To call an event unthinkable is to at once envisage its unfolding and render it off-limits to the imagination; once summoned to mind, unthinkable events are immediately cast off as inconceivable. It is a term with apocalyptic associations that date to the Cold War, when American defense strategists were tasked with “thinking the unthinkable”—dreaming up scenarios by which thermonuclear war could occur.  In the context of our current planetary condition, this unthinkable-apocalypse dyad has been forcefully reanimated, becoming a common refrain as storm after storm is declared to have wrought “unthinkable” damage on a city.  

At the same time, a practice of thinking the unthinkable enacts a politics of unthinkability: the responses to apocalyptic futures that are imagined reveal fundamental assumptions about how the world works and how it will work in the future. What visions of the future are implicitly posited, for example, when responses to the threat of global-scale environmental crises come in the form of reusable grocery bags, LEED certification, and the Paris Climate Accord? What possible alternative worlds are foreclosed when resilient urbanism and geoengineering become the shared conceptual vocabulary among urban planners, or when the project of rebuilding hurricane-ravaged islands is reimagined as a demonstration of scalability for Tesla Powerpack battery systems and Alphabet’s solar-powered cell service balloons?

The unthinkable calls attention to absence and to the futures foreclosed by the actions of others. It compels us to read against the normalizing grain of everyday life to ask why, at a given moment, certain responses to the climate crisis are dubbed tenable. “It matters what thoughts think thoughts,” Donna Haraway reminds us. The logics that structure humans’ responses to the existential threat of planetary collapse are as laden with politics as the responses themselves. To think the unthinkable, then, is to unearth the formations of power that render certain futures unimaginable by recovering how the story could have been otherwise.

Defined by Leah Aronowsky
1. See, for example, Herman Kahn and Irwin Mann, ‘War Gaming,’ Rand Corporation Report, 1167, 30 July 1957; and Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable (New York: Horizon Press, 1962).

2. In the US context, consider Governor Chris Christie’s assessment of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy and, more recently, the National Weather Service’s warning via Twitter that Hurricane Harvey would be an “unprecedented” event, with impacts“unknown and beyond anything experienced.”

3. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 35.