Catastrophism: environmentalism and ‘apocalyptic’ politics

Jay Owen Books and Reviews


Book Review: by Tom Athanasiou, Jan 31, 2013


Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, James Davis, with a foreword by Doug Henwood. PM Press 2012

by Tom Athanasiou

There are four essays in this slim volume, one on left catastrophism, one on green catastrophism, one on right catastrophism, and one on zombies. I’m most interested in the left and the greens, though we do need to keep an eye on the right. As for the zombie craze, doesn’t it just come down to the fact that modern life feels like people keep trying to eat your face off?

Doug Henwood’s preface sets the stage nicely. He immediately makes a point that all green pessimists should keep always in mind: “Catastrophe can be paralyzing, not mobilizing.” In fact, it usually is. The challenge is to remember this even as you face the real and present catastrophe that’s now visible on the horizon.[1] It’s a dilemma, no doubt about it, but the way forward, whatever it is, is going to have to take both its horns into proper account. The question is how.

Catastrophism comes at a good time for the green movement, which is in a period of rapid change. The key point here is that, even as we struggle to come to terms with the latest climate science, we need to remember (see particularly James Davis’ essay) that catastrophism is the “native terrain” of the right. The baseline point here is that right-wing politics is all about natural limits (scarcity, austerity, etc) rather than social ones (even in a world of limits, we’d be fine if we shared the commonwealth).  This is not to say that environmentalism itself is biased toward the right – just the contrary – but it has flirted with catastrophism for a long, long time, and along the way it has had a number of unfortunate dalliances, particularly with right-wing populationism and xenophobia.

The challenge now is to invent a just and inclusive politics of planetary limits, while at the same tale navigating a landscape in which “natural limits” and “scarcity” have long served to justify class stratification and economic exclusion. And this, if I may make a wild, undefended claim, is just not going to happen until we project a vision of future that is fair, sustainable, and believable. Which is a bit of a problem, particularly as many enviros actually believe, sometimes privately and sometimes not, that our civilization is altogether beyond redemption.


Here’s Sasha Lilly, from her introduction:

“Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber – if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.”


Throughout Catastrophism, examples of such “ever-intensified” environmental rhetoric abound. Paul Ehrlich’s prediction of global famine by the end of the 20th Century is of course a classic (one that he’s never quite been able to live down) but there’s lots more to regret as well. Helen Caldecott and Chris Hedges are both called onto the carpet, as is Derrick Jensen, who seems intent on becoming a living caricature of self-aggrandizing green despair. Nor do the authors mount a merely cultural critique. As Lilly notes, “Catastrophic politics have a lengthy track record of failure,” and we really shouldn’t be spending our time trying to make that record even longer. We should be planning for success, and that means putting global economic justice square at the center of the green political agenda. Which, by the way, is just the sort of development that the right (see Davis’ essay) would regard as an unmitigated catastrophe.


On the related point – catastrophism as the native terrain of the right – Malthus is of course Exhibit A, though Hobbes stands close behind him. As, by the way, does James Howard Kunstler, the peak-oil snark-meister who has long rampaged against immigration. Eddie Yuen, in his essay on environmental catastrophism, expands this point nicely. He surveys “the main reasons that [it] has not led to more dynamic social movements; these include catastrophe fatigue, the paralyzing effects of fear; the pairing of overwhelmingly bleak analysis with inadequate solutions, and a misunderstanding of the process of politicization.” It’s a fine summary, and it introduces a fine essay, though I do have some quibbles, which essentially come down to my sense that the green movement is much farther along in its re-definition and renewal than Yuen gives it credit for. That said, he raises a host of good points, and when it comes to the weakness of environmentalism-as-usual, I am quite unable to improve upon his key formulation: “the pairing of overwhelmingly bleak analysis with inadequate solutions.”

The inadequacy of our solutions is indeed the problem. And it’s becoming a critical one as climate denialism collapses. Which is to say that, as the denialists lose any residual aura of scientific legitimacy, we’re being left alone with the truth – we are in very serious trouble indeed. And though we have almost all the technology we need to save ourselves, and the science to develop the rest, and plenty of money besides, few people really believe that we’re going to rise to the occasion. They go straight “from aware to despair,” and the awful truth is that the greens are not altogether innocent bystanders. Lacking as they do a believable vision of a just and sustainable global society, they have all too little to contribute to a believable strategy of global emergency mobilization.

The good news is that the need for such a strategy is now well understood. There’s lots of motion now, and lots of thinking, all around the world. And there’s the fact that catastrophe is not our immutable fate, not yet in any case. So the next time you feel the temptation to foretell doom, just say no. As Henwood asks, “Wouldn’t it be better to spin narratives of how humans are marvelously resourceful creatures who could a lot better with the intellectual, social, and material resource we have?”

[1] OK, one up to date citation.  How about the World Bank’s Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C World Must be Avoided?  Keep in mind that we are currently heading for a 4°C world.



Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth



We live in catastrophic times. The world is reeling from the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, with the threat of further meltdowns ever-looming. Global warming and myriad dire ecological disasters worsen-with little if any action to halt them-their effects rippling across the planet in the shape of almost Biblical floods, fires, droughts, and hurricanes. Governments warn that there is no alternative to the bitter medicine they prescribe-or risk devastating financial or social collapse. The right, whether religious or secular, views the present as catastrophic and wants to turn the clock back. The left fears for the worst, but hopes some good will emerge from the rubble. Visions of the apocalypse and predictions of impending doom abound. Across the political spectrum, a culture of fear reigns.

Catastrophism explores the politics of apocalypse-on the left and right, in the environmental movement-and examines why the lens of catastrophe can distort our understanding of the dynamics at the heart of these numerous disasters-and fatally impede our ability to transform the world. Lilley, McNally, Yuen, and Davis probe the reasons why catastrophic thinking is so prevalent, and challenge the belief that it is only out of the ashes that a better society may be born. The authors argue that those who care about social justice and the environment should jettison doomsaying-even as it relates to indisputably apocalyptic climate change. Far from calling people to arms, they suggest, catastrophic fear often results in passivity and paralysis-and, at worst, reactionary politics.


Catastrophism comes at the right moment: 2012, the year of The End proclaimed across the political spectrum from deep ecologists to the Mayan Calendarists. Instead of concentrating on the merits of the claims of the various apocalypticians, Jim Davis, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, and Eddie Yuen examine the political function of these claims and find them to be deeply reactionary. This is a controversial book that challenges many of the unexamined assumptions on the left (as well as on the right). It is a warning not to abandon everyday anti-capitalist politics for a politics of absolute fear that inevitably leads to inaction.”

        ~ Silvia Federici, author of Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle

“Bravo! This is the book that has been sorely needed for so long to reveal the dead-end that a politics founded on catastrophic predictions must lead to in terms of either preventing them or actually changing the world.  Essential reading for all those on the left who are concerned with the question of strategy today.”

        ~ Leo Panitch, coauthor of The Making of Global Capitalism

“I cannot overstate how critically important this volume is. Catastrophismcaptures a problem that few have seriously grappled with. Anyone who wishes, as I do, for a new kind of (occupied) politics will have to face this formidable array of theoretically-inspired reflections on the politics of apocalypse.”

        ~ Andrej Grubacic, co-author of Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History

“In an age when even Mayan prophecies of the end of the long cycle are turned into prophecies of doom and destruction, this book offers a reasoned and lucid alternative understanding. Definitive and momentous, this book should be mandatory reading for everyone who wishes to comprehend the world we live in and change it for the better.”

        ~ George Katsiaficas, author of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings

“This important book aims to end the politics of The End. The authors ofCatastrophism claim that apocalyptic politics, though promising to motivate revolutionary transformation, all too often leads to a fear-induced paralysis and cynicism. This book provides a badly needed boost to our political immunity systems against the apocalyptic claims bombarding us in this purported terminal year for our planet.”

        ~ George Caffentzis author of In Letters of Blood and Fire

“This groundbreaking book examines a deep current-on both the left and right-of apocalyptical thought and action. The authors explore the origins, uses, and consequences of the idea that collapse might usher in a better world. Catastrophism is a crucial guide to understanding our tumultuous times, while steering us away from the pitfalls of the past.”

        ~ Barbara Epstein, author of Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s

About the Contributors:

Sasha Lilley is a writer and radio broadcaster. She is the co-founder and host of the critically acclaimed program of radical ideas, Against the Grain. Sasha Lilley is the author of Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult and series editor of PM Press’ political economy imprint, Spectre.

David McNally is Professor of Political Science at York University, Toronto. He is the author of six previous books, including Against the Market; Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism; andGlobal Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance.
Eddie Yuen teaches in the Urban Studies Department at the San Francisco Art Institute. He is the co-editor, with George Katsiaficas and Daniel Burton-Rose, of Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement.

James Davis is an Irish documentary filmmaker based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His works include “Safety Orange” and “Meeting Room.”

Doug Henwood is publisher and editor of Left Business Observer. Among other books, he is the author of After the New Economy and Wall Street: How It Works and for Whom. He is a contributing editor to The Nationmagazine.

Product Details:

Authors: Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, and James Davis
Foreword by Doug Henwood
Publisher: PM Press/Spectre
ISBN: 978-1-60486-589-9
Published November 2012
Format: Paperback
Size: 8 by 5
Page count: 192 Pages
Subjects: Politics/Current Events