Apocalypse and Ecology (1988)

by cominsitu


by Eric Zencey

On the evening of October 22, 1844, a quiet and selective exodus took place in New England. Fifty thousand citizens left their homes for the last time, pulled out of doors and away from their neighbors as smoothly as a sharper’s hand draws an ace from a deck of cards. Here an entire family left their farm, its fields tangled from a summer of neglect; there, in a small town, a wheelwright or a cooper or a smith marshalled his children and wife toward the door, gave a moment’s pause at the bolt, then left the door ajar. No doubt in some homes only a few felt the im pulse: we can imagine an elder son standing alone at the door, wearing the sort of rude and handmade gown that all fifty thousand had been directed to sew in preparation, his purpose delayed for a moment by pity for those he could not convince. Then he moved on to join the others, the believers who gathered on a hilltop outside of town.

On a thousand hilltops they waited, their gowns pale and thin against the starry autumn night. They looked to the heavens; perhaps they talked, quietly. Perhaps children played, or perhaps they were subdued by the compulsion of reverence, the attraction of sleep. The sky was clear, not yet obscured by the cold front that would move in from the Midwest before morning, bring ing with it lowering clouds and an unfilled promise of drizzle. To be finally doing the thing that had been predicted, the thing they had waited for, the thing that gave meaning to their days on earth: together now, among their own and away from the puzzled, critical eyes of neighbors and kin, their relief must have been palpable. All across New England, fifty thousand people waited until morning for the advent of Christ.

I am interested here not in the compulsion that led these fifty thou sand to leave their worldly possessions, dress in ritually simple cloth, and sit on mountains–that, as a matter of historical record, had to do with the teachings of one William Miller, a Baptist preacher-farmer, whose careful study of the Bible led him to conclude, in 1818, that the world would end in 1844. I am interested in how these faithful must have felt on the morning of October 23, when the dawn came with its ordinary beauty. How, I want to know, did any of them find their way back down their mountain?

To many of us who accepted the teachings of ecology, history had a particular form. There was the recent past, the three or four thousand years of civilization, a period whose events, relations, and developments revealed beyond doubt a pattern of human abuse of nature, and which, to the wary observer, offered clear grounds for predicting its inevitable result. Beyond the recent past, in the shadowy world of pre-history, was a state of ecological grace: hunters and gatherers living in harmony with nature, grouped in nomadic tribes with a pre-literate but rich and participatory culture, whose numbers and practices never exceeded the planet’s capacity to support and adapt to them. And in the future … in the future there was discontinuity, a dramatic change, a momentous upheaval out of which would come new practices and a new standard of judgment.

The message was hard to avoid. In Geology 105, along with 400 other underclassmen in the darkened lecture hall, I saw slides showing how long the world’s known petroleum re serves would last at present rates of consumption: the bell-shaped curve was thin and pinched, with a horrendous peak in the mid-seventies and then a precipitous decline to the year 2000. (In Economics 105 the professor tried to reassure us we would never run out of oil: the last barrel would be too expensive to use, and would probably be bought at auction for display in a museum; but by then the market would have discovered alternatives. Economics, under pressure, had abandoned the myth of infinite resources and regrouped behind the myth of infinite substitutability. Geology, more intimately acquainted with physics, was not at all sanguine about finding replacements for energy.)

And then a number of us turned an upper-division seminar in world politics into a court of inquiry into the probable future of the technological industrial world order. The putative subject was American Security Policy, but the professor gave us free rein, so long as we nodded in the direction of geopolitics when introducing arguments about resource scarcity. Should America be dependent on foreign oil? We delighted in the paradoxes, the ironies, the question led to: yes, we could answer, if we wanted to give the Middle East the power to choke our economy to death. No, we could answer, if we wanted to ensure that after a few decades of vigorous pumping of its domestic reserves America would be helplessly dependent on foreigners for its oil.

One can delight in such paradoxes only if one has an intimation of their transcendence, and we did: in the radical reaches of the environ mental movement there was a vision, grounded in ecology, of how things might be if humans did not dominate nature. Compounded out of the works of Shepard, Schumacher, Bookchin, Commoner, Lovins, and others, this vision comforted us, guided us in our approach to the his tory of political philosophy. The issue was a simple one: would the future of America be found in a technological fascism, or in the freedoms we would all enjoy if only political power were decentralized and our economy given over to sustainable enterprises using renewable fuels and minimizing resource use? We were optimists, filled with confidence in the power of education, and so the first course didn’t seem likely. While we knew that in the short run resource scarcity and a declining standard of living would probably prompt our country into imperial aggression and domestic repression, we also knew that ultimately this course depended on both a rapacious use of resources and a companion faith in the ability of technology to solve the disposal problems that such resource use engendered. The earth is finite, and we knew that there had to be limits both to the resources we can appropriate and the ability of eco systems to absorb our increasingly toxic garbage. As we approached those limits the lesson would become obvious; just about everyone would see that we would have to change our ways. And so we were secure in our belief in the coming transcendence of industrial society.

This view had much to commend it, and still does, though I think now that we underestimated the ability of technological fascism to muddle along. I have also come to suspect that the end point of this belief–a faith in the apocalyptic transformation of industrial culture–is no different in kind from the faith that moved the Millerites to the tops of their mountains.

There is a seduction in apocalyptic thinking. If one lives in the Last Days, one’s actions, one’s very life, take on historical meaning and no small measure of poignance. But along with that historic importance comes paralysis: my belief made it difficult for me to do anything that required planning very far in advance, for I could not conceive of a future that was an organic outgrowth of my moving present. On the calendar I kept in my head, the days and weeks were marked out in a grid of checker board fields, and the farthest horizon I could imagine was only a year or two away. In this I think I was similar to many others in my generation. We would show our solidarity with oppressed peoples everywhere–and with the earth–by refusing to let the inertia of cultural custom be manifest in us; we would refuse to imagine a future continuous with our present.

I began to change my way of thinking when my daughter was born, when I began to appreciate the value of having insurance, a form of security for bidden by the dictatorship of spontaneity. Somewhere in the back of my mind had been a deeply buried belief that I would never need insurance, not because I hadn’t faced the certainty of my own mortality but be cause I knew that things wouldn’t go on like this forever.

I’m not sure what I envisioned? it was hard to see exact details of the social order across the general chaos that would come with the radical transformation of everything exist ing. I just knew that whatever happened–generalized commune life, a return to small town values and society, a poster-perfect realization of face-to-face democracy and an absence of industrial anonymity–my future would be assured, and I didn’t need insurance. I belonged to a new tribe, and the tribe would care for me, just as I was caring for it by picking up every hitchhiker I saw and offering hospitality to casually-introduced strangers. With the birth of my daughter there came a growing sense that life endures, and a realization that my own life was actually happening, not held in suspension until the day that my beliefs would be vindicated by event. There grew within me a suspicion that life might go on like this forever. Hadn’t my parents, who were born in the dark age before Nagasaki and the Club of Rome, suffered through some of the same anxieties, the same whining tantrums, the same panic on the way to the doctor’s for stitches? I began projecting myself ahead ten, twenty, thirty years: what would it be like when my daughter left for college? What sort of old person would I be? I joined the retirement program at work. I drove my wife crazy: do you think, I asked her one quiet summer afternoon as we sat sunning ourselves and reading in the yard, miles away from any other people, that we’ll be able to get up out of these chairs when we’re sixty? I don’t think she appreciated what was behind the question. I was re-imagining myself in time; I was finding my way across a wound in history.

I never felt it was a wound / had made. A full account of the sources of an American’s alienation from time would have to mention our nation’s mythology of self-creation, by which we tell ourselves that the United States, alone among nations, was able to break the corrupting hold of tradition upon institutional structure; our relative youth as a nation, which gives us a landscape devoid of the object lessons to be found in the ruins and architectural leavings of progenitor civilizations; our mobile society, disconnected from place and hence from an objective correlative for any sense of the continuity of time through history; and also our industrial development and population growth, which continue to transform landscapes, reinforce the notion that nothing is permanent, and lead even fifteen year olds to express nostalgia for the world of their youth.

And there are other, broader forces at work. Economics, which has emerged as the queen of our sciences, is profoundly ahistorical–not just in the sense that it mirrors and supports the industrial culture that it explains, complete with its spurs to immediate gratification, but also because it assumes that nature is ahistorical–that the environment in which economic activity takes place is not affected by that activity. Finally, and perhaps most subtly, ours is still largely a Judaeo-Christian culture, and from that tribe of wanderers who retreated from the hard facts of Roman occupation into the never-never land of religious apocalypse we inherited not only our sense of the shape of history–innocence, then the fall, then apocalyptic redemption–but also the legacy of a resentment that longs for a revenge through a final, accounts-balancing judgment upon those who do us wrong. We might, for convenience’s sake, select a year to mark the rupture.

We might take it to be 1939, the year the General Electric Corporation invented the term “time capsule” for the cylinder they sponsored at the World’s Fair, in which was placed, among other items, a ten-mil lion word essay describing contemporary civilization, a copy of the Bible, reproductions of works by Picasso and Grant Wood, and The Lord’s Prayer translated into three hundred languages. Certainly in the urge to ar range artifacts for future discovery we can sense an anxiety about the discontinuity of history, even as the action itself affirms a faith that there will be a future. Or we might take our symbolic year to be 1945, the year we first were forced to confront the possibility of a humanly engineered apocalypse. A good case can be made for the symbolic importance of a later date, sometime in the mid-1980s (the exact year is difficult to determine from census figures), when, for the first time, a majority of adult Americans had been born since 1945. With that last development, as predictable and as foreseeable in its way as the encroachment of the ice age glaciers, came a subtle change in America’s political psyche. We still experience cyclic swings between cynicism and hope, between generosity and Social Darwinism, between isolation and empire, between a politics of moral principle and a politics of greed and resentment; but the very groundwork of politics has been slowly changing, reflecting the increasing number of people who have all their lives known that at least one of the possible dark corners of our future is illuminated by an artificial sun, a sudden and brilliant light to be followed by darkness, silence, and the end of human history.

There are times when, skiing up the hill southeast of my house on a winter afternoon, I find the windows lit up with a red and intensified reflection of the sunset. The first time I saw it I had an instant of uncontrolled panic in which I thought, Oh my god, Plattsburg–they’ve taken out the air base. This is the way images of nuclear holocaust intrude themselves into our consciousness–by accident, by surprise, by an epileptic short-circuiting of the defenses we construct, like a barricade against a door, out of the heavy furniture of routine. I recovered my composure, my “rational” apperception, quickly; but I was left with a sense of the profound unfair ness of such an apocalypse–there would be no discrimination between the guilty and innocent, no sorting of saved and damned–and an unshakeable feeling that I was powerless to make effective my answer to the question before us: shall there be a future, or not?

Since the birth of my daughter, I find that the image of nuclear destruction no longer weighs down my thoughts as often as it used to. I know that for other parents the reaction is different: having children makes them feel more keenly the threats that pose a hazard to the life they’ve created, and they’re more likely to take history personally, to see it not as a distant process that wears upon anonymous strangers, but as the habitat of self, of the selfs own flesh and blood. I think that my daughter’s birth began to encourage me to take history personally, and yet I found that my ambition to affect the world was diminished after her birth, as if my notion of public obligation and my faith in apocalypse were ready to be discarded.

It could be that my apocalypticism had been rooted in a narcissistic urge to be important, and that becoming a parent fulfilled that pathetic desire. Certainly my child depends on me as no one else ever has, and I have, on occasion, found solace in knowing that she would lift me out of anonymity?that in her memory I could not be one among the faceless many who populate the earth and leave no record. And per haps in the routines of parenthood I have found additional weight to throw against the door that holds back an all-too-rational fear of a nu clear end to all things, the fear that encouraged me to accept a more optimistic mythology of apocalypse. Perhaps. But I think that there was something else going on as well. Apocalypticism fulfills a desire to escape the flow of real and ordinary time, to fix the flow of history into a single moment of overwhelming importance. But my daughter will most assuredly grow up in real time, and I began to realize that I would miss out on something were I to hold myself aloof from her life by dismiss ing it, out of hand, as happening Before the Apocalypse.

It is ironic that the ecology move ment, in offering a vision of a sustainable society, drew some part of its strength from a mentality that was, by its very nature, not sustainable. Movements that accept such a contradiction between ends and means–movements that say, in effect, “we will do this until such time as victory is assured, and then we will change”–have not generally accomplished their aims. Certainly the ecology movement would have done better–and would do better in the future–if its partisans drew their image of time not from the romantic notion of history with its apocalyptic redemption, but from nature, where there is no apocalypse–just continual, and sometimes dramatic, adaptation and change. I still believe that industrial culture is not sustainable, and that it will, in time, change, and change dramatically; but the scale of time in which that change will happen is most likely to be larger and longer than an individual human life. There won’t be a particular morning in which we rise and stretch and, glancing out the window, realize that it has happened. The rhythm of the apocalypse will be in geologic time, where a crisis can last a thou sand years and the moment of judgment–if indeed it is fair to use that word to describe a natural process–can be played out in centuries.

Humans cannot inhabit geologic time, but they can and do imagine it and use it as a conceptual lens, as one among many ways to conceive of time. To fix on any single image of time to the exclusion of others is to deny ourselves some part of the rich ness of human experience, in which our moving present has the potential to be woven from any of the threads of the densely textured temporality of our world. Apocalypticism is a pathological breaking of the continuity of time, for when we are under its spell we cannot integrate our memories of the past and our sense of the future into a complex present.

Perhaps this is why I find myself drawn to the study of history in a way I never was fifteen years ago, when all I wanted was to understand how we had come to be suspended on the edge of apocalypse. As I drive down the old highway on my way to work, I try to imagine how this valley would have looked to its residents a century ago. What I want to understand clearly is how is it the same and how is it different. Here and there I can see where the old wagon road used to go. I can gauge the relative newness of the paved road from the way the fill has altered the course of the North Branch that runs along it: down stream from Holling’s field, where the road cuts a corner and forces the stream into a right angle turn, the meanders are migrating, testifying to the disturbance. They now work their way into hillsides they must have long ago reconciled themselves to. When I take Route 2 east along the Winooski, toward New Hampshire, I follow the East Branch into Marsh field. Local legend has it that long ago, on one of the hill tops that sur round the town, a group of people once gathered to await the end of the world. Once I asked at the general store if they had been Millerites. “Goodness, I don’t know,” the old woman behind the counter said. “They were a little crazy,” she added. While some Millerites were disillusioned by the failure of Christ to show at the appointed time, others accepted the explanation that on October 22, 1844, Christ began his final judgment, a lengthy process that continues today. These faithful, unshaken, helped transform the Millerite cult into an accepted denomination; they invented an institution, an appropriate bureaucracy, and a manner of sustainable routine commensurate with their vision. To do so they had to discard the image of time they had so eagerly embraced; like those ancient adventurers who, upon returning home, discover that they can hardly understand the gestures and accents of people who had been their neighbors, the Millerites came down from their mountains to re enter a world they had left long before, one whose rhythms in time were alien to them. They returned to their communities, where they learned to live without the comfort of a known and certain judgment. Those who kept faith became Seventh Day Adventists and worked to call others to belief in a slow, a gradual apocalypse. Theirs is a transition that those of us interested in radical ecology might do well to emulate.

source: The North American Review, Vol. 273, No. 2 (Jun., 1988), pp. 54-57)