One of the greatest privileges and pleasures of my life was to visit the late Professor Antonia Jones in her remote farmhouse in Cwm Cadlan (Powys, Wales) on several occasions. Despite contracting poliomyelitis as a child, Antonia never regarded herself as a victim. Indeed, on her website she quoted these lines of D. H. Lawrence:
"I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself."
Antonia was, when I first met her, a senior staff member of the School of Computing (now the School of Computing and Informatics) at Cardiff University. Essentially a mathematician, her academic career can genuinely be described as illustrious with not only Cambridge University, Princeton and Imperial College, London, being in the frame but also many other significant institutions in the UK, the USA, Mexico and Israel. However, Antonia wasn’t only an academic, but also a free-thinker and advocate who eventually moved to St Augustine, Florida to join her partner Barbara Quinn.
I can particularly remember one of my visits to Cwm Cadlan circa 2005-06. After a boisterous welcome by Antonia’s four collies, sorting out the electrical generator and making some strong cups of coffee, we began talking about her current workload. This included supervising a postgraduate student who was researching climate change by analysing metres deep ice in the Antarctic. Her involvement was primarily concerned with the mathematical modelling; in short, the scope and accuracy of the research. Slurping my coffee somewhat, Antonia showed me the relevant graphs on her PC. The cyclical patterns of temperature change were stable for millions of years. Then something happened circa 30,000-10,000 years CE. That something of course was animal husbandry. The oscillations continued with the same frequency as before, but an upward bias began to develop. That slow but accelerating bias continued until the so-called Industrial Revolution when, according to the relevant plots, ‘things simply took off’.
Christmas is generally considered a time for mirth and merriment, but it’s also a time for sober reflection. Planet Earth may continue to exist for a few billion years more, but humankind, according to converging scientific opinion, won’t be so privileged because of the rapidly shortening timeframe in which the rate of climate change can be substantially slowed or stabilised. There is, of course, no absolute certainty here. However, it by no means ridiculous to suggest that humankind may, at this juncture, become extinct within the life span of an individual. At best 110 years. At worst 35 years. Political will in this area is extremely weak. COP25, for example, proved to be a major disappointment, with New Scientist declaring that the climate summit ended in a “staggering failure of leadership”. No, this isn’t a plug for Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion, rather it’s about the need to get real about the likelihood and closeness of humankind’s demise.
In Une Autre Fin du le Monde est Possible (‘Another End of the World is Possible’) Pablo Servigne, Raphaël Stevens and Gauthier Chapelle make the case for what might be described as ‘post-apocalypticism’. More specifically, the three authors seek to explore how the extremely bleak outlook emerging from the scientific consensus about an imminent catastrophe doesn’t have to lead necessarily to terminal gloom and nihilistic despair.
Drawing upon a wide palette of disciplines and a variety of perspectives, Servigne, Stevens and Chapelle propose that collapsology (the study of the collapse of industrial civilization and what could succeed it) should be extended to “collapsosophy” in which “the totality of behaviours and positions that arise from this inextricable situation (of the collapses that are taking place and of a possible global collapse) and that depart from the strict domain of science. The same process of opening out and of decompartmentalization that we have for collapsology is found here in a broader opening to questions of ethics, the emotions, and the imagination, to spiritual and metaphysical questions. We do not want to choose a camp but to look for complementarities and links to be woven between all these areas to help us in these external and internal transformations”.
Critically, the three authors draw interesting parallels between how we as individuals might cope with the imminent extinction of humankind and how terminally ill patients can often live rich and meaningful lives whilst being utterly realistic about the closeness of their end. In addition, the authors explore how people need to nurture appropriate patterns of resilience not only through empathic solidarity with others, but also by reclaiming the kinship and wisdom associated with non-humans – not just animals, but also plants and fungi.
For obvious reasons, this book doesn’t make for comfortable reading. However, the ideas and arguments put forward by Servigne, Stevens and Chapelle are not only extremely lively and provocative (the extraordinary scope reminded me at times of Andrew Smart’s Beyond Zero and One or Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus) but are also in some sense genuinely pastoral and humane. Currently the book is only available in French (and I would urge you to read it in the original if you can). However, an English translation is currently in preparation. If you wish to know more about latter, please contact Professor Geoffrey Samuel directly at SamuelG@cardiff.ac.uk.