End Times

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth
By Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, James Davis, with a foreword by Doug Henwood
PM Press, 2012, 192 pages

There are four essays in this slim volume: one on left catastrophism, one on green catastrophism, one on right catastrophism, and one on zombies. I’m most interested in the left and the greens, though we do need to keep an eye on the right. As for the zombie craze, doesn’t it just come down to the fact that modern life feels like people keep trying to eat your face off?

Doug Henwood’s preface sets the stage nicely. He makes a point that all green pessimists should keep in mind at all times: “Catastrophe can be paralyzing, not mobilizing.” The challenge is to remember this even as we face the real and present catastrophe that’s now visible on the horizon.

book cover depicting an exploding planet Earth

Catastrophism comes at a good time for the green movement, which is undergoing big changes. The key point is that, even as we struggle to come to terms with the latest climate science, we need to remember (see particularly James Davis’s essay) that catastrophism is the native terrain of the right. This is not to say that environmentalism itself is biased toward the right – just the contrary – but it has flirted with catastrophism for a long time, and along the way it has had a number of unfortunate dalliances, particularly with right-wing populationism and xenophobia.

The challenge now is to invent a just and inclusive politics of planetary limits, while remembering the long history in which “natural limits” and “scarcity” have served to justify class stratification and economic exclusion. This is exactly why it’s such a problem that so many enviros actually believe, sometimes privately and sometimes not, that our civilization is altogether beyond redemption.

Here’s Sasha Lilly, from her introduction:

Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber – if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.

Examples of such “ever-intensified” environmentalist rhetoric abound. Paul Ehrlich’s prediction of global famine by the end of the twentieth century is of course a classic, but there’s a lot more to regret as well. Helen Caldecott, Chris Hedges, and James Howard Kunstler are all called onto the carpet, as is Derrick Jensen, who seems intent on becoming a caricature of self-aggrandizing green despair. The authors go beyond a merely cultural critique. As Lilly notes, “Catastrophic politics have a lengthy track record of failure.” We shouldn’t be spending our time trying to make that record even longer. We should be planning for success, and that means putting global economic justice square at the center of the green political agenda. Which, by the way, is just the sort of development that the right would regard as an unmitigated catastrophe.

In his essay, Eddie Yuen surveys the main reasons that environmental catastrophism has not led to more dynamic social movements. He says these include “catastrophe fatigue, the paralyzing effects of fear, the pairing of overwhelmingly bleak analysis with inadequate solutions, and a misunderstanding of the process of politicization.” It’s a fine, crisp summary, and though I sense that the green movement is further along in its re-definition than Yuen gives it credit for, he raises a host of good points. When it comes to the weakness of environmentalism-as-usual, I am quite unable to improve upon his key formulation: “the pairing of overwhelmingly bleak analysis with inadequate solutions.”

The inadequacy of our solutions is indeed the problem. Although we have almost all the technology that we need to save ourselves, and the science to develop the rest, and plenty of money besides, few people believe that we’re going to rise to the occasion. They go straight “from aware to despair,” and the awful truth is that, in this, the greens are not altogether innocent bystanders.

The good news is that the need for a global emergency mobilization is now well understood. And there’s the fact that catastrophe is not our immutable fate – not yet in any case. So the next time you feel the temptation to foretell doom, just say no. As Henwood asks, “Wouldn’t it be better to spin narratives of how humans are marvelously resourceful creatures who could do a lot better with the intellectual, social, and material resources we have?”

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