When the apocalypse arrived no one knew it could be so seductive. In the Pacific Northwest global warming has meant winter days fit for lounging outside in t-shirts. Parched forests now on fire are producing surreal tangerine-orange sunlight. The heat has wreaked havoc on everything from snowpack to marine estuaries, but it also means a longer growing season and perhaps greater crop diversification.
This is not to put smiley faces on the four horseman. Humanity, after taking over the driver’s seat of evolution, has crashed it into the brick wall of industrial civilization.
Nonetheless, the apocalyptic world is what we make of it. We are now in a salvage operation where our goals are to recuperate and regenerate the disappearing world.
Blame cannot be spread equally. The culprits, the states, corporations, and institutions, are so few they can be named. For decades they have worked feverishly to block any meaningful transition away from a fossil-fuel economy. In 2015, atmospheric carbon dioxide blew past 400 parts per million, the highest level in the last 23 million years, and greenhouse gas emissions are increasing. One world is ending because of the sixth great extinction, pollution, deforestation, collapse of fisheries, sea-level rise, wildfires, invasive species, and coral-reef die-offs.
One name for the new world is the “anthropocene biosphere.” Some scientists say our impact is so profound humans have initiated just the third stage of evolution in 3.8 billion years. This includes mass loss of biodiversity and homogenization of what remains. Carried on the arteries of commerce, “neobiota” like cats, rats, and mussels are so prolific they’ll be immortalized in the fossil record. We’ve broken the “photosynthetic energy barrier” with oil coal and natural gas. We have colonized or modified every ecological niche. We have reset evolution through industrial and monoculture farming, pollution, breeding, genetic technologies, and emerging synthetic biology. We have created a technosphere dependent on and in competition with the biosphere, and which may merge living with machine.
For all this, humans are incapable of ending the world. One biologist notes, “Sterilizing the planet to remove all life would require something like melting the Earth’s crust to molten lava and boiling off the oceans and atmosphere.” In the previous five mass extinction events in earth history, the biosphere flourished once more after several million years. That’s small comfort here and now, but it has implications for apocalyptic living. Given predictions of earth as a celestial cinder, an increasingly common impulse on the left is to despair, thinking society will erode into a desertscape of warlords, techno-scavengers, and water-worshipping cults before homo sapiens wink out of existence. The right, meanwhile, is gripped by magical denialism. About 40 percent of the U.S. public believes, against all evidence, that the warming is due to natural causes.
End-of-history thinking paralyzes us to act, while denialism serves the interests of business-as-usual rulers. We need another option: embracing our science-fiction future where the experiment that began with the rise of capitalism and the burning of fossil fuels has slipped out of our grasp.
The thought-provoking Donna Haraway spans the real to the imagined in considering the many irreversible losses upon us and the ones to come. She suggests creating “webs of speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction, and scientific fact” as a way to “to join forces to reconstitute refuges.”
This is not a postmodern broadside against grand narratives – there is no bigger story than the end of the world, after all. Haraway calls for mining mythologies, particularly those of regeneration. The first step is to recuperate living systems, not in zoos that are little more than living mausoleums, but in the world itself. Recuperation applies to the human world, too. As capitalist globalization has stripped forests and oceans of life, so has it exterminated cultures, languages, ways of living, politics, economics, and peoples.
Preserving refuges of the wild that can survive the coming tribulations is daunting, especially when there is so little wild left. In the immensely lush region stretching from Northern California to Southwest Canada, at most 5 percent of the original habitat remains. Of that, 80 to 90 percent of the vegetation is composed of non-native species.
As such, whatever we save will be invented in some way. It’s a meshing of scientific fact with fiction to transcend the End Times: that of a dead planet, an unalterably capitalist future, a religious judgement day. It is also a rejection of heroic narratives, whether a universal class that will forever resolve all antagonisms or Hollywood’s lone man who melds flesh with machine to redeem the world with a single messianic act.
Our generation carries the burden of crossing into the apocalyptic wilderness, and for us there is no exit. Maybe it will end in a nightmare of methane seeping up from seabeds, setting the atmosphere on fire, incinerating billions, followed by a toxic blanket of hydrogen sulfide suffocating the lands, and ending in a scorched ozone-less planetary coffin.
But scientific models of what runaway global warming might look like are speculative. They are mythologies of death, and they can weaken the resolve to mitigate climate change. Similarly, doomsday scenarios turn adaptation into a survival of the richest. It’s already happening. The most powerful nations chose to keep using the global atmosphere as a dump, so now they choose walls and armies to keep out the globalized waves of desperate humans they birthed.
Our job, Haraway writes, “is to make the Anthropocene as short/thin as possible and to cultivate with each other in every way imaginable epochs to come that can replenish refuge.”
There is no map for the apocalypse, just historical guideposts full of paradoxes. We have been builders now we will be scavengers, patching together novel ecosystems that can rewild the world in the millennia it will take for earth’s fever to pass. However much we want to live in harmony in nature, we are doomed to dominate it. Not for extraction and profit, but protection and heritage. Preserving life will occur amid a never-ending wake for vanishing species and entire biota. Acts of creation will be met by destruction. The corporations and governments that forced us into the wild will not change because of polite protests, social media, or voting.
This logic is evident in drought-stricken Western states being ravaged by wildfires. This summer, Shell Oil, backed by the White House and protected by all manner of police, forced drilling rigs and supply vessels through waterborne blockades in Seattle and Portland. The vessels are now in the Arctic exploring for oil that once burned will turn up the global thermostat, dry out the land, and spark more wildfires. Yet oil is so plentiful there is no profit-making logic to drilling in and possibly poisoning one of the most pristine, distinct, and fragile ecosystems on the planet.
But Shell is committed to a higher principle: that the natural world’s only purpose is to serve as raw material for accumulation. If humanity does navigate the anthropocene, it will be because we destroyed this logic of death that dominates our current way of life.