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Media reports, spurred on by a flood of scientific research galvanized by popular interest and concern, kept the environment high on the political agenda. Climate conferences attracted global attention only comparable to other mega-events like the Olympics, and prominent politicians biked to work or visited the Antarctic to bear witness to the facts and effects of climate change. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases nonetheless continued their seemingly unstoppable climb. However, an allegedly much greater catastrophe for civilization had begun to unfold when the financial crisis exploded in the fall of 2007 and pulled the core capitalist countries into the longest and deepest recession since the Great Depression. Despite significant differences, both catastrophic narratives share an uncanny similarity, particularly if viewed from the place of enunciation. While the ecological Armageddon points at a universal, potentially species-wide destruction, the economic catastrophe is a particular one related solely to the threatened reproduction of, basically, capitalist relations.
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Apocalypse Now! Fear and
Doomsday Pleasures
Erik Swyngedouw
To cite this article: Erik Swyngedouw (2013): Apocalypse Now! Fear and Doomsday
Pleasures, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 24:1, 9-18
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Apocalypse Now! Fear and Doomsday Pleasures
Erik Swyngedouw*
If we do nothing, the consequences for every person on this earth will be severe
and unprecedented*with vast numbers of environmental refugees, social
instability and decimated economies: far worse than anything which we are
seeing today ...We have 100 months left to act. (Prince Charles, March 2009; see
also New Economics Foundation [
A few months after the outbreak of the deepest and longest crisis of capitalism
since the Great Depression, Prince Charles, heir to the throne in the U.K., uttered
the above prophetic words, announcing the coming climatic Armageddon. We are
now four years later and nothing substantial of the sort that Charles had in mind has
been done to stem climate change. The ‘‘Passage to the Act’’ was nonetheless the
intention of Charles’s intervention. His statement was indeed a call to arms, driven
by a deep-seated belief that something serious can and should be done. His
apocalyptic framing of the environmental pickle we are in is not an unusual
discursive tactic. Warnings of ‘‘dangerous climate change’’ and pending disaster are
repeated ad nauseam by many scientists, activists, business leaders, and politicians. It
serves primarily to nudge behavioral change and urge action. Such narratives in fact
combine an unbridled optimism in the species capacities of humans to act if urgency
requires it and in the scientific, technological, and organizational inventiveness of
some to come up with the right mix of measures to deflect the arrow of time such
that civilization as we know it can continue a while longer.
Until 2007-2008, climate change and related environmental concerns were
indeed fairly high on the social and political agenda. Media reports, spurred on by a
flood of scientific research galvanized by popular interest and concern, kept the
environment high on the political agenda. Climate conferences attracted global
attention only comparable to other mega-events like the Olympics, and prominent
politicians biked to work or visited the Antarctic to bear witness to the facts and
effects of climate change. CO
and other greenhouse gases nonetheless continued
their seemingly unstoppable climb. However, an allegedly much greater catastrophe
for civilization had begun to unfold when the financial crisis exploded in the fall of
2007 and pulled the core capitalist countries into the longest and deepest recession
since the Great Depression. While, unsurprisingly, the output of climate gasses did
fall the subsequent year as Western economies contracted (but have again begun their
#2013 The Center for Political Ecology
Capitalism Nature Socialism, 2013
Vol. 24, No. 1, 918,
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inexorable climb), no effort has been spared to salvage the financialized economy
from its home-grown wreckage and to mobilize unprecedented public means to put
the profit-train back on the rails, albeit without much success so far. Apocalyptic
imaginaries of potential social and economic disintegration saturated the landscape,
urging people into not only putting their trust unreservedly in the hands of the
various national and global elites, but also supporting the elitesclunky and desperate
attempts to save their way of life.
Despite significant differences, both catastrophic narratives share an uncanny
similarity, particularly if viewed from the place of enunciation. While the ecological
Armageddon points at a universal, potentially species-wide destruction, the economic
catastrophe is a particular one related solely to the threatened reproduction of,
basically, capitalist relations. Yet, the discursive mobilization of catastrophe follows
broadly similar lines. Imaginaries of a dystopian future are nurtured, not in the least
by various political and economic elites, to invoke the specter of the inevitable if
NOTHING is done so that SOMETHING WILL be done. Their performative
gesture is, of course, to turn the revealed (ecological or political-economic)
ENDGAME into a manageable CRISIS. While catastrophe denotes the irreversible
radical transformation of the existing into a spiralling abyssal decline, crisis is a
conjunctural condition that requires particular techno-managerial attention by those
entitled or assigned to do so. The notion of crisis also promises the possibility to
contain the crisis such that the dystopian revelation is postponed or deflected. Thus,
the embrace of catastrophic language serves primarily to turn nightmare into crisis
management, to assure that the situation is serious but not catastrophic. Unless you
are from the cynical Left*‘‘dont panic now, we told you that crisis would come’’*
or from the doomsday preachers who revel in the perverse pleasures offered by
the announcement of the end*the nurturing of fear, which is invariably followed by
a set of techno-managerial fixes, serves precisely to de-politicize. Nurturing fear also
serves to leave the action to those who promise salvation, to insist that the Big Other
does exist, and to follow the leader who admits that the situation is grave, but insists
that homeland security (ecological, economic, or otherwise) is in good hands
(Swyngedouw 2010a). We can safely continue shopping!
What we are witnessing is a strange reversal whereby the specter of economic
and/or ecological catastrophe is mobilized primarily by the elites from the global
North. Neither Prince Charles nor Al Gore can be accused of revolutionary zeal. For
them, the ecological condition is*correctly of course*understood as potentially
threatening to civilization as we know it. At the same time, their image of a dystopian
future functions as a fantasy that sustains a practice of adjusting things today such
that civilization as we know it (neoliberal capitalism) can continue for a bit longer,
spurred on by the conviction that radical change can be achieved without changing
radically the contours of capitalist eco-development. The imaginary of crisis and
potential collapse produces an ecology of fear, danger, and uncertainty while
reassuring ‘‘the people’’ (or, rather, the population) that the techno-scientific and
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socio-economic elites have the necessary tool-kit to readjust the machine such that
things can stay basically as they are.
What is of course radically disavowed in their pronouncements is the fact that
many people in many places of the world already live in the socio-ecological
catastrophe. The ecological Armageddon is already a reality. While the elites nurture
an apocalyptic dystopia that can nonetheless be avoided (for them), the majority of
the world already lives ‘‘within the collapse of civilization’’ (The Invisible Committee
2009). The Apocalypse is indeed a combined and uneven one, both in time and
across space (see Calder Williams 2011).
A flood of literature on the relationship between apocalyptic imaginaries,
popular culture, and politics has excavated the uses and abuses of revelatory visions
(Skrimshire 2010; Calder Williams 2011). Despite the important differences
between the transcendental biblical use of the apocalypse and the thoroughly
material and socio-physical ecological catastrophes-to-come, the latter, too, de-
politicize matters. As Alain Badiou contends:
[T]he rise of the ‘‘rights of Nature’’ is a contemporary form of the opium for the
people. It is an only slightly camouflaged religion: the millenarian terror, concern
for everything save the properly political destiny of peoples, new instruments for
control of everyday life, the obsession with hygiene, the fear of death and
catastrophes ...It is a gigantic operation in the depoliticization of subjects.
(Badiou 2008, 139)
Environmental problems are indeed commonly staged as universally threatening
to the survival of humankind, announcing the premature termination of civilization
as we know it and sustained by what Mike Davis (1999) aptly called ‘‘ecologies of
fear.’’ Much of the discursive matrix through which the presentation of the
environmental condition we are in is quilted systematically by the continuous
invocation of fear and danger, the specter of ecological annihilation, or at least
seriously distressed socio-ecological conditions for many people in the near future.
The nurturing of fear, in turn, is sustained in part by a particular set of
phantasmagorical imaginations that serve to reinforce the seriousness of the situation
(Katz 1995). The apocalyptic imaginary of a world without water or at least with
endemic water shortages; ravaged by hurricanes whose intensity is amplified by
climate change; pictures of scorched land as global warming shifts the geo-pluvial
regime and the spatial variability of droughts and floods; icebergs that disintegrate;
alarming reductions in biodiversity as species disappear or are threatened by
extinction; post-apocalyptic images of nuclear wastelands; the threat of peak-oil;
the devastations raked by wildfires, tsunamis, spreading diseases like SARS, Avian
Flu, Ebola, or HIV*all these imaginaries of a Nature out of synch, destabilized,
threatening, and out of control are paralleled by equally disturbing images of a
society that continues piling up waste, pumping CO
into the atmosphere,
recombining DNA, deforesting the earth, etc ...In sum, our ecological predicament
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is sutured by millennialism fears sustained by an apocalyptic rhetoric and
representational tactics, and by a series of performative gestures signalling an
overwhelming, mind-boggling danger*one that threatens to undermine the very
coordinates of our everyday lives and routines and may shake up the foundations of
all we took and take for granted.
Of course, apocalyptic imaginaries have been around for a long time as an
integral part of Western thought, first of Christianity and later emerging as the
underbelly of fast-forwarding technological modernization and its associated
doomsday thinkers. However, present day millennialism preaches an apocalypse
without the promise of redemption. Saint Johns biblical apocalypse, for example,
found its redemption in Gods infinite love, while relegating the outcasts to an
afterlife of permanent suffering. The proliferation of modern apocalyptic imaginaries
also held up the promise of redemption: the horsemen of the apocalypse, whether
riding under the name of the proletarian, technology, or capitalism, could be tamed
with appropriate political and social revolutions. The environmental apocalypse, in
contrast, takes different forms. It is not immediate and total (but slow and painful),
not revelatory (it does not announce the dawn of a new rose-tinted era); no
redemption is promised (for the righteous ones), and there are no outcasts. Indeed, if
the boat goes done, the first-class passengers will also drown.
As Martin Jay argued, while traditional apocalyptic versions still held out the
hope for redemption, for a ‘‘second coming,’’ for the promise of a ‘‘new dawn,’’
environmental apocalyptic imaginaries are ‘‘leaving behind any hope of rebirth or
renewal favor of an unquenchable fascination with being on the verge of an end
that never comes’’ (Jay 1994, 33). The emergence of new forms of millennialism
around the environmental nexus is indeed of a particular kind that promises neither
redemption nor realization. As Klaus Scherpe insists, this is not simply apocalypse
now, but apocalypse forever. It is a vision that does not suggest, prefigure, or expect
the necessity of an event that will alter the course of history (Scherpe 1987). Derrida
(referring to the nuclear threat in the 1980s) sums this up most succinctly: ‘‘here,
precisely, is announced*as promise or as threat*an apocalypse without apocalypse,
an apocalypse without vision, without truth, without revelation ...without message
and without destination, without sender and without decidable addressee
apocalypse beyond good and evil’’ (Derrida 1982). The environmentally apocalyptic
future, forever postponed, neither promises redemption nor does it possess a name,
a positive designation.
The attractions of such an apocalyptic imaginary are related to a series of
characteristics. In contrast to standard left arguments about the apocalyptic dynamics
of unbridled capitalism, I would argue that sustaining and nurturing apocalyptic
imageries are an integral and vital part of the new cultural politics of capitalism for
which the management of fear is a central leitmotiv (Badiou 2007) and provides part
of the cultural support for a process of post-politicization (Swyngedouw 2010a).
At the symbolic level, apocalyptic imaginaries are extraordinarily powerful in
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disavowing or displacing social conflict and antagonisms. Apocalyptic imaginations
are decidedly populist and foreclose a proper political framing. Or in other words,
the presentation of climate change as a global humanitarian cause produces a
thoroughly depoliticized imaginary, one that does not revolve around choosing one
trajectory rather than another, or identifies clear adversaries in a political process; it is
one that is not articulated with specific political programs or socio-ecological projects
or transformations. It insists that we have to make sure that radical techno-
managerial and socio-cultural transformations, organized within the horizons of a
capitalist order that is beyond dispute, are initiated that retrofit the climate
(Swyngedouw 2007). In other words, we have to change radically, but within the
contours of the existing state of the situation*‘‘the partition of the sensible’’ in
`res (1998) words, so that nothing really has to change.
The negative desire for an apocalypse that few believe will really happen (if we
were to belief that the earth is really in the dismal state we are told it is in, we would
not be sitting around writing and reading arcane academic journal articles) finds its
positive injunction around a fetishist invocation of CO
as the ‘‘thing’’ around which
our environmental dreams, aspirations, contestations, as well as policies crystallize.
The ‘‘point de capiton,’’ the quilting point through which the signifying chain that
weaves a discursive matrix of meaning and content for the climate change
problematic, is CO
*the objet petit a that simultaneously expresses our deepest
fears and is the thing around which the desire for change, for a better socio-climatic
world, is expressed (see Swyngedouw 2010b).
The fetishist disavowal of the multiple and complex relations through which
environmental changes unfold finds its completion in the double reductionism to
this singular socio-chemical component (CO
). The reification of complex processes
to a thing-like object-cause in the form of a socio-chemical compound around which
our environmental desires crystallize is furthermore inscribed with a particular social
meaning and function through its enrolment as commodity in the processes of
capital circulation and market exchange (Bumpus and Liverman 2008; Liverman
2009). The commodification of CO
*primarily via the Kyoto protocol and various
offsetting schemes*in turn, has triggered a rapidly growing derivatives market of
futures and options. On the European Climate Exchange, for example, trade in CO
futures and options grew from zero in 2005 to 463 million tons in June 2009, with
prices fluctuating from over t30 to less than t10 per ton over this time period
(see, accessed July 30, 2009). There is indeed an uncanny articulation
between the financialization of everything under neoliberal capitalism and the
managerial or institutional architecture of carbon-trading schemes.
The proposed transformations often take a distinct dystopian turn when the
Malthusian specter of overpopulation is fused with concerns with the climate,
whereby, perversely, newborns are indentified as the main culprits of galloping
climate change and resource depletion, a view supported by luminaries like Sir
David Attenborough (OM CH CVO CBE), Dr. Jane Goodall (DBE), Dr. James
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Lovelock (CBE), and Sir Crispin Tickell (GCMG KCVO), among others (see www., accessed August 2, 2010). Eco-warrior and Gaia-theorist,
James Lovelock (2010, 9495), put it even more chillingly:
...[w]hat if at some time in the next few years we realize, as we did in the 1940s,
that democracy had temporarily to be suspended and we had to accept a
disciplined regime that saw the U.K. as a legitimate but limited safe haven for
civilization ...Orderly survival requires an unusual degree of human under-
standing and leadership and may require, as in war, the suspension of democratic
government for the duration of the survival emergency.
Of course, the economy is ‘‘greening,’’ ‘‘sustainable’’ policies and practices are now
part of the standard toolkit of any private or public actor, carbon is traded, trees are
planted, activists act, energy efficiency increases, and technologies are retrofitted.
Nonetheless, greenhouse gasses keep on rising, and old and new fossil energy sources
continue to be exploited (coal, fracking, and tar sands in particular). ‘‘Greening’’ the
economy does not seem to deflect the process of disastrous socio-environmental
transformation. In the meantime, climate change scientists continue to crunch their
numbers and calibrate their models. There is growing consensus now that the Kyoto
objective to keep global warming below 28Celsius cannot any longer be achieved,
regardless of measures taken. Even a global temperature rise of 48Celsius seems
inevitable now, while some fear, if things continue as they are, that even greater
temperature increases are very likely (New et al. 2011). A four degree rise will have
profound effects and, in all likelihood, push climate behavior over the tipping point
whereby catastrophic change is inevitable, unleashing very fast and unpredictable
geographical transformations in climate patterns. It is a bleak picture, one that will
undoubtedly dwarf the already doomsday-laden imaginary that Prince Charles painted.
In light of the above, what is the proper leftist response? I discern broadly three
perspectives. The first one centers on nudging behavioral change in a more
sustainable direction. Under the mantra of ‘‘it is better to do something (like
recycling, growing organic food, and the like) rather than nothing,’’ many liberal
environmentalists mobilize the apocalyptic imaginary in an effort to encourage
individuals to modify attitudes and behavior, and to impress on politicians and
business leaders the need to heed the environmental clarion call. Sustainability hinges
here on individual preference and consumer sovereignty. They also insist that that
catastrophe can still be averted if proper action is taken, action that does not
necessarily overhaul social relations but does postpone the environmental catastrophe
so that life as we know it can continue for a while longer.
The second strand fully endorses the environmental cataclysm and revels in the
certainty that this had already been predicted a long time ago. The standard response
here is, ‘‘you see, we told you so.’’ This is strictly parallel to forms of Marxist analysis
of the current financial crisis in capitalism: ‘‘Dont complain now, we did tell you so.’’
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Against this cynical stand, the third, and for me proper, leftist response to the
apocalyptic imaginary is twofold and cuts through the deadlock embodied by the
first two responses. To begin with, the revelatory promise of the apocalyptic
narrative has to be fully rejected. In the face of the cataclysmic imaginaries mobilized
to assure that the apocalypse will NOT happen (if the right techno-managerial
actions are taken), the only reasonable response is ‘‘Dont worry (Al Gore, Prince
Charles, many environmental activists ....), you are really right, the environmental
apocalypse WILL not only happen, it has already happened, IT IS ALREADY
HERE.’’ Many are already living in the post-apocalyptic interstices of life, whereby
the fusion of environmental transformation and social conditions, render life ‘‘bare.’’
The fact that the socio-environmental imbroglio has already passed the point of no
return has to be fully asserted. The socio-environmental Armageddon is already here
for many; it is not some distant dystopian promise mobilized to trigger response
today. Water conflicts, struggles for food, environmental refugees, etc. testify to the
socio-ecological predicament that choreographs everyday life for the majority of
the worlds population. Things are already too late; they have always already been
too late. There is no Arcadian place, time, or environment to return to, no benign
socio-ecological past that needs to be maintained or stabilized. Many already live
in the interstices of the apocalypse, albeit a combined and uneven one. It is only
within the realization of the apocalyptic reality of the now that a new politics might
The second gesture of a proper leftist response is to reverse the order between
the universal and the particular that today dominates the catastrophic political
imaginary. This order maintains that salvaging the particular historical-geographical
configuration we are in depends on re-thinking and re-framing the human-
environment articulation in a universal sense. We have to change our relationship
with nature so that capitalism can continue somehow. Not only does this argument
to preserve capitalism guarantee the prolongation of the combined and uneven
apocalypse of the present, it forecloses considering fundamental change to the
actually existing unequal forms of organizing the society-environment relations.
Indeed, the apocalyptic imaginary is one that generally still holds on to a dualistic
view of nature and culture. The argument is built on the view that humans have
perturbed the ecological dynamic balance in ways inimical to human (and possibly
non-human) long-term survival, and the solution consists broadly in bringing
humans (in a universal sense) back in line with the possibilities and constraints
imposed by ecological limits and dynamics. A universal transformation is required in
order to maintain the present. And this can and should be done through managing
the present particular configuration. This is the message of Al Gore or Prince Charles
and many other environmental pundits. A left socio-environmental perspective
has to insist that we need to transform this universal message into a particular one.
The historically and geographically specific dynamics of capitalism have banned an
external nature radically to a sphere beyond earth. On earth, there is no external
nature left. It is from this particular historical-geographical configuration that a
radical politics of transformation has to be thought and practiced. Only through the
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transformation of the particular socio-ecological relations of capitalism can a generic
egalitarian, free, and common re-ordering of the human/non-human imbroglios be
Those who already recognized the irreversible dynamics of the socio-environ-
mental imbroglio that has been forged over the past few centuries coined a new term
to classify the epoch we are in. ‘‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’’ became a popular
catch-phrase to inform us that we are now in a new geological era, one in which
humans are co-producers of the deep geological time that hitherto had slowly
grinded away irrespective of humansdabbling with the surface layers of earth,
oceans, and atmosphere. Noble prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen introduced ‘‘the
Anthropocene,’’ coined about a decade ago as the successor name of the Holocene,
the relatively benign geo-climatic period that allegedly permitted agriculture to
flourish, cities to be formed, and humans to thrive (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000).
Since the beginning of industrialization, so the Anthropocenic argument goes,
humansincreasing interactions with their physical conditions of existence have
resulted in a qualitative shift in geo-climatic acting of the earth system. The
Anthropocene is nothing else than the geological name for capitalism WITH nature.
Acidification of oceans, biodiversity transformations, gene displacements and
recombinations, climate change, big infrastructures effecting the earths geodetic
dynamics, among others, resulted in knotting together ‘‘natural’’ and ‘‘social’’
processes such that humans have become active agents in co-shaping earths deep
geological time. Now that the era has been named as the Anthropocene, we can argue
at length over its meaning, content, existence, and possible modes of engagement.
Nonetheless, it affirms that humans and nature are co-produced and that the
particular historical epoch that goes under the name of capitalism forged this mutual
The Anthropocene is just another name for insisting on Natures death. This
cannot be unmade, however hard we try. The past is forever closed and the future*
including natures future*is radically open, up for grabs. Indeed, the affirmation of
the historical-geographical co-production of society WITH nature radically
politicizes nature, makes nature enter into the domain of contested socio-physical
relations and assemblages. We cannot escape ‘‘producing nature’’; rather, it forces us
to make choices about what socio-natural worlds we wish to inhabit. It is from this
particular position, therefore, that the environmental conundrum ought to be
approached so that a qualitative transformation of BOTH society AND nature has to
be envisaged.
This perspective moves the gaze from thinking through a ‘‘politics of the
environment’’ to ‘‘politicizing the environment’’ (Swyngedouw 2011; 2012). The
human world is now an active agent in shaping the non-human world. This extends
the terrain of the political to domains hitherto left to the mechanics of nature.
The non-human world becomes ‘‘enrolled’’ in a process of politicization. And that is
precisely what needs to be fully endorsed. The Anthropocene opens up a terrain
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whereby different natures can be contemplated and actually co-produced. And the
struggle over these trajectories and, from a leftist perspective, the process of the
egalitarian socio-ecological production of the commons of life is precisely what our
politics are all about. Yes, the apocalypse is already here, but do not despair, let us
fully endorse the emancipatory possibilities of apocalyptic life.
Perhaps we should modify the now over-worked statement of the Italian Marxist
Amadeo Bordiga that ‘‘if the ship goes down, the first-class passengers drown too.’’
Amadeo was plainly wrong. Remember the movie Titanic (as well as the real
catastrophe). A large number of the first-class passengers found a lifeboat; the others
were trapped in the belly of the beast. Indeed the social and ecological catastrophe we
are already in is not shared equally. While the elites fear both economic and
ecological collapse, the consequences and implications are highly uneven. The elites
fears are indeed only matched by the actually existing socio-ecological and economic
catastrophes many already live in. The apocalypse is combined and uneven. And it is
within this reality that political choices have to be made and sides taken.
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The Invisible Committee. 2009. The Coming Insurrection. Semiotext(e), Cambridge, MA: MIT
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... In recent years, critical geography and urban studies have increasingly addressed the apocalyptic narratives with which the state of the world is viewed in media and politics (Be ini 2013;Dobraszczyk 2017;Fletcher 2018;Gergan, Smith, and Vasudevan 2020;Harper 2020;Pohl 2021;Specht and Harper 2021;Swyngedouw 2010Swyngedouw , 2013Swyngedouw , 2015. 3 Some have emphasised that the catastrophes Indigenous people faced during colonialism need to be considered in apocalyptic terms (Davis and Todd 2017;Gross 2014;Whyte 2018). Others have noted that the apocalypse is an ongoing condition of the urban present itself and that ci -dwellers live for quite some time under 'unnoticed' apocalyptic conditions (Cunningham and Warwick 2013). ...
... In this paper, I propose a di erent approach to the apocalyptic imagination. Following previous works in critical geography, I emphasise that the problem is not the imagination of the world' s end but, rather, that this imagination o en does not lead to a subversive, or emancipatory, interpretation of this end (Gergan, Smith, and Vasudevan 2020;Ginn 2015;Menga and Davies 2020;Pohl 2021;Pohl and Tomšič 2021;Schlosser 2015;Swyngedouw 2013). Instead, the apocalyptic imagination tends to let us enjoy and consume the world' s end from a safe, distanced position by situating the apocalypse 'somewhere else' , postponing doom to the 'the day a er tomorrow' and by elevating a 'we are all in the same boat' mentali , thereby foreclosing what Erik Swyngedouw (2015, 136) calls 'a proper political framing' . ...
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The year 2020 was accompanied by a new apocalyptic zeitgeist. After the coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) pandemic shattered lifeworlds in many societies around the globe, it seemed easy to imagine it to be the end of the world. No image was more evocative of this moment than that of the empty city. Due to the various lockdowns implemented in numerous countries, images of empty cities spread across the media. This paper investigates this image from the viewpoint of what Jacques Rancière calls an ‘emancipatory spectator’ by emphasising the political implications of the apocalyptic imagination. By focusing on those who remain outside after the city was emptied, this paper questions whether the image of the empty city simply fuels the fantasies of ‘urban exploration’, as critiques have stated, or if it, rather, paves the way for an open view of the inequalities produced by capitalist urbanisation. Therefore, the paper stresses that the remaining people we see in the images of emptied public spaces are mainly those who either have no home to stay inside or work for those who stay inside. Subsequently, it investigates the particular quality of public spaces pictured during the lockdowns. Imaging cities as empty has been vehemently criticised in recent years through the notion of ‘ruin porn’. In contrast to this critique, the paper emphasises that the image of the empty city allows us to see the city with ‘inhuman’ eyes, which leads to a shift in perspective through recognising how little public space is still available when it no longer functions under the imperative of the pre-pandemic status quo. In concluding, the paper reflects on the subversive, or ‘emancipatory’, potential of witnessing the urban void opened up by the pandemic.
... It is not waiting for us somewhere in the future, but is dictating our social, economic, environmental conditions as we speak" (Zupančič, 2018, p. 24). We are not heading for the apocalypse like a ship towards an iceberg; the catastrophe has 'already happened' (Swyngedouw, 2013), the ship is just a wreck lying on the bottom of the sea. Based on the assumption that we already live in a "broken present" (Collings, 2014), critical scholars have repeatedly emphasized in recent years how "easy" it is to imagine the end of the world today. 1 However, finding a suitable image for today's post-apocalyptic condition might be more complicated than it seems. ...
... A variety of scholars in human geography and related disciplines emphasize the narration of the world's end as determining the present more than any other kind of storytelling: "The obsession with apocalypse is shared across all levels of society, from the typical suburban multiplex cinema to war-gaming bunkers deep within the Pentagon to the obscure annals of environmental science", as Ashley Dawson (2013, p. 46) puts it. While several works refer to (post-)apocalyptic fiction, in particular literature and film, as a vehicle with which to analyze how apocalyptic narrations shape, and are shaped by, the contemporary political zeitgeist (Dobraszczyk, 2017;Gergan et al., 2020;Ginn, 2015;Horn, 2018;Kaplan, 2015;Menga and Davies, 2020;Saunders, 2012;Schlosser, 2015;Shaw, 2013;Strauss, 2015), others engage apocalyptic fantasies in non-fictional terms as determining the (post-)political agenda in the twenty-first century (Bettini, 2013;Cassegård and Thörn, 2018;Collings, 2014;Fletcher, 2018;Hall, 2009;Harper, 2020;Pohl and Tomšič, 2021;Specht and Harper, 2021;Swyngedouw, 2021aSwyngedouw, , 2013Swyngedouw, , 2010. ...
The world of today has been increasingly described in post-apocalyptic terms. This paper is dedicated to the ruin as an emblematic image of this post-apocalyptic present. In contrast to the debates surrounding ‘ruin porn’, which critically engage ruin imagery as creating apocalyptic fantasies that distort the non-apocalyptic social realities of places facing urban decline, this paper claims that the ruin image is providing a proper image of today’s post-apocalyptic condition. Based on Jacques Lacan’s concept of the Real, which is defined as designating ‘what does not work in a world’, the paper traces how the ruin can be considered as a ‘piece of the Real’ that allows to condence and materialize the non-working dimensions of the world today. The paper identifies three motifs in ruin porn as Reals of the post-apocalyptic present: the wastelands produced by the catastrophic drive of capital, the unnatural natures faced by the ecological crisis, and the absence of humans, which resembles the radical absence of any common sense of humanity today. By identifying these motifs in ruin porn, the paper aims to offer a referential frame for navigating through a world haunted by the specter of permanent crisis. In the conclusion, the paper addresses the hopelessness expressed in ruin porn as a starting point to reflect on the possibilities of building a future in the ruins of the present.
... Examples of this are the climate disaster films, The Day after Tomorrow (Emmerich 2004), Greenland (Waugh 2021) and Don't Look Up (McKay 2021), which are visually spectacular but offer little in the way of complexity or nuance to disrupt or challenge our thinking. Erik Swyngedouw argues that such films effectively short-circuit the dialogue surrounding the crisis through the production of easy answers (Swyngedouw 2013). Don't Look Up (McKay 2021) is an interesting example as it presents the disaster film as satire and focuses on the pernicious erosion of information as it circulates through social media, celebrity culture, and politics, paradoxically performing the limitations of such discourse by foregrounding the knowing performances of the Hollywood actors over the complexities of the climate crisis, the purported subject of the film. ...
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At both the individual and societal levels, we are entangled within environmental, social, and technological systems that shape our material and emotional states. Contemporary art needs to integrate and challenge the information circulating within these interacting systems to address our increasingly complex lifeworld. This systemic understanding emerged in the 1960s as part of a broader growth in relational thinking within the natural and social sciences, which extended the conceptual boundaries of the artwork. The ecosystem, a model originally developed within ecology, is an example of a systems model as it describes the flow of matter, energy, and information through the physical world. This model has evolved into a powerful analogical tool to describe contemporary culture’s entanglement with nature and technology. The ecosystem model is invoked here to describe how information flows through the artwork. The paper suggests that art is a vital form of communication as it can channel noise or unknown information. This channelling is demonstrated with the artwork, The Creation Myth (1998), by Jason Rhoades. This work anticipated the convergence of natural and technological systems, and it demonstrates the ability of the arts to channel unknown messages or noise, thereby disrupting the dominant signals of contemporary culture.
... Due to the climate emergency, our future now hinges on understanding the complexities of the entanglement of society and culture with Earth system processes (Barad, 2007;O'Brien, 2016;Verlie, 2017Verlie, , 2018. The dramatic climate change-induced events of 2021 remind us that Swyngedouw (2013) was likely correct and that 'the apocalypse is already here' (p. 17). ...
Anthropogenic climate change and the necessary transformation of society to mitigate its consequences constitutes an unprecedented educational challenge. Responding to the climate emergency and to society’s awakening climate activism generates a complex situation for school leadership in particular. Here, we report findings from our research with climate activist students and teachers in Aotearoa New Zealand. We argue that school leadership plays a crucial role in enabling student and teacher agency and the development of effective Climate Change Education in schools. We utilise assemblage thinking, situating this within the new materialisms, to conceptualise schools and their leadership as dynamic assemblages, and we discuss teacher and student experiences as actors across such assemblages. We conclude that deterritorialisation and decoding of educational institutions and their leadership practices can promote and enable education to become a driver of the cultural transformation of society that the climate emergency mandates.
... Because some resources, such as fossil fuels, are limited, increasing economy, and subsequently wellbeing for some, cannot be based solely on the overuse of limited production materials. This is not a condition in the unforeseen future, but already contemporary levels of consumption, combined with political steering geared towards the interest of capital, result in resource scarcity that is a reality for Majority World, usually for the poor (Swyngedouw, 2013). Therefore, it is crucial to rethink how to live in a socially just manner on earth that has a limited carrying capacity. ...
There is a vivid scientific debate on how climate change affects stability, resilience, and conflict dynamics of human societies. Environmental security and collapse theory are theoretical approaches that claim severe negative impacts of climatic disasters on political stability, allegedly through the vector of food insecurity. Yet there is a disconnect between this work and the rich body of knowledge on food insecurity and society. The literature is fairly unanimous that (a) drought does not necessarily lead to famines, since (b) famines have a political context that is often more important than other factors; in addition, (c) famines and the distribution of suffering reflect social hierarchies within afflicted societies, and (d) even large-scale famines do not necessarily cause collapse of a polity’s functioning, as (e) food systems are highly interconnected and complex. As an illustrative case, the paper offers a longitudinal study of Malawi. By combining environmental history and analysis of Malawi’s idiosyncratic (post-)colonial politics, it discusses the possible connections between droughts, food insecurity, and political crises in the African country. The single-case study represents a puzzle for adherents of the “collapse” theory but highlights the complex political ecology of food crises in vulnerable societies. This has implications for a formulation of climate justice claims beyond catastrophism.
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Environmental movements have evolved and expanded across recent years in response to escalating ecological crisis. Developments include an increasingly prominent role for young people, more concerted efforts to integrate environmental and social struggles, and renewed critiques of global capitalism and its growth imperative. Underexplored throughout extensive scholarship in this field is how young environmental activists are (re)imagining socio-ecological crisis and transformation. This thesis aims to develop a deeper understanding of how young environmental activists envisage crisis and the types of futures they seek. The project draws on 30 semi-structured interviews and participant observation with young environmental activists (aged 16-28) in North East England. I develop an open case study approach in which data collected through local, low-impact empirical research is analysed through a theoretical lens centred around the burgeoning transnational academic-activist discourse of degrowth. The project evolved from a (pre)embedded position within this local activist milieu. In contrast with earlier environmentalist discourse, the narrative analysis in this thesis reveals how young activists pursue ecologically sustainable and socially just futures as an integrated ambition. Such approaches reflect the ascendant influence of climate justice frames which foreground the intersections of climate breakdown with existing social-geographical inequalities and oppressions. Bound up with these framings, however, are risks: I caution against the neglect of dimensions of ecological crisis beyond climate, as well as the underappreciation of complex interdependencies between human and non-human wellbeing. I also uncover a predominant oppositional orientation characterising both the forms of action young activists engage in and how they envisage transformation(s). Tensions between antagonistic and imaginative politics are manifest in the way that many activists appear to defer the development of alternative socio-ecological imaginaries until an abstract future moment. For some this deferral is unconscious whilst, for others, it is expressed as a deliberative prioritisation of an oppositional politics in the present. I argue, however, that this
Alison McQueen’s study of the historical role of apocalyptic ideas in realist political theory cautiously proposes the ‘redirection’ of apocalyptic thought as a plausible alternative to its rejection. Apocalyptic redirection, so understood, uses apocalyptic language to describe potential future catastrophes in order to inspire drastic action to prevent them. Although McQueen acknowledges that apocalyptic redirection may have certain risks, she suggests it may be an appropriate response to the crisis of climate change. In this article, I aim to show that this use of the discourse of apocalyptic redirection is ideologically problematic. I argue that it involves conflating the interests of those who are at least moderately materially comfortable with the interests of humanity as a whole. I will also draw on the 2019 ‘Stop Adani Convoy’ in Australia as a case study to show how the ideological character of this discourse renders it ill-suited to generating popular support for action on climate change, and liable to reproduce existing power relations.
This chapter analyzes the uses of apocalyptic discourses in contemporary political imaginations of the Anthropocene. We conceptualize the geocratic narratives of the Anthropocene and analyze the risks associated with the apocalyptic aesthetics mobilized to as a universal project, largely leaving capitalistic trajectories unquestioned. By conceptualizing the apocalyptic aesthetics and the depoliticizing narratives of Geopower, the chapter argues that novel grounds for meaningful political subjectivities can be found by drawing from emerging Transition Discourses and the Epistemologies of the South. We argue that only through inclusion of a multitude or pluriverse of epistemologies, a more theoretically coherent understanding of agency, politics and governance of the Cosmopolocene can be found.
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This article interrogates the relationship between two apparently disjointed themes: the consensual presentation and mainstreaming of the global problem of climate change on the one hand and the debate in political theory/philosophy that centers around the emergence and consolidation of a post-political and post-democratic condition on the other. The argument advanced in this article attempts to tease out this apparently paradoxical condition. On the one hand, the climate is seemingly politicized as never before and has been propelled high on the policy agenda. On the other hand, a number of increasingly influential political philosophers insist on how the post-politicization (or de-politicization) of the public sphere (in parallel and intertwined with processes of neoliberalization) have been key markers of the political process over the past few decades. We proceed in four steps. First, we briefly outline the basic contours of the argument and its premises. Second, we explore the ways in which the present climate conundrum is predominantly staged through the mobilization of particular apocalyptic imaginaries. Third, we argue that this specific (re-)presentation of climate change and its associated policies is sustained by decidedly populist gestures. Finally, we discuss how this particular choreographing of climate change is one of the arenas through which a post-political frame and post-democratic political configuration have been mediated.
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Nobel-price winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen introduced in 2000 the concept of the Anthropocene as the name for the successor geological period to the Holocene. The Holocene started about 12,000 years ago and is characterized by the relatively stable and temperate climatic and environmental conditions that were conducive to the development of human societies. Until recently, human development had relatively little impact on the dynamics of geological time. Although disagreement exists over the exact birth date of the Anthropocene, it is indisputable that the impact of human activity on the geo-climatic environment became more pronounced from the industrial revolution onwards, leading to a situation in which humans are now widely considered to have an eco-geologically critical impact on the earth's bio-physical system. The most obvious example is the accumulation of greenhouse gases like CO2 and Methane (CH4) in the atmosphere and the changes this induces in climatic dynamics. Others are the growing homogenization of biodiversity as a result of human-induced species migration, mass extinction and bio-diversity loss, the manufacturing of new (sub-)species through genetic modification, or the geodetic consequences resulting from, for example, large dam construction, mining and changing sea-levels.(Online publication September 22 2011)
This article examines the governance of international carbon offsets, analyzing the political economy of the origins and governance of offsets. We examine how the governance structures of the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism and unregulated voluntary carbon offsets differ in regulation and in complexity of the chain that links consumers and reducers of carbon, with specific consequences for carbon reductions, development, and the ability to provide “accumulation by decarbonization.” We show how carbon offsets represent capital-accumulation strategies that devolve governance over the atmosphere to supranational and nonstate actors and to the market.