Climate Change and Apocalypticism: A Hope Indistinguishable from Nihilism

The following is a paper I gave at the AAR. It was part of a panel on ‘Thinking Critically About the Future(s) of the Human’ with Anthony Paul Smith, Marika Rose and Eric Daryl Meyer.

In the course of addressing climate change, like so many other crises, we are confronted with the demand to hope. We must hope in the future, for without the future we are lost. Refusing to hope, in the form of pessimism or resignation, is to not only abandon the myth of perpetual progress, but to throw into question the fabric of society. Against this demand for hope, I am going to argue for an apocalyptic response. In what follows, I’ll briefly outline a definition of apocalypticism, drawing primarily on the work of Jacob Taubes and Catherine Malabou, before moving on to discuss this approach as a response to climate change. I’ll conclude by discussing why this apocalyptic perspective is incompatible with the idea of the Anthropocene, an increasingly popular way of framing the issue of climate change.

Apocalypse

Following Jacob Taubes, I understand apocalypticism to be oriented against ‘the rigid structures of the positivity of the world’, combining ‘within it a form-destroying and a forming power.’[1] Taubes provides a good starting point for thinking about the logic of apocalypticism. Across his work we see a certain ambivalence about the world. On the one hand, Taubes spiritually divests from this world. On the other, he’s wary of focusing purely on destruction.

Taubes’ description of a ‘form-destroying’ and ‘forming power’ may sound familiar to those who have encountered Catherine Malabou’s concept of plasticity. As she explains in The Future of Hegel, plasticity indicates the capacity for both the crystallisation and annihilation of form.[2] For Malabou, this concept of plasticity is central to Hegel’s understanding of temporality and the future.[3] In Malabou’s Hegelianism, the future is not an approaching moment – a now that hasn’t happened yet – but marks subjectivity’s relationship to the accidental or contingent.[4] Apocalypticism begins with this attention to the possibility for everything to be otherwise.

Adding an ontological dimension to Taubes’ definition calls to mind one further exploration of apocalypticism and its relation to hope. Just as Malabou understands the future not as an approaching time that will become a now, Bloch understands the future as Not-Yet. At the heart of his materialist, concrete utopianism is this notion of a space within the present for the production and emergence of the New. For Bloch, analysis of the present reality must take into account this real possibility[5] – what Malabou would call the accidental or contingent. Bloch anticipates Malabou’s plasticity of being, calling for an analysis of ‘the future-laden properties of matter’.[6] The Not-Yet is not only a feature of subjectivity, but of being itself, marking the contingency of anything that is. It is this contingency that is a source of hope.

So, Taubes provides a logic of apocalypticism, Malabou’s plasticity provides an ontological dimension to this logic and Bloch finds in this account a reason to hope. There is one final point at which Malabou can help us formulate our understanding of apocalypticism – the relationship between plasticity and trauma. As Malabou shows in her Ontology of the Accident, radical changes result from traumatic events. Plasticity denotes the remarkable adaptability of structures and networks – a capacity to develop new behaviours in response to new stimuli. But plasticity also names the ‘the possibility of explosion, the annihilation of equilibrium’[7]. Here Malabou provides a corrective to Bloch’s exuberance. While Bloch is right to find hope in the incompleteness of being, Malabou foregrounds the destructive implications of realising that hope.

While Taubes, Malabou and Bloch, in overlapping ways, help us think about the logic and ontology of apocalypticism, they are less useful when it comes to thinking about the emergence of apocalypticism as a social or political strategy. Malabou is of some help, noting that destructive plasticity ‘enables the appearance of formations of alterity where the other is absolutely lacking. Plasticity is the form of alterity when no transcendence, flight or escape is left.’[8] Her descriptions, however, focus on the potential consequences of trauma, rather than the emergence of a situation in which that trauma becomes synonymous with hope. The apocalyptic is not an affect that can be adopted, but reflects a particular relationship to a situation.

Here, we might adopt Frank B. Wilderson’s distinction between conflict and antagonism. As Wilderson explains, a conflict is a problem that we might conceptually resolve, while an antagonism is ‘an irreconcilable struggle between entities, or positions, the resolution of which is not dialectical but entails the obliteration of one of the positions.’[9] Antagonism not only marks a negative social or political relation, but is ontologically significant.

The apocalyptic emerges through the recognition that a conflict is actually an antagonism. It is to insist on the necessity of obliteration while rejecting the possibility of a satisfactory resolution. While Taubes, read in light of Malabou and Bloch, provides a logic of apocalypticism, Wilderson allows us to understand apocalypticism as a hope that is indistinguishable from nihilism emerging through the confrontation of an antagonism.

So apocalypticism rejects hope predicated on conflict – a hope that posits the possibility of resolution. Instead, the form of hope that it enables, if hope is indeed the appropriate term, is predicated on destruction. The relationship between hope and destruction is ambiguous. If Taubes claims to have no investment in this world[10] but worries about embracing the desire to see ‘it all go down’, Wilderson offers a more strident version. The destruction is worth willing in its own right.

Climate change and the demand for hope

In order to adopt an apocalyptic position towards climate change, we must identify an antagonism between some aspect of human life and nature. Jason Moore locates this antagonism in our reliance upon ‘cheap nature’.[11] We live in a configuration of the human/nature relationship produced by capitalism, and this configuration is straining under the demands for cheap food, energy and raw materials – the unpaid work of nature.[12] If, as Moore argues, we are witnessing ‘capitalism exhausting its cheap nature strategy’,[13] then we are facing an epochal shift, not merely a developmental crisis.[14] Or in the apocalyptic register I am recommending, the ‘world’ does not contain the solution to the antagonism between some humans and nature.

There is a kind of hope, however, in Moore’s description of the situation. Our antagonism is not between humanity and nature as such. Rather, it arises from a ‘historically-specific nature’.[15] The world does not contain the solution to climate change, but another world might. Apocalypticism insists that the new is dependent upon the destruction of the old.

This approach stands in contrast to the demand for hope. Unlike Moore’s analysis of fundamental antagonism, this more optimistic response to climate change frames the issue as a developmental crisis – a conflict to be resolved, not an antagonism to be faced. This demand for hope makes pessimism a vice. Two examples show this dynamic. First, in her essay on forgiveness, pessimism and climate change, Kathryn Norlock argues that it is imperative that we continue to hope, even though pessimism is a rational response to global warming. She argues that this responsibility for hope falls to those who live in prosperous, high energy consuming societies. These citizens must cultivate among themselves and in the wider global community a belief in the capacity to organise a collective response that will be capable of effecting change. If we do not believe that we can successfully bring about change, then there is no motivation to act.[16] Norlock’s argument depends on a conviction that collective action within affluent communities – the practice of good ecocitizenship – is capable of gradually resolving the conflict between humans and nature.

As a second example of this dynamic, we can take the work of Allen Thompson, who discusses ‘radical hope’ in the context of climate change. While admitting that many communities face the end of their way of life, Thompson insists that we must hope, clinging ‘to the belief that cultivating virtues of incremental activism will not be in vain, ironically in spite of all strong evidence to the contrary.’[17] Why must we hope? – in the name of future generations.[18] The future is the source of hope and we owe the future the activity of our hoping.

Initially, Thompson’s approach has more appeal. He describes radical hope as ‘a form of courage at the end of goodness, underpinning action on the mere hope that someday the good will return in a presently unimaginable form.’[19] He acknowledges that much of what we take to be normal life is coming to an end and that catastrophic consequences are now inevitable. Yet he positions this notion of radical hope against despair. His conclusion dismisses messianic or apocalyptic responses to catastrophic change as failures to ‘engage reality’.[20] His commitment to hope in the name of future generations is a form of what Lee Edelman calls ‘reproductive futurism’.[21] For all of his talk of disjunction, Thompson still thinks that we are dealing with a conflict rather than an antagonism. He calls adaptation rather than annihilation.

Thus, even amongst those who concede that we are facing a more dire situation argue in favour of a hope that remains attached to the possibility of continuation. It becomes a ‘cruel hope’ – a hope that stands in the way of its own realisation.[22] Viewing climate change as a developmental crisis rather than the setting of an epochal shift prevents us from realising that climate change results from a fundamental and constitutive antagonistic relation of some humans to nature.

Apocalypse and the Anthropocene

By way of conclusion, I’d like to focus on this last point and how it illuminates issues with the concept of the Anthropocene. In its standard definition, the Anthropocene is a shift in the relationship between humans and the environment, brought about by humanity becoming a ‘global geological force’.[23]

As Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg argue, climate change is something for which some humans are responsible and it is often those who have contributed least to climate change who will suffer its effects most.[24] In their account, climate change is sociogenic, not anthropogenic.[25] In other words, the antagonism is not between humans and nature, but some humans and other humans and nature. As Malm and Hornborg show, a relatively small group of people made the decisions that lead to a form of capitalism dependent on fossil fuel.[26] Attempting to distribute blame to the species as a whole is to engage in a project of false unification. Some humans are responsible for creating the conditions in which we all are forced to participate in the destruction of the environment (and even here, we are not all equal participants).

This forced unification is evident in Norlock’s essay, discussed just a moment again. Her essay is largely cornered with the role of preservative forgiveness in promoting ecocitizenship. We should resist the urge to condemn those who are ‘blameworthy for environmental depredations’ as this condemnation can be an obstacle to the collective action need to address climate change.[27] For Norlock, positing climate change as an antagonism between some humans and nature leaves open the possibility that climate change also indicated an antagonism between some humans and other humans. Even if we live in a historically-specific configuration of the human/nature relationship, we do not all occupy the same positions in that configuration. Confronting the antagonism as the heart of the climate crisis requires breaking with a species thinking that obscures antagonisms between people, not just between humans and nature.

Conclusion

Climate change exposes a fundamental antagonism between some humans and nature. This antagonism structures the reality of all humans, even those who, alongside the nonhuman, disproportionately suffer the consequences of this antagonism. Within this antagonism, we can hope, but in so doing, we hope for the destruction of one side of the antagonism. There is a potential for something new to emerge, and, following Bloch, this potential novelty is a source of hope. Yet as Malabou shows, this newness emerges from trauma. In considering that possible future, we must become apocalyptic – we can only hope with a hope indistinguishable from nihilism.

[1] Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, trans. David Ratmoko (Stanford University Press, 2009), 10.

[2] Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic (London: Routledge, 2005), 9.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope: V. 1, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 223.

[6] Ibid., 237.

[7] Catherine Malabou, The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity, trans. Carolyn Shread (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012), 5.

[8] Ibid., 11.

[9] Wilderson, 5.

[10] Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, trans. Dana Hollander (Standford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 103.

[11] Jason W. Moore, “The End of Cheap Nature. Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying about ‘The’ Environment and Love the Crisis of Capitalism,” in Structures of the World Political Economy and the Future Global Conflict and Cooperation, ed. Christian Suter and Christopher Chase-Dunn (Lit Verlag, 2014), 285–314. See also Philip Goodchild, “Debt, Epistemology and Ecotheology,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 9, no. 2 (2004): 151–77.

[12] Moore, 288.

[13] Ibid., 308.

[14] Ibid., 289.

[15] Ibid., 296.

[16] Kathryn J. Norlock, “Forgivingness, Pessimism, and Environmental Citizenship,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 23, no. 1–2 (June 12, 2009): 39.

[17] Allen Thompson, “Radical Hope for Living Well in a Warmer World,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 23, no. 1–2 (June 17, 2009): 51.

[18] Ibid., 50.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 57. Thompson does not use the language of apocalypticism, but, following the work of Jonathan Lear, juxtaposes the radical hope of Plenty Coups to the messianism of Sitting Bull. The contrast holds for apocalyptic responses as well.

[21] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 2.

[22] I adapt this notion of cruel hope from Lauren Berlant’s work on cruel optimism. See Lauren Berlant, “Cruel Optimism: On Marx, Loss and the Senses,” New Formations, no. 63 (2007): 33–51.

[23] Will Steffen et al., “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369, no. 1938 (2011): 843.

[24] Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative,” The Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1 (2014): 63–64,

[25] Ibid., 66.

[26] Ibid., 64.

[27] Norlock, 30.

2 Responses to “Climate Change and Apocalypticism: A Hope Indistinguishable from Nihilism”

  1. dmf Says:

    are there any mainstream/scientific/academic uses of anthropocene that actually blame the whole species and aren’t just pointing out that human activity (not say a meteor or such) is now a geo-logical scale factor?
    http://syntheticzero.net/2015/11/19/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-of-collapse-rebirth/

  2. thomaslynch Says:

    It’s less an issue of blame and more the emphasis on shared responsibility. That emphasis works to cover up interspecies antagonisms by falsely unifying humanity. Both Moore and Malm/Hornborg track this tendency well.


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