History is full of bad years. 536, for example: a nonstop catastrophe. An Icelandic volcano erupts, coating the entire northern hemisphere in ash, and ushering in the coldest decade on record. The ash dims the sun. There is no summer that year, and so the crops fail, leading to famine in Ireland, Scandinavia, Mesopotamia, China. The situation does not improve. A few years later, the Plague of Justinian threatens much of the world’s population.
Or 1348: legendarily terrible! The Black Death sweeps through Europe, eventually killing roughly 40 percent of the continent’s population. People go to funerals and die on their way home, an endless cycle of death. The economy collapses. The world reverberates with a sense of despair.
1837 is an American bloodbath; 1918 sees a deadly flu pandemic and a brutal world war; 1968 is defined by two crushing assassinations at home and devastating carnage abroad. And that is only the West. If you want to be grim about it, what is history, really, but the study of very bad years?
In this context, 2020 is probably not the worst year, compared to all of human history. If your metric is, well, did a quarter of the global population die of plague? Then the answer is no. This is reassuring, I guess, if you’re a real glass-half-full kind of person, which I am not. How could I be? It’s 2020.
The year has become an incantation. It is a running meme. It may not, in fact, be the worst, but it is momentous. It began with hellish wildfires in Australia, which would soon be mirrored by unprecedented wildfires in California, and then a deadly respiratory virus upended life as we’d known it, and everyone you knew was a potential vector of contagion, and the police kept killing Black people, and the president of the United States refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power, and people kept dying. Meanwhile, there was much talk of “murder hornets.”
A trickle-down theory of crisis emerged: When a beloved Virginia Christmas display went dark, that was “because 2020.” It is the reason a bandana-wearing iguana attacked a man in Florida, the reason Covid-19 mutated, the reason that there were so many hurricanes that we ran out of names, the reason pumpkin spice hard seltzer exists.
It is perversely thrilling to be living through history. “We are living through history!” I keep thinking, inanely, as though we aren’t always, as though “history” were a discrete event, like the MTV Movie Awards, or the Tour de France.
In mid-March, a few days after New York City had settled into eerie silence, I was walking the dog when I saw a big yellow street sign that said “End.” Under that, someone had added, in duct tape, the word “Times.” Seems reasonable, I thought.
It was cold and gray in Brooklyn, and a mysterious disease had begun killing large numbers of people at random. I didn’t think it was the End, in any cosmic sense — just as history trundled along after 536 or 1348, I generally assume that time will continue to heave itself forward — but for the first time, it felt plausible. How would anyone know?
My understanding of the apocalypse, based on Hollywood and a tenuous grasp of the Book of Revelation, is that there would be signs first. Were these not signs? If it turned out this was it, who would say they had not seen it coming?
There was evidence everywhere; the whole year felt like evidence, although evidence of what remained less clear. The death toll in the US surpassed 300,000 in December and only continues to rise, but people have started getting the vaccine. The president has yet to concede the election, but the Supreme Court has upheld the results. On a good day, it is possible to feel something like hope.
But lately, hope is delicate. We have become acutely aware that existence is fragile, that a future is not promised; individually and collectively, the whole project seems pretty touch-and-go. Why not a pandemic, a depression, a famine, a blanket of ash? The Dark Ages happened to someone; why not us?
“It does seem to me that this is the year that the enlightenment discourse about progress finally died,” says Timothy Burke, a professor of history at Swarthmore College. “You can put it in the ground and put a daisy on its grave. I don’t hear anyone out there anymore who says the future has to be brighter and better.”
The lesson of 2020 is not that we’re doomed, necessarily, only that doom feels like a legitimate possibility.
This should not be surprising, given that we have been warned for centuries, by all kinds of people, only some of whom were leaders of fringe cults. Others, though, were historians, seismologists, climate scientists, archaeologists, and epidemiologists, who were not forecasting the End, in a Biblical sense, but simply suggesting that we were not, in fact, too modern to fail. Are we failing? I wanted to know. Is this what failure was supposed to look like?
I called astrologers: Had they seen this coming? Was the year as catastrophic as it felt? I asked historians. I turned to theologians who study apocalyptic texts; I talked to preppers, figuring that people bracing for disaster might know how to recognize it early. All of them, I hoped, might be able to explain something I couldn’t, which is: What was 2020, and what happens now?
Coby Coonradt and Cameron Hardy live in Utah near the Colorado border, which was once a hub of dinosaur activity and is now a hub of bones. Together, they co-host the Casual Preppers Podcast, which is also how they classify themselves: Just because you have a 25-year food supply in your basement doesn’t mean you can’t also be a regular dude with a family and a job.
“A lot of people hear ‘prepper’ and immediately think of the NatGeo series, Doomsday Preppers,” Coonradt tells me, but that’s not them. “Our goal is to try and get rid of that stigma.”
When they met, in 2014, they realized they were both into “survival, or the apocalypse,” Coonradt says, “So we decided to get a little bit more into it. That’s when we said, hey, let’s start a podcast. Let’s talk about this stuff. This is too much fun.” The show vacillates between the extreme and the extremely practical. In the last four years, they have covered fires, bunkers, polar bears, the logistics of prepping with a family, guns, gardening, bartering, smartphones, aliens, and World War III.
It is, for them, a hobby — a “mindset,” Hardy says. “It just feels like a manly thing, to be prepared, to be self-sustaining, be able to take care of your family in the event of a disaster without relying on other people or the government.” Part of disaster preparedness is that you never know exactly what the disaster is going to be, or on what scale. “One of our biggest things is preparing for your own personal apocalypse,” says Coonradt, meaning that you want a plan for biowarfare, but also for what happens if your car breaks down.
I want to understand what part of this is fun. One thing I like to do for fun is take long walks to places that sell novel sandwiches. One thing Coonradt and Hardy like to do is imagine circumstances that many people will not survive.
“It’s almost a comfort to talk about these things,” explains Coonradt, “because the more you talk about them, the more you work them out.”
Certainly, they’d been worried about pandemics, but in an abstract way. Back in 2018, they’d done an episode about them. “Several times, we’ve said our biggest fear, of all the different types of scenarios, is a pandemic, because of how fast and how devastating it can be,” says Hardy. But as Coonradt will tell you, bracing for the possibility of something is not the same as expecting it. “I think I actually said, at one point during that initial craziness, ‘I really liked prepping better when it was a hobby!’ ”
Prepping put them ahead in some ways, but in others, they were just like everybody else. They had N95 masks already. They did not have yeast. Mostly, prepping shaped their attitude: It was bad, but they’d been expecting even worse.
“Could have been worse” is their general take on 2020. The election did not spark the violence they’d anticipated. “The outcome was about as good as we could hope for,” Coonradt says, quickly clarifying that doesn’t mean politically. Although, he adds, he doesn’t not mean politically. Politically, they try to stay neutral. Preppers “tend to lean to the right of the aisle,” but over the course of the Trump years, that’s started to change. “We have seen a lot of people from the left coming into prepping,” he says brightly.
It is nice to see that people agree on something, I suppose, even if the thing that they agree on is the possibility of societal collapse.
When I’d thought about the End before, which I tried not to, I’d imagined it would be definitive. The way I pictured it, drawn mainly from disaster movies I have not seen, is that there would be an apocalyptic event, asteroid, maybe, or an ice age — I didn’t dwell on details — and then that would be it.
This, Kyle Lambelet, a professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, suggests gently, is perhaps not the most useful way to think about it. “Apocalypse” comes from the Greek word “apokaluptein” — to uncover or disclose. “So rather than asking whether this is the end, I think it’s more interesting to ask what’s being revealed here,” he explains. “And the things I think are being revealed are that we’re vulnerable to each other. That we share breath with one another, and when that breath becomes diseased, we can do harm to one another.” But it has also revealed that while we all may be vulnerable, “we’re not all vulnerable in the same way.”
The fact that communities of color have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic is a societal problem, not a viral one: “Covid invades a world that has been constructed in such a way that race has fundamentally distorted our relationships to one another.” This isn’t new information. Apocalypses only uncover what is already true.
In 2020, “we realized that the familiar routines that have constructed our world were not as stable as maybe we thought they were,” says Lambelet. Under normal circumstances, you could forget that, mostly, and now suddenly, you can’t. On a day-to-day basis, this is a bummer. On a grand scale, it is a cause for hope.
The earliest apocalyptic writings emerged under oppressive empires, for people living under siege. “There’s a lot of crazy stuff in these visionary texts,” he says, between the seven-headed dragons and the thousand-eyed cherubim. “But their primary message is this: This world is not all there is.” And if there is something else, then there is a reason to keep going.
“The world is always ending,” says author-musician-anarchist-prepper Margaret Killjoy, who hosts the podcast Live Like the World Is Dying. It’s just that right now, the world seems to be ending with unusual intensity. “I think it’s okay to let this be a big deal,” she tells me, which I find perversely reassuring. “This was a big deal. A lot of people haven’t survived. A lot more people won’t.” It is true that the unit of “a year” is arbitrary, a social construct, she agrees. “But social constructs have meaning. We can do with them what we want.”
“We absolutely have to keep going,” Killjoy adds, pointing to the rise of mutual aid networks, to the summer’s uprisings. “The existing economies haven’t been working for a lot of people for a long time, and alternative ideas are possible right now.”
Lambelet tends to agree. “I tend to think of the apocalyptic as a rich set of practices for disinvesting from the world,” he tells me. This is more optimistic than it sounds.
He points me to a passage from the theologian Thomas Lynch: “Nature, capital, gender, and race summarize the set of relations that constitute the world,” Lynch writes. “And this world is both violent and inescapable.”
“If we think of the world that way,” says Lambelet, “then absolutely, we would want to renounce that world. We would hope for the end of that world, so that we could turn toward relationships of solidarity with our neighbors.”
I want that. Certainly, I would like to imagine that there is something beyond this.
You could be blindsided by 2020 yet understand that there was a precedent for almost all of it, that none of this came out of nowhere. You could explain the wildfires, and the pandemic, and the election, and its aftermath. You could explain police violence and Brexit and hurricanes. Still, things are always happening, obviously, but these seemed biblical, what with the plagues and pests and fires, against the understated backdrop of attempted coup. Every year feels like the worst year ever, people kept saying, sagely, which made sense, but this wasn’t the regular churn of history, was it?
Maybe it’s ridiculous to demand that 2020 have some kind of cosmic meaning, given that it is an arbitrary 365-day period. But I am not an expert in the cosmos, so I turned to astrologers. I am also not an “astrology person”; still, I had to check.
John Marchesella, a veteran astrologer based in New York City, did not hesitate. “What’s going on in the sky is very special,” he tells me. “It is the end of an era and the beginning of a new era.”
There is an expression in astrology: “As above, so below,” meaning that whatever is going in the sky is reflected here on Earth, and this year, the sky was weird. “The main thing is the alignment of Saturn and Pluto,” Marchesella says. This is the “conjunction” people keep talking about: The two planets have been moving together all year, peaking in January — when China announced the new coronavirus, he notes — and are only just coming out of alignment now. “When Saturn and Pluto align, there is usually some worldwide health issue,” he explains. “The last time this happened, for example, was the outbreak of AIDS, between the summers of 1981 and ’82.”
Pluto “has a lot to do with viruses,” while “Saturn is manifestation,” Marchesella says. “Anytime the world has experienced some major plague — the Spanish flu, the bubonic plague — the alignment of Saturn and Pluto were always somehow present in the sky.”
It is not that he saw Covid-19 coming specifically, only that as the two planets began to come into alignment, it was astrologically clear, he contends, that some kind of health care crisis was coming. “But it’s not until the alignment became exact that we found out what the crisis in health care was going to be.” Before that, he’d assumed it would be health insurance.
Astrology is not science, but for millions of people — almost 30 percent of Americans, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll — it is a way to find logic in a world we can neither predict nor control. It suggests that history is determined by a system of overlapping cycles, and that, by reading into patterns of the heavens, we can find some semblance of order on the world. Whether you do anything or not, nothing stays the same for too long.
When we talk, in mid-December, Saturn and Jupiter were starting to move into alignment in the sign of Aquarius, which, Marchesella says, brings hope. And if you were so inclined, you might note that this just happens to coincide with the first doses of the vaccine.
What follows will be “a wave of optimism,” Marchesella says. It will be “a wave of brotherhood. We will all get on the same page about climate change. We’ll get on the same page about how medical emergencies can affect the entire world.”
There are years, Burke, the history professor, observes, when people, even in the moment, have the sense that something fundamentally has shifted, that the year is not like other years.
He points to 1848: Revolutions broke out all over Europe. Monarchies teetered on collapse. “It’s one of those years where everybody gets the clear picture: Things are not going to be the same going forward,” he says. 1917 and 1918 are like that, too: There is World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the flu. It is universally momentous. You could be having a great year, personally — healthy, loving, nonviolent — and it doesn’t matter. “Objectively, you have a sense that the world went badly, and that you were part of that. In a bad year, it’s much easier for people to feel that their life is under threat.”
“We’re pattern recognizers,” Burke tells me. Bad years are bad because bad things happen, which establishes a narrative, and then, he says, “We start fitting everything into the Zeitgeist of the story we’ve been telling, and everything becomes an affirmation of just how bad it is,” even when the actual events are relatively ordinary. It is only when you add to the list with disease and wildfires and hurricanes and rising poverty and crumbling democratic norms that you can look at the death of a celebrity well over 80 and see it not as a loss but as a sign.
It can be true the climate is in crisis, that this is likely not the last pandemic, that doom is not out of the question, and also true that most days, life goes on, and people get married and divorced and have kids and do dishes and tell jokes and lose keys. At this point, we can safely say that 2020 was not the end of life on earth, just the end of certainty.
Intellectually, we’d known this; of course the future wasn’t guaranteed. If you’d asked before, “Is human society on a steady upward trajectory?” we would have said no, and we would have believed that we believed that. Civilizations rise and fall, we’d all understood, only we hadn’t meant our civilization, not while we were living in it. It is embarrassingly naive to admit faith in the inevitability of progress. At the same time, it is a nice way to get through the day.
Or at least, it was nice while it lasted.
Whatever Panglossian sense we’d had that we were living in the best of all possible worlds, Burke says — that’s gone. “Everybody is now aware that even if things could get better, that we have a lot of work to do. And there’s nothing inevitable about it. There’s no force driving us towards better and better.”
If there is hope, it will come from whatever actions we take next.
Rachel Sugar is a writer in New York.