Why are environmentalists wishing for the end of the world?

Why are environmentalists wishing for the end of the world?

Why are environmentalists wishing for the end of the world?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
April 21 2008 4:56 PM


Is it time to start wishing for the end of the world?

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Another environmentalist of this time, Edward Abbey, was famously invested in the idea that the wilderness should be reserved for a relatively small number of people—only the physically fit and environmentally minded. In his 1980 novel of the apocalypse, Good News, the Southwest has collapsed, as has the rest of the United States and the world, after increasingly paranoid nations divert so many of their natural resources to weapons production that they lose the ability to provide food for their citizens. What survivors there are revert to a free-holding, barter-oriented society. There's a lot of violence between these anarchists and the repressive, impromptu army that springs up in the vacuum of state power. But here's the good news: The people left alive by the rampaging army get to ride horses for transportation and see the stars as they were meant to be seen.

Another doomsayer of the 1970s was Philip Wylie, who had become famous 30 years earlier when he lambasted the mothers of America for producing spoiled and coddled male children. His 1972 novel, The End of the Dream, told the story of a world that had collapsed under waves of environmental catastrophes, including a river that exploded (the Cuyahoga, taken to the next level); a poison gas event that killed most of New York City; and an invasion of sea nematodes, generated by massive imbalances in oceanic ecosystems, that ate human beings alive. However! A "Great Man" of vigor and resources has foreseen the world's downfall. This Rooseveltian figure shepherds his people into a secure location at his upstate New York manor, where he will proceed to rebuild the world with improved sexual mores and family structures.


This equation of emptiness with rebirth and human freedom was a new kind of frontier story—predicated not on distance from civilization but on the wholesale death of civilization itself. As such, it also forms the basis for Kunstler and Weisman's utopian visions. While the enviros of the 1970s worried about population, we worry about climate change, but the possibilities for post-crisis humanity remain rosy. Kunstler's glorious images of ripped-up strip malls and catamounts in empty houses echo Weisman's regenerating landscapes, and both recall the new eco-orders of Abbey and Wiley. In the perfect green apocalypse, population reduction leaves a world in which everybody wins—birds, bees, and people.

Stories of post-calamity lives can help us imagine what it would take to restructure our world in the aftermath of ecological collapse. (They can also be cathartic for those enviros who would be happy to say goodbye to their apathetic neighbors.) But it is possible to write about post-apocalyptic green utopias that don't come off tasting a bit elitist. Kim Stanley Robinson, a sci-fi author beloved by environmental theorists, has written several series of books about environmental management. The Mars trilogy and the Three Californias trilogy in particular are noteworthy for their focus on the nitty-gritty of the creation of utopia. Rather than describe a pleasantly empty post-apocalyptic world in which humans rediscover their environmental connections, Robinson's books describe endless negotiations, summits, and conferences where futuristic earthlings hash out what's to be done with their environments. This vision of crisis reimagines a greener human society without killing tons of people off or excluding women from the political process. It may be boring and bureaucratic in comparison to Kunstler's, but at least in these stories there's a sense that rethinking our environmental ethics doesn't have to mean falling into a state of frontier justice or Nietzschean domination. Let's move forward with what we have, he says, not imagine it all away.