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Climate Stories and Apocalyptic Thinking

March 22, 2013

From the Guardian contributor network: “What zombie films tell us about climate change: there’s no one happy ending” by Christopher Shaw:

Zombie films play havoc with traditional narratives – like the one that puts a mythical 2C limit at the heart of climate change

zombie chris shaw sussex

Referring to Romero’s classic “satire on consumer society” Shaw begins:

As the camera pans away to a TV studio being rapidly abandoned by the traumatised staff, we hear the exasperated expert cry out: ‘What will it take to make you people see?'”


Constructing climate change as a phenomenon with a two-degree dangerous limit is an overtly political act.

Query: is all behavior is political? Shaw continuing:

The abstraction of a single dangerous limit removes climate politics from our immediate lived experience and into the locked conference rooms of global institutions. Instead of being rooted in the value systems which people use to negotiate life it becomes a symbol, residing in the hands of a few, that can be reconfigured to suit the changing needs of these elites.

This relates strongly to what Drezner referred in his TEDx talk as dangers of apocalyptic thought for finding solution strategies. If it’s hopeless, we have already lost.

Shaw on zombie film narratives:

I can best explain this by returning to the zombies. Stories generally have three elements; a thesis (the existing order), the anti-thesis (the thing that threatens to disturb that order) and the synthesis (the new order that emerges after the threat has been dealt with). That is what gives a story its narrative arc and tension. The great thing about proper zombie films is that they play havoc with this structure. There is a thesis and an anti-thesis but no synthesis. The zombies are never destroyed and no new stable order emerges. And that, I fear, may be the truth of the climate change story.

That is pure Hegelian analysis (see “Science of Logic”). But that narrative of world history does not end the way a single narrative might, it continues indefinitely, the synthesis becomes thesis and the anti-synthesis must be sublimated, and recursion ad infinitum — until, for Hegel, Absolute Idea (something like God – or pure disembodied thought) would eventually be reached.

According to the two-degree narrative, once upon a time there was an order called modernity, and all was well. Along came the nasty climate change monster to threaten this order. Luckily the monster did not become dangerous until it heated up by two degrees. This gave the people of the land the time to find a way to keep the monster safe by creating a green economy. The new green economy was very nice and everyone was happy. That story is simply a fairytale.

Maybe, to psychoanalyze Hegel, that monster was Napoleon and the German Unification movementcould be a return to the cultural order of kingdom of Frederick the Great. And further on the fantasy of Modernity, see Bruno Latour, “We Have Never Been Modern” explaining an constitution of false dichotomies that structure the Moderns’ thinking.

But there is another story, blocked by the two-degree narrative, which does have not one single happy ending, but many millions of different endings, some happier than others. In this story, there is no two-degree limit. There is a world of massive uncertainty, a chaotic non-linear range of climate change impacts which the people realise is beyond the scope of modernity to even understand, let alone respond to. All the knowledge, ways of being, cultures and technologies of the past and present are part of the millions of different stories that people in different parts of the world need to tell themselves to be able to find their own way through what is happening and what is yet to come.

On chaotic non-linearity see De Landa’s “Thousand Years of Non-Linear History” and also more generally, D&G’s “Thousand Plateaus“. Note also Shaw’s focus on finding stories for the needs of the people – stories to cope with uncertain changes in meaning (see Frankl: “Man’s Seach for Meaning“).

Stories can be tools for problem solving. But sometimes the cure is part of the disease. Shaw concluding:

Ironically, our best hope for reducing climate danger may lie in rejecting the very idea of a dangerous limit to climate change.

The Anthropocene is now. We have passed the tipping point, there is nothing we can do to stop climate change – we need to learn to change our daily behaviors. Not before it’s too late, it’s already too late. Every action matters, every moment matters, every future decision matter, for the continued existence of this planet. It is incremental and cumulative but also combinatorial and highly uncertain. Some moments may matter more than others – some more than we think they do – some less – in truth we really don’t know much of anything, but we know we are causing it and we are going to have to live with what we’ve done, and stories can help us (or hurt us) to do that.


From → Academics

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