A Playlist for the End of the World

What’s the secret to living well when everything around you is crumbling?

By Ashia Ajani

May 29, 2022


Illustration by Marian Bailey

My friend gives me a challenge: Try to make a playlist for the end of the world. I say, “Let me get back to you.” 

A week later, I have one question: “Slow descent or epic disaster?” These distinctions matter. Humans are the arbiters of paradise and have a major role in deciding how fast things will go. 

I haven’t listened to Little Jackie since my high school brooding phase. Now I can’t seem to escape the memory of their 2008 single “The World Should Revolve Around Me.” Lead singer Imani Coppola croons, “There’s only one me in the galaxy / I am an endangered species.” 

When I was younger, I thought this line was about an individualism unmatched, a quirky calling card for eligible partners. Now, after living through (and continuing to live through) a global mass extinction, I listen to this line a bit differently. 

When I was in second grade, my elementary school did a unit on the Amazon rainforest; I remember crying, snotting about all the flora and fauna that were at risk of extinction, of simply not existing anymore. “Sweetie, animals go extinct every year,” my teacher reassured me. Like it was part of the natural order of things that miniature apocalypses happened in the blink of an eye.

Humankind is over two years into a global pandemic. Though we may never know the true numbers of people we’ve lost, current numbers of the deceased put the United States at over 1 million, the entire world at 6 million. That’s 6 million souls gone, 6 million family members mourned. 

As whole personal lineages and histories were wiped out (disproportionately Black, Asian, Native, and Latine), 23 species in the Western Hemisphere were removed from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered species list, due to the likelihood that they had already quietly gone extinct. Many of these creatures had not been seen since the 1960s. The ivory-billed woodpecker (C. principalis). Little Mariana fruit bat (Pteropus tokudae). Eight species of freshwater mussels, all anointed with common names that could break your heart: yellow-blossom pearly, flat pigtoe, stirrupshell. Twenty-three unassuming species that most people in their lifetime would never actually see. 

Forget that, they lived. The ivory-billed woodpecker was valued in Sauk and Meskwaki culture—logging destroyed its habitat. The Little Mariana fruit bat, with its distinctive golden mantle, was endemic to Guam—much of its habitat was lost to agricultural and military expansion. Freshwater mussels are critical indicators of water quality. They filter out bacteria, algae, and pollutants and are the most endangered group of organisms in the United States. Not many knew of their intrinsic worth as part of a vast, ecologically rich network. As Camille Dungy writes in her poem “Characteristics of Life,” “I can be beautiful / and useless if that’s all you know to ask of me.”  

My therapist thinks he’s funny. When I bring up mass death for the umpteenth time, he is hesitant as he asks me the now-loaded question, “How does that make you feel?” “If I take the time out of my day to feel,” I respond, “I will collapse with grief. So I just push it down. Most days, I just feel irritable.” 

Jonathan Fisk, a Boricua/Taíno scholar at the University of Hawai‘i at Manōa, sought to give a name to this buildup of emotion and settled on “ambient trauma.” Ambient trauma is “accumulated in everyday living,” such as encounters with police violence, environmental harms, and, of course, pandemic living. The ability to suppress ambient trauma does little to enliven the most human, most vulnerable parts of ourselves. Instead of thriving, we are so focused on our own survival that another death is just as common as another Tuesday afternoon. 

How did those of us who have survived cope? Some of us were titled “essential workers.” Some of us developed an online-shopping addiction, navigating the harrowing border between bottomless consumption and self-care. Some of us got really into sea moss. Others, homesteading. Some of us bought pets that we promptly returned once we got the call to return to the office. Some of us planted trees, even where trees didn’t need to be planted. Everything was meant to be temporary, and so we exploited that temporality to suit our own agendas. Survival of the fittest, right? 

It’s not shocking that Americans would become accustomed to ceaseless death, or stay tethered to a desire to keep going, no matter the human or social cost. In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon writes about how the perpetuation of “disposable” communities reinforces a distinction between what should be protected and what can be neglected. In a rush to “get back to normal,” we never bothered to question whether the normal we were so eager to return to was worth it. The same workers knighted “essential” during the pandemic were often the last to receive PPE and the most at risk for transmission. COVID-19 has extinguished many of the best parts of ourselves: trust, camaraderie, a sense of community, and responsibility toward others. What we currently call a “labor shortage” is directly tied to a mass extinction event. 

We are at a crossroads where dystopia feels less like an escapist fantasy and more like a present reality. The timeline toward meaningful action is getting shorter. Every year brings more climate-related deaths, more kin undone by police violence, more people starving because they had to make the choice between food or medicine that week, more people fleeing wars rooted in legacies of colonization, just to be denied entry at Western borders and sent back to their deaths, rendered invisible. The invisibility is key. At the end of the playlist for the end of the world, Stevie Wonder’s “Race Babbling,” from his overlooked Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, sits, almost suspended in time. “This world is moving much too fast / This world is moving much too fast / This world is moving much too fast.” 

My cousin was an endangered species. My great-aunt was an endangered species. My friend’s brother, an endangered species. My mentor, who died by suicide due to the crushing apathy and loneliness brought forward by the pandemic, was an endangered species. All these individuals, part of a rich ecology of beings, are now permanently uprooted by a virus. Our lives and our loves will never be the same. 

Two years into this mass extinction event, I cannot escape the vastness nor the assemblages of my own emotions. I have fallen in and out of love with this world many times. In the remnants of this crumbling nation, I wonder what new ecologies will take place instead. What would it mean for us to pause and let the cumulative sadness be fully felt? What journey would it lead us on then? Can disaster produce new relationships, new possibilities of knowing? The gentle optimist in me yearns for collective grief (and rage) to fuel us toward better iterations of ourselves, to see all that we’ve lost, and to prevent further unnecessary deaths. I hope we recognize all of the many endangered species within.