February 14, 2024

Another End of the World Is Possible

Oxana Timofeeva

The Joint European Torus fusion research facility. Photo: United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority.

Taking as its starting point a rather speculative account of projects to colonize cosmic space and the sun from my book Solar Politics (2022), this essay drifts towards a reflection on the nuclear futures of humanity and the dialectics of the atom between war and peace.

In 1895, Russian cosmist and theorist of rocketry and astronautics Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published a science fiction novel, Dreams about the Earth and the Sky, which alludes to the idea that humanity will eventual colonize the Milky Way galaxy. The novel describes, among other things, the belt of asteroids around the sun inhabited by colonists from bigger planets, who had overcome gravity and developed into a new, highly intelligent form of life. Proximity to the sun allows them to control the power of its rays and enjoy it as they wish. For the most effective use of the solar energy, these post-human communities decompose planets and turn them into a “necklace” that consists of rings dispersed in space and rotating around the sun.1

In 1960 a similar idea was popularized by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. He suggested that the growing energy needs of advanced technological civilizations would inevitably lead to the formation of artificial megastructures around the sun, which would capture a large amount of its energy output. If we found traces of such megastructures somewhere in the cosmos, this would prove the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. There can be various modifications to the so-called Dyson sphere, but the main principle is that there must be a piece of technology that could surround the sun and consume its energy at a maximal scale without being burned by its radiation.

In 1964, Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed measuring the level of technological development of civilizations by the amount of energy they consume. On the Kardashev scale, there are different types of civilizations. The first is called planetary civilization, which uses only the energy available on its planet. The second is stellar, which uses and controls the energy of its planetary system. The third is galactic, which makes use of all the energy in its galaxy, like the Milky Way. There are two further, even more speculative levels: the fourth type of civilization is universal, and the fifth, multi-universal, which is so powerful that it can even create universes itself, just like God. For the time being, humanity has not yet fully reached even the first level. It has not yet become a planetary civilization, which would be technically equipped for colonizing other planets. The perspective of colonizing Mars already looks realistic, but further expansion into outer space would require much greater amounts of energy.

If we consider the future of humanity, the question of energy consumption is crucial. Today, there exist three types of energy sources: 1) fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal); 2) renewables (wind, sun, water); and 3) nuclear energy (atoms). Each of these brings its own risks and harms, and each plays its own role in the drama of the apocalypse now being staged in the theater of human history: the burning of fossil fuels results in carbon emissions and climate change; renewable energy infrastructure contributes to biodiversity loss; and the threat posed by nuclear energy is associated with radioactive waste and techno-genic disasters such as Fukushima in 2011 and Chernobyl in 1986.

In spite of the hegemonic discourses of sustainability and a smooth transition from “black” fossil fuel to “green” renewables, nuclear energy still offers much bigger productive capacities for late capitalism, with its rapidly growing scale of technological development. Nuclear power plants release energy from fission. Uranium atoms are forced to break apart, and the tiny particles thus released cause other uranium atoms to split, starting a chain reaction. But there is yet another type of energy, the most powerful ever known: fusion, or nuclear synthesis. As opposed to fission, in a fusion reaction energy is released when two atoms fuse into one (hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium). The amount of energy produced by fusion is several times greater than fission, and it does not seem to cause highly radioactive waste. This energy, potentially infinite and clean, creates a utopian horizon for the future of humanity.

Technically speaking, the biggest and most powerful fusion reactor in our planetary system is the sun. The nuclear fusion constantly produced by the sun makes it the ultimate source of energy and of all life on earth. In order to colonize space, we would need to have something similar at our disposal, something like a solar substitute. For this, we have to create conditions similar to the sun on earth: extreme temperature and pressure that will force atoms to fuse. But we must also have the technical ability to control this reaction and sustain the superhot plasma necessary for it. There exist various fusion reactors around the world today, and most of them are tokamaks, which involve the heating of plasma. The problem is that they all consume more energy than they generate, and the conditions for sustaining the fusion reaction do not last long. As soon as fusion reactors reach the point of generating more energy than they consume, it will be possible to create new superpowered technologies for colonizing the whole solar system, including the sun itself. This will supposedly satisfy all the energy needs of humanity for many epochs to come.

The Dyson sphere—or something similar to it—corresponds to the second level on the Kardashev scale, the transition to which will require colossal resources: in order to obtain enough material for building such a megastructure, future generations will have to disassemble the other planets in the solar system. All that we call nature will be destroyed for the ultimate megastructure, where humans, or those who come after us, will dwell on the captured body of the sun.

Such techno-optimist utopias, especially popular in the mid-twentieth century, look to infinity. They do not consider global warming as an end-of-the-world scenario in the near future, but are rather preoccupied with cooling down the universe in a very distant future. The Dyson sphere is just one example of the fantastic belief that humanity can live as long as the sun itself, or even longer. The sun is not eternal, and after some billions of years it will transform into a red dwarf, then into a white dwarf, and then eventually cool down and die in the general process of entropy. One possible speculative solution to this problem is the so-called Dyson swarm: if humanity can manage to release an amount of fusion energy sufficient to colonize the solar system, then, using extreme amounts of stored solar power, it will be able to use the sun itself, before it dies, as a vehicle for traveling further, beyond the solar system. It will surround the sun in a swarm, and literally ride it to discover new suns and expand further into the universe.

Philosophically speaking, such progression can be called a “bad infinity.” This is a Hegelian term which means something like an endless line or a movement that never reaches its final destination and does not really achieve anything. What is at stake here is a colonial model of extractive capitalism that projects itself into infinity. After colonizing the earth, we are supposed to proceed to colonizing other planets or even other galaxies, while destroying the territories that were already conquered for the sake of further advancement. There are ever new horizons ahead, and ever more debris behind.

But there are alternative futurist fantasies, the most radical of which belongs to the Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov. In 1956, he wrote an absolutely mind-blowing essay called “Cosmology of the Spirit,” a “philosophical-poetic phantasmagoria based on the principles of dialectical materialism.”2 This essay could not be published during Ilyenkov’s lifetime, and there are reasons for this: with the strongest evidence, the essay argues that the final cause of humanity and its ultimate mission is to destroy itself and the universe entirely.

Translating the Hegelian idea of substance as subject into the language of dialectical materialism, Ilyenkov claims that matter is intelligent. The highest point of the development of thinking matter is human intelligence—not the intelligence that we have now, but the intelligence that will actualize itself in the future with the acceleration of progressive communist technologies, when humanity will ultimately expand to the Universe and become as perfect as God. As a Marxist, Ilyenkov did not believe in God, but he did believe in the advancement of the human spirit. The natural limit for its development is the process of entropy—the dissipation of energy in space and the cooling down of the universe. Ilyeknov ask: Is it possible to reverse this process? The task here is not to outlive the sun but rather to resurrect it by means of science and technology.

According to Ilyenkov, the reversal of the process of entropy cannot occur naturally. Something needs to break the natural course of things. A conscious act. Entropy brings the world to death in cold and darkness. The opposite of this process is fire. And that is why we are here—to light that fire:

At some peak point of their development, thinking beings, executing their cosmological duty and sacrificing themselves, produce a conscious cosmic catastrophe—provoking a process, a reverse “thermal dying” of cosmic matter; that is, provoking a process leading to the rebirth of dying worlds by means of a cosmic cloud of incandescent gas and vapors … In simple terms, this act materializes in the guise of a colossal cosmic explosion having a chain-like character, and the matter of which (the explosive mass) emerges as the totality of elementary structures, is dispersed by emissions through the whole universal space.3

Ilyenkov does not consider fusion, but only speaks about fission, which was more extensively researched in his time. In his theory, the smaller the particle, the greater the amount of energy released from its splitting—and he believes that future scientific and technological developments will tend towards breaking up smaller and smaller amounts of matter. If we manage to break up the smallest possible elementary particle, the entire universe will explode. The discovery of nuclear fusion makes this theory rather irrelevant, but this does not affect Ilyenkov’s broader argument about the ends of humanity. Be it fission or fusion—the splitting of the atom into two or the slamming of two atoms into one—this is what thinking beings, according to Ilyenkov, have to do: prevent the natural death of the universe by pressing some ultimate red button, intentionally destroying the world in order to make it reemerge again from the very act of its fiery destruction. And this circular movement of matter, the end of which coincides with its beginning, presents, according to Ilyenkov, a true Hegelian infinity mediated by intelligence: “Thought, as a result, also emerges as the very link in the universal big circle, through which the development of universal matter is contained in this form of the big circle—in an image of a snake biting its tail, as Hegel loved to express the image of true (as opposed to ‘bad’) infinity.”4

We can say that Ilyenkov’s cosmology presents a very peculiar version of the Big Bang theory, the temporality of which is inverted and inscribed into the old philosophical paradigm of cyclicity. Perhaps he was familiar with the work of George Gamov, who, in 1948, proposed the theory of the hot universe. Drawing on the ideas of Alexander Friedman, Georges Lemaitre, and other physicists who claimed that at the beginning of the universe there was an explosion, Gamow suggested that the primary substance for the explosion was not only very dense, but also very hot. What took place in this substance was a nuclear reaction; that is, the Big Bang was a big nuclear explosion. From Ilyenkov’s perspective, an explosion of this kind must be not a natural process but an intentional act, a violent intervention of thinking substance. This argument does not belong to natural science; it is not physics, but metaphysics; and yet this metaphysics is materialist and grounded in Marxism and dialectics. The dialectical core of his argument is very simple: the end of the universe becomes its beginning. There is no creation ex nihilo, but rather an immanent life of matter that rejuvenates itself by its own means. We are destined to produce a cosmic catastrophe just like the thinking matter of a past universe might have produced what our physicists call the Big Bang. This happened before, and will happen again. It’s a circle, a true infinity. Thinking substance is the connecting link between the end and the beginning. Its self-sacrifice gives birth to the universe an infinite number of times.

The paradigm of cyclicity, with the central place accorded to fire as both destructive and creative primal matter, is very ancient. It comes from Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher from the city of Ephesus. According to Heraclitus, fire is the “ἀρχή,” i.e., the beginning and the first principle of the world. One of the most famous of Heraclitus’s fragments (XXXVII) states:

κόσμον τόνδε τὸν αὐτὸν ἁπάντων οὔτε τις θεῶν οὔτε ἀνθρώπων ἐποίησε, ἀλλ᾿ ἦν αἰεὶ καὶ ἔστιν καὶ ἔσται πῦρ ἀείζωον, ἁπτόμενον μέτρα καὶ ἀποσβεννύμενον μέτρα

The ordering (cosmos), the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire ever living, kindled in measures and in measures going out.

This statement contains several paradoxes, and I would happily spend my life trying to exhaust the totality of its meanings, if it were not inexhaustible. Just think, for instance, about its original materialist premises, which must have sounded quite radical in the intellectual circles of Heraclitus’s time. The cosmos is not created by anyone; it is a constant immanent movement of change, fueled by the energy of the ever-living fire, and it repeats, so that the cosmological future of the universe is a mirror of the past. Heraclitus lived in 500 BC and did not know about fission, fusion, or—continuing into more recent speculative regions of physics—supernovas, whose energy release is said to be equivalent to the power of a 1028 megaton bomb. But we can surely say that his philosophical insights resonate with contemporary cosmic science.

Given that the development of nuclear energy—what we call the “peaceful atom”—historically derives from scientific research around nuclear weapons, another idea of Heraclitus—namely, that war is “the father of all things”—also takes on a new aspect. War in this sense corresponds to Heraclitean dialectics: the universe is constantly in flux, always in becoming; everything passes into its opposite; nothing is permanent except change. Fire is the image of this constant movement of change. It is both destructive and creative, but more than that, it is rational. It sets the rhythm of the universe according to the rational principle and law called “λόγος.” This fiery logos is the immanent intelligence of matter, which it fuses together. Its ontological status is controversial: it is and is not at the same time.

Parmenides of Elea (c. 515–c. 450 BC) is the opposite of Heraclitus in many respects. According to Parmenides, this way of thinking—that something both is and is not—is totally wrong. The truth is that what is, is, and what is not, is not. We can think of all that is, but never of what is not. In this sense, thinking and being are the same. Against Heraclitus, Parmenides insisted on the permanence of being and the illusionary nature of becoming. And yet it is in a poem by Parmenides, not one by Heraclitus, that, as Heidegger claimed in an interview, the atomic bomb exploded long before humanity ever came to construct it. What does Parmenides have to do with the atomic bomb? From Heidegger’s perspective, the atomic bomb is a logical consequence of Western metaphysics, which begins from what he calls “the oblivion of Being”: the metaphysical operation of blurring the difference between beings that are present (all kinds of things), and Being itself, which is not present. Heidegger believes that the very fact that a thing is—i.e., its very being—precisely is not, and our blindness towards that which is not but which nevertheless lets everything be prevents us from grasping the deep ontological complexity of the material universe. This is the essence of modern technology, which frames all historical experience as violence against the way things are. Within the paradigm of technology, grounded in post-Parmenidean Western metaphysics, things are simply present and available; the world as a sensual and meaningful coexistence is always already destroyed by a violent and objectifying technological worldview.

It is interesting to see how, in the second half of the twentieth century, both the fear of nuclear weapons and the hope for nuclear energy draw from a common source of technological thinking. Nuclear energy promises never-ending growth and the cosmic expansion of humankind, while nuclear weapons threaten to annihilate humankind entirely. In fact, these two fantasies do not compete but rather supplement each other. What if, in parallel to the “peaceful atom,” the atomic bomb can be subjected to a similar dialectical logic of the “bad” and the “true”—not just bad and true infinity, but bad and true finitude, or the bad and the true end of humanity? Bad finitude would be nuclear war, which now stands as a kind of negative regulative idea behind our current global warfare and seems to serve as a geopolitical deterrent. Nuclear and thermonuclear bombs appear as an element of endless expansion and colonization that aims to outlive the sun, but they also invite us to accelerate its death in a nuclear winter. It is the dead end of the bad infinity of capitalist growth, inherent in its very logic: the more that is produced, the more that is destroyed.

So what about true finitude? Does the Heraclitean communism of Ilyenkov’s circle present a viable alternative to the Parmenidean capitalism of the Dyson sphere? Indeed, Ilyenkov’s conscious self-destruction, which brings together the two sides—peaceful nuclear energy, which will make us able to come to the end of the universe, and nuclear weapons or something similar, which will help us accomplish this end—sounds counterintuitive to say the least. For most of us consumers of late capitalism, this way of thinking sounds utterly incomprehensible, insane, and immoral. But the question remains: Which kind of truth can be brought about by the haunting presence of nuclear bombs?

In his essay “The Apocalypse Is Disappointing,” first published in 1964, another communist thinker, Maurice Blanchot, presents an ironic account of the nuclear alarmism of his day. He points to Karl Jaspers’s assertion that, in view of humanity’s possible self-annihilation, we must change, immediately. But Blanchot contends that such calls for change do not really suggest something radically new. They are even formulated in the same language of morality that has been dominant for two thousand years. Atomic peril, according to Jaspers and other Western liberals, is equivalent to the communist peril. Therefore, what is at stake is not really change, but exactly the opposite—the task of saving the world by preserving existing structures and forms of social being.

Behind the fear of “the bomb,” which is identified with Soviet totalitarianism, there lies another hidden fear: the fear of real change. It is not that such change must come from the atomic bomb or the Soviet Union—not at all. The point is that something is wrong with the very humanity for which such a scientific and technological achievement as the bomb presents a threat. Maybe “wrong” is not exactly the correct word here: rather, in Blanchot’s view, the society that warns itself about its risks and incessantly calls for change instead of really changing is imperfect and weak. Its weakness consists in the fact that it is not yet even humanity; it does not exist as a humanity; and what does not exist, cannot be destroyed. In order to be capable of self-destruction, to master it, to be its subject, and not just an object, we must first create and affirm ourselves as a whole:

And it is not even true that the radical destruction of humanity is possible; for it to be possible, one would need the conditions of possibility to be united: real freedom, the achievement of the human community, reason as principle of unity, in other words, a totality that must be called—in the full sense—communist.5

Today, in the atmosphere of the worldwide rise of right-wing politics, polarizing national identities, the closing of state borders, the building of walls, and the shutting down of dialogue, when apocalyptic passions are inflamed by (not-so) new nuclear threats, thinking about humanity as a whole has gone out of fashion. Blanchot’s communist ideal appears incredibly far away from us. But even if it is tiny and marginal, the voice of understanding must be heard. As Blanchot puts it:

Understanding is cold and without fear. It does not mistake the importance of the atomic threat, but it analyzes it, subjects it to its measures, and, in examining the new problems that, because of its paradoxes, this threat poses for war strategy, it searches for the conditions in which the atomic threat might be reconciled to a viable existence in our divided world.6

The point is not to prohibit nuclear weapons, but to learn to experience the freedom of not using them. This would demand a totally different politics based on international collaboration and collective decision-making. In order to let the atom stay really peaceful, instead of blindly following our death drive, fueled by the fantasies of right-wing politicians who keep pushing the world towards the edge of nuclear catastrophe, we have to create ourselves as a true infinity capable of understanding its final ends and freely deciding how to enjoy its highly explosive finitude.


Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Put’ k zvezdam, Sbornik Nauchno-Fantasticheskikh Proizvedeniy (The Path to the Stars) (Izdatelstvo Academii Nauk SSSR, 1960), 126. Edited machine translation.


Evald Ilyenkov, “Cosmology of the Spirit,” Stasis 5, no. 2 (2017): 164 .


Ilyenkov, “Cosmology of the Spirit,” 185–86.


Ilyenkov, “Cosmology of the Spirit,” 187.


Maurice Blanchot, Friendship (Stanford University Press, 1997), 107.


Blanchot, Friendship, 108.

Nuclear War, Apocalypse, The Cosmos

Oxana Timofeeva is a philosopher from St. Petersburg and the author of Solar Politics (Polity 2022), How to Love a Homeland (Kayfa ta 2020), History of Animals (Bloomsbury 2018), Introduction to the Erotic Philosophy of Georges Bataille (New Literary Observer 2009), and other writings.


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