- The Best of Times, the Worst of Times, the End of Times?:The Uses and Abuses of Environmental Apocalypse
In discussions about climate change, the popular tendency toward the apocalyptic is matched only by the popular tendency to critique apocalyptic rhetoric as fatalistic. The contemporary resurgence of apocalyptic discourse within environmentalism makes sense; there's certainly an apocalyptic logic at play in climate change, a planetary tipping point that threatens mass multispecies extinction and irreversible biosphere transformation. Indeed, the environmental texts that make the biggest popular "splashes" tend to be those that borrow most liberally from the apocalyptic tradition. From AL GORE'S 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which toggles uncomfortably between dire predictions of the catastrophic future and anodyne recommendations for minor individual actions, to DAVID WALLACE-WELLS'S [End Page 501] July 2017 New York Magazine article "The Uninhabitable Earth," which begins with a section called "Doomsday" and the grim opening line, "It is, I promise, worse than you think," texts that describe climate apocalypse often receive a disproportionate share of critical and popular attention.1 (By way of example, within a week of its online publication, WALLACE-WELLS'S piece became "the most-read article in New York Magazine's history."2 The piece prompted an unprecedented outpouring of impassioned responses from popular science commentators and cultural critics alike.)
For as much attention as these apocalyptic texts receive, however, they also prompt a familiar backlash: that apocalypse is fundamentally not useful in the context of climate rhetoric. In an annotated expansion of his article, WallaceWells summarizes this critique as follows:
the debate this article has kicked up is less about specific facts than the article's overarching conceit. Is it helpful, or journalistically ethical, to explore the worst-case scenarios of climate change, however unlikely they are? How much should a writer contextualize scary possibilities with information about how probable those outcomes are, however speculative those probabilities may be? What are the risks of terrifying or depressing readers so much they disengage from the issue, and what should a journalist make of those risks?3
In Wallace-Wells's framing, these questions regarding the consequences and ethical stakes of narrating disaster specifically concern popular science writing. Yet the issues he raises—the ways in which apocalypse wields a sense of historically enclosed and predestined fate; the ways in which apocalypse thus instills in its audience a sense of futility on the macro scale, and a loss of agency on the micro scale, that collectively threaten to enervate political will—resonate beyond the boundaries of climate journalism and into the broader realms of environmental rhetoric, arts, and narrative.
This essay addresses the ways in which these tensions regarding ecological apocalypticism reverberate through contemporary environmental science fiction. I suggest that environmental SF reflects a growing awareness of the need to narrate a permeable apocalypse, an open apocalypse, one that threatens, but does not [End Page 502] resolve neatly in a cathartic finality. The form of apocalypse offered by environmental SF thus engages the disastrous possibilities of climate change without the eschatological enclosure that suggests historical predestination. Indeed, the most incisive examples of climate change literature—such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias trilogy, which I will examine in detail—are characterized less by pure apocalypse than by partial, incomplete, and inconclusive apocalypses. These ecological ends are shot through with other science fictional subgenres, using a variety of formal means to permeate apocalypse with other historical models and other forms of historical consciousness. What I'm tracing, then, is the literary emergence of a way of treating apocalypse that produces a new and politically salient form of historical consciousness. These literary apocalypses operate against an ahistorical or post-historical totality. They do not resolve into a neatly universalizing model that precludes action through its sheer monumentality; they do not craft an inexorable vision of history in which the end is predestined. Instead, they remain iterative and incomplete. As such, they help to teach readers that the ravages of the Anthropocene do not strike monolithically, but are unequally distributed among populations in the Global South and the Global North: as Neil Smith reminds us, "there's...