A Look at Apocalyptic Desire: The Wish to Remake the World

What it Means to Want a New World: Interrogating Apocalyptic Desire

By Ariel Kroon, of the podcast Solarpunk Presents


We all desire something. Whether that’s to attain wealth or fame, the heart of the person you are obsessed with, tickets to that concert that’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see your favourite band live, to be the most popular kid in class, the most knowledgeable in your field, the best at what it is you do … desires are myriad and range from the grand to the mundane.

The last article I published here was subtitled Feelings about Climate Collapse, where I wrote a little about the dread linked to thinking about climate change. This article is in the same vein of analyzing some of the emotions underlying these big concepts, but this time I’m going to address a bit of the feelings surrounding the advent of the apocalypse, since that is so often how climate collapse / catastrophes are described. The apocalypse evokes a whole lot of different feelings in a lot of different people, but from what I’ve observed lately as a scholar of crises, desire is becoming one of the most ubiquitous – not just in literature, but in popular discourse as well.

Why would anyone desire the apocalypse?

It’s a good question! In order to answer it, I want to take you first through a bit of history and lay a theoretical background, because people have been thinking through this for a while. I’ll talk a bit about the apocalypse going from a religious concept to a secular one in the twentieth century, and then get into a discussion of the implications of apocalyptic desire, using my younger self as an example. (I’m going to repeat the caveat from my prior article here: “please read this less as a dictate of what you should be doing and more of an invitation to consider and reflect on this aspect of our collective responses to catastrophe.” Not everyone thinks like this or has the same response to crisis, but enough people do that it’s an observable cultural trend.)

My personal desire for the apocalypse, I realized, was actually a desire for what I thought the apocalypse would mean for my life specifically; I hadn’t been thinking about the horrific violence and suffering that inevitably would come along with the apocalyptic scenario I imagined, just the fun bits about not having to deal with a shitty job market or scrambling to make ends meet by the end of the month. A fundamental misrecognition of this desire for freedom from late-stage capitalism can translate a desire for personal autonomy into one that requires death and destruction on a mass scale in order to achieve that end.

A History of Apocalypse as a Concept in the West

Up until recently, the idea of apocalypse was understood to be mostly the domain of religion, surfacing in cultural texts such as paintings and literature based on the Bible, on historical beliefs that the end was nigh (such as in the years 1000CE, 1666CE, 1844CE, 2012CE, and quite a few other times throughout history…). Western academics and scholars at mid-century were only really beginning to explore how the concept of apocalypse could be detached from and exist outside of a religious (specifically Christian) paradigm.

This paradigm was one that mobilized the twin affective orientations of fear and desire. The fear part follows logically from the lurid descriptions of awful violence that John of Patmos wrote about in the biblical book of Revelation, which many believed would accompany the end times, and the desire part hinged on the promise of a new, beautiful, divine world following that violence. However, I would argue that there was – and is, in the case of modern eschatological desire – also an element of desiring the punishment of those deemed sinful: they lead lives of destructiveness that cause fear and suffering among the community, and as a result there’s a bit of schadenfreude that many believers want to experience: they desire to see the wicked get their come-uppance.

Book cover: The sense of an ending. A Look at Apocalyptic Desire: The Wish to Remake the World

In 1967, British literary scholar Frank Kermode published The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, which drew on Christian apocalyptic thought to claim that humans believe that, in order to usher in a new age, a process of what he calls “terrors” must be experienced. At the time, westerners were mostly church-going within a branch of the Christian tradition; even those who did not go to church regularly were part of the fabric of a culture steeped in over 1500 years of Christian apocalyptic discourse. Kermode asserted that “We hunger for ends and for crises,” and while his observation was drawn from his critical analysis of a number of culturally significant literary texts, it was a conclusion that applied more broadly given the social milieu he moved through.

A few decades later, in 1982, American religious scholar Frederick Kreuziger more explicitly bridged the gap between religion and secular literature when it came to apocalypse, stating that while all stories contain an element of desirability, or “willingness to believe,” it is in the genre of the apocalyptic that desire finds its purest outlet. He writes that

The question to be put to apocalyptic is not, ‘What the hell was the writer really trying to say behind and amid all that imagery and symbolism?’ It is rather, ‘What did the readers (the people) hope for that could only be expressed in such outlandish use of images and symbols?’

The answer, it seems, to the question of what the reader is hoping for includes the destruction of current society, along with a huge body count, which is not just downplayed but actively longed-for as a vehicle for catharsis and schadenfreude, made all the more enjoyable because those on whom violence and ruination will be visited ultimately deserve it. The religious calculation of what constitutes a good person who gets to live and a bad person who must perish in order for utopia to come about is handily translated to the science fiction narrative of good guys vs bad guys, except that the qualifiers of who or what is “good” or “bad” are different. Same system, different criteria. The consequences of this apocalyptic desire, whether stemming from religious convictions or secular beliefs, tend towards suffering on a mass scale, however.

Apocalypse: Renewal Through Violence

The ideology of apocalypse demands violence as a precursor to any positive change, literal and/or metaphysical. Gary K. Wolfe points out that the “end of the world” can be read as the “end of a way of life, a configuration of attitudes, perhaps a system of beliefs.” In both religious and secular narratives, these “conceptual apocalypse[s]” are accompanied by extreme violence. As scholar Tina Pippin writes, the biblical apocalypse is “a dreaded hope”; the horrific violence of apocalypse at least signifies that a utopia is imminent, to believers. Likewise, scholar David Seed observes that even within the secular paradigm, it is very often taken for granted that without apocalypse there is no paradise; without catastrophe, there is no millennium, and therefore the apocalyptic disaster plays an important part in urban renewal, with outcomes such as revising gender roles and race relations.

Book cover: Apocalypse Bodies

And yet, the apocalypse is only desirable if we view the current world as a “vale of tears”; an imperfect and problematic present moment where the “good people” are inextricably entangled in events, communities, and whole political systems that are wicked and detrimental to humanity and/or the planet as a whole. Therefore, the entire thing need to be done away with, completely (or so goes the logic), or a newer and better world will not be able to arrive.

For example, European settlers of the Americas (and Australia and New Zealand) desired apocalypse in the sense of the end of the world for Indigenous cultures and ways of life, in order to make way for their “new world” as they interpreted it foretold in Revelation. European settler culture of what would come to be the United States was a repudiation of the colonial powers of the old world, transplanted to a world that seemed “new” enough that the violent purificatory myth of Biblical apocalypse could apply, but the violence only happened to the Indigenous people i.e. the Others, who oppose the Right Way of Life.

The desire for a better world underlies the apocalyptic fantasy, which expects a utopian world to be made possible and indeed to arrive as a natural corollary only after the (violent) end of the current, broken system: religious metaphors include the Kingdom of God, the everlasting peace; secular metaphors include the third reich. For the early Christians, it was the oppressive Roman Empire who needed to be done away with; for the religious throughout history, it is the sinner and their sinful societies that must be cleansed; for the white supremacist, it is the non-white people who must be violently done away with; for the Deep Green ecologist, it is humanity itself that no longer deserves to continue on this planet, and the demise of homo sapiens is a necessary element for the continuity of all other life on earth.

I’m heavily influenced here by Slavoj Žižek’s discussion of genocide driven by violent ideological fantasy in “The Poetry of Ethnic Cleansing” when I pose the questions: do heavenly ends justify violent means? What atrocities are humans willing to commit in order to bring about peace on earth? What would a utopia look like, after this world passes away? Is utopia even a possible achievable end-state, if it is built on violence? What is an alternative to wanting an apocalypse? Is there even one?

Misrecognizing Desires

When I was in my early twenties, I used to find the idea of an apocalypse and surviving in its aftermath a fun thought experiment. I’d plan what I was going to have in my “go bag,” I’d strategize what stores I would hit up first, where I would hide out, what weapons I would use if I needed them in case of like, zombies or something. As I got older, I realized that I wasn’t desiring an entire apocalypse per se, I was desiring agency over my own life, and the only way that I could imagine that being possible was for the violent ending of the entire world. The ability to choose where to live, freedom from having to report to an unrelated and meaningless job to make ends meet, exciting choices with hefty consequences… My desire for apocalypse was fundamentally a misrecognition of what I actually wanted.

What I personally desire now is an end to structural oppressions such as racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, systems such as neoliberalism, late capitalism, the military industrial complex, factory farming, industrial agriculture, not to mention a stop to all the factors contributing to climate change and species extinction, of which there are too many to list here! I’m not asking for much.

Ultimately, though, what I often desire most is a simple solution. I can understand the desire to wipe the slate clean. I want to eradicate the ideologies that victimize me and the people I care about. I want to not have to defend my or my friends’ existence again and again against constant challenges, judgment, and violence. I want sometimes to simply make the machine stop: to be able to put everything on pause and just be able to catch my breath and regroup for a minute. I desire time, in those moments, to consider the next move carefully, without the pressures of the clock or of capitalism pressing down on me.

Why would anyone desire the apocalypse?

I cannot answer for all people, but I suspect that it has a lot to do with desiring easy fixes in an increasingly complicated world, because a lot of the time, that is what I want.

a tumblr post

Sometimes, it seems like the best way to deal with the Gordian Knot of the Anthropocene is to slice cleanly through it with a cataclysmic event. That is not the desire for change, but instead a desire for the suffering and death of the people held to be responsible for the dismal conditions in which we must live.

Desiring Differently

I have come to realize that, if the apocalypse arrives due to whatever the deus ex machinaof the day is, then there is no chance to critically assess the systems that are negatively impacting us right now and decide as a society to move away from and beyond them. The apocalypse actually takes away that agency from us, denying us the ability to choose to be better because of a desire to do right by others, and then to learn from failures and wisely navigate future issues as they arise, making sure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

I am trying personally to alter my apocalyptic desire so that instead of wanting to see those whom I consider to be evil get their comeuppance in the course of a world-ending cataclysm that would certainly involve the death of a lot of other people and non-human others who are just minding their own business, I instead want the evil billionaires/politicians/administrators/etc. to re-centre human wellbeing and change for the better, because I am more mindful now of the collateral damage that would come with an apocalypse visited on the many for the sins of a few, so to speak. That’s an ideal scenario, of course. I also desire justice, but of the community, restorative type.

To put it another way, I’m hoping for the world to change, but I’m not hoping for an apocalyptic end to the current systems, as bad as they are, because systems are made of people. I don’t want them to meet an apocalyptic end.

[Gandalf meme]

It’s… difficult to stay focused on desiring alternatives to apocalypse. It’s so easy to want violence. It’s so simple to fall back on an Occam’s-Razor-style solution, to fall into the revenge quest trope, to want an eye for an eye, to desire bloody justice, to tell myself that it is unrealistic for people to change for the better and that I’m wasting my time and energy. Those are the narratives we are told again and again are appropriate to dealing with an undesirable situation: if someone is hurting you, stop them. Permanently.

However, desiring radical simplification through violence really isn’t going to change the fact that life is complicated. It will be like hitting a reset button, but the life that comes after that moment will still be as complex and messy as it was before.


I think this poem by Kyle Tran Myhre is accurately representative of my feelings currently on the subject of apocalypse and ruination visited on even the worst of those I would consider evil. Even though my kneejerk response to injustice and ecological ruination is to demand a terrible violent end to the perpetrators, on sober second thought I no longer want to be the kind of person who is okay with throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If I have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette, maybe that is a shitty breakfast idea in the first place, and I should just have oatmeal instead.

Life is not black and white, a struggle between good and evil, a war for dominance between the unproblematically good and the wholly bad. The apocalypse, and apocalyptic thinking, encourages us to indulge in those binaries, however, and distract us from the bald truth that, if we do not have a chance to learn from the past, we will be forever repeating those same mistakes, perpetrating those same oppressions, wrestling with the same violences, and condemning the innocents who are caught up in those systems. Instead of desiring apocalypse, how can we desire a better future, one without assuming a catastrophe?

About the Author

Ariel Kroon is a scholar of crisis (especially as expressed in western post-apocalyptic science fiction), a recovering PhD graduate, a part-time research assistant, thinker of thoughts, and one half of Solarpunk Presents podcast

You can find her academic and non-scholarly writing at her website, arielkroon.ca, or connect with her @arielkroon@wandering.shop.

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