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Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth

by David McNally, Eddie Yuen, James Davis, Doug Henwood (Foreword by)

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Amid a global zeitgeist of impending catastrophe, this book explores the culture of fear so prevalent in today's politics, economic climate, and religious extremism. The authors of this collection argue that the lens of catastrophe through which so many of today's issues are examined distorts understanding of the dynamics at the heart of numerous problems, such as


Amid a global zeitgeist of impending catastrophe, this book explores the culture of fear so prevalent in today's politics, economic climate, and religious extremism. The authors of this collection argue that the lens of catastrophe through which so many of today's issues are examined distorts understanding of the dynamics at the heart of numerous problems, such as global warming, ultimately halting progress and transformation. Arguing that catastrophic thinking results in paralysis or reactionary politics, the authors posit that the myths of 2012 have negative affects across the political spectrum and urge activists not to give up their beliefs and instead focus on working on issues now instead of waiting until society has ended and needs to be rebuilt.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Each of the four essays in this evenhanded volume examines a facet of the tendency in the “Global North” (i.e., North America and Europe) to view current events in apocalyptic terms. Yuen (Confronting Capitalism, co-editor) believes that “the ubiquity of apocalypse in recent decades has led to a banalization of the concept”; awareness of climate change, for example, has begotten apathy rather than action, and Yuen proposes a return to grassroots activism to solve this. Lilley (Capital and Its Discontents) traces the leftist history of catastrophism, as manifested in hopes of the demise of capitalism, while documentary filmmaker Davis comes at the concept from the right, exploring Judeo-Christian beliefs about disaster and how end-time ideologies tend “to shift the focus from essential questions of public policy... and onto abstractions.” In the final essay, McNally (Global Slump) pegs the recent popularity of zombies as arising from “catastrophic imaginings of everyday corporeal vulnerability.” The thread connecting these articles is a desire to strip the rhetoric of catastrophism from all sides so that society can confront and solve real threats, and while the prose veers from jargon to straight talk and back again, each author offers valuable contributions to the discourse. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

"The thread connecting these articles is a desire to strip the rhetoric of catastrophism from all sides so that society can confront and solve real threats, and while the prose veers from jargon to straight talk and back again, each author offers valuable contributions to the discourse." —Publishers Weekly

"Catastrophism is an important contribution to ongoing conversations about strategy and organizing on the left." —Scott Neigh, A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land

"At its heart, Catastrophism states that fear-based politics are a dead end. Hopefully, this can be the spark for new discussions, more rational debate, and a collective change in direction for government." —www.CityBookReview.com

"According to the authors, catastrophism hinders, rather than hastens, political action on climate change or the development of a new economic system." —Brooklyn Rail

"Catastrophism launches a vital conversation for our crisis-laden era. In a time of real dangers and unreal cures, this is a book to read and savor with family and friends." —www.populist.com

"Posited as an intervention of sorts, Catastrophism is seemingly aimed to create debate on the Left." —www.LeftEyeOnBooks.com

"The author’s call for an environmental and left-wing politics animated by a faith in people’s ability to change the world is all the more timely." —Nicholas Beuret, Red Pepper

Product Details

PM Press
Publication date:
Spectre Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth

By Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, James Davis

PM Press

Copyright © 2012 PM Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-804-3


The Politics of Failure Have Failed: The Environmental Movement and Catastrophism

Eddie Yuen

THE SPECTRE OF APOCALYPSE HAUNTS THE WORLD TODAY. Every political, cultural, and aesthetic field that we look at is replete with talk of catastrophe. This poses a particular challenge for environmentalists and scientists who are tasked with raising awareness about what is unquestionably a genuinely catastrophic moment in human and planetary history. Of all of the forms of catastrophic discourse on offer, the collapse of ecological systems is unique in that it is definitively verified by a consensus within the scientific community. The growing body of evidence is alarming. In addition to the well-known crisis of climate change, leading scientists have listed eight other planetary boundaries that must not be crossed if the earth is to remain habitable for humans and many other species. These interrelated calamities include ocean acidification, the disruption of the nitrogen cycle, and the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, all of which are truly apocalyptic. It is absolutely urgent to address this by effectively and rapidly changing the direction of human society. Unfortunately, discussion of this crisis and how to tackle it is often dominated by an undifferentiated catastrophist discourse that presumes apocalyptic warnings will lead to political action and hinders rather than helps the efforts of activists, scholars, scientists, and concerned people in general in bringing about the dramatic changes required.

In a world system saturated with instrumental, spurious, and sometimes maniacal versions of catastrophism — including right-wing racial paranoia, religious millenarianism, liberal panics over fascism, leftist fetishization of capitalist collapse, capitalist invocation of the "shock doctrine," and pop culture cliché — what is the best way to articulate the all-too-real evidence for accelerating environmental catastrophe? Is there, in fact, an inherently liberatory or radical politics that stems from a recognition of ecological catastrophe? If there is not, what effects do catastrophist rhetorics have on radical environmental movement building? As this essay will argue, even when dire environmental prognostications are accurate — and the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that they are — it is often the case that knowledge of "the facts" does not lead to an increase in political engagement. Given how high the stakes are, it is vitally important that environmental and climate movements understand the problems with catastrophism.

The foundational problematic of this book is the question of politicization: what narrative strategies are most likely to generate effective and radical social movements?

This essay will examine the main reasons that environmental catastrophism has not led to more dynamic social movements; 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 will also explore capitalism's relationship to catastrophe and how the effects of environmental crises differ in their impact depending on place, race, gender, and class. The chapter examines how the long history of Malthusianism and previous false prophecies — doomsday predictions that did not come true — have shaped the current discourse. It explores the ways in which catastrophism may serve the interests of corporations. It concludes that unless some differentiation is made between antagonistic human communities, classes, and interests, environmental catastrophism may end up exacerbating the very problems to which it seeks to call attention.

We must start this inquiry by understanding that the veracity of apocalyptic claims about ecological collapse are separate from their effects on social, political, and economic life. One recent study found that, for many Americans, the more that is known about global warming, the less "personal responsibility" people feel for acting upon the crisis. After surveying nearly 1,100 people, the authors state that "more informed respondents both feel less personally responsible for global warming, and also show less concern for global warming." They conclude that, "high levels of confidence in scientists among Americans led to a decreased sense of responsibility for global warming." Unfortunately, this evidence shows that once convinced of apocalyptic scenarios, many Americans become more apathetic. These studies illuminate basic political problems with the catastrophist rhetoric of the scientific and environmental communities. Why might their doomsday messages not be generating the desired results? This chapter is organized around several responses to this question.

Normalization of Catastrophe

Western discourses regarding the relation to nature have frequently swung on a pendulum between cornucopian optimism and triumphalism on one pole and unrelieved pessimism not only of our powers to escape from the clutches of naturally imposed limits but even to be autonomous beings outside of nature-driven necessities at the other pole. ... There is ... nothing more ideologically powerful for capitalist interests to have at hand than unconstrained technological optimism and doctrines of progress ineluctably coupled to a doom-saying Malthusianism that can conveniently be blamed when, as inevitably they do, things go wrong.

David Harvey

A common starting point for environmental catastrophism is that capitalist modernity is the best of all possible worlds, but is currently facing some exceptional problems. In this view, once these potentially disastrous problems are recognized, a combination of scientific innovation and popular belt-tightening should make possible a new period of growth without any fundamental changes. Rather than seeing the various ecological crises converging now as exceptional, we must understand them as part of an inherently catastrophic mode of producing and reproducing social life. We must not take for granted the grinding, quotidian catastrophe of capitalism during the times when we are faced with exceptional calamities. This is especially true in our understanding of ecology, which has been profoundly shaped by the last five centuries of enclosure and commodification, a process that has accelerated in recent years.

Another pole of environmental catastrophism is that the current crisis is endemic to "civilization," or human nature itself. In some iterations, this also means that there is no differentiation between types of civilization, modes of production, culture, or technology. In some of these perspectives, all human activity is equally destructive, whether the mass extinctions caused to the "new lands" of Oceania and the Americas by Polynesians and Paleo-Indian or the current corporate ransacking of the planet by Chevron, Freeport-McMoRan, and RTZ. This deeply pessimistic "primitivist" catastrophism places the problem too far upstream to speak meaningfully to the current crisis. The paradox of today's environmental crisis is that it is so tragically preventable: the great majority of capitalist production and consumption is patently unnecessary.

In the absence of a critique of the specific political and economic system in which the current ecological crisis is situated, the only solutions on offer will be moralistic and technocratic. Worse still, there is a real danger that right-wing and nationalist solutions to the environmental crisis will become increasingly appealing. For these reasons, the stakes of accurately understanding the relationship between ecological and capitalist crisis could not be higher.

In her classic 1993 polemic against "apocalyptic environmentalism," geographer Cindi Katz argued that a politics of fear is rooted in the basic dichotomy of devastation or salvation, and ultimately breeds hopelessness. Overly generalized discussions of ecological collapse, for all their ostensible good intentions, tend to foreclose agency by functioning as a "totalizing narrative to end all totalizing narratives." Historicizing the crisis does not diminish it. As Katz argues "contemporary problems are so serious that rendering them apocalyptic obscures their political ecology — their sources, their political, economic and social dimensions." Again, the issue is not the veracity of the science, but rather the larger politics within which the science is couched.

When we analyze the prevailing discourses on ecological collapse from an anticapitalist perspective, we better understand why many attempts at mass organizing have heretofore fallen flat. By pairing catastrophic information with glaringly inadequate solutions, the (majority of) scientific and environmental communities have offered little to inspire mobilization. Popular environmental films such as An Inconvenient Truth follow compelling evidence for ecological collapse with woefully inadequate injunctions to green consumption or lobbying of political representatives. The underlying message is that the only available form of political agency lies in being an individual consumer within the marketplace. For the same reason that a near plurality of Americans does not vote, ordinary people don't see "consuming virtuously" as a plausible solution. After all, why buy more expensive toilet paper or spend hours of unpaid labor separating trash when BP went back to making profits with oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico not long after the Deep Water Horizon disaster? At best, such individualized response to the environmental crisis leads to existential, expressive, and voluntarist politics. A more common outcome, however, seems to be acute disempowerment and disengagement with environmental politics altogether. It is no wonder that the fear-based appeals to catastrophism favored by many environmentalists and scientists have not had the desired effects.

None of this critique is meant to disparage the remarkable work done by many environmental organizations, networks, and activists over the last few decades on issues ranging from anti-mining and anti-dam campaigns, conservation biology and biodiversity, protection of old growth and contiguous eco-systems, struggles to regulate and ultimately abolish toxic, nuclear and fossil fuel production, and many other issues. Were it not for this work, there would truly be no hope, and it is worth mentioning that environmental and climate justice perspectives are steadily gaining traction in internal environmental debates.

The Apocalypse Has Already Been Televised

It is a paradox of the twenty-first century that just as the contours of multipronged environmental crisis are coming into sharp focus, the world, and especially the United States, may be suffering from "catastrophe fatigue." Apocalyptic imagery has saturated popular culture for decades, but came to a boil with the "rapture" of 2011, the apocryphal "Mayan" prophecy of 2012, racist anxiety over the erosion of white majorities in the Global North, theocratic panic over the changing gender order, the ongoing financial meltdown, and the endless stream of "end-times" movies and video games. The ubiquity of apocalypse in recent decades has led to a banalization of the concept — it is seen as normal, expected, in a sense comfortable. When a crisis does occur, people immediately reference it to movies, and there are now CGI images that serve as reference points for any conceivable disaster. Environmentalists and scientists must compete in this marketplace of catastrophe, and find themselves struggling to be heard above the din.

In this crowded field, increased awareness of environmental crisis will not likely translate into a more ecological lifestyle, let alone an activist orientation against the root causes of environmental degradation. In fact, right-wing and nationalist environmental politics have much more to gain from an embrace of catastrophism. This is especially true if the invocation of fear is the primary rhetorical device. Fear, as Rainer Werner Fassbinder pointed out, can "eat the soul." Fear is not a stable place to organize a radical politics, but it can be a very effective platform from which to launch a campaign of populist xenophobia or authoritarian technocracy under the sign of scarcity. Needless to say, fear is a logical and probably inevitable response to any person fully realizing the dire condition of the planet and its eco-systems right now. Emerging social movements will have to address this fear through a range of creative, directly democratic, and collective projects. This project is urgent, as environmental fears can be easily manipulated by capital and the state. Naomi Klein has famously described how the threat of economic disaster is a prerequisite for the "Shock Doctrine," and it is not hard to envision environmental correlates of this. An undifferentiated narrative of environmental doom is disempowering and encourages feelings of helplessness.

One useful model for comparison is the "scared straight" programs designed to steer teenagers away from drugs, gangs, and crime. Despite their fearsome reputation, these programs have been about as effective in intimidating working class youth from "high-risk" activity as abstinence only education has been in preventing teenage sex or DARE programs have been in curtailing drug use. Such fear-based approaches fail in part because they are focused on changing individual behavior in the absence of structural critiques of the root causes of the problem (environmental crisis, addiction, crime, poverty, alienation, etc.). What good are moralistic and therapeutic proscriptions to social problems in the absence of more substantive, structural approaches to the dangers facing working class youth? By analogy, even if Americans were "scared straight" by Al Gore on the issue of climate change, what solutions does An Inconvenient Truth offer? The injunction to consume less or better (like the appeals to youth to refrain from sex, drugs, and gangs) is fundamentally at odds with the logic of post-Fordist capitalist culture that celebrates hedonistic accumulation unmoored from any "work ethic." For the earnest green consumer calculating his or her carbon footprint or the inner city youth wearing their chastity bracelets and "Just Say No" T-shirts, the prospects of "relapse" are quite high.

Why do most fear-mongering and doomsday scenarios have little to no politicizing effect at all? According to the aforementioned surveys, once convinced of catastrophic climate change, many Americans become more apathetic. To understand this, we must look to the conditions of atomization, depoliticization, powerlessness, and alienation that afflict the U.S. body politic generally. In these climate opinion studies, the only mentioned prescriptions center on individual consumption. To their credit, many people know better. They realize that individual consumer choice is largely irrelevant. For the same reason that people don't vote, Americans don't see "consuming virtuously" as a plausible solution. This is a "glass half full" observation of sorts, as it shows that Americans can see through the façade of electoral politics, green consumerism, and blind faith in technocratic elites. It will remain a "glass half empty" situation, however, unless effective, participatory alternatives are realized. As it stands, undifferentiated environmental catastrophism leads to what Eric Swyngedouw calls a "post-politics" of administration by experts, and this will remain so until new forms of mass movements emerge. For many people, "waking up" in the context of alienation is profoundly disempowering, for the truth alone does not set one free.

This outcome is but one aspect of a general confusion concerning the process of politicization in the last forty years. An unfortunate consequence of the extraordinary social eruptions of the 1960s was the template of politicization it established. The process by which millions of people "woke up" in the United States was in many respects unique to that era and is not replicable. This is due not only to the extraordinary wealth and rising expectations of that decade but, even more so, to the naïveté of that period which had itself emerged from the "clean slate" created by the repression of McCarthyism. For this reason, the shock of the JFK assassination, the shattering impact of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and the stunned disbelief greeting news of U.S. atrocities in Vietnam had a profound effect that cannot be replicated. Try as they might, activists cannot reproduce the revelatory disbelief of these traumas, the "loss of innocence," and the fervent activism that often followed. Many white Americans felt betrayed by a country that they felt had lied to them, but they still felt entitled and empowered as citizens to act. The starting subjectivity of the last forty years could not be more different. A bitter skepticism toward government, media, and science is deeply rooted in publics worldwide, very prominently in the United States. In a culture of atomized cynicism, the doomsaying pronouncements of credentialed scientists will not cause the "scales to fall from the eyes" with regard to carbon emissions any more than the ghastly revelations of the Haditha massacre in Iraq in 2005 caused a revulsion comparable to the news of the My Lai atrocities of 1968.


Excerpted from Catastrophism by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, James Davis. Copyright © 2012 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"The thread connecting these articles is a desire to strip the rhetoric of catastrophism from all sides so that society can confront and solve real threats, and while the prose veers from jargon to straight talk and back again, each author offers valuable contributions to the discourse." -Publishers Weekly (January 26, 2013)

"This is a controversial book that challenges many of the unexamined assumptions on the left (as well as on the right). It is a warning not to abandon everyday anti-capitalist politics for a politics of absolute fear that inevitably leads to inaction."  —Silvia Federici, author, Revolution at Point Zero

"Definitive and momentous, this book should be mandatory reading for everyone who wishes to comprehend the world we live in and change it for the better."  —George Katsiaficas, author, Asia's Unknown Uprisings

"Posited as an intervention of sorts, Catastrophism is seemingly aimed to create debate on the Left." —www.LeftEyeOnBooks.com

"The book is certain to spark the debate its authors intended, and perhaps create conversations about the need for the kind of organizing that must happen to initiate the diverse social justice agenda many progressives profess to want." —www.MrZine.MonthlyReview.org

"Catastrophism launches a vital conversation for our crisis-laden era. In a time of real dangers and unreal cures, this is a book to read and savor with family and friends." —www.populist.com

Meet the Author

Sasha Lilley is a writer and radio broadcaster and the author of Capital and Its Discontents. She lives in Oakland, California. David McNally is a professor of political science at York University in Toronto. He is the author of Another World and Global Slump. He lives in Toronto. Eddie Yuen teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute and is the author of Confronting Capitalism. He lives in San Francisco. James Davis is a documentary filmmaker. He lives in San Francisco. Doug Henwood is a publisher and editor. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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