Notes on ecopessimism (2): morbid opportunism

(A slightly different version of this post was presented at the 2019 Western Political Science Association conference “The Politics of Climate Change,” on the panel “The Status of Nature in the Anthropocene.”)

My central claim has two parts.

First: ecopessimism is being misunderstood, even by the still relatively few thinkers and writers who we could uncontentiously identify as ecopessimists. I’ll discuss only a few of these figures, but the list potentially includes people like the philosopher Claire Colebrook, former environmentalist and co-founder of the Dark Mountain Collective Peter Kingsnorth, intellectuals Roy Scranton and Jem Bendell, and maybe even more mainstream figures like Elizabeth Kolbert. I’ll examine the nature of the misunderstanding in question, and I’ll look more closely at Kingsnorth and Scranton, in particular.

The second part of my claim is that we need ecopessimism now more than ever. On the face of it, this contention might sound surprising, particularly given how ecopessimism typically gets understood, or, in my view, misunderstood – namely, that it prescribes passivity, that it’s all about “doom and gloom,” that such “doom and gloom” demotivates people, deters mitigation efforts, and shuts down avenues for futural projection and political action. In fact, this is the very misunderstanding of ecopessimism I describe.

So: I claim we need ecopessimism now more than ever. And we need it more than ever because it offers us affective and speculative resources I think are absolutely necessary for pursuing pathways of collective action and collective imagination up to the task of limning our genuinely catastrophic conditions of planetary ecological crisis. Cribbing off Aldo Leopold, we must learn how to think like an apocalypse. In other words, we must learn how to ideate and prescribe in full cognizance of the existential risk we have already incurred. Otherwise, we are failing to acknowledge the severity of the ecological crisis, or we are failing to register the possibility of responding to it, rather than responding to some distorted, localized, or shrunken version of it that we have inadvertently made more palatable for whatever reason.

Failure is one of my major themes, so let’s start there.

The ecological crisis is getting worse, and recent years have been marked increasingly by reports of a damaged planet growing rapidly so toxic and unstable as to threaten the material conditions that sustain our existence. I could point to any number of empirical developments and likelihoods. To cite only a few examples: Arctic ice loss, the contamination of natural resources, coral reef depletion, desertification, ecosystem service disruption, extreme weather events, famine, force multiplication of conflicts, increased coastal flooding, increased duration of anomalous wildfire, increased pressure on groundwater supplies, intensification of allergy seasons, ocean acidification, prominent drought, refugeeism, seasonal shifts, and widespread species displacements and extinctions culminating in the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on earth. This probably isn’t news to anyone reading this.

As you know, numerous stakeholders have attempted to respond proportionately, but there have been systemic failures both of the apprehension of the ecological crisis and of attempts to forestall it. The international community has failed to prevent the ecological crisis from intensifying, and the environmental movement that started in the 1960s has failed to effect cultural or policy shifts appropriate to the scale or severity of the problem. It’s certainly true that the efforts of environmentalists of all stripes have helped to attenuate aspects of the ecological crisis, and that’s certainly admirable. Nevertheless, from a planetary perspective, the ecological crisis has only gotten worse. In this regard, we have to bite the bullet and recognize the degree to which efforts to circumvent the ecological crisis have failed.

This is where the ecopessimists come in. Let’s look at two: Scranton and Kingsnorth.

Scranton’s 2015 monograph Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization advances the following claim: “For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current civilization” (22). He continues: “[…] humanity can survive and adapt to the new world of the Anthropocene if we accept human limits and transience as fundamental truths, and work to nurture the variety and richness of our collective cultural heritage. Learning to die as an individual means letting go of our predispositions and fear. Learning to die as a civilization means letting go of this particular way of life and its ideas of identity, freedom, success, and progress” (24). Throughout the book, Scranton adapts insights from Buddhism, Spinoza, and the Stoics in order to argue that the only path forward through the ecological crisis involves preserving humanist archives and accepting the severity of our predicament and the likelihood that we will not escape our own extinction.

Leaving aside the ironic tension between Scranton’s desire to preserve a humanism of sorts and his melancholy enthusiasm for the transience of all things, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that his ecopessimism leaves us with something akin to a hospice mentality. He writes: “[…] the practice of learning to die is the practice of learning to let go: Learning to die means learning to let go of the ego, the idea of the self, the future, certainty, attachment, the pursuit of pleasure, permanence, and stability […] Death is nothing more than the act of passing from one pattern into another” (92, 113).

Where Scranton’s argument starts and ends with the specter of human extinction, Kingsnorth – in various essays associated with the Dark Mountain Project – begins with his sense of the absolute failure of twentieth century environmentalism. Specifically, Kingsnorth decries the capture of environmentalism by, or its transformation into, a managerial or neoliberal paradigm of so-called “bright green” strategies, ranging from carbon markets to consumer reform to institutional sustainability initiatives. A green new deal isn’t going to fix things. He writes: “What does the near future look like? I’d put my bets on a strange and unworldly combination of an ongoing collapse that will continue to fragment both nature and culture, and a new wave of techno-green ‘solutions’ being unveiled in a doomed attempt to prevent it” (“Dark Ecology,” 144). In light of this, Kingsnorth prescribes a form of withdrawal, namely, withdrawal from environmentalism as it has existed to date and from green politics as it is given to us. He writes: “All real change starts with withdrawal” (145), and, in the Dark Mountain Project manifesto, Kingsnorth elaborates upon what such withdrawal could mean, namely, the imperative to detach ourselves affectively and, insofar as possible, materially and socially, from the planetary civilization of which we are nevertheless a part.

For Kingsnorth, however, such detachment does not entail a retreat into depressive palliation or passivity. Instead, it requires freeing up our affective drives, our attention spans, and our creative projects in order to make possible new practices of worldmaking, practices adequate to the task of building and occupying an alternative civilization, one that isn’t largely premised on practices of worldbreaking. Kingsnorth asks: “Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm? Can you think, or act, like the librarians of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?” (147) He also asks this question: “Is it possible to see the future as dark and darkening further; to reject false hope and desperate pseudo-optimism without collapsing into despair?” (143)

In reply, I want to return to the misunderstanding about ecopessimism. The misunderstanding is that ecopessimism undercuts our ability to act and to imagine, either personally or politically. And, therefore, it concludes or suggests that ecopessimism is dangerous, or, at best, ill-conceived – it’s alarmism, or a deflationary, depressive defeatism that trumpets the message “No hope! No hope!” with such conviction that it discourages all and impedes efforts to act.

Scranton is guiltier of this misunderstanding than Kingsnorth, because Scranton’s largely palliative approach substitutes a cosmic apprehension of transience for anything resembling a politics of action. What should we do about the ecological crisis? Well, Scranton largely says that we should meditate on death, upon our own impinging corpsehood and the extinction of our kind. By contrast, Kingsnorth’s injunction to withdraw is ultimately an injunction to create – to create new modes and orders, new projects premised on refusing legibility or transparency in the face of the dominant cultural and political paradigms currently delivering us into destruction.

In this regard, I’d like to return to why we need ecopessimism now more than ever. Take Kingsnorth’s question – “Is it possible to see the future as dark and darkening further; to reject false hope and desperate pseudo-optimism without collapsing into despair?” – and restructure this question into the following positive claim: It is only possible to avoid collapsing into despair if we see the future as dark and darkening further, if we reject false hope and desperate pseudo-optimism. In other words, and perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, ecopessimism is what is necessary in order to avoid despair.

Here’s why.

To start, the task we face does not consist in transforming apathy into care. As a planetary civilization, we are not apathetic in the least. Our passions largely seem directed toward producing the ecological crisis. Attempts to decelerate, disrupt, or reform this trajectory notwithstanding, we care about control, profits, reproduction, and security, and we care in ways that enthusiastically generate and sustain complex, highly coordinated programs of ecocide, exploitation, and extraction. We work very hard at this, and there is tremendous political efficacy at every level, from personal behavior and consumer choices to corporate and governmental policy formation. Environmental concern is still largely received as one issue area among others. So our task is not how to transform apathy into care. Rather, it is the more arduous task of endeavoring to disturb and transform antecedent passional and political attachments. These attachments, and their contested, contingent histories, structure how we conceive of the distribution of possibilities for action and imagination available to us. To revise our attachments, we first must refuse to accept the range of what is given to us as possible, because what is given to us as possible has delivered us into one of the most severe and existentially threatening crises in human history, with no ready resolution in sight: “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” (Cormac McCarthy).

In this regard, then, ecopessimism is two things.

First, it is a form of theoretical refusal. It refuses the standard assumption about the future, namely, that the future will resemble the past. This is a form of pessimism because it discards the theoretical foundation of many extant political paradigms, for which continuity between present and future is presupposed. For those paradigms, that continuity purchases a degree of stability that underwrites and makes desirable, legible, and sensible the descriptive and normative vocabularies we use in much of our political talk. For the ecopessimist, however, we’ve already lost many of the things we are trying desperately to save. For example, we have lost a future in which in which our coastal cities aren’t drowned cities – and note here that eight of the top ten largest cities in the world are coastal cities, with a combined population of more than half a billion. We have a lost a future in which familiar ecosystems sustain and renew themselves without excessive, expensive interventions that may, in fact, perpetuate the very problems they are intended to fix. We have lost a future in which humans – if there are many at all – will encounter other, nonhuman forms of life as agencies or creatures that do not merely limp through our wreckage. Because our present increasingly takes the form of an apocalypse, we are turning our future into a post-apocalypse.

But ecopessimism also opens the door to something else. It opens the door to a politics of exit, or what I sometimes describe as a kind of morbid opportunism. A politics of exit reshapes the alternatives it looks for with the materials it finds. It requires a salvage mentality. The future belongs to the jackals and to the jackdaws: so become one. As many environmentalists like to say: There is no away. In light of this insight, an awareness of the ecological crisis becomes increasingly like hearing a fire alarm “that in each minute rings for sixty seconds” (Walter Benjamin).

But this isn’t a demotivating or depressive lesson. Rather, it suggests the possibility of alternative pathways forward. To be repurposed is to be redeemed. Political exit, morbid opportunism, these are as much about practicing material and semiotic salvage as they are about locating new lines of flight. We, that is to say, subjects of the ecological crisis who seek recuperation or redress, we are trying to reclaim what is ours, not to flee like locusts before the flame. To build anything else, we first have to make an exit, just like walking out of a sick or burning building. Because there is no away, making an exit involves operationalizing the salvage mentality I propose. As an old poem says, “To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Consider, therefore, technical practices of salvage and tinkering, or of repurposing artifacts of whatever kind, in general. To repurpose an artifact entails an experiment or a gambit insofar as such repurposing is an attempt to test what an artifact can do beyond its apparent purpose. No artifact exists as an isolate, and we tend to forget (or never even notice) that artifacts only exist in the context of broader machinic networks. Even the most independent, privileged artifact relies necessarily upon networks of maintenance, production, and support. Consequently, to repurpose an artifact means two things: we transform its purpose into another purpose, materially, and we thereby change its place within the networks that produce and sustain it. This requires the intervention of imagination, of speculative reason – that is to say, of positing a different world than the world we think is given. Repurposing and speculation are forms of the same practice.

This begins to sketch the approach – a politics of exit, or morbid opportunism – that I think ecopessimism makes possible for us. Our task, then, is to propose ends and exits that speak to our predicament and enable meaningful responses to it.

I’d like to conclude with a line I discovered in a paper by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He reports a comment made by one of his patients in 1956: “The only time I felt hope was when you told me you could see no hope, and you continued with the analysis.” There is a difficult, almost inarticulable insight hiding in this comment – the wisdom of the trudge. Can’t go on; must go on. Some things can never be justified, made right, or recuperated – yet the conditions in which we find ourselves, no matter how morbid they may be, give us the only materials we have to build and transform those conditions. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger, but as Trevor Goodchild (from Aeon Flux) reminds us, thankfully it makes you stranger.

Aeon Flux. Created by Peter Chung. 1991-1995.
Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism.” One-Way Street and Other Writings. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.
Paul Kingsnorth. “Dark Ecology.” Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017. 119-151.
Cormac McCarthy. No Country for Old Men. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Roy Scranton. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco: City Lights, 2015.