“DYSTOPIA IS for losers.”
This sentence, which appears at the end of the foreword, sets the tone for this new short book of essays, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, recently published by PM Press. Catastrophic politics can roughly be defined as a politics of imminent collapse, proceeding on the basis of either attempting to avoid collapse or supporting it.
The book is not simply a survey of the different strains of catastrophic politics, but more an investigation of whether or not catastrophic politics are useful and appropriate in the current period of general and varying catastrophes. When a late season super storm smashes into the northeast coast of the United States, and the threat of economic crisis still hovers over many parts of the globe, it can be easy to preach the end of days. But as the authors point out, this is a politics of despair and ultimately a dead end.
The authors examine different types of catastrophists—from right-wing anti-multiculturalism warriors like Anders Breivik to left-wing catastrophists waiting for a final collapse of capitalism to spur the supposedly docile masses into action. While the essay on right-wing catastrophism is an interesting and enjoyable read, the most important parts of this book are the ones that dealt with catastrophism within the environmental movement and broader left-wing political movements.
Catastrophism in the realm of environmental politics is not new, but it is becoming both more common and more dangerous. What matters is not whether we find it distasteful, but whether it has been effective as a tool for resistance. And from this standpoint, catastrophism has failed.
Despite predictions of impending environmental collapse and 90 percent loss of life on the planet, large masses of people have not flocked to environmental groups, led protests demanding an end to greenhouse gas emissions, or called for the United States to take real and serious action on climate change. A recent study discussed in the book hints at the reasons for this lack of activism. Interestingly, the study found that the more an individual understands and appreciates the science behind climate change, the less likely they are to be involved in making changes.
I would caution anyone from reading too much into this as it serves no one to dumb down or bury the science, but some general conclusions can be drawn. Eddie Yuen points out the most important one in his essay. He believes there is a real and obvious incongruity between the severity of the problem and the pitiful solutions on offer from the mainstream of the environmental movement. As an example, Yuen discusses the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, in which Al Gore explains the science behind climate change and points out the massive global problems that are just around the corner. At the end of the film the solutions on offer are a variety of individual lifestyle choices including recycling and taking shorter showers, actions that will have almost no effect on the problem. Yuen posits that even without a radical analysis, people still can determine that these solutions are insignificant in the face of this gigantic problem. People realize, though perhaps subconsciously, that if this is all Al Gore has to offer, then we are already doomed and we may as well stay home and do nothing. When the massive and very real problems are not coupled with any sort of realistic and coherent set of beliefs and solutions, they serve only to demobilize people.
Catastrophic politics among left-wing radicals, discussed in the essay by Sasha Lilley, typically comes in two forms. One is rooted in the mechanical determinism of many in the Second International/Social Democratic Marxist tradition. It was these individuals who believed we could—and perhaps should—simply sit back and wait for the eventual collapse of capitalism to usher in the glorious socialist future. While that species of laissez-faire is still present in some political circles, the revolutionary socialist tradition has been largely successful in discrediting this view.
The other form of catastrophism is commonly touted today among anarchists and some ultraleft Marxists. These groups don’t so much believe the determinist argument that capitalism will collapse by itself so much as the idea that some sort of catastrophe can spark people to action. This is seen in those who think a terrorist act or some other radical action performed by a committed minority will wake up the masses to their revolutionary potential. Another variant of this is the argument that the working class needs to be more and more victimized before they will rise up. Both of these move away from the Marxist conception of working-class self-emancipation.
The authors admit that there is an allure, and even a thin veneer of plausibility, to these types of politics. However, when subject to analysis, these catastrophist arguments are very thoroughly and convincingly debunked throughout the book.
Catastrophic politics are a politics of defeat. Now more than ever we need a set of politics and beliefs that can explain the causes of the catastrophes facing the planet today while offering real and realistic solutions. This book is a superb intervention into a necessary debate on how we move forward, not simply in the environmental movement but also in the larger project of social change.
What we need is revolutionary optimism: an optimism that doesn’t deny the terrifying realities we face, but rather one that empowers us to change those realities. Without the belief that change is possible and that we can win, there will never be any meaningful action.