The environmental movement has traditionally relied on apocalyptic imagery. As the sociologist Håkan Thörn points out, it stands out compared to most other movements through its “future-oriented pessimism”: Utopia has been less important to it as a mobilizing tool than the fear of a coming catastrophe or collapse (Thörn 1997: 322, 372). Recent developments, however, suggest that this may be changing, reflecting new struggles more focused on current catastrophes.
While apocalyptic imagery still dominates much of environmentalism, an increasing number of environmental campaigns seem to be driven more by outrage at ongoing catastrophes than by fear of future ones. Take three recent well-known waves of protest that have infused fresh anti-institutional energy in the environmental movement: (1) the struggles of indigenous peoples to defend their autonomy and the rights of Mother Nature (for an example, see the Rights of Nature Tribunals); (2) the Japanese post-Fukushima anti-nuclear power movement; and (3) the wave of environmental activism which Naomi Klein refers to as “blockadia” and which she describes as a “conflict zone” cropping up “wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines” (Klein 2014:294f). What unites these protests is that they are driven to a considerable extent by outrage at losses that are in the process of happening or that have already happened, in specific locales and in ways that victimizes specific groups. The emergence of cultural movements like Dark Mountain that accept the catastrophe’s arrival as inevitable similarly indicates a shift away from mainstream apocalyptic rhetoric. This shift is also reflected in the UNFCCC process (the UN-led climate negotiations), where the pressure of parties and organizations from the global south has resulted in adaptation and loss-and-damage being given increasing weight at the expense of mitigation.
Meanwhile, voices offering criticism of the traditional apocalyptic imagery have become more common. The geographer Erik Swyngedouw (2010) believes that this imagery has become part and parcel of a post-political framing of the climate supported by large segments of the establishment itself. The political scientist Chris Methmann (2013) similarly observes that alarmist reports invoking future catastrophes are insufficient to move politicians to take the necessary steps to curb the environmental destruction. The apocalyptic rhetoric, he states, is sustained by its success – not in reducing emissions but, perversely, in depoliticization, in deflecting criticism of the system. In response to such future-oriented apocalyptic discourse, Swyngedouw (2013) points out that to many people the apocalypse is already here, especially in the global south. To him, it is this insight that is mobilizing. People are increasingly protesting not only out of fear for the future, but also out of anger at an already ongoing catastrophe and to demand justice.
The picture of a world in which apocalyptic destruction is allowed to play itself out unperturbed by an officially supported apocalyptical imagery suggests what might be called a post-apocalyptic sensibility. By that I mean a sensibility that becomes dominant when people start to experience themselves as victims of a loss that they are powerless to prevent or that has already occurred. When that happens the loss becomes internalized as an inescapable fact that becomes the point of departure for all future political action. The writer and Marxist theorist Evan Calder Williams’ Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (2011) provides a way to understand the politics that may grow out of this sensibility. “The world is already apocalyptic”, he writes, “Just not all at the same time” (Williams 2011: 149). The post-apocalypse is not a simple reflection of actual and future destruction. It is a perspectival stance through which “we accept the present as rubbish”. Only by adopting this attitude, he believes, can we begin to see the weak possibilities that exist for counteracting the ongoing catastrophe and salvaging what is buried in the rubble (ibid. 9-13). The post-apocalypse, then, doesn’t mean that things won’t get any worse. They may certainly grow worse. But while preventing that, people must also redress wrongs, help victims and do what they can in the ruins.
Today, a post-apocalyptic discourse seems to gaining ground in environmentalism. It assumed clearer form in the wake of the widespread disappointment generated by the COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen 2009, which boosted skepticism regarding the institutions of global climate governance and the mainstream environmentalist discourses associated with them. While to some extent sharing roots with broader cultural shifts towards a postapocalyptic sensibility (e.g. Berger 1999), this discourse stands out by its political incisiveness and mobilizing power, which stem from another of its discursive roots, namely attempts by Marxist critics to bring back issues of class and inequality into environmentalism (Katz 1995, Lilley et al. 2012). While the goal of preventing loss may have been toned down, the goals of achieving justice and salvaging what can be saved thus remain central as sources of political mobilization.
If these voices and forms of activism are indicative of a larger shift in the environmental movement, then we may need to rethink some assumptions about the latter. Since the apocalypse is socially and geographically uneven, issues such as justice and inequality are likely to become permanent features of environmentalist discourse. Furthermore, to the extent that activism can be grounded in the lived experience of people rather than on the authority of science, it is possible that the prominent role of natural scientists in the environmental movement will diminish in the future. Lastly, recovery and salvage may very well become major goals of much environmental activism, along with older goals such as preserving nature or limiting damage.
Berger, James (1999) After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Katz, Cindi (1995) “Under the Falling Sky: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and the Production of Nature”, pp 276-282, in Antonio Callari & Stephen Cullenberg & Carole Biewener (eds) Marxism in the Postmodern Age: Confronting the New World Order, New York: The Guilford Press.
Klein, Naomi (2014) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Lilley, Sasha & McNally, David & Yuen, Eddie & Davis, James (2012) Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Oakland: PM Press.
Methmann, Chris (2013) “The Sky is the Limit: Global Warming as Global Governmentality”, European Journal of International Relations 19(1): 69-91.
Swyngedouw Erik (2010) “Apocalypse Forever? Post-political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change”, Theory Culture & Society 27(2-3): 213-232.
Swyngedouw, Erik (2013) “Apocalypse Now! Fear and Doomsday Pleasures”, Capitalism Nature Socialism 24(1): 9-18.
Thörn, Håkan (1997) Rörelser i det moderna: Politik, modernitet och kollektiv identitet i Europa 1789-1989, Stockholm: Tiden Athena.
Williams, Evan Calder (2011) Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, Winchester: Zero Books.