For superstitious people like me, who believe that if we think through the worst-case scenarios, the products of our imagination will serve as talismans to ward them off, the disappearance of snow is just one unfortunate potential future scenario. Inasmuch as this is not a defect in the personal architecture of my brain, engaging with the idea of a world without humans is what Eugene Thacker, an author and professor who writes about horror and philosophy, calls “cosmic pessimism.”
“Its limit-thought is the idea of absolute nothingness,” writes Mr. Thacker, “unconsciously represented in the many popular media images of nuclear war, natural disasters, global pandemics and the cataclysmic effects of climate change.” Just before we left for Omaha, I had been reading his book, cheerily titled “In the Dust of the Planet,” in which he refers to the human inability to fully confront this “absolute nothingness” as a unique horror, and while he’s not talking about horror movies, per se, it’s easy to imagine an apocalyptic thriller that begins with the sudden disappearance of snow.
We’re accustomed to viewing the world in a human-centric way that says the planet exists for us on some level, and that’s heavily reflected in our culture and religious traditions, including the one I grew up in, where a moody god “so loved the world” that he sacrificed his son to save it. It exists in the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley billionaires who believe that if the planet gets destroyed, they’ll just colonize a new one. But when the weather is doing strange things, it undermines the idea that we are the center of the universe and have potential agency over anything nature can do to us.
About a decade ago, when thoughts of climate apocalypse were further from my mind, I went to see a show at the Hayden Planetarium titled “Dark Universe.” I like space-related things and other things that can be prefaced with “dark” (chocolate, satire, people who are tall and handsome). As the film took viewers to the deepest corners of space accompanied by the calm, dulcet voice of Neil deGrasse Tyson, I learned about the universe and the much longer list of what wasn’t then known about it. The size and scope of various features of the universe were estimated in relation to the earth and timelines in relation to human’s time on earth.
The scale was a reminder of how tiny and fleeting our existence really is. It was glorious and beautiful, and when I stumbled outside into the light, I had what felt like the beginnings of a panic attack brought on by the realization that we live in a delicate ecosystem that is often hostile and could easily destroy us. Then I went home and probably made a to-do list or contributed to a long social media thread about whether a hot dog is technically a sandwich.