Fictionalizing Apocalypse

Kirkpatrick Sale in the Ecologist:

And the heart of the matter is that second question: `Is there a way we can prevent environmental injuries from happening again?’

I am not especially optimistic about answering that question in the affirmative. We don’t realise it, any more than fish realise they are swimming in water, but we are immersed in a culture, a way of seeing and living, that has erected a protective psychological shield that enables our society to go on doing what it does even though it knows apocalypse is pending. It is something that psychologists call `cognitive dissonance’: the ability to hold in your heart, in your mind, two contradictory beliefs or ideas – in this case, desire for the continuance of the capitalist system and the health of the planet.

We achieve this, I think, by allowing ourselves to make apocalypse fictional. Ever since Hiroshima began our knowledge of environmental disaster we have produced movies, novels, TV shows and suchlike that show what environmental crises, even a worldwide catastrophe, would look like. Note, of course, that humans always survive these crises. Just making movies and stories of such things allows us to put them in a whole separate realm of thought, and lets us remove them from the real world of politics and life.

We don’t really believe that we are headed for an apocalypse: that’s just fiction.

Besides, we can fix it before it comes. We are smart and rich, and getting smarter and richer. We can create any technology we want, and there is no environmental problem to which there is not a technological solution. This is a very old, very rooted belief: the techno-fix. It doesn’t matter that there’s hardly ever been a technological solution that didn’t create some new technological problem. One of the most egregious examples of this pattern is the way the treatment of US children in the 1940s and 1950s for acne, tonsilitis, adenoids and ringworm with high-dosage X-rays later turned out (according to the National Cancer Institute) to have given thyroid cancer to as many as 4 million people. But there are plenty of other examples: nuclear power, DDT, thalidomide; the list goes on and on.

And it doesn’t matter that the search for techno-fixes is beyond the control of the techno-fixers (or anyone else, for that matter) to the point that Bill Joy – one of the giants of Silicon Valley – was moved just last year to caution against the potentially disastrous consequences of continuing research into genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology.

No these things don’t matter; our belief in the techno-fix is solid and beyond challenge. And that’s why we don’t take seriously those who warn of apocalypse. And that’s why we’re unlikely to realise how we can change the way we live so as to save our planet.

But I would add this: if there is any hope here, if we can convince enough people of the true nature of our economic system and the reality of the threats it poses to the world it will be because of our asking all the relevant questions. Not just the obvious ones: `Where does it hurt? Who did it? How long has this been going on?’ But the harder questions, too: `Why is this happening? What will it take to stop it? And how can we fashion the elements of an ecological society – one that is modest, attentive to nature’s laws and embraces the values of the living earth – as if that society were the only one available, and prevent a return to previous wrongs?’

ning of the article at