Why is it so much easier, as the saying goes, to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism? In 2017, the question felt particularly acute. With relentless hurricanes and wildfires ravaging the United States, the fears of doomsday preppers tipped into the mainstream: “Apocalyptic Thoughts Amid Nature’s Chaos? You Could Be Forgiven,” declared a New York Times headline last September, just weeks before publishing a Style-section guide on “How to Survive the Apocalypse.”
The most straightforward answer to the question, perhaps, lies in the sticky substance that fuels capitalism as we know it, and is daily bringing us closer to the apocalypse of the preppers’ imagination: oil. “No petroleum, no modern war machine, no global shipping industry, no communications revolution,” writes cultural studies scholar Imre Szeman in Energy Humanities, a recent anthology he co-edited. In other words, oil fuels and constitutes so much of what we desire—convenience, travel, year-round avocados, perpetual novelty, and cheap, plentiful goods—that it is hard to imagine life without it. “Oil capital,” writes Szeman, “seems to represent a stage that neither capital nor its opponents can think beyond.”
It’s not that capital’s opponents haven’t been trying—a dedicated minority of them at least. Clustered in and around the academy, a growing number of left-wing thinkers have taken up climate change under the umbrella of the humanities, producing a variety of subfields, research groups, conferences, books, and journals dedicated to understanding, and eventually dismantling, what they call our “petrocapitalist” system. Unease about our climate-changed era, the “Anthropocene,” has spilled into novels, movies, and the broader cultural realm—and not just science fiction. A growing genre of literature, sometimes described as “climate fiction” (or “cli-fi”), is imagining how climate change is reshaping the world.
But these efforts have yet to permeate into the mainstream, where climate change registers at the level of sci-fi apocalypse, or barely at all. Between the two lies an impasse. It takes the form less of outright denial than of inertia. This manifests in different ways. Even in the United States, a large majority of people now believe climate change is a threat, and increasing numbers recognize it as the result of burning fossil fuels. A majority of those polled by Pew in three dozen countries in 2017, including the United States, even see it as a leading security threat. Yet for most, the enormity of the problem leads to a sort of numbing, or imposes itself in more subtle ways: a series of new studies suggest that environmental dread is fueling stress, anxiety, and depression on a large scale. None of those responses do much to mobilize people against the status quo—and meanwhile, petrocapitalism chugs along, bringing ever more of the world into its ambit.
“The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination,” writes novelist Amitav Ghosh in his 2016 nonfiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. The scale of the crisis, he argues, makes it all but “unthinkable.” And this colossal blind spot afflicts both right and left. It’s not hard to understand why. Confronting a problem that threatens the collapse of human civilization as we know it means drastically rethinking how that civilization functions—and some of the fundamental assumptions underlying it. “The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use,” writes the postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty in a seminal essay collected in Energy Humanities. “Most of our freedoms are energy intensive.” Imagining a low-carbon world, then, means reevaluating our conception of freedom itself.
How did we arrive at this impasse? Just two years ago, with the December 2015 Paris Agreement, it seemed we had finally reached a tipping point on international climate action. The agreement marked “a stunning demonstration of universal awareness of the danger of global warming,” writes psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton in his latest book, The Climate Swerve (2017). This is the awakening—the “swerve”—that gives the book its name. But with the swerve, Lifton is quick to note, has come whiplash, most visibly in the form of Donald Trump and his cabinet of oil barons and climate deniers. Now many of us are eager just to get back to where we started.
Trumpism has furnished the climate movement with an almost cartoonish cast of enemies. Rex Tillerson, Scott Pruitt, and their accomplices belong to the larger cabal of wealthy Americans with ties to the fossil fuel industry who have falsified and actively denied climate science for the last forty years. The $1.4 billion that industry has spent on federal lobbying in the last decade has decidedly paid off: U.S. taxpayers have been subsidizing fossil fuel companies at a rate of $20 billion each year, according to a recent report from the think-tank Oil Change International, without which much of the increasingly dirty and expensive industry would no longer be profitable. It’s not because they’ve actually convinced all that many U.S. voters that climate change is fake news: 68 percent of Americans believe that global warming is caused by humans, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. Awareness of climate change is well on its way to becoming universal, as Lifton points out. But action to confront it is not. Ghosh argues “global inaction on climate change is by no means the result of confusion or denialism or a lack of planning: to the contrary, the maintenance of the status quo is the plan.”
For every American who believes climate change is a hoax, there are many more who simply choose to carry on as before, despite knowing the facts. The phenomenon might be more accurately described as “climate inaction” than “climate denial,” and Lifton attributes this to “psychic numbing,” a manifestation of “the mind’s resistance to the unmanageable extremity of the catastrophe, to the infinite reaches of death and pain.” (It is similar to animals freezing, or “playing dead,” in the face of danger.) Lacking prior experiences on which to model the threat, we are left paralyzed.
Lifton’s view of the psychology of climate change is informed by another apocalyptic threat he has studied extensively (one that has become newly relevant in its own right): nuclear war. Faced with such overwhelming threats, “we tend to see each of them as beyond description or comprehension, as driven by otherworldly forces that render us tiny and helpless, rather than as lethal mechanisms we ourselves have created and are quite capable of understanding.”
So we find other ways to cope. Lifton compares them to the contortions in thinking, among both policymakers and the public, that ushered in “nuclear normality” during the Cold War. As he recalls, Americans began pondering the ethics of a hypothetical scenario: If a neighbor tries to enter your nuclear shelter and use up its valuable oxygen, are you entitled to shoot him? “That such a question could be seriously raised is an indication of how bizarre nuclear normality could become,” he writes. He quotes the psychiatrist character in Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 film, Record of a Living Being: “maybe we who are able to be normal are really the strange ones.”
Half a century later, in a society threatened by climate change, the spirit of “nuclear normality” persists in what Amitav Ghosh calls the “great derangement”: this condition where “our lives and our choices are enframed in a pattern of history that seems to leave us nowhere to turn but toward our self-annihilation.” Yet if it is felt at an individual level, this “derangement” is, at bottom, institutional: the psychological response stems from the deep hold of petrocapitalist ideology over our lives. Far from being inevitable, it is produced by a system that devotes considerable resources to preserving itself, and to foreclosing other alternatives.
Former Washington policymaker Meghan L. O’Sullivan’s Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power, also published last year, is a fitting case study in this respect. In O’Sullivan’s view, the persistence of the age of oil signals not impending doom, but a major political and economic opportunity for the United States. The United States, previously “the world’s thirstiest consumer of overseas oil,” is now a more self-sufficient oil producer: U.S. oil production has doubled over the last ten years, from about 5 million barrels a day in 2008 to 10 million today. This is freeing us from our reliance on foreign oil, and has also helped “temper predictions and perceptions of American decline.” China’s confidence in the United States has been restored. Paradoxically, so has America’s position as a “global leader” on climate change, according to O’Sullivan: carbon emissions have declined as cheap, fracked natural gas has replaced coal in U.S. power plants, allowing industry to brand it a “bridge fuel” for weaning America off coal and oil. (Critics argue that this is only locking the United States into a less dirty, but still deeply unsustainable, fossil fuel.) And for champions of the U.S. liberal order, the boom is evidence that the system still works: America’s innovative, boot-strapping wildcatters not only kick-started an industry, but “fueled an economic boom that has been good for jobs, government coffers, and the economy as a whole.” The frontier lives.