Happy Earth Day! (And the Count Down to the Eco-Apocalypse)
With local radio stations handing out saplings for Albuquerqueans to plant, various emails on list-serves this morning proclaiming how to reduce my carbon footprint, and my terribly guilty conscience over driving a small SUV, I feel like Earth Day has hit me full force this year. One of the campuses where I teach has started a film series on the environment, and another has started a huge recycling campaign on campus. What has proved most interesting for the start of the Earth Day was a great article by Rebecca Onion at Slate on what she aptly calls "Envirogeddon." Onion explores the fascination of many environmentalist writers about Armageddon, eco-style, which would require the surviving humans to be kinder to the planet and her resources. The beauty of Onion's piece is that she traces this "wish" for an apocalypse back to eco-literature from the 1970s until today to show this continuing vein of thought. She takes on James Howard Kunstler's new novel, World Made by Hand, which examines the lives of survivors of calamitous events and their attempts to live in a ravaged world. Onion writes:
World Made By Hand takes place a couple of decades in the future, after a series of rolling catastrophes has left people without electricity, communications, or transportation infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of others have died of the "Mexican flu." Despite their burdens, the men and women of this imaginary world seem to have pretty good lives. Robert has lost his wife and children, but now he lives in an Arts and Crafts bungalow and makes his living as a carpenter—having been rescued, by the apocalypse, from an emasculating job as a software-marketing guy. The townspeople replace the suburban infrastructure with ever-more creative and beautiful houses and hold lively square dances. A beautiful and much younger widow, needing protection, falls into Robert's bed and makes him chicken stew with new potatoes and peas for dinner. (Kunstler's post-apocalyptic women have given up trying to be involved in government for their true roles as cooks and sex partners.) Even the occasional bouts of violence are cleansing, putting hair on Robert's sunken chest. In short, thanks to the world's upheaval, Robert becomes a true man while the people around him become a true community.
Onion renders these apocalyptic tales as an attempt a new frontier story, in which the humans start over in various, earth-friendly endeavors. She opines:
This equation of emptiness with rebirth and human freedom was a new kind of frontier story—predicated not on distance from civilization but on the wholesale death of civilization itself. As such, it also forms the basis for Kunstler and Weisman's utopian visions. While the enviros of the 1970s worried about population, we worry about climate change, but the possibilities for post-crisis humanity remain rosy. Kunstler's glorious images of ripped-up strip malls and catamounts in empty houses echo Weisman's regenerating landscapes, and both recall the new eco-orders of Abbey and Wiley. In the perfect green apocalypse, population reduction leaves a world in which everybody wins—birds, bees, and people.
Her concern is that in many of these tales, the "green apocalypse" can only occur with annihilation of humans to recover the damage. The haunting visions of a planet stripped of humanity and the stunning comeback of nature brings to mind the film, I am Legend. The main character played by Will Smith is the sole survivor of epidemic that kills most humans and turn some into light-sensitive zombies. Alone with only his dog, Sam, in New York City, he hunts for deer in an overgrown Times Square and fishes in the remnants of a reflection pool. A city, once densely populated, appears eerily quite in the day, but of course, the zombie-like beings hunt for humans to dine on at night. The movie's premise is that the population has been almost decimated by a vaccine, which proved to have disastrous results. The "green apocalypse" echoes religious visions of the end, but also provides a damning critique of human relationship with the environment. The film gives a glimpse of how the world might appear after such an event. (In an effort of full disclosure, the film proved to be quite disturbing to me, so I am not quite sure I can recommend it. My spouse liked it, but the isolation and despair of the film proved haunting.) The film provides visual impact to the words of various Envirogeddon writers.
If any of blog readers have come across scholarship on environmental visions of the Armageddon (and comparisons with other apocalyptic groups), please post the references in the comments section. This topic proves to be a fascinating distraction from grading and other work. Happy Earth Day!