Not the End of the World Show

by Alice Bell

Alice Bell reviews Andrew Simms and Billy Talen’s new books offering hope in the face of environmental apocalypse.

First published: 14 June, 2013 | Category: Book Review, Environment

The End of the World, by Reverend Billy Talen. OR Books, 2013. Cancel the Apocalypse, by Andrew Simms. Little Brown, 2013.

Not for the first time, it all feels a bit end times. Or at least a bit penultimate. We don’t always talk about it, but with bees vanishing, the Keeling Curve hitting 400ppm and headlines about “peak soil” it’s there, hanging over us: the possible end, if not of humanity, then at least of the lives of many, many living things.

We’ve rehearsed this many times before. There’s an old Fredric Jameson line about how the fictionalised futures of 1984 came and went, leaving us a bit blasé about dystopia (Jameson, 1991: 284-5). The idea of possible apocalypse haunts many aspects of left wing politics and ecology (scientific and activist), and they are often criticized for exaggerating potential breakdown for rhetorical ends, relishing the idea of global destruction as a route to start society anew. Steve Rayner recently made some nuanced points about a resurgence of catastrophic thinking surrounding planetary boundaries, suggesting it is used as a mechanism to shut down debate. But it’s such a tired old trope; a reference to eco-miserablism features in the Brendon O’Neil online quote generator (and similar themes feature in a recent Žižek book). Successive end of season denouements on Buffy leave characters wondering what the plural of apocalypse is. Kate Moss’ face advertises “apoca-lips” cosmetics on the side of buses. I have “melt this shit earth” on a t-shirt. It’s all a bit banal.

Can two new books – Billy Talen’s The End of the World and Andrew Simms' Cancel the Apocalypse – offer something new, or at least offer some solace? Talen takes the approach of finding inspiration at the depths of disaster, though somehow manages this without appearing clichéd. Simms, explicitly aware of the long history of such tropes, stresses in his introduction that not all apocalypses are equal; this is a serious one, and it’s also one we can work to mitigate the effects of. They are both upbeat books, as well as deeply serious ones. Both use the idea of apocalypse to pull the reader in, aware of the dramatic appeals it can have, working through the desperate concern they know many of us have about the future, whilst also finding routes out. Both also seem to be aware of the problems and histories of appeals to the apocalypse and try to offer something hopeful. Both, in their own ways, try to have their eco-miserablism and eat it.

If you are familiar with Simms’ writing for the Guardian, you’ll have a sense of what he has to say. Spoiler: he not a huge fan of capitalism. He’s not 100% behind the idea of the simple shiny-shiny-ness of new technology either. The book provides a critique of how our quest for particular ideas of “growth” are successively driving divides between us socially and ripping apart our planet environmentally. But it also aims to show us a way out of such a mess. With a large thumbs-up and strap line promising “the new path to prosperity” on the cover, it's a bit like a self-help book for our economic system. “Ever get the feeling that things are falling apart?” the blurb on the back asks, under the curve of a gleaming yellow and orange sun: “From bad banks to global warming, it can all look hopeless, but what if everything could turn out, well, even better than before? What if the only thing holding us back is a lack of imagination and surplus of old orthodoxies?” Drawing on wisdom of science, history and economics as well as a global range of activist initiatives, it’s a thick, ambitious book.

Talen's is a very different beast. Unlike Simms’ brick of a book, it’s a slip of a bit of dead tree, with poems and pictures rather than chunks of academic citations; the product of performance art and activism on city streets, not op-eds, seminars and think tank reports. It features a grey cover – no sunny yellow and orange here – with a picture of the author looking terrified. If you’ve never encountered the Reverend Billy, imagine an ebullient evangelical preacher in an Elvis wig, except instead of raising money for the Republicans under a portrait of Reagan, he’s an eco-socialist. Talen’s church is one of stop shopping, singing “Change-a-lujah, Earth-a-lujah, Life-a-lujah”. First appearing alongside street preachers in Times Square, he’s performed his form of protest-art around the world, being arrested several times in the process. It might sound corny, but in practice his style is so full of a raw and cheeky compassion it is hard not to be charmed.

Simms starts his book revisiting the limits to growth debate of the 1970s. Growth makes us “hit the biosphere’s buffers” (p21). How did we overreach ourselves so? The bulk of the book is then a long walk through questions of whether the world really has to be this way, reminding the reader that this is “A financial apocalypse made by people that could, similarly, be unmade” (p167) and making similar points in terms of how we choose to use the Earth’s natural resources. There are invitations to wonder at the plain weirdness of this thing we call money and remember how we all managed to get around without planes during the ash cloud. He points a finger at consumption and discusses several alternative social networks for spending free time; gardening communities, crafting, doing sports or enjoying music without having to work via routes of consumer capitalism (mobile clubbing, rambling groups, knitters circles, allotments). He also pulls apart Mark Lynas’ call for an environmentalism happy with capitalism, chastising the green movement for not standing up for itself against strawman criticism they’re anti-progress. “Scared of its own shadow, the green in-crowd took to preaching green consumerism” (p313).

One of Simms’ stated key aims with the book is to find the important middle ground between hopeless doom-mongers and techno-utopians. I’m very much in agreement with this stance, but I’m not entirely with the attitude to technology he seems to espouse, which still feels a bit techo-pessimistic for me. With an eye on the history of the luddites, he outlines various ways in which food and energy policy is written to close off particular technological options, often using allusions to scientific certainty (not always warranted) as seemingly rational cover for political ends, arguing we need to unravel such systems of control to find new ways to solve global challenges of today. Too often, he argues, “technology becomes an imposition, not a choice” (p183), when really a range of futures is available. I think he’s right. But, although it might be a misreading on my part, I felt a whiff of unhelpful Romanticism in places, with calls to eschew big technology and get back to nature. Yes, the idea of a technofix is dangerously simplistic, but technology can help us fix things and it’s a space to find hope Simms perhaps doesn’t draw on enough. The trick is not letting the multiple options we have for our futures be captured and limited by undemocratic interests, big or small. Take back technology. Question whose ideas of progress direct our ideas. Occupy big science. Re-capture engineering. Reclaim the dark satanic mills and re-open them as public accountable workers’ co-ops. Because, done well, technology can express the best of humanity, and be its best hope too. And it can be done with respect for nature. Big tech isn’t the problem any more than big social innovations like the NHS are; it’s how we run such projects and who’s in control that matters.

More stylistically, Simms book is overly long and could have done with a sharp edit. It also comes with a thick list of citations at the end; nodding to an impressive number of esteemed Professors and world-leading institutes. This was too thick. I felt like he was using citations to tell a story he’d already written; he wasn’t led by them. It doesn’t help that he starts sections by dangling decontextualised quotes at you. It may not have been the intension, but at times it felt like he was shouting “Look at all these clever people who agree with me!” And that, in itself, is rather unconvincing. For a book often inviting you to question authority, it seems to expect rather a lot of deference too. Although I agreed with a fair bit of what Simms had to say, I also found myself bored and patronised at times, and that wasn’t very cheering at all.

Talen’s book, in contrast, feels more like a declaration of change from below. The weight doesn’t come from academic citations, and neither is it limited by their structures. It’s deeply personal; for all it takes the moniker of a God’s eye-view, it’s very much Talen’s voice. It’s a book ignited by righteous anger and run over a preacher’s narrative, but it’s fuelled by art. With the “I got to be surreal sometimes to understand” (p83-7) repeated as verse in one of the later chapters, Talen poetically threads personal memoir with imagined futures, nightmares and nostalgia. And yet there is a raw realness to it all, with touching references to his family and friends as well as experiences, ideas and hopes he clearly feels very deeply. One of the main criticisms of catastrophic discourse in environmentalism is that such religiosity turns climate change into Biblical fables, rather than problems to be solved (e.g. this recent review). A critique of Talen’s evangelist garb might be that it simply plays to that. Except the Rev Billy is far from simple. It felt more as if he was inviting us to notice the pseudo-religious cult (of consumer capitalism) we’re already part of, not join a new one. Moreover, for all that it’s a sermon from a preacher, it’s very explicitly embedded in a social system. The “I got to be surreal sometimes to understand” line gradually transforms to “we got to be” (emphasis added) by the end of the poem, which I feel is emblematic of Talen’s approach as a whole. The religiosity of Talen’s style felt, to me, more a matter of “come, let’s congregate” than “you must fear my authoritarian warnings”. There is something very inclusive about his style, and joyous too.

Talen starts by imaging a history of the end of the world in the very near future where we’re mediating the apocalypse rather than doing anything about it. Like Simms, he seems highly aware that we’ve been here before: “Of the six known mass extinctions on Earth, this was the self-conscious one, produced and consumed in high-def” (p12). He plays with way the end of the world has become something we consume as well as consumption driving it and suggests that we somehow didn’t believe it was happening for real this time: “The End of the World was the story-line of all best-selling movies and books. In its own way, this was the perfect happy ending. The media was made, completed, and shipped to consumers. The End was casually tagged to be continued” (p13). It’s heavy on the bathos, but directed with pointed anger “If you are shopping, you might not notice” (p31). Fans of certain strands of social thought might recognize shadows of capitalist realism or a sense we’re amusing ourselves to death, but part of the beauty of this book is that it’s liberated from the structures of academic citation. If you enjoy making links to other texts, do, or just listen to Talen’s voice itself and the fresher points he has to make.

One of the devices Talen uses to prise the reader out of their current unconsciousness is by juxtaposing a particularly sense of nostalgic All-American homeliness with more dystopic modernity. So there are jokes about “Drowning Elmo” toys to keep us entertained while the tsunamis and flash floods “bounced on the horizon like Loony Tunes” (p11), and how for Thanksgiving, Occupy activists prepared media, not yams (p71). He preaches that our current social system pushes divides between us to sell us stuff, so we fill the air with CO2 instead of love. Hope comes with the idea of the “Earth Riots” as post-Sandy post-consumers finally rise up in conjunction with nature, gang-like, birdlike flocking along the Hudson: “We are the Earth Riots, we are responsible citizens, […] We’re the tree people, we’re the bird people, stop shopping, we’re mountains, we’re wetlands, we’re the storm […] join an ecosystem and save yourself” (p110). Throughout, Talen puts a lot of his references to nature in scientific terms and, for all the occasional techo-scepticism of the book, it's very pro-science. This fictional radical new activism include “experiments in oil reclamation [which] use fossil-fuel eating bacteria” with the cause “officials insist" due to an "infiltration of teachers’ unions. All the biology teachers in high schools are now held in “rubber rooms” in school buildings. Natural scientists in the universities are also reporting to detentions and interrogations” (p91). It’s a fictional and possibly utopian view of grass roots technoscience by people and the planet, for people and the planet, but a step ahead of more traditional deep green philosophising. Paul Kingsnorth it isn't. At one point Talen criticises Americans for being “addicted to the future [a] swerve into bad science fiction” (22-3) but he’s an addict as much as anyone else, it’s just a different view of the future he’s working from, and all the better for it I think. 

So how do I feel after reading these two books? Cheered? Empowered? No, not really either of those. But I maybe feel a little less alone and a little less encumbered by the weight of histories of catastrophic thinking.

Perhaps the apocalypse is like sex and drugs and rock and roll; every generation thinks they’ve discovered it. Humanity’s felt precarious before, so we should just relax and get on with it. It’s all a bit anti-social anyway. Appeals to apocalypse are, arguably, an overly nihilistic discourse, limiting the space for positive action. Except, and this is key, for Simms’ point that not all apocalypses are equal. It behooves us to take the possibility of our 21st century one seriously, and make responses to it our own. It’s only by working through concerns for the future that we’ll face the challenges and find ways to change. Because shaking off the scarier ends of climate change communication as simply eco-miserablist hype is as limiting a discourse as doom-mongering itself, playing into the hands of those who’d rather we went on consuming the planet in the way we do.

Neither of these books will provide a clear map to a happy future, but they help you think through ideas for how we might take more control of the futures we’re offered. We probably need more books like these.

Alice Bell is an editor at New Left Project and research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex.

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