Tag Archives: post apocalypse

Post Post-Apocalypses

It probably means something that my last post of 2012 was on resilience and one of my first posts of 2013 is on apocalypse. Perhaps I’ve got things backwards.

Do I know how to have a good time or what? I usually spend my late nights skimming through a way-too-long list of blogs, primarily on eco topics, slowing to read the ones that pique my interest. But the nearly two-week long end of the year holiday period managed to slow the number of incoming posts each night from well over 200 to a giddyingly time-freeing amount in the mid-two digits. So what did I do with the leftover time? I read not one, but two, anthologies of post-apocalyptic short stories. That’s what I mean about knowing how to have a good time. Some folks curl up with a good mystery. Me? I prefer evenings of vignettes and variants on themes the likes of Mad Max and Soylent Green. (Maybe not Zardoz, though. I do have standards.)

roller coaster

Hard to tell if this is a scene from a disaster movie or the evening news. Image source: news.yahoo.com

This has nothing to do with the Mayan or various other supposed prophesies. Why then this interest from the self-anointed EcoOptimist? Life after the apocalypse is not exactly positive, not in the sense of EcoOptimism or of much of anything for that matter. Sure some post-apocalypse worlds are freed of the ravages of humanity and can return to a more balanced ecosystem, but that’s not exactly the path EcoOptimism has in mind.

I know many designers and many environmentalists who are fans of science fiction, which makes a lot of sense. I hope to elaborate on that in the future (or at least in a parallel future), but the basic point is that design is inherently optimistic in that it consists of attempts to improve things – creating futures — and so is most science fiction. But post-apocalyptic scenarios are a specific subset of science fiction. Where SF is more often based on StarTrek-like worlds in which humans are smarter and life is better (though there’s still plenty of room for wars and mysteries), stories that are based on what remains after a plague or a nuclear winter or the second coming (yes, those scenarios exist, too) tend to be much less filled with cool gadgets and warp drives, and more about sheer survival.

If our current world is anthropocentric (a new term has been coined for this period of geological time in which the planet is being shaped not by nature but by humanity: the Anthropocene), environmentalists usually envision one that is biocentric or ecocentric: giving equal weight to all living things – and perhaps some non-living things as well. A world after an apocalypse, however, is more likely to be a misanthropic one — one that by default or otherwise puts the interests and strength of nature above humanity’s. Maybe it’s that alternative view of the primacy of humans that sets me thinking. I like things that shake me up and, in this case especially, better that it be through fiction than the real thing.

Apocalypses seem to be everywhere these days. Even putting aside the Mayan misinterpretation (as well as that guy who predicted the Rapture not once but twice in 2011), there’s a run on ends of the world. Movies, books, television shows. Fact and fiction. It may not be high quality (the revolution may not be televised and Revolution probably shouldn’t have been), but it does constitute a full blown genre.


NBC’s Revolution: apocalyptically bad? What a waste of an end of the world. Image source: techhive.com

At its most fundamental, creating stories of our future demise or near demise (in many of these stories, there are scraggly bands of survivors) can be seen as an exercise in avoidance. If we can anticipate what’s going to go wrong, then we should be able to avoid it. Nuclear war might be an example. At least I hope it is. I’m not sure whether “the Rapture” is or should be avoidable – or what steps one would take to do so – but man-made future cataclysms ought to be. Do we really think, though, that any of the made-for-SyFy movies are going to convince the climate skeptics? (Facts don’t seem to sway them; maybe fiction can.)

Future prognostications don’t have to end badly. Indeed, many such stories have the survivors, well, surviving. Some have used the genre to posit what they feel would be positive outcomes. Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia stories, in which the Pacific Northwest has seceded from the dysfunctional rest of the country, come to mind.

But John Michael Greer’s view is more typical, if you can describe anything about an environmentalist, author, historian and neo-Druid who writes on topics ranging from UFOs to peak oil to the occult as typical. In his non-fiction book, The Ecotechnic Future, as well as his online serialized novel Star’s Reach, he makes the point that our industrial age advances are entirely based on the easy availability of cheap energy and materials. If we were to create or encounter an apocalypse that sent us back into a pre-industrial age, therefore, it would be pretty much impossible, because the easily accessed energy and materials would have been used up, for us to do it again.

Jamais Cascio of Open the Future has spoken on apocalypses and how we envision our future, dwelling on what he calls legacy futures. An example of a legacy future, he says, is the jet pack – it’s what we expected the future to have. “The apocalypse [or] the catastrophic tomorrow,” he observes, “is the cornerstone legacy future.” I’m not sure he’s right. Is it what we really expect to happen? Are we such fatalists? “[These stories] leave us disempowered, discouraged and feeling doomed.” I won’t claim to represent all of us, but the stories and movies don’t affect me that way. What they do do is inject, in as much as fiction can, an element of reality, something relatable: this could happen. And could happen to people like us.


Jamais Cascio’s categorization of possible apocalypse causes

So why do I enjoy these less-than-heartwarming stories? I’d like to think it’s in order to see wiser paths, like a Grimm fable without the later Disneyfication. But it may simply be that they provide an escape, albeit a perverse one: let’s get away from the potential end of the world problems by immersing in fictional scenarios of same.

Cascio makes the point that human beings, alone among other species (at least that we know of), have evolved to think about the future. (I don’t think squirreling away acorns counts.) When we create stories of the end of the world, he says, “they serve to tell us we live on a fragile planet and it is extremely possible we could break it and destroy it.” Yes, but I don’t think that needs to be perceived as disempowering or discouraging. The purpose of warnings, fictional or otherwise, is to help us avoid the danger. We wouldn’t ponder whether we need measures to destroy incoming asteroids if we didn’t have whiz-bang movies depicting the possibility, and if we didn’t have the pure bang of the impact that killed off the dinosaurs.

Ellen LaConte, in the Resilience blog, writes “How about, let’s pretend the world’s worsening weather is a threat akin to a pending asteroid collision, because, though its effects will be less sudden and simultaneous, it is. How about we call it ‘Global Warning.’”

There’s at least one difference between the actions we’d take to avoid death-by-asteroid and what’s needed to diminish and/or adapt to climate disruption. Asteroid avoidance would involve spending large amounts of money and resources merely to sustain our existence. The technological and social responses to climate disruption and resource depletion, on the other hand, have the potential to not merely sustain but to better our lives, while simultaneously having a positive return on investment. And that’s a major part of the point of EcoOptimism – that these are desirable things to do even if we didn’t have the specter of climatic apocalypse shoving us in their direction.




Sandy May Be the Tipping Point, But We Really Didn’t Need One

Which are we more likely to believe: fact or fiction? There’s been much written about the “fact” that many Americans don’t believe in “facts.” Or to put it another way, what defines a fact? When does a theory become a scientific consensus, and is that different from a fact?

The point of relevance, of course, is Superstorm Sandy.  The “Frankenstorm” scenario that just transformed from run-of-the-mill screenplay to reality – that is, from fiction to fact — is not that much different from any number of eco-disaster movies: global warming-fueled hurricane converges with winter storm to devastate the NY region. It even has a subplot, what with the election next week and pundits wondering how that will be affected. (Did Christie stick it to Romney by complimenting Obama?)

We’ve been warned by a tsunami of dramatic scenarios, ranging from the mildly plausible The Day After Tomorrow – yes, there actually is some theoretical basis in its explanation if not in its timeline — to the sneakily messaged Wall-E, and from there to made- for-TV dreck that doesn’t even qualify for B-movie status. (Can I please have back the late nights I’ve lost hoping that some SyFy channel rerun will actually give me something to write about. Oh wait, they just did.)











I’m fascinated by post-apocalyptic visions and have lately been treated to a (genetically modified?) harvest of TV series. More on that in another post. What we’re pondering here is what it will take to convince us, as a country, that climate disruption is real, and that it poses “a real and present danger” (stealing from yet another movie). It’s easy to understand why fictional tales haven’t swayed the skeptics. They are, after all, fiction. But real life is another story. When the real thing occurs, we rationalize that any individual weather event does not serve as proof of a pattern, let alone a pattern that is induced by us. But when does the pattern add up to a new reality? At the Institute for Policy Studies, Daphne Wysham writes

[W]e are fooling ourselves, again and again, just as our children do every Halloween. This Frankenstorm, can we stop fooling ourselves? Our planet desperately needs us to act like adults and get beyond [just] responding to one storm after another, as though each one were a unique shock, and not related to an overall climate crisis of enormous proportions.

Will we see the pattern through the politics? If not, how many more puzzle pieces will be needed?

Or, if you prefer the more “rational” economic argument, when does the cost of climate-induced damage exceed the cost of action to curtail further climate disruption? (And – we have to ask ourselves – how does the cost of adaptation and resilience figure in?) A barely three week old report from the insurance giant Munich Re says the US losses from weather catastrophes from 1980 to 2011 amounted to more than $1 trillion. And 30,000 deaths. I don’t have more numbers handy (I really need an intern), but I strongly suspect that if we added up the costs of disasters that were caused or exacerbated by fossil fuel related activities, they would be greater than the costs of switching to alternative energy sources. And if they aren’t, well then, it doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate that they will be in the near future.

The number of climate-related disasters has increased greatly while the number of other natural disasters has remained fairly constant. (source: UNEP, http://www.grida.no/graphicslib/detail/number-of-disasters-per-year_1408)











So, as I write this from my temporary Manhattan-refugee location in Brooklyn (with much thanks to my wife’s brother and sister-in-law), I come back to the point of EcoOptimism. If you need to rationalize the environmental steps advocated by the “alarmists,” if in the term scientific consensus you hear only the word con, then forget about the stick for a moment and focus on the carrot. The steps to a carbon neutral existence will also improve our lives. I’m not talking about the idea of sustainability, which is merely ensuring that humanity can continue to exist (as if that isn’t a basic enough goal), but the idea that we also will be better off after buying the insurance. We’re talking about tangibles like better health as well as intangibles such as spending less time and money keeping apace with the treadmill and more time to spend on things and activities that really make us better people.

Most times when we buy insurance, it’s just to protect ourselves from exposure to future costs. Buy fire insurance and, if your house burns down, the insurance buys you another one. But environmental “insurance,” whether it be in the form of a carbon tax or something else, is not merely money thrown at a potential problem to cover your potential losses. (Never mind that no amount of insurance can buy us another planet.)  It’s money that is directed against an all but certain eventuality and at the same time has the ability to improve the value of the asset you’re protecting: your life. That has to be the deal of a “lifetime.”