The Apocalyptic Imagination: Climate Nonfiction and the Dream of Marxist Utopia

David Randall

The end of days hastens upon us. A deepening deluge of books tells us so: some sit in the Christian section of the bookstore, but ever more accumulate over in Environment. These claim the authority of Science, emphatically capitalized, to inform us of the “climate change” soon to come unless (or even if) we change our ways: rising and acidified oceans, extreme weather—heat waves and blizzards, hurricanes and floods—desertification, ecological catastrophe, perhaps even the end of humanity. We must change our ways largely by drastically reducing emissions of carbon dioxide—to throttle by some means, and forthwith, the “carbon-industrial complex.” Cast off our coal, scrub clean its sinful particles, and we may yet be saved; Cli-Die, the angel of climate death, will pass by our doors. Keep up our sinful ways and we all shall fry in the great cli-die that’s a comin’ by-and-by. Also, end capitalism now.

Wait. What?

A peculiarly large number of these cli-die books—works of climate nonfiction that presume imminent climatological disaster—segue from preaching the end of the world to calling for universal health care, more birth control, progressive taxation, and, yes, an end to the free market. They also possess unnerving sympathy toward the authoritarian measures required to impose these measures on recalcitrant human beings: If we don’t do as the Oracle of Science directs of our own free will, then the oracle’s priests will compel us to obey. This isn’t just a bait-and-switch—although it is that, too. The heart of these books isn’t the long expositions of climate science the authors claim provide authority for their auguries, but rather their apocalyptic visions of the future. One pen portrait of a drowned New York is worth a thousand climate models.

These stories (e.g., Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, by Elizabeth Kolbert) draw ultimately upon an ancient imagery of catastrophes past that omen catastrophes to come: Akkad will fall,1 the desert sands will cover Ozymandias’s statue, and the Gods of the Copybook Headings will call us to account for making free with our Carboniferous bounties. But these apocalyptic visions root themselves more immediately in the genre of apocalyptic science fiction. Cli-die draws on cli-fi (climate fiction), and cli-fi in turn draws upon Marxist critique—which yokes its visions of apocalypse to the imperative to create a Marxist utopia. The invective against “market fundamentalism” in cli-die,2 for example, draws directly upon Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi Science in the Capital trilogy,3 which refers to the free market economy as “a cancerous tumor.”4 Cli-die and cli-fi are the latest wheezes from the old agit-prop machine: the nightmare Morlock has metamorphosed to a melting sheet of ice. When climate fiction or climate faction preaches the end of the world, the curtain of apocalyptic imagination generally draws back by the book’s end to reveal stale Marxist propaganda.

The Apocalocrypha

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, historians of science, provide the purest merging of cli-die and cli-fi in The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (2014).5 Mark Maslin, a professor of physical geography and former director of the University College London Environment Institute, authored Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction (2014), a basic survey given the Oxford University Press imprimatur.6 James Hansen, the climate scientist who first publicized global warming, forayed into the cli-die genre with Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (2011).7 It warrants attention because of its author’s eminence. Prophets of cli-die are a dime a dozen; these three are among the most notable.

The Collapse of Western Civilization provides the clearest example of how ideology governs a supposedly scientific scenario. Oreskes and Conway portray a dark future where anything that can go wrong does go wrong rather than a more strictly scientific estimate of probabilities. A geo-engineering solution, the International Aerosol Injection Climate Engineering Project, fails, and in the process degrades the environment yet further.8 Permafrost thaws, releasing trapped methane, and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets collapse.9 In the annus horribilis of 2041:

Unprecedented heat waves scorched the planet, destroying food crops around the globe. Panic ensued, with food riots in virtually every major city. Mass migration of undernourished and dehydrated individuals, coupled with explosive increases in insect populations, led to widespread outbreaks of typhus, cholera, dengue fever, yellow fever, and viral and retroviral agents never before seen.10

Oreskes and Conway add polemic to the melodrama in their slim book, including a fourteen-page invective against free market economics, a second sustained diatribe championing woozy holistic science that abandons statistical confidence for political commitment, and a third that idolizes China’s autocratic snap.11 To these tirades they add casual support for “progressive taxation and environmental regulation, and humanitarian interventions such as effective and affordable regimes of health care and birth control.”12 Oreskes and Conway interweave their narrative of impending climatic doom with a progressive political sermon.

A similar muddle afflicts Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction, a survey of the science of climate change—with a brief excursion into future prospects13—throughout which the author intermixes polemic. Maslin dislikes free markets, says climate change proves their failure, and argues that climate change also requires “building a new political system that will allow collective action and more equal distribution of wealth, resources, and opportunities.”14 He favors the mechanisms of international governance and the supersession of the “nation-state view of the world.”15 Maslin’s prescription for climate change requires that “people can have full access to fundamental rights such as: clean air and water, a nutritionally balanced diet, suitable housing, free healthcare, free education, and full employment.”16

Storms of My Grandchildren likewise mixes ideology with science. Hansen dislikes “the role of money in politics, the undue sway of special interests,” would rather have judges decide matters than politicians, and is querulously confident that anyone who disagrees with Science is a denialist who disagrees in bad faith.17 He is equally confident that we should do “what science is telling us,” and that “science demands a simple rule: Coal use must be prohibited unless and until the emissions can be captured and safely disposed of.”18 Hansen favors a massive, progressive fee-and-dividend tax on fossil fuels as a way to maintain popular support for a carbon tax by keeping it from reducing living standards of the poor, population stabilization, civil disobedience against coal companies, and the direct suggestion to “Support Bill McKibben and his organization 350.org.”19 He concludes with a very bad science fiction scenario about astronauts who return to Earth to find it transformed into a new Venus; the denunciation of Washington as having the most responsibility suggests a blunter version of the denouement of Planet of the Apes.20

Nopocalypse Now

Polemic and catastrophism do not infect all books in the genre: climatologist Heidi Cullen’s The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet (2010) and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006, updated 2015) focus on climate, not capitalism—although Kolbert gives generous space to Prof. Marty Hoffert, who grimly fears that runaway climate change may already have doomed mankind.21 Geography professor Laurence C. Smith’s The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilizations Northern Future (2011) optimistically suggests that climate change could even improve conditions for humans in the Arctic north. Catastrophe looms as possible but not certain.22 Smith does not believe science dictates to us, or that human desires must be controlled: “The projections of computer models are not edicts, but bent by social choices….To me, the more important question is not of capacity, but of desire: What kind of world do we want?”23 Smith shows that predictions of climate change do not have to end in fire, or Das Kapital.

But many do. Why?

The Fools Would Not Listen to Me!

The authors resort to apocalypse for the same reason that they resort to sketching scenarios of the future in the first place: a fumbling sense that they have failed to persuade the public through science’s normal modes of communication. Cullen laments, “The scientific community had failed to communicate the threat of climate change in a way that made it real for people right now,”24 while Hansen admits, “I have always been shy, a poor communicator, and lacking in tact.”25 Yet he, too, regards scientists, as a profession, as lacking communication skills.26 These authors also take their audience—ordinary people—as too dim-witted to comprehend the danger climate change poses. Cullen tells us that since psychologists have concluded that humans have difficulty understanding abstract dangers, we “aren’t fully capable of processing global warming in the traditional human way.”27 Scenario-sketching is an alternate way to communicate, more effective than scientific prose and more persuasive to a lamentably uninterested audience. It is a just-so story, set in the future tense.

The tradition of just-so stories as the foundation of longer trains of thought has a long history: Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia, Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees and Adam Smith’s pin manufactory. Within the genre of eco-apocalyptic nonfiction, Rachel Carson’s “A Fable for Tomorrow” at the beginning of Silent Spring is the classic work of parable in service of polemic. There Carson evokes with biblical cadence a world where “Everywhere was a shadow of death.”28 But the most immediate model for just-so stories sketching the future is the genre of science fiction.

A Better World’s in Birth

Science fiction about the consequences of climate change—climate fiction, cli-fi—has joined what is by now a long tradition of science fiction speculation about ecological apocalypses. It also connects cli-die with the political polemic inherent in such utopianism. As the Marxist critic Gerry Canavan notes,

the impulse toward the miserable, deflationary naming of all the various ongoing ecological catastrophes is always matched (if only in negative) by an inflationary, futurological impulse toward the better world that might yet be. Here utopia and apocalypse unexpectedly collapse into one another—they are each disguised versions of a single imaginative leap into futurity.29

Visions of apocalypse, in other words, are always written to persuade people here and now to work toward some alternate utopia; climate change apocalypse and climate change utopia ring the latest changes on this enduring impulse.

But note: Marxist critic. Canavan concentrates on this alternation of utopia and apocalypse precisely because it is central to Marxist theory—and in so doing reveals that this apocalyptic/utopian alternation in cli-fi is largely sublimated Marxism, the ecological apocalypses and utopias traced over their Marxist originals. Canavan once more:

The active fantasy in…dozens of [narratives]…across the field of ecological SF, is salvific: that the nightmare of exploitation, and our own complicity in these practices, might somehow be stopped, despite our inability to change….“Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” [Fredric] Jameson writes: We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.30

Apocalyptic prophecy is Marxist critique under the rose: “The fantasy of apocalypse is here unveiled as itself a mode of critique, a crying out for change.”31 To such a Marxist critic, cli-fi is another means to a Marxist end.

So, too, for the Marxist author. As it happens, the most influential work of cli-fi is the above-mentioned Science in the Capital trilogy—written by avowed Marxist Kim Stanley Robinson.32 Robinson’s self-understanding is that

I tend to use Marxist critical theory when thinking about history, ecology when thinking about the biosphere, and Buddhism when thinking cosmically or personally….And thinking of science as a critical utopian leftist political action from its very beginning—something like the best Marxist praxis so far performed in the real world—is very provocative and stimulating. Likewise thinking of science as a devotional practice, in which the universe is the sacred object of study.33

The Science in the Capital books—Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007)—illustrate this worldview.

In Robinson’s books, ever more catastrophic climate (Washington floods, North America endures Siberian winters) finally impels the Good Scientists at the National Science Foundation to plunge into politics to save the world, in cooperation with Good Progressive Politicians. Their qualms about acting undemocratically are quickly overcome: “What I’m saying is that it’s a perfectly legitimate move for us to make, even a necessary move, because…we have the only methods there are to deal with these global environmental problems” (italics in original).34 The Good Scientists’ intervention is also Buddhist, because Buddhism can motivate science to be compassionate and committed.35 Vast environmental engineering/mitigation projects ensue to save the world, working toward a “platform of political goals based on scientific principles.”36

These scientific principles aim to create a perpetually sustainable “permaculture” by reorienting the economy toward environmental protection, universal housing, reproductive rights, population stabilization, full employment, “distributing the wealth more equitably among those who have created it,” reduction of military spending, and “individual ownership of the majority of the surplus value of one’s labor.”37 Unsurprisingly, the scientists shift to support a progressive Democrat running for U.S. president as the “electable first approximation of the scientific candidate.”38 Massive climate change ultimately serves as a deus ex machina to allow a progressive president and a progressive Congress to triumph over their Evil, Conservative, Free-Market, Election-Stealing, Christian, Republican Enemies. The progressive president proceeds to set about controlling climate change by submitting unreservedly to the various bodies of international governance, “supporting the World Health Organization in all its reproductive rights and population reduction efforts,” and generally tying the environment to “social justice.”39 Buddhism contributes, since it removes those base desires that drive the free market, and hence climate change. At the very end of Robinson’s trilogy, the progressive president marries the head of the National Science Foundation; the Dalai Lama conducts the ceremony.40 Symbolism.

The Science in the Capital trilogy also satisfies a power fantasy. Robinson’s mouthpiece fulminates against a World Bank official and gloats in anticipation of firing him.41 In Robinson’s utopia, progressives at last have the whip hand.

Robinson’s work directly influences the nonfiction catastrophists—Conway and Oreskes acknowledge his inspiration.42 They share Marxist perspectives and imagine climate apocalypse as a way to push for the workers’ utopia. On balance their dreams are more Marxist than ecological. At the end of history, people give up capitalism. The planet purges itself of Adam Smith.

A predisposition to Marxism is not the only path into eco-apocalyptic thought. Odd conflations of science and morality pull other writers into the romance of ecological disaster. Rachel Carson’s argument against DDT spraying in Silent Spring (1962) slips from the scientific to the spiritual, the aesthetic, and the moral: “the beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.”43 Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) likewise decries the spiritual effects of climate change—that the death of the idea of uncontrolled nature means that humans “can no longer imagine that we are part of something larger than ourselves.”44 These slippages undercut the prudential and scientific urgency of their arguments, but they are not warmed-over exhortations to Marxist revolution. Apocalyptic climate change nonfiction can be Marxist, woozily spiritual, or even a serious estimate of what the future may hold. But scare the horses scenarios are a tell that a prediction of climate change disguises Marxizing critique.

There are better works, of course: Smith’s nuanced speculation of how the Arctic north will be in The World in 2050 is a model.45 So, for that matter, is Silent Spring. Whatever the truth of Carson’s arguments about DDT, she put her faith in the public and its ability to judge scientific matters: “The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts.”46 Carson appealed to the public as a whole against the imperious resolution by scientists and administrators to spray DDT widely.47 The thrust of most climate change fiction and nonfiction thus precisely reverses Carson’s. Here, the polemic rests upon a belief that scientists are more alarmed than the public, who need to be roused to a sufficient level of alarm.48 This polemic, moreover, deems the public incapable of disagreeing thoughtfully with scientists about climate change. Ordinary people just don’t understand.

Carson never condescended so. She believed her audience was able to appreciate a substantial argument without resort to the lures of fiction. Mostly she relied on the quality of her nonfiction prose to make her argument lucidly, even beautifully. She used parable briefly, but not as a crutch. The catastrophists’ current resort to dulled prose and fictional say-so stories registers their decreased confidence in the audience—their resort to manipulation rather than to persuasive argument. They write fiction and nonfiction avowedly in service of the technocratic elite—glorifying authoritarian science, resonant with impatience toward public opinion and democracy.

James Hansen rightly does not think much of his communicative abilities. Many of his peers share his inability to win the argument on its merits and have turned instead to writing versions of Everyman His Doom. The repeated hijacking of the speculative climate genre by Marxist critique makes a bad situation worse—but the retreat from respectful persuasion is the nub of the problem. Let the catastrophists imitate Carson, write well, and seek to persuade an audience they respect. If they cannot—well, they will continue to imagine apocalypses to justify their progressive, quasi-Marxist revolutions and their whip hands, and the manipulative way they write illustrates how they actually use power when they have it. Caveat lector.

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