Though it’s more than a hundred miles from the coast, during the early evening of October 29, 2012, my apartment in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had the salty odor of the shore. In the dwindling light before Hurricane Sandy smashed into New Jersey and New York, so much sea moisture had descended on our landlocked town that it smelled like the Atlantic City Boardwalk. There was something foreboding about that proverbial calm before the storm, something that reminded me of a quote from Zora Neale Hurston. It’s from a passage that gave the novel its name. Janie and Tea Cake are huddled together as the eye of a hurricane passes over, “their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”1
What exactly had I been watching on that howling night that would knock out power in Bethlehem for close to a week? Unlike Janie and Tea Cake, I didn’t exactly have a sense of watching God. Nor do I necessarily have that sense when noticing those other markers of our brave new world, with such a strange climate: the warm winter days and the quiet of missing insects; the autumns pushing farther forward into the calendar; the frequent flooding in lands once dry. On that evening I was simply spooked by the incongruity of that beachy smell, the sense described by Roy Scranton in his collection We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change that “nothing feels right, not the land, not the weather.”
If Hurston’s characters were looking at something divine, then I felt like I was looking at something strangely more terrifying: humanity’s hubris altering the seasons. This is what the Anthropocene, our current geological epoch, portends—an inverted sublimity. Ecological collapse, along with the potential of nuclear Armageddon, signals that crucial shift to where it is conceivable that apocalypse could be caused by our own hand, what Scranton describes as the “beginning of the end of civilization as we know it,” where “not one of us is innocent, not one of us is safe.”
For Scranton, grappling with the Anthropocene isn’t like faddish Darwinian criticism or the digital humanities; it entails asking what it means to live “in the fall … in the long dim days of decline and collapse and retrenchment and violence and confusion and sorrow and endless, depthless, unassuageable human suffering.” The biblical rhetorical parallelism and the theological vocabulary indicate what Scranton is up to. It’s not forming a panel for the MLA; it’s penning a missive from Armageddon (not that those are mutually exclusive).
In the New Left Review Fredric Jameson argued that it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”2 We’re Doomed. Now What? is a protracted exploration of what exactly it means to envision the end of the world before the end of capitalism—to imagine apocalypse because of capitalism. We’re Doomed. Now What? asks what it means, because of our avarice, to be the last (or the second-to-last) generation of humans.
In this sense Scranton’s purpose is strongly theological, if not prophetic. Although not a theologian himself, or a Christian, for that matter, Scranton uses the vocabulary of apocalypse to convey the enormity of climate change. How we parse that language has profound implications, because not all ways of discussing the end of days are the same. Is Scranton a dour premillennialist who sees change as coming only after catastrophe? Or is he a hopeful postmillennialist who believes that the worst can be staved off with a complete reorientation of our society? It depends on which essay you’re reading; sometimes on which paragraph.
That is not a deficiency in the book. Sometimes it smells like the beach in your apartment. Sometimes your eyes are watching God.
We’re Doomed. Now What? is a collection of essays by a University of Notre Dame English professor that builds on his argument from the excellent Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (2015). Scranton enters the fray to discuss what the Anthropocene means for the humanities, though he doesn’t have much sympathy for “literature scholars using the Anthropocene as a new way to talk about trees in Milton.” He is impatient with the mining of climate apocalypse as just another fashionable theory, used to pad CVs and get tenure. “I love trees. I love Milton. But is this the best we can do?” he asks.
It is more appropriate to categorize Scranton as the literary critical arm of the speculative realists, philosophers like Timothy Morton, Jane Bennett, and Quintin Meillassoux, who call for an “object-oriented ontology,” as when Scranton implores us not to see environmental issues with only human eyes but also with “golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes, and polar bear eyes … with the wild, barely articulate being of clouds and seas and rocks and trees and stars.” This is no wooly pantheism. Scranton’s mysticism is as all true mysticisms should be—cold and hard.
With grim fatalism he writes that “the planet will get warmer. The ice caps will melt. The seas will rise.” He rightly castigates the selfish myopia of “right-wing denialists [who] insist that climate change isn’t happening,” but also the sunny optimism of “left-wing denialists” who insist our “problems are fixable.” He does not curry favor with the techno-utopians who “argue that more technology is the answer” or “Incrementalists” who “keep trusting the same institutions and leaders that have been failing us for decades.”
Poetically Scranton writes that “there’s a time lag between CO2 increase and subsequent effects, between the wind we sow and the whirlwind we reap. Our lives are lived in that gap.” Our lives, I’ll add, are in the hour before the storm hits land.
The market-obsessed language of commercial solutions to climate change is almost comically inadequate to the enormity of the challenge.
Before a hurricane there is an eeriness as birds depart and animals hide. As mega-storms batter Puerto Rico and Houston, New England autumns now regularly have days with temperatures that reach into the 80s, and California burns, we see an equivalent eeriness across the planet. Reading the United Nations Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (SR15) (October 2018) or the Fourth National Climate Assessment, with their data about future human extinction, is like watching the birds fly away before a hurricane. This is truly an era in which the seals have been broken and there is silence in the heavens. Scranton reflects that “we might wish we could take Nietzsche’s place. He had to cope only with the death of God … while we must come to terms with the death of our whole world.”
From our Götterdämmerung, I have one indelible image of the night Sandy whipped its winds down through the Lehigh Valley. Rain lashed horizontally at windows that barely held, the horizon was lit green with transponder explosions, the storm was so all-permeating that everything seemed as if water, the hulking rusted corpse of the steel mill now completely obscured by the storm. I spent that evening illuminated only by votive candles purchased at a bodega, listening to the wind, wearing a head strap with a flashlight affixed to it so as to read a postapocalyptic novel in the darkness. Perhaps I was clued in to our collective unconsciousness, aware of our impending extinction. I never finished that book.
Of course, it is hard to immediately connect saltwater air in a landlocked city to climate change, for as Scranton notes:
It’s cognitively almost impossible to keep in mind the intricate relationships that tie together an oil well in Venezuela, Siberian permafrost, Saudi F-15s bombing a Yemeni wedding, subsidence along the Jersey Shore, albedo effect near Kangerlussuaq, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the polar vortex, shampoo, California cattle, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, leukemia, plastic, paper, the Sixth Extinction, Zika, and the basic decisions we make every day, are forced to make every day, in a world we didn’t choose but were thrown into.
It’s not that the science is complex (though it is, albeit easy to simplify for laypeople), but rather that we’re so enmeshed within dominant ideologies that we are dissuaded from noticing how often we can wear short sleeves in December.
There is much of the critic Mark Fisher here, though “capitalist realism” never appears by name in We’re Doomed. Now What? Paralleling Fisher, Scranton writes that responding to climate change is like “responding to capitalism, or society, or the atmosphere. It is our environment. It is our world.” We’re like the apocryphal Australian aborigines of legend so embedded within their environment that they were literally unable to see Cook’s ships as they sailed into Botany Bay.
Fisher’s concept of capitalist realism, owing much to Jameson, was a trenchant analysis of how it really is easier to imagine the end of the world before the end of Exxon. Fisher asked if capitalism is “so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from?”3 If you’re an eco-pessimist, the answer is nowhere. Rightly condemning the secularized Puritanism embodied by trendy, eco-individualist liberalism, Scranton explains that even “if millions suddenly went vegan, swore off airplanes, sold their cars, and had themselves sterilized, it wouldn’t significantly slow down global warming.”
Beyond just expressing the gallows glee of a Buddhist who enjoys meat (as he describes himself), Scranton makes the important point that the moralizing language of personal responsibility is completely inadequate to actually stopping our looming apocalypse. It isn’t your personal responsibility, and you can’t individually solve it—so while you should probably recycle, there’s little need to put on a hair shirt and cincture if you don’t. Even more important, the market-obsessed language of commercial solutions is almost comically inadequate to the enormity of the challenge. Neoliberalism has no regenerative power in it: it can’t cure itself, much less the world.
But Scranton doesn’t hold out much hope for the required massive political, economic, and cultural solutions, either. He writes that “anyone who pays much attention to politics can assume that we’re almost certainly going to botch this challenge.” Since 2000 we’ve been saddled with two of the worst presidents in US history, because they won through the arcane gematria of the Electoral College while losing the popular vote—all because we fetishize an 18th-century document meant to reify the power of the landed class and slave owners. One can’t help but concur with Scranton’s pessimism. Better to prepare ourselves for that inevitability, like a Stoic awaiting death.
Except that the death we’re waiting for isn’t just individual, it’s that of the entire human species. Scranton writes that the “Anthropocene is an apocalypse, but an apocalypse that’s already been revealed and is already happening, though not all at once and not all the same.” It behooves us to consider the full implications of this apocalyptic language.
Apocalypse is a specifically religious concept, the unveiling at the end of time that either inaugurates or terminates a millennium. Since the advent of the nuclear era it’s come to be associated with societal or environmental collapse, but it does bear repeating that such scenarios are technically not “the Apocalypse” proper.
While trying to avoid sounding like the internet commentator complaining that an author is misusing the word “decimate,” I think it’s fair to say that “apocalypse as metaphor” in reference to collapse could be applied to any number of historical incidents, from the Ostrogoths sacking Rome to the Easter Islanders descending into cannibalism. “Apocalypse” happens a lot, even if the current one we’re facing could be the final one. This may seem to be mere quibbling—what difference does it make that Antarctic ice shelves fall into the sea if it doesn’t herald the actual trumpets of Revelation? But we can’t forget the connotations of the metaphors we choose to use, even the good ones.
Which metaphor we choose, which model of apocalypse we turn toward, has policy implications.
Scranton would probably agree with me, so I think it makes sense to isolate the specific models of apocalypse offered as metaphors in We’re Doomed. Now What? In Christian eschatology, scholars normally divide apocalypse perspective into two broad categorizations: premillennial and postmillennial models. The former refers to the position that apocalypse must occur before Christ’s millennial rule on Earth, the latter that apocalypse will occur after. Premillennialism is ultimately a despairing theology, adherents waiting for the intercession of apocalypse to upend inequities. Postmillennialism holds out the possibility of progress to perfection built by human efforts, heralding the ultimate arrival of Christ as a result. In secularized form (and all secular ideas are simply theology wearing a mask), Scranton seems to oscillate between these positions. Sometimes he is an optimistic postmillennialist who believes that radical change could stave off apocalypse, as when he describes the potential radical reorientation of “all human economic and social production.” Sometimes he is the pessimistic premillennialist understanding that that is “a task that is scarcely imaginable, much less feasible.”
Which metaphor we choose, which model of apocalypse we turn toward, has policy implications. Scranton rightly fingers neoliberal late capitalism as that which has brought us to the precipice, noting that “realistically, making human life sustainable at this point would demand a world socialist revolution.” The question is, will the millennium happen before most of the world has to die, or does that utopia await after the catastrophe? Or will there be no millennium, only Judgment Day? We’re Doomed. Now What? offers no prediction, but how could anyone know? Science fiction novelist Ursula K. Le Guin offered a helpful reminder in her 2014 speech at the National Book Awards, noting that “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”
Scranton the postmillennialist writes that “we need to work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order … that knows the value of limits, transience, and restraint.” It’s hard to imagine this future where spiritually we’ve founded “a world religion that worship[s] Mother Earth and put[s] harmony with nature over all other values,” but why not dare to imagine it? Our future, our survival depends on the complete uprooting and reorientation of all such values. If apocalypse is truly an “unveiling” in this original sense, why not let this be its significance in the present? If the spread of a new global perspective, a new pantheistic and humanistic theology to fix the ruptures caused by capitalism, seems unlikely, consider that Christianity went from persecuted minority to imperial religion in three centuries, that Muhammad conquered the entire Arabian peninsula in a lifetime. And neither Paul nor Muhammad had social media!
If the disjunctions of our current crack-up have instructed us in anything, it’s in how fast ideologies can spread—nothing says that they must always be poisonous. Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan tells Scranton that “hopelessness is the limit and beginning of a new kind of hope … Hopelessness makes possible a new hope that is more modest, a faith in the basic tissue of life that is stronger than any disaster. This is how humanity survives.”
As temperatures rise, as the ice caps encompass less of the planet, let us commit ourselves to building a new world, even if it must be constructed atop the shallow remains of our coastal cities and in howling deserts, for we may have no choice. Paradoxically, that constraint may be the source of our greatest hope.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937; Harper Perennial, 1990), p. 151. ↩
- Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review (May–June 2003). ↩
- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books, 2009), p. 16. ↩