The Eco-Jeremiad: Projecting Crises of the “Moment”

Here’s my paper from the CUNY conference “Projections: Speculating on Presence, Absence, and Nonsense. . .”

One of the really curious recent narrative trends in the representation of ecological disaster has been its projection into what could be called, more-or-less, the “present.”  The apocalyptic imagination, of course, has a long tradition of conceiving its present moment as a site of eschatological fulfillment: John of Patmos imagined the scenes he depicted in Revelations to be only a short time away; in the sixteenth century the Anabaptists wholly believed that they were in the process of establishing a New Jerusalem in Münster; the nuclear narrative of the twentieth century, from its earliest instantiation in Nevil Shute’s 1957 On the Beach to the short-lived (2006-8) television series Jericho, has been singular in projecting an imagined nuclear holocaust into its present moment; and, perhaps most noticeably, the Left Behind series has taken the whole history of Christian teleology and unapologetically found itself to be at the moment of the Bible’s eschatological culmination.  As Frank Kermode has pointed out: “the great majority of interpretations of Apocalypse assume that the End is pretty near.  Consequently the historical allegory is always having to be revised; time discredits it.”[1] This is, of course, the inherent problem in prophesying or predicting the End to be so near: time discredits it, and this holds just as true for secular and nuclear apocalypses as it does for millenarian ones.  This is perhaps why there has been equally such a gamut of post-apocalyptic, far-future narratives which dispensed with prediction and simply posited themselves after the end.   This has been precisely the case for a large number of eco-apocalypse or eco-disaster narratives.  Early films like Soylent Green, to the cyberpunk of the ‘80s, to Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, took it as a given that whatever future they could imagine was one in which eco-disaster had already occurred, for in a large sense, they were right; it already had.

Unlike the grand narratives of Christianity or Cold-War-era Mutually Assured Destruction, eco-disaster narratives really only emerged after it was clear that the Earth was already disastrously and unalterably affected by human action.  It need hardly be mentioned that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is largely seen as initiating this awareness, but more important for my purposes, is the mode in which it was presented, which was rhetorically blatant in its evocation of human extinction.  Carson, from her opening “Fable for Tomorrow” and her first chapter “The Obligation to Endure,” immediately draws the connection between nuclear and ecological disaster: “Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm—substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ shells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends.”[2] For Carson, and many after her, the implications are clear: ecological meltdown is equal to, if not more of a threat than nuclear war.  Indeed, Lawrence Buell has said as much: “Apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal.”[3] The recent appearance of such texts as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital Trilogy, consisting of Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007),[4] Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and forthcoming 2012 (expected to be released in November, 2009), M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008), and Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007), all, notably, released within the last five years, are nothing if not mobilizations of this master metaphor, of harnessing world-historical anxieties of a global eschaton[5] for their own rhetorical and affective ends.

What is perhaps so curious about their appearance, however, is that they all more-or-less posit a singular moment of crisis, an apocalyptic moment equal to pushing the fated “big red button,” or your friends and loved ones suddenly and rapturously vanishing.  For Robinson, Emmerich, and Shyamalan, these are not their first dips into the environmental disaster pool—ecological or apocalyptic themes have made many appearances in their work.  Robinson’s Mars and California Trilogy, Shyamalan’s The Village, Emmerich’s Independence Day, Godzilla, and Das Arche Noah Prinzip, all tackled environmental themes, at times displaying high-levels of narrative, aesthetic, and most importantly for my purposes, ecological complexity.  The texts I will be discussing today, however, in Greg Garrad’s words, are places where the “apocalypse provides an emotionally charged frame of reference within which complex, long-term issues are reduced to monocausal crises.”[6] These texts seem to blatantly ignore the facts that ecological disaster a) has already occurred and is always already occurring, b) that simply the term ecology should evoke the interconnectedness and complexity of the site of the disaster in question (the world), and c) that environmental disaster is not this absurd(ly simple).  Robinson, to his credit, is only positing abrupt rather than instantaneous climate change, the kind that can occur over a period of three years with extreme variation and complexity, but he must do some fancy scientific footwork to enable this narrative device, citing

the almost unbelievably quick beginning of the Younger Dryas, which analysis of the Greenland ice cores revealed had happened in only three years.  Three years, for a major global shift from the world-wide pattern that climatologists called warm-wet, to the worldwide pattern called cool-dry-windy.  It was such a radical notion that it had forced climatologists to acknowledge that there must be nonlinear tipping points in the global climate, leading to general acceptance of what was a really new concept in climatology: abrupt climate change.[7]

Sadly for Robinson, abrupt climate change is completely not “a really new concept” when it comes to narrative fiction.  In Kermode’s seminal work on apocalyptic narratives, The Sense of an Ending, he credits the multicultural ubiquity of eschatological narratives to the fact that “we think in terms of crisis rather than temporal ends; and make much of subtle disconfirmation and peripeteia.”[8] Kermode’s notion of peripeteia, which comes from the Greek, meaning: a reversal of circumstances or turning point, is what narrative fiction depends on to make sense of the world, a world in which we are denied satisfying ends in reality, a world in which we are in what he calls the “middest”; and apocalyptic fiction depends upon peripeteia all the more so.  So it is unsurprising that Robinson’s trilogy ends in such a classic comic mode as to almost be a parody of itself: a wedding with three marriages.

I would like to suggest that what is at stake here, is that there is a fundamental failure of these recent environmental apocalyptic narratives to do what Kermode finds so important about having a “sense of an ending”—they simply do not make sense of the world.  For more traditional end-time narratives, nuclear and Christian, the peripeteia, the singular moment of the bombs dropping, of Christ’s triumphant return to Earth, in Kermode’s terms, made sense of a world and history which didn’t end.  His justification of this was largely rooted in the “centuries [long tradition] of disconfirmed apocalyptic prediction,”[9] with its interminable postponement of the prophecy in Revelations, with a temporality in which individual humans may have ended in death, but that temporality found no culmination in-and-of-itself.  The major difference in conceiving environmental apocalypse, is not that there is no true end, but that it is always occurring as a process, and in our current discourse, as always ending/beginning (the old tale of nature as a cycle of birth and death).  Species go extinct, the ice caps melt, New Orleans floods.  These are all “ends,” not one, big, garish, world-historical ending, but each one contributing to a categorically different sense of an ending.  This is not simply living in the middest, in a moment of crisis; instead, crisis ceases to make the kind of sense that Kermode is suggesting it does when it is not only ubiquitously and globally in our present, but in the deep geological past.  What is at stake here, is simply the nature of change, that change is more fundamental than the stability seen on both sides of the peripeteia.  In fact, everything becomes peripeteia from within a rigorous ecological perspective.  In Brian Massumi’s terms, the environment is “that which includes rupture but is nevertheless continuous.”[10] Consequently, to imagine environmental disaster which takes the singular moment in a present as its point of origin in the traditional mode of eschatological narrative, is to construct a narrative that, at a very fundamental level, is obscuring and simplifying its own ends with regard to its rhetorical call for environmental consciousness—this is a clear case of ends not being coterminous with their means.  What is occurring in such narratives, is a genealogy of the apocalypse which Lee Quniby traces in her book Anti-Apocalypse: “In attempting to represent the unrepresentable, the unknowable—the End, or death par excellence—apocalyptic writings are a quintessential technology of power/knowledge”[11]; in other words, the environmental apocalypses I am discussing, posing as Green or eco-conscious, because of their hyperbolic attempt to represent some singular, unrepresentable (and physically and scientifically impossible) eschaton, find themselves within a far different ideological regime, one with a long tradition in the American milieu: what Bercovitch calls the jeremiad, or in this case, the eco-jeremiad.

Perhaps nowhere is my point made more clearly than about midway through The Day After Tomorrow. In the film, scientist Jack Hall, played by Dennis Quaid, warns the United States government of an impending ecological catastrophe on a level heretofore unseen brought about by the melting of polar ice.   His entreaties, of course, go unheard and nothing is done to avoid the approaching disaster.  What consequently occurs, is a kind of meteorological singularity, where a higher level of “order spontaneously emerges out of chaos.”[12] The chaos here, is global weather, with all of its intricacies and moments of unpredictability organizing itself into, for lack of a better term, a “perfect storm.”  This storm subsequently covers most of North America in glacial ice in a few days, and provides the film with its requisite spectacular special effects and disaster sequences.  This is in-and-of-itself completely implausible and fantasmatic—a necessary device, a peripeteia, to get the disaster film rolling.  But the film doesn’t stop there in its complete disregard for meteorological science.   In the eye of this storm, is a peculiar meteorological anomaly, which causes anything to freeze, and not simply freeze, but become literally frozen in place.  The result of this, is that we see characters literally running from the cold, as if cold could be run from, as if it were some crazy knife-wielding psycho in a slasher-flick.  All of the heterogeneous, rhizomatic, and non-linear complexity involved in ecological systems, converge in this absurd scene as something completely singular, locatable at a localized point, an origin, a specific moment in a temporal and spatial present.  One could assume, that the film is attempting to convey its thinly veiled and simplistic eco-politics (which boils down to something like “we have to save the planet”) in this hyperbolic scene.  The opposite, however, occurs, as the film reduces complex ecological processes into a singular fantasmatic spectacle, subsequently pulling a veil of māyā over any potential political or ecological consciousness which might have been produced.  In short, this scene completely exposes The Day After Tomorrow’s ideological project as one wholly based upon a propagandist paranoia, creating such a monumental level of terror and fear through its spectacle of destruction, that its “ecological message” is difficult to divorce formally from the discourse of “threat levels.”  And of course, the duration of the film is devoted to the banally normative narrative of Dennis Quaid, having failed to save the world, attempting to save the only thing “he has left”: his children, or in other words, “the future.”

A very similar catastrophic singularity occurs in Shyamalan’s The Happening. In this film, reacting to a humanity now both grown out of proportion and having become a very real threat to the stability of the biosphere, vegetable nature has to decided to collectively “organize” and release a toxin into the atmosphere of the North-Eastern United States which causes humans to spontaneously commit suicide.  Again, the message here isn’t terribly subtle: that we are all collectively committing suicide by treating the environment in the way we do.  And again, we have the characters played by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel literally running from a nature turned into malign killer, and the ominous rustling of leaves that accompanies the toxins’ release.  The significant difference here, is that Shyamalan is very much ascribing a kind of emergent subjectivity to nature itself; the environment is “striking back,” if you will.  That this takes the form of “cleansing” or “purifying” itself of the human scourge, not only simplifies the complex interactions between humans and their environment, relying on the age old binary of human vs. nature as separable entities and the edenic myth of a pure or untouched mother earth, it also imagines that there is still a “nature” left (as opposed to the postmodern discourses of Jameson and others which argue that the category of nature has very much disappeared).  What is at stake for Shyamalan, then, is very much a kind of throw-back, second-wave ecological awareness which uncritically simplifies environmental consciousness into the act of anthropomorphizing nature, to respecting it as a quasi-subject.  In short, there is very little here except an impossible cry to return to an idyllic pastoral which never existed in the first place.

My last example is Alan Weisman’s non-fictional, speculative account of what would happen if humans suddenly vanished, in his book The World Without Us.  Weisman’s book functions quite nicely as a kind of companion piece or handbook to the whole of my discussion today.  His entire exploration depends upon a massive, speculative, and fantasmatic peripeteia:

Suppose the worst happened.  Human extinction is a fait accompli.  Not by nuclear calamity, asteroid collision, or anything ruinous enough to also wipe out almost everything else, leaving whatever remained in some radically altered, reduced state.  Nor some grim eco-scenario in which we agonizingly fade, dragging many more species with us in the process.

Instead, picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished.  Tomorrow. [13]

Weisman’s central question in this book is to ask: “Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?”[14] and in this his project is admirable in its attempts to be complexly aware of the two-way street of interconnectedness between humans and their environment.  Ultimately, however, the book argues that in a period of geologic time, all the evidence that would really be left that homo sapiens ever inhabited the Earth, would be a thin layer of plastic in the geologic record.  What is really notable about Weisman, however, is that he requires an even more wild, science-fictional scenario for his more-or-less scientific purposes than Robinson, Emmerich, or Shyamalan.  To actually deal with the reality of eco-apocalypse, he requires an even more implausible and radical peripeteia than does speculative fiction.  He is operating in a completely narrative mode in this book, and his narrative requires the complete absence of any human presence, for his project would be categorically impossible with it.  In other words, projecting the presence of humans into imagining the future of the world would absolutely prevent his imaginative work; the future only makes sense here as a projection of absence.

What makes possible the categorization of these examples under the term “jeremiad,” is that they use prophecies of doom, singular, momentary events to orbit around as a way of catalyzing their rhetoric, catalyzing their thinly veiled calls for ecological repentance before it is “too late.”  Is it any wonder then, that the Puritan “errand into the wilderness,” becomes here a call for an errand to bring back the wilderness so that once again a horizonless field of potential can be opened up, rather than the enclosed, decimated, mapped, and measured space of late-capitalist post-urbanity?  And what better way to bring back the wilderness than the apocalyptic expurgation of the humans responsible for its corruption in the first place?  This yearning for natural purity, of a nature which reasserts itself as a clearly defined category when it wipes out human civilization, which affirms its own existence through negation, completely misses the fact that this was only made possible by the degradation of the planet in the first place—i.e. the “purity” with which nature strikes back in these texts is precisely only possible through human intervention, as if nature had a fuse.  Massumi writes: “The concepts of nature and culture need serious reworking, in a way that expresses the irreducible alterity of the nonhuman in and through its active connection to the human and vice versa.  Let matter be matter, brains be brains, and jellyfish be jellyfish, and culture be nature, in irreducible alterity and infinite connection.”[15] This is of course not to suggest that every ecological narrative/text functions like this, nor even every eco-disaster text, but rather that these texts’ close-appearance to one another, their high-level of visibility and popularity, and their situatedness within the political climate of the last eight years, are very much involved in an ecological imagination which sees the current moment as singularly enmeshed in anxiety about the sustainability of the present.  In projecting their crises wholly within the moment, in privileging the singular and specific over the distributed and general, however, they’ve elided the necessary temporal backdrop which is necessary for an aesthetic of environmental crisis that is not over-and-above all simply an expression of and emergence from the function of narrative.

And this gets to the heart of the matter.  If “real world” disasters like Katrina have taught us anything, it is that catastrophe and disaster, even more-so ecological disaster, is not linear nor narrative—there is no peripeteia.  Rather, disaster occurs rhizomatically, as a distributed network of effects, in smooth rather than striated space, as “tendencies—. . . pastness opening directly onto a future, but with no present to speak of.  For the present is lost.”[16] The ancient and more recent apocalyptic traditions simply are not transferable in their mode of projecting temporality into some singular moment in the future which legitimizes or ends history.  Consequently, I would like to end today with the idea that it is quite possibly the failure of certain narratives to adequately imagine ecological disaster, the failure of the apocalyptic tradition itself when mapped upon the environment, which may in fact be productively revealing, which may open up a more complex field.  These failures point toward the potential emergence of literary and critical eco-discourses not constrained to imagine themselves at a singular moment of crisis, but rather into a multiplicity which might be able to project itself into a temporally non-linear smooth space which can view crisis and possibility simultaneously.

[1] Kermode, Frank.  The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 8.


[2] Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring (New York: Mariner Books, 2002 [1962]), 8.  Emphases mine.

[3] Buell, Lawrence.  The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 285.  Cf. Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (New York: Routledge, 2004), 93.

[4] Anyone familiar with Robinson will surely note his penchant for trilogies titled in this manner.

[5] Although always curiously locating their epicenters in the United States.

[6] Garrard, 105.

[7] Robinson, Kim Stanley.  Fifty Degrees Below (New York: Bantam Books, 2005), 25.

[8] Kermode, 26.

[9] ibid., 16.

[10] Massumi, Brian.  Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 51.

[11] Lee Quinby. Anti-Apocalypse: Exercises in Genealogical Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994), xiii.

[12] DeLanda, Manuel.  War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 15.

[13] Weisman, Alan.  The World Without Us (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 3-4.

[14] ibid., 5.

[15] Massumi, 39.

[16] ibid., 30.