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.

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)."

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.