian to industrial—has massively increased the density of energy committed to human needs. The next revolution almost certainly has to decrease that density. What kind of politics can achieve such a feat?
- Many thinkers and activists today want to build a society in which people are able to sustain a healthy relationship with the natural world and in which most citizens are empowered to participate in governance and in which material resources are shared broadly. How do we contend with the fact that societies resembling this ideal existed for tens of thousands of years around the world? These societies existed and then their people were murdered, displaced, and controlled by a European aristocracy and other imperial states whose descendent governments still rule the globe. Can the mechanisms of these aristocracies be used to build something resembling the societies they have already destroyed and shunted to the fringe?
- If we cannot use fossil fuels to fly planes and move goods—which we cannot at the current scale if we want to avoid climate collapse—then what kind of policy can enforce that? What if no viable fuel alternative is developed? How would ceasing the mass use of airplanes or trawlers or cargo ships impact global trade and human settlement patterns? How do we make the case for de-technologizing an industry and a major part of modern society? What persuasive political arguments can we make to stop using some high-tech invention? And what is the risk involved in assuming undeveloped technologies will solve our problems?
- What might happen should the worst come to pass and refugees must flee rising seas from the eastern United States and flee tropical diseases and unbearable heat from the southern US and flee ever worsening wildfires and drought from the western US into the northern and Midwestern US? Who will—or should—be the ones assimilating? Whose values will win out? Whose will be extinguished? How will political issues and boundaries shift with this unprecedented migration? This is already playing out in other countries and communities around the world. What can we learn to prepare? What will happen, should happen, in migrations between nations?
- There are questions of statecraft, like: Can there be a mechanism that collectively mobilizes nation-states to one coordinated, common purpose that does not risk descending into either tyranny or ineffectiveness?
- And, perhaps most importantly, there are questions of the heart, like: How do we eulogize a thousand species of bird? How do we mourn the deaths of all whales & elephants? We’re watching cities of legend fall into the sea. We’re watching lives tossed away for a few men to hoard wealth. How do we carry determination and rage and fear and compassion in our hearts at once?
Exploring such big issues to the extent they deserve cannot be done with pithy thinkpieces or trite analyses or shallow articles. Understanding cannot be gleaned by scanning headlines. A barrage of small stories with small clues is not enough. We plan to produce one very long-form, high-quality essay per month. Into each piece we will pour our attention and energy and seek to bring a novel perspective and a unique understanding for these new times. We’ll then invite formal responses from contributors to fully tease out its intricacies and complexity.
We’ve reached the end of something. Epilogue intends to carry some of the words for that end. But we are also at the beginning of something else. We hope some of the words we share together here at the end will be of some use for whatever comes next.