The term soft denial was coined by Naomi Klein, seven years ago, to refer to our relationship to climate change. We understand that it is happening and are even capable of occasionally taking in its full implications, “but then, inevitably, we seem to forget. Remember and then forget again.”1 The psychoanalytic concept of disavowal—which occurs when an individual “perpetuates an infantile attitude by holding two incompatible positions at the same time”—captures the psychic structure of soft denial.2 Yet, in the time since Klein coined the term, the problem has mutated, shifted form. Denial no longer seems to describe our current state of fluctuating helplessness and despair. We seem recently to have entered into a phase of climate-change soft nihilism: a kind of resigned fatalism, which cuts against our vehement exhortations to act with the welfare of future generations in mind.
Three recent books address the intractable problem of humanity’s inaction in the face of the climate crisis: Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, the extended essay Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, by Brazilian Indigenous activist Ailton Krenak, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent novel, The Ministry for the Future. The three books differ not only in genre and political flavor, but also in terms of their deeper, largely unspoken approaches to the problems of soft denialism and soft nihilism.
In his techno-optimistic tome, Gates barely considers these problems at all: “We need to channel the world’s passion and its scientific IQ into deploying the clean energy solutions we have now, and inventing new ones.” His brisk introduction makes it clear that his ideal reader is already on board about the urgency of climate change, has nothing else to worry about at the moment, and is rolling up his sleeves and casting about for things to do about it. (In other words, his ideal reader is Bill Gates.)
More striking is his assumption that his reader has no interest in digging deeper and questioning the consumerism, the capitalist growth fetishism, the settler-colonial episteme that got us here in the first place: “Virtually every activity in modern life … involves releasing greenhouse gases, and as time goes on, more people will be living this modern lifestyle. That’s good, because it means their lives are getting better.”
The unspoken (well, okay, pretty much spoken) premise of his book is that we can have it all: air travel and swimming pools and air conditioning and French cuisine and the alleviation of global poverty. We just need to shift to clean, green sources of energy and maybe indulge in a soupçon of geoengineering.
This position could not be more diametrically opposed to the one taken by Ailton Krenak’s lyrical and provocative essay Ideas to Postpone the End of the World. (Spoiler alert: the word postpone is significant.) Krenak diagnoses climate change, and the Anthropocene in general, as the direct inheritance of Western ways of being, including consumerism and colonialism: “The world today believes that everything is merchandise, and it projects upon those goods the full range of its experience.”
Modern, Westernized human beings, argues Krenak, “burn up the earth’s energies just to feed their demand for merchandise, comfort, and consumption.” Consequently, we have come to believe that “the only way we can survive is at the expense of all other forms of life.”
Although the author is a member of the Krenak Indigenous people, he uses we throughout to refer to modern human beings in the grip of fossil-fuel-driven modernity: “Not even the Indigenous communities are sustainable today, because we can’t provide for all our needs in a way that is fully integrated with the land.”
Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, which is set in the near future, neatly threads its way between the two positions exemplified by Krenak and Gates. And it does so by depicting the long process by which disavowal is overcome.
The Ministry for the Future opens with a brutal heat wave in India that kills millions of people (if you don’t already know what wet-bulb temperature means, this novel will teach you). The devastating death toll wakes up enough people in India that their government decides to take unilateral action by launching a risky geoengineering project that pumps aerosol particulates into the atmosphere, replicating the cooling effect of a massive volcanic eruption. The other significant result of India’s mass awakening is the formation of a terrorist group called the Children of Kali, who send “a message out to the world: change with us, change now, or suffer the wrath of Kali.” The group starts blowing up airliners and coal-powered electric plants, cultivating and releasing mad cow disease, and taking other actions to attack the root causes of global warming and those who continue to foster it. In so doing, the group essentially issues a massive wake-up call to soft denialists.
It is difficult to know, of course, where to situate Robinson’s own ethos in relation to the novel’s tacit endorsement (or at least tacit tolerance) of violence. And as a literary critic, I have been hardwired not to try.
That said, the doubleness of the novel’s vision—carbon currency and solar power on the surface, mass murder underneath—reminds one of News from Nowhere (1890), by William Morris, an author whose politics are inextricable from his literary production. Morris was writing in the wake of debates between Marx and Engels and the so-called utopian socialists (Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen, et al.) about whether utopian thinking was ultimately a distraction from the real work of revolutionary struggle. The great theorist of utopia Ruth Levitas explains that, according to Marx and Engels, the fundamental errors of utopian socialism are “the expectation that society can be changed by the appeal to all classes on the basis of reason and justice” rather than through direct revolutionary action, and “the belief that their blueprints of the good society will be the cause of social transformation.”3
In the middle section of Morris’s novel, “How the Change Came,” an elderly resident of far-future England explains to the time-traveling protagonist how their ideal society came about. In his imagining of this process, Morris covers his bases by including both “spontaneous class-organisation of the proletariat” (demonstrations, riots, boycotts, general strikes) and the more gradualist work of persuasion carried on in newspapers, broadsides, and parliamentary procedure.4
A similar broad-spectrum approach to consequential social change inoculates Robinson’s novel against leftist critique. It also deftly overcomes the traditional problem of utopian fiction: the boredom of a static, harmonious world. (By this measure, News from Nowhere is, unfortunately, pretty boring.)
It probably goes without saying that Bill Gates does not advocate terrorism or violent class struggle in his new book. “I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change,” he writes in a moment of marked understatement. His focus is very much on the nuts and bolts of energy production and resource allocation.
To be clear, and to be fair: I did learn a lot from this book. I had no idea that cement was a central problem for environmentalist praxis, that hydroelectric dams are (at least initially) worse emitters of greenhouse gases than coal-fired electric plants, or that wind power generates only a little more energy per square meter than burning wood or peat. Props to Gates for doing his homework, digging deep into the geeky research to learn what technologies are viable, or soon-to-be-viable, tools in getting the planet to net-zero carbon emissions as quickly as possible. And further props for insisting on that stringent goal, unlike the signatories of the Paris Agreement, whose aim is net decarbonization by 2100—when it will be far too late. (That said, Bill McKibben’s recent review points out all the ways in which Gates gets the science—and politics—wrong.)
As dire as our current predicament is, Gates manages to be upbeat and optimistic about the future. This is a chipper book, full of practical advice, suitable for curling up with by a cozy fire of optimism while sipping on a warm mug of hope. Gates is clearly not interested in examining the sociocultural roots of our current predicament, or even thinking much about the perhaps insurmountable hurdles standing in the way of his vision. He certainly doesn’t have time for your cynicism or acedia, either: “It’s easy to mock international agreements, but they’re part of how progress happens: if you like having an ozone layer, you can thank an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol.”
Of course, it is perhaps easier to maintain an optimistic outlook when you are one of the world’s wealthiest human beings. When I have a nifty new idea I think we should be undertaking as a species, I can’t just “email two dozen wealthy acquaintances, hoping to persuade them to commit venture funding” toward my project. Nor have I ever written the unintentionally hilarious sentence “I met with François Hollande, who was the president of France at the time.” Gates acknowledges (kind of) his own privilege and even his eco-sins: wryly admitting that he flew his private jet to Paris for the UN Climate Change Conference in 2015, for instance. But there is no escaping the niggling feeling that his optimism, hope, and faith in technology and scientific research are the direct result of his own personal, outsize command of the earth’s resources.
We have seemingly entered into a phase of climate-change “soft nihilism”: a kind of resigned fatalism, which cuts against our vehement exhortations to act with the welfare of future generations in mind.
A love of geeky research is something Gates and Robinson clearly share. In addition to terrorism, the other crucial components of The Ministry for the Future’s vision of a good-enough near future are as comfortably boring as President Joe Biden’s inauguration speech.
Robinson has always been fascinated by the banality of good, and this novel is no exception: technocrats, bureaucrats, engineers, and even bankers are his real heroes in the fight against climate change—or at least the ones whose work is visible on the surface. Together they bring about a sort of utopia over the course of 40 years. By the end of the novel, the planet is powered by clean energy; wild animals are thriving in established habitat corridors; the human population replacement rate is down to 1.8 children per woman; pay-justice and wage-ratio movements are flourishing; many countries have adopted a universal basic income and guaranteed employment; refugees have been issued world passports and the right to apply to settle anywhere; and geoengineering projects are addressing the residual problems of sea-level rise and water shortages.
This new world order—as one of the novel’s multiple narrators opines toward the end of the novel—is a “cobbling-together from less-than-satisfactory parts. A slurry, a bricolage. An unholy mess.” It is as close to utopia as we can hope to get, yet its very messiness imprints the seal of realism on the materials of speculative fiction.
Ailton Krenak’s analysis of our current predicament does not initially seem headed for a utopian (or even optimistic) conclusion. His short book takes direct aim at the deepest roots of the climate crisis: Western culture’s crippling energy dependency, born of our greed for consumer products, travel, and entertainment—the intractable nature of which is the reason he is so pessimistic. (“The future is here and now, and there may not be a next year.”) He pointedly notes that privileged white Westerners now find themselves in the same position his people have been in for centuries: “We all need to wake up, because whereas before it was just us, the Indigenous peoples, who were facing a loss of meaning in our lives, today everyone is at risk, without exception.”
His diagnosis runs even deeper, however: he blames our instrumental orientation to the natural world on a fundamental category error—that there is even such a thing as “humanity” separate from the rest of existence. “This mental configuration is more than an ideology,” he laments; “it’s the construction of the collective imaginary.” We have deluded ourselves into thinking that “we’re snugly suckling at the breast of our prosperous, loving, caring, ample mother, feeding us forever.” Now we find ourselves being sharply pushed away from that fantasized font of eternal nurturance.
Krenak’s prescription—I would not call it a solution—is opaque, suggestive, and stringent. Westernized people who have arrived only recently at the experience of ecological grief can learn from Indigenous people how to navigate the crushing sense of loss that attends the disappearance of landscapes, species, and lifeways.
First, we must try to find “a point of contact between these two worlds.” In one world, a river is necessary for life; in the other, people “consume rivers as mere resources.”
The only way to find this contact—to effect such a profound shift in the “collective imaginary”—is, for Krenak, through dreams: “the place we go in search of songs, cures, inspiration, and even solutions to practical problems that befuddle and elude us in the daytime, but which are laid out in all their possibilities in the realm of dream.” He is not referring here to daydreams, wish fulfillment, fantasy, or escapism, but rather to “the transcendental experience in which the human chrysalis cracks open onto unlimited new visions of life.” Instead of layering yet more heroic technological innovations on top of the body of nature, we need a profound reorientation, at the very deepest levels of the collective unconscious, in our relationship with the natural world.
In this wide range of possible responses to the crisis of anthropogenic climate change, the utopians have changed place with the realists. Technology advocates like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, who stake our future on green energy and geoengineering, seem like pie-eyed idealists chasing after a gossamer dream—a dream that everything essentially stay just as it is. Those who are resigned, mourning, circumspect in their expectations are the ones who advocate a radical change in how we orient ourselves, both to our attenuated future and to our planetary home.
One way of understanding this paradox would be to invoke the difference between utopian program and utopian impulse, described by political theorist and literary critic Fredric Jameson (Kim Stanley Robinson’s dissertation advisor). The former term refers to reality-directed schemas of social reform such as intentional communities and revolutionary praxis. The latter, most fully articulated in the work of theorist Ernst Bloch in his magnum opus The Principle of Hope (1938–1947), refers to any future-oriented hope for a better world and can be found in an array of cultural formations, such as music, architecture, popular culture, myths, daydreams, and medicine.
The neo-utopian techno-optimists have programs (boy, do they have programs). The quondam utopian dreamers, meanwhile, gently tend the glowing embers of … what? Not hope for the future, perhaps, but rather an ongoing impulse toward justice, caritas, beauty. “Living with the grief of facing human extinction,” writes Catherine Ingram in her devastating essay “Facing Extinction,” “may be akin to how a person with a terminal diagnosis might experience his or her final phase, the awareness of death undeniable, and the magnificence of life ever more obvious.”
We all have to find whatever psychic comforts we can. At the very least, it’s good to have these ideas—these possible futures—in one’s pocket, a kind of psychological escape valve from hard nihilism. To have an idea of where to go, and whom to help, if all is nearly lost. To fight like hell, but have a backup plan. Even if that plan is to learn how to let go—sincerely, deliberately, reverently—of all possible plans, when (and if) that moment comes.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.
- Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014), p. 4. ↩
- Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Norton, 1973), p. 119. ↩
- Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Syracuse University Press, 1991), pp. 52, 60. ↩
- Quotation is from Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol 6., Marx and Engels: 1845–1848 (Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), p. 515. ↩