In the last week of January 2020, a graphic from Forbes magazine began circulating on social media. Based on information from the 2019 Global Health Security Index, the graphic presented a yellow, orange, and red map of the world. It purported to show “The Countries Best And Worst Prepared for an Epidemic.” The United States (appearing on the map in bright yellow) was ranked at the top of the list of “Best Prepared.” The United Kingdom was awarded second place, Canada fifth, and Switzerland (the last country to earn the colour yellow) thirteenth. Most of the map was filled with orange, the colour selected for the countries that, although somewhat “prepared,” were unworthy of being deemed “most prepared.” This was the hue selected for fifty-first-placed China. And some of the map featured an ominous dark red, selected for those “least prepared.” Equatorial Guinea placed dead last on the list.
Published by Forbes on 27 January 2020, the graphic came as cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in the US reached a grand total of five. Nearly 3,000 cases of the virus had been recorded in Wuhan, but in the US “health officials” had “stated that there is little risk of the coronavirus spreading due to precautions being taken.” Thus the graphic, at least for those who found themselves living in one of the yellow countries, presented a reassuring message amidst the early flux of news about COVID-19, namely: don’t worry, you are living in one of the “most prepared” countries for an epidemic.
On the basis of such reporting, many in Europe and North considered themselves secure. Some might have spotted the Global Health Security Index report for 2019, which noted that “collectively, international preparedness for epidemics and pandemics remains very weak.”  Yet the overwhelming consensus, in North America at least, aligned with the Forbes visual representation of the world.
Forbes provided its readers with a reassuring picture of a world that has now ended.
On 24 May, 2020, the New York Times offered a more sober vision. Beneath the bold headline “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, an Incalculable Loss,” readers encountered a front page taken up with the names of the deceased. As the subhead tragically put it: “They Were Not Simply Names on a List. They Were Us.” And, on 15 May 2022, just shy of two years after this “Incalculable Loss” cover, and after an interval of spending substantially less cover space to the pandemic, with each “100,000” milestone receiving less attention, the Times devoted the full foldout front and back page to a map of the US under the headline “One Million: A Nation’s Immeasurable Grief.”
The denizens of the Global North were no longer in the secure world imagined by Forbes.
As of this writing, the world is already several months into its third year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many restrictions have been lifted. Track-and-trace has receded. Yet the pandemic has very much not ended. The death toll in the US has passed 1 million, the international death toll has passed 6 million. There is good reason to believe that both of these numbers are understatements.
The virus continues to spread and evolve. Vaccination and booster rates have largely plateaued in some nations (even as other countries still wait for the arrival of vaccines.) The scourge of long Covid-19 is coming into sharper relief. Some authorities predict an imminent autumn surge, leading to perhaps one in three Americans being infected.
Yet, political attention to the pandemic, including support for those most suffering from its effects, has waned. Countless authorities now tell us that it is time to take our masks off and get back to normal.
This is a popular message. Contradicting it raises the risk of being dismissed as a Jonah, that recalcitrant Old Testament prophet who refused to obey God’s instruction to propel the people of Nineveh to repent, or as Cassandra, cursed by Apollo clearly to prophesy a future in which nobody believes. Today’s Jonahs and Cassandras are often dismissed as “doomers.”
In recent years, the epithet “doomer” has been hurled in climate change discourse at those who believe that the climate situation is hopeless. It is now being applied to those audacious enough to remind others that the pandemic has not ended. If climate doomers argued that climate change represented the end of the world, Covid-19 doomers argued that the pandemic had resulted in the end of the world as we knew it – and, in sharp contrast to the REM song, they did not “feel fine.”
Covid-19 doomers remain stalwart defenders of steps like masking while continuing to push for more action to be taken. They want governments to remain proactive and, if necessary, directive. Prominent commentators roll their eyes, as more and more of the public believe the storm has passed.
With each new Covid variant and each new Covid surge, the doomsters look less and less like Jonah, delivering an unpopular message to an unrepentant community, and more and more like Cassandra, cursed to prophesy the truth without being believed. Many now willfully ignore their warnings, and some even blame the recalcitrant for their refusal to get back to normal. There is no greater sin, for them, than refusing to “learn to live with the virus,” even if the grounds for doing so are that many more people – particularly the immunocompromised, sufferers from Long Covid, and the vast numbers with conditions that might figure as “comorbidities” in the next wave – risk death and disability from the disease it brings us. Few things better represent a “return to normal” quite like ignoring the complex crises that face us.
An ominous tonality has hovered over the entire pandemic, as we “doom-scroll” our way through it. A cataclysmic atmosphere permeates the contemporary moment. It is fed by a climate crisis unaddressed by the urgent measures it requires, by the failures of elected officials and political institutions, by the rise of far-right movements, by seas of misinformation and disinformation, by the sense that social cohesion itself has frayed. And “apocalyptic” certainly seems a fair descriptor for the week in which the US passed one million COVID deaths also being the same week in which news leaked that the Supreme Court would be overturning Roe v. Wade, foreshadowing many seasons of turmoil.
Facing such intractable political problems and immovable institutional obstacles, many find the apocalypse offers them the easiest way to imagine an up-ended status quo. Beyond the well-known sentiment, generally attributed to Frederic Jameson, that it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism: today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the situation improving slightly.
Bogged down in unceasing disaster, we clutch at ideas and images that, though apocalyptic, at least suggest a conclusive end to our torment. Besides, popular culture has prepared us for the post-apocalypse. It has not prepared us for life during apocalyptic times. What then does it mean to be alive—to truly be alive, not to just be moping in apathetic despair—during such times?
We are not the first people to wrestle with such a question.
“We have now to devise, under pressure of the greatest crisis mankind has yet faced, the political and moral protective devices that will keep our knowledge, not merely from ruining civilization, but from causing life, in all its organized forms, to disappear from the planet” – so proclaimed a renowned writer. Which writer? Which crisis?
As suggested by the use of the dated term “mankind,” the writer is not from these times, and the “greatest crisis” to which he refers is not the pandemic, nor global climate change. It was the advent of the atomic era.
Written in 1946, these words from Lewis Mumford’s “Program for Survival” presented a fierce denunciation of the atomic bomb. At a moment when many were blissfully celebrating the end of the war and the total surrender of the Axis powers, Mumford sought to sound the alarm about the perilous new ground atop which those celebrants were drinking their champagne.
In Mumford’s estimation, rather than “create a race of enlightened supermen,” technological advances had instead “produced a race of moral robots” with “mechanical heart[s].” Such “moral robot[s]” may have included the “ardent supporter of the Nazis, their willing messenger boy, and a believer in the Nazi Wave of the Future,” but Mumford warned that in the aftermath of the war, in the new age of the atomic bomb, even as the wave of fascism was “receding from our shores, we must take care that we are not dragged down in the undertow.” Beholding the destructive power of the atomic bomb, juxtaposed with the fallible human hands that held it, Mumford observed “we have endowed mankind with godlike powers; but unfortunately we have not at the same time become godlike men.”
Lewis Mumford is one of the twentieth century’s great, if somewhat forgotten, social critics. And any attempt to narrowly slot him into a single subject area risks overlooking the wide range of his concerns. While he is likely best remembered for his thick tomes on technology and cities, his prolific body of work also wrestles with modern art, literature, utopias, war, the nuclear arms race, and much else besides.
To some he has appeared as a historian, to others as one of the last true public intellectuals, and to still others he seems to have been a moral philosopher. As Mumford’s friend Erich Fromm put it, “Future historians, if there are any, will consider his work to be one of the prophetic warnings of our time.” Nevertheless, the historian Melvin Kranzberg was far from alone in deriding Mumford as “a prophet of doom” – a Cassandra-like figure ahead of his time.
Mumford bristled at such accusations of doom-mongering. He countered that such an allegation “is no more intelligent than to say of a physician who diagnoses a possibly fatal disease and applies his skill to curing it that he is a willing ally of the undertaker.” When he was honoured with the National Book Award, Mumford described himself as “an anti-utopian, who knows that a blessing repeated too often may become a curse, and that a curse faced bravely may become a blessing.” Yet regardless of the particular terms used to describe him, Mumford was clearly a figure preoccupied with the task of thinking through the end of the world he had known, without giving up on the world as such.
The effort to face curses bravely plays like a leitmotif throughout much of his work and thought. Caught up in the general enthusiasm of the early decades of the twentieth century, Mumford’s early work (which includes his classic Technics and Civilization) spoke of an earnest hope for the best. Even in the aftermath of the First World War, his writings expressed a belief that a chastened humanity would emerge from those machine wrought ruins. As he put it in 1934 “there is a fresh gathering of forces on the side of life.” And the volume from which those words come was the first in Mumford’s series on The Renewal of Life, which he fashioned as a sort of impassioned retort to the reactionary gloominess of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1923).
In retrospect, to speak of “the side of life” in the 1930s might seem to have been rather naïve, and few figures were more unsparing in their criticism of Mumford’s early optimism than Mumford himself. As only a few years elapsed between those words being published and Mumford loudly speaking out against the dangers of fascism – and doing so at a point when many in the United States (including in the intellectual circles Mumford frequented) were still unconcerned about the fascist threat.
In 1938 Mumford published “Call to Arms” in The New Republic. It was an attack on what Mumford saw as the “reckless optimism” that led some in the United States to believe that fascism was not their concern. To those, including colleagues and friends, who refused to accept that things were as bad as the latest story of “fascist barbarity” might make them seem, Mumford forcefully argued that “the world is as bad as that: what is more, the skies threaten to become much blacker before the clouds lift again.” For Mumford, the threat of fascism was not simply found in Nazism but within tendencies the United States as well. His call was not for the US to remain isolated but for the US to work to isolate fascism, declaring “strike first against fascism; and strike hard. But strike.”
In the aftermath of his “Call to Arms” Mumford observed that he “had the turbid pleasure of seeing some of the worst parts of my prophecy fulfilled,” even as his call to action went unmet. Thus he expanded his call into the book Men Must Act. Here he kept condemning isolationists and counselled believers in peace that, rather than “hoping for the best, we must still prepare for the worst. To face the future in any other spirit is to invite destruction.”
The late 1930s and early 1940s saw Mumford busily writing and speaking about the urgent need to move proactively against fascism. His call was not born of bellicose bloodlust. It would not be sufficient to merely defeat fascism in combat. It was necessary to address the societal soil which had allowed it to take root. Thus, in Faith for Living, Mumford set out a radical plan of “economic justice” and “universal service” that would ensure that there would be none who lacked the essentials they needed. To safeguard against a fascist resurgence, Mumford deemed it essential to forge a world in which none would have cause to be tempted by fascism’s appeal. The call was one of “All hands save ship!” And such “hands” should not flinch before throwing overboard the unnecessary detritus of past times.
Yet even as the smoke over Europe began to clear, Mumford found new reason for grave concern in the shape of the mushroom clouds with which the war had been brought to a close. Though Mumford had been personally affected by the tragedy and brutality of the war, this did little to dampen his commitment to speaking out.
For Mumford, the victory over fascism represented a grim triumph. “In the act of grappling with fascism, the enemy has forced into our hands his most dangerous weapon, his moral nihilism. That nihilism is the social counter part of the atomic bomb,” he proclaimed.
Nuclear weapons were to remain a preoccupation of Mumford’s thought throughout the rest of his life and work. The atomic bomb became emblematic for Mumford of both the fantastical power of technics – including the adoration of that power – and of the all-too-human shortcomings of the people called upon to control it.
Thus Mumford refused to place the blame for the nuclear build-up solely on the Soviet Union. He reminded his readers that it had not been the Soviet Union, but the United States, that had first used nuclear weapons offensively. The nuclear bomb, more than any previous invention, represented for Mumford the need for a united humanity. He exhorted world leaders to recognize “that the country they must now protect is the planet, and their countrymen are now the human race.”
Mumford’s warnings about nuclear weapons were part and parcel to his larger critique of the moral degeneration that he thought was being ushered in by megatechnics – wherein people had been seduced by “megatechnic bribes” into an inured complacency.
Considering how he chafed against being labeled a “prophet of doom,” it is rather curious that the prophet with whom Mumford most closely identified was none other than Jonah. As Mumford recognized, Jonah is generally viewed as a bringer of bad luck, the one who by speaking of a threat, brings it crashing down upon all those who hear it, “that terrible fellow who keeps on uttering the very words you don’t want to hear, reporting the bad news and warning you that it will get even worse unless you yourself change your mind and later your behavior.” And yet, Mumford did not see Jonah “as a character to imitate, but as an admonitory figure.”
There were two reasons for this. The first was that, initially, Jonah flees from his duty. Tasked with delivering an ominous message, Jonah runs for it, only to find himself thrown overboard and swallowed up by a giant fish as a result. From this Mumford derived the lesson that “Whenever Truth commands us, we must obey it and utter it aloud whether our friends and neighbors and countrymen like it or not.” Though Mumford writes of those in possession of capital T “Truth,” he nevertheless uses Jonah to ensure that this is grounded in a sense of humility. After all, one of the things that makes Jonah stand out in the Bible is the detail that the people of Nineveh do heed Jonah’s warning, making the changes necessary to change their fate and save their city. Thus, as Mumford noted, “Jonah’s monstrous error was to imagine that he knew in advance how badly both the people of Nineveh and God would behave.”
There is a significant difference between acknowledging the possibility of doom and hoping for that cataclysm to occur. And for Mumford the act of sounding the tocsin was an essential step in the work of averting catastrophe. Nevertheless, part of what made that step worthwhile was his belief that so long as there was still time to sound the alarm, so too was there still time to “save the ship.” “Every fiber of my being revolts against the fate that threatens our civilization, and revolts almost equally against those supine minds that accept it as inevitable, or, even worse, seek treasonably to justify its ‘inevitability,’” Mumford cried.
To focus narrowly on the grim pronouncements that punctuate much of Mumford’s work is to risk overlooking his dogged faith in humanity’s ability to change course. As he put it, “only those who are sufficiently awake to the forces that menace us and who have taken the full measure of their probable consequences will be able to overcome them.” To speak out about such menacing forces might earn one the derogatory name “prophet of doom,” but Mumford was far more concerned about “the proponents of doom” who refused to acknowledge that any sort of change was needed or possible. As for the actual prospects of such changes, Mumford was cautiously sanguine. As he noted on the eve of his 82nd birthday, “I’m a pessimist about probabilities, I’m an optimist about possibilities.”
The ship is in danger. But the ship can be saved.
Speaking at the White House coronavirus task force briefing on March 31, 2020, then President Trump noted that the projections were for the US to have between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths from the pandemic. These comments came only a few days after Trump had been forced to roll back his overly optimistic Easter reopening plans. In the Rose Garden, he claimed that it would rank as “a very good job” if his administration could keep deaths under 100,000.
And though Trump’s March 31, 2020 comments featured an acknowledgement that the projections were “very sobering” he still couched the projections in a self-congratulatory comment: without the actions of his administration, the death toll could be as high as 2.2 million. Having previously done so much to downplay the danger, much of the media applauded Trump’s shift in “tone.”
Those comments, made during the first wave, seem like quaint artifacts now when we find ourselves enduring the fifth. The number of 2.2 million deaths might still seem terrifying, but deaths counted in increments of hundred of thousands have lost much of their power to shock. If keeping deaths below 100,000 qualified as “a very good job,” then by Trump’s own metric his administration failed catastrophically at containing the virus. President Joseph Biden did not embrace the same target, but history will also record that it was under his administration that the US passed one million Covid-19 deaths.
It can be tempting to feel strangely nostalgic for the early days of the pandemic. Horrible though they were, they were also animated by a tight focus on the virus and the threat it represented. While Trump and his circle frequently sought to downplay the pandemic, at least in those early months much of the media reported on the grim realities that contradicted their optimistic claims. It was a period in which the question was how much more the government should have been doing, not how little it could get away with doing.
The slogan, “flatten the curve,” is another souvenir from these early Covid-19 days. It is also a memory of a fleeting moment in which we were, ever so briefly, encouraged to think that we were all in the pandemic together. From the very outset the pandemic was obviously a curse, yet in those early days it was possible (if potentially naïve) to hope that, if they bravely confronted the disease, the societies emerging from the pandemic might change for the better. Nineveh might not just return to normal, but emerge better than it had been before.
“As in times of plague, people often make virtuous resolutions under the threat of immediate death, which they not merely forget, but actually flout, once the danger has lifted” – with those words, Mumford came curiously close to capturing something of the logic of our own time. In the pandemic’s early days, when the fear of “immediate death” was everywhere, all manner of actions and sacrifices suddenly became conceivable. Yet, once enough people had become convinced that they were insulated from the virus, those previous “virtuous resolutions” were not just forgotten – they were actively flouted.
The threat of death remains, and we are gradually learning more about the long-term impacts of even “mild” infection. We confront, not only a question of the pandemic danger not having been “lifted” (in Mumford’s expression), but also the phenomenon that masses of people are dangerously convinced it has been. Mumford recognized that it is essential for the Jonahs and Cassandras to raise their voices, and to do so precisely in those moments when their warnings are unwelcome.
To speak out in such moments is certainly to run the risk of being denigrated as a “prophet of doom.” Yet, to remind people of the possibility of catastrophe is not the same as to hope for that catastrophe. Nor is it the same as facilitating it through quiet acquiescence. Of course, engaging in such work can be disconcerting: as Mumford observed, “For those of us who have been awake to realities, this has been a lonely role.”
This peculiar loneliness has struck many today who worry that the pandemic has not finished, long after political and media attention has shifted to other topics. Despair can also be the lot of a Jonah or a Cassandra. As Mumford noted in a letter to a friend and fellow social critic, “I think, in view of all that has happened in the last half century, that it is likely the ship will sink.”
But that was precisely why it was necessary for all hands to save the ship. Decades later, Mumford’s successors are also loudly warning that the vessel is listing and that today’s “moral robots,” intent on returning to a normal now shown to be dangerous, are not suitable candidates to right it.
In the early days of the pandemic, there was comfort to be found in Forbes’ reassurances that we were living in one of the countries “best prepared” for a such a calamity. But in the third year of the pandemic, such past reassurances have come to little. The primary danger of the pandemic remains the virus itself, a virus that is still claiming numerous lives, and permanently damaging countless others. A secondary, no less grave danger lies in the conviction that things were necessarily going to turn out this badly, and that there is nothing left to do but to shut our ears to the Cassandras and wait and watch while everything gets worse.
The problem in this moment is not those with the gall to warn that darker days may be ahead, but those who have become so inured to calamity that they have come to accept it as the natural state of things. To put it plainly, and to give the last word to Mumford: “Our numbness is our death.”
 McCarthy. “The Countries Best and Worst Prepared for an Epidemic.”
 Lewis Mumford, “Program for Survival” in Mumford, Values for Survival: Essays, Addresses, and Letters on Politics and Education (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946), 79, 98, 93.
 Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1968), 29.
 Melvin Kranzberg, “Review: Man and Megamachine,” Virginia Quarterly Review 43, 4 (1967): 686–693.
 Lewis Mumford, “Prologue to Our Time,” in Mumford, Findings and Keepings: Analects for an Autobiography (New York, Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1975), 382.
 Lewis Mumford, “Call me Jonah!” in My Works and Days: A Personal Chronicle (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979), 531.
 Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934), 368.
 Lewis Mumford, “Call to Arms” in Mumford, Values for Survival: Essays, Addresses, and Letters on Politics and Education (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946), 4, 19.
 Lewis Mumford, Men Must Act (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939), ix, 8.
 The scale of this writing is clearly evident in Elmer S. Newman, Lewis Mumford: A Bibliography 1914-1970 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1971).
 Lewis Mumford, Faith for Living (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940), 218-9, 306.
 Lewis Mumford, “Program for Survival” in Mumford, Values for Survival: Essays, Addresses, and Letters on Politics and Education (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946), 92.
 Lewis Mumford, “‘Miracle’ or Catastrophe,” in Mumford, In the Name of Sanity (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954), 63-99.
 Lewis Mumford, The Human Way Out (Wallingford: Pendle Hill Pamphlet number 97, 1958), 18, 20.
 Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power: The Myth of the Machine, Vol. 2 (New York: A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1970), 330-334.
 Lewis Mumford, “Call me Jonah!” 528-530.
 Lewis Mumford, “Call me Jonah!” 528, 530.
 Mumford, “Prologue to our Time,” 382.
 Mumford, “Program for Survival,” 115.
 Lewis Mumford to Roderick Seidenberg. February 18, 1969. Lewis Mumford Collection, University of Pennsylvania, Charles Patterson Van Pelt Library, Department of Special Collections, Philadelphia. Ms. Coll. 2, Box 82, Folder 6141.
 Lewis Mumford, “Irrational Elements in Art and Politics,” in Mumford, In the Name of Sanity (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954), 165.