Why are environmentalists wishing for the end of the world?

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

Envirogeddon!

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

James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand

James Howard Kunstler, author of the cranky anti-sprawl manifesto Geography of Nowhere and the alarmist peak-oil diatribe The Long Emergency, is, as Paul Greenberg pointed out in the New York Times Book Review yesterday, an environmentalist obsessed with a secular Armageddon. His latest book, published in February, is World Made by Hand. The novel describes one glorious summer in the life of a man in a small, upstate New York town after oil shortages, climate change, and nuclear war have destroyed the world. Notably, it was blurbed by Alan Weisman, another visionary of the eco-apocalypse. Last year, in The World Without Us, Weisman imagined how nonhuman nature might retake the globe after a total extinction of Homo sapiens. Both accounts suggest a fascination with environmental destruction that verges on wishful thinking. Why can't the world just collapse already? Then "we"—or, at least, those of us with taste, discretion, and true environmental feeling—could get on with the business of remaking it … without all those pesky extra people around.

Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

World Made by Hand takes place a couple of decades in the future, after a series of rolling catastrophes has left people without electricity, communications, or transportation infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of others have died of the "Mexican flu." Despite their burdens, the men and women of this imaginary world seem to have pretty good lives. Robert has lost his wife and children, but now he lives in an Arts and Crafts bungalow and makes his living as a carpenter—having been rescued, by the apocalypse, from an emasculating job as a software-marketing guy. The townspeople replace the suburban infrastructure with ever-more creative and beautiful houses and hold lively square dances. A beautiful and much younger widow, needing protection, falls into Robert's bed and makes him chicken stew with new potatoes and peas for dinner. (Kunstler's post-apocalyptic women have given up trying to be involved in government for their true roles as cooks and sex partners.) Even the occasional bouts of violence are cleansing, putting hair on Robert's sunken chest. In short, thanks to the world's upheaval, Robert becomes a true man while the people around him become a true community.

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I would write off this hatefully regressive book as a fluke, unconnected to the environmentalism I know and love, if not for the resonances it shares with so many other green fantasies of the apocalypse. Kunstler and Weisman seem to relish the idea of an emptier earth—a longing that must have grown during eight years of Bush-era inaction on climate change and pollution. Their stories invite us to imagine how awesome the world would be if we could just live through one tiny apocalypse: Politicians, naysayers, and people who drive Hummers would get their final comeuppance. This strain of thought dates back to the 1970s, when, as anthropologist Bernard James wrote in his 1973 book The Death of Progress, "there [was] a sense of desperation in the air, a sense that man has been pitchforked by science and technology into a new and precarious age." After the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969 and the oil crisis rearranged perceptions of America's place in a global economy, some environmentalists turned to dire predictions as a way of shocking citizens into action. A few of these Cassandras wondered whether there might be positive outcomes for those who lived through the fall.

But the sunny environmental apocalypse has its roots in the thinking of the first American environmentalists. These turn-of-the-century gents were obsessed with the "tonic" provided by an individual's immersion into pure wilderness. Frontier stories—which describe landscapes where other humans are scarce, technology and law are nonexistent, and Nature reigns—are ancestors of the positive apocalyptic tales of both the 1970s and today. As many recent writers have pointed out, the idea of "wilderness," experienced by one happy camper, necessarily excludes many of the people now existing on earth—or, at least, relegates them to some other non-"wild" place.

The apocalyptic stories of the anxious 1970s indulged in this frontier dream of wiping the slate clean and starting over. This was the moment when overpopulation began to seem like a big problem, aided and abetted by tomes such as Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, published in 1968. Ehrlich has already been taken to task for his own fantasy of redemption through annihilation, imagining that potential die-offs or dramatic mass sterilizations would be necessary for a more balanced environment. Ehrlich apologized for his bluntness even as he advocated sending trained medical professionals to India to perform vasectomies. For the United States, he proposed the creation of a Department of Population and Environment to regulate procreation and industry and suggested that with a little government planning, we might all achieve an easygoing, pre-20th-century lifestyle with "more fishing, more relaxing, more time to watch TV, more time to drink beer (in bottles that must be returned)."

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