THE DISASTER WE WANT
October 12, 2016
We were planting asparagus when the topic came up. In eight small beds, earth dry despite a wet summer, we knelt, pressing the delicate ferny seedlings into the ground, mounding the soil around their bases. The day was hot and dry, our backs aching from bending over the asparagus beds, sweat rolling down our bodies. It was July. It would be three years before this asparagus could be harvested. Nearby Beno, three years old and currently the only child in this community of adults, plays at digging asparagus as well.
It was here that the end of Western Civilization came up. Rowan explained how ecological and social collapse was coming soon, and we listened. Most people wouldn’t survive this apocalypse, too soft, too dependent on the city, disconnected from the earth. Us though, he said, we’ll make it. It’s the people who know how to grow food who survive. Here in northern New England, on Rowan and Mountainsong’s farm (house off-the-grid, perennial crops installed for decades of no-till farming), here the family would survive America’s next fall. The others, travelers spending a few weeks on the farm, murmur their agreement: hands in the earth, a pantry full of home-pickled beets, a fresh spring bubbling up in the nearby forest, a new life.
Rowan and Mountainsong’s utopia is one not only embedded with the fantasy of collapse, it is one that depends on it. It is this relationship between utopia and collapse that I feel compelled to examine. It is a farm yes, but it is also a utopian dream; it’s a place separated physically and socially from a corrupt, earth-destroying world. But this dream is as much about connecting with nature through agricultural self-sufficiency as it is about surviving the collapse.1 Without the assurance that the impending collapse will justify the farm, the necessary sacrifices lose some their power. But it’s more than that. It’s that there is a longing for catastrophe, for the opportunity to prove oneself, to survive. The collapse, the fall, the catastrophic storm, we want it. And we want this because we are yearning for a chance at redemption.
On a mountainside farm, Greg (25 years into what he calls the “practical application of a philosophy degree,” though Greg never completed his), drives his motorcycle between the fields: potatoes on a steep slope above the pond, greenhouses at the bottom of the hill, tomatoes where the stream pools in the nearby woods, making for easy watering. He explains that when the zombie apocalypse comes, he’ll wear a helmet made from a snapping turtle shell and I (unwilling to engage in turtle-based armament) will manage the farm while he guards the bottom of the mountain. Needless to say, neither Greg nor I, nor the ragtag crew I managed with his son, believe in the aforementioned apocalypse, nor do Greg and his family intend to ride out environmental catastrophe on the mountain. But it makes for an entertaining game to play, especially when the tomato blight comes into town and wipes out an entire season’s tomatoes and potatoes; the disease was carried, the rumor went, on seedlings from Home Depot and Lowes, bought and planted in gardens around the region and spreading the disease faster than any organic farmer could. Greg isn’t looking for redemption, but he certainly enjoys the fantasy of survival. This is a fantasy shared, oddly, by communities on both the political far right and far left, but also elsewhere in popular culture to a less extreme extent.
From primitivism and uncivilization to prepping, from the spectacular meltdown of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven to Nathaniel Rich’s flooded New York; from weather reporting that warns disaster is always within the next 18 hours to the reporting before, during and after Superstorm Sandy; from disaster capitalism to disaster porn, we are desperately in love with collapse. What is it that makes apocalypse so appealing? In dystopian climate literature, climate change can be a way to explore contemporary anxieties about environmental and social collapse; but it’s just beyond the terrifying apocalypse that the story gets started, these are post-apocalyptic narratives, even the ones where the majority of the story is the lead-up rather than the aftermath. Underneath this fear I see a deep utopian urge. When I delve into these murky waters, what I see is a fantasy of survival, of re-grounding, reconnection with the wilderness, of undomestication.2 The fantasy of a new start is built into the catastrophes that populate many dystopian environmental fictions. Here the ultimate, and most deadly, redemption is offered. Not in religious terms but in ecological ones. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes of an old, dying world, rotten with environmental corruption and moral bankruptcy, the new world lies just on the far side of catastrophe. And because it’s there, this is the disaster we want.
We live with the consequences of events long passed and cause consequences that future generations will have to live with. We, whether this is read as all humans or a specific group of humans, have made the environmental catastrophe we live with, we have laid the groundwork for the apocalyptic collapse we fear. It is the anxiety of being both victim and perpetrator.3 A collective environmental shame and guilt informs these anxieties, giving shape to that dark longing for the fall.
With a pervasive message that “we” have sinned against the earth, have committed irredeemable wrongs to the natures (and peoples) we share this planet with, the fantasy is that catastrophe can set things “right again.” Hand in hand with Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine, the fantasy engages with the idea that if only the slate were wiped clean, we could rebuild better the next time. Redemption may be found in surviving disaster.
I see a few things at work in this dream of catastrophe. First among them is the fantasy of survival. Mitchell Zukor, the protagonist of Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, compulsively calculates the odds of various lethal accidents and natural disasters, comforting himself with the statistics that ensure his survival. Mitchell’s obsessive anxiety can be read as a reflection of a cultural anxiety of and for disaster. It is what happens after Hurricane Tammy that brings me to the second thing I want to examine within the fetish of catastrophe. After surviving the storm, Mitchell ends up abandoning his financial consultant life for a rough-around-the-edges fantasy of self-sufficient agrarianism on the margins of New York City. This fantasy of uncivilization draws me to peer beneath the surface of utopian survival fantasies.
The vision is a catastrophe that offers redemption for an unwell society. From this, rebirth is possible. This is the space in which Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine meets the utopian urge. This violent re-start offers the only way, the fantasy suggests, to sever ties with the troubled world which caused – directly or indirectly – the catastrophe. Integral to this fantasy is a fantasy of embodiment. Popular culture is filled with anxieties over bodily weakness, lost connection with nature, and a fear of domesticity. This is not the domesticity of childcare and laundry, bill paying and grocery shopping. This is the containment of life within the bounds of “civilization.” So here, those anxieties find an antidote: the violence of collapse will wash away trivial concerns (such as mortgage payments and doctors appointments) and force a deep reconnection with nature, both internal and external. It is as if to suggest that we cannot break with the bad world we live in unless forced to do so. And then, forced to reconnect with our bodies, our physical abilities, we reconnect with nature, the external, material world. This narrative is played out in Odds Against Tomorrow as Mitchell discovers peace and confidence within himself when forced to paddle out of flooded New York City, relying on his skills, his intuition, his own abilities. Here, he engages viscerally with his body’s needs and capabilities. Later when Mitchell constructs his agrarian compound, planting in the orange dirt of the Flatlands and living – in a transparent rhetorical move – in an old bank, this hands-in-the-dirt utopia cements his deep connection with nature. Underscoring the uncivilization Mitchell has built, his beard and “crazy hobo” appearance almost become an additional character in the final pages of the book, described more than ten times in thirteen pages, each time emphasizing his wildness: “[the beard] looked more feral than ever, a chaotic blizzard” (300). Here, Mitchell plays out masculinist fantasies of reconnecting with nature, with the “real” as it were, willfully foregoing the domesticities of the city in favor of hard work, agriculture, and solitude. Mitchell is redeemed by surviving the storm and building this utopian uncivilization dream in the remnants of the city.
I began this reflection with Mountainsong and Rowan, who I met while apprenticing at another farm nearby, because the vision of farming is close to my heart. So close, in fact, that when offered I very nearly left college to farm, that there’s not a week – sometimes not a day – when I don’t imagine a farm of my own. The dream of my hands in the dirt, the hot sun, backbreaking harvest, rain on good soil, is a powerful one. And it was largely domestic concerns that pulled me away: the desire for health insurance, family members who will ultimately require support, the luxuries of a job indoors. It’s not regret, but knowing I chose this doesn’t make the dream any less beautiful. Still, I wonder, does my utopia depend on disaster? Is the dream of the farm more enticing as a fantasy of survival? Am I yearning for redemption, for freedom from my own implication in environmental harm? Are my dreams secretly dreams of collapse?
1 It is, of course, important to acknowledge that not all utopian yearnings are necessarily embedded with collapse. Nonetheless, I believe that fantasies of collapse are inherently connected with fantasies of survival and rebirth.
2 Acknowledging here that “wilderness” is itself a fantasy, one deeply embedded in American sensibilities.
3 Though, of course, it must be noted that while a lot of cultural energy is expended fearing the environmental harms we have brought on ourselves, the distribution of these risks and harms is not, and will not be, even. The disadvantaged and disenfranchised will carry the greatest weight, and for the most generations. As Ulrich Beck describes, we live in societies where risk is distributed across time and space, however, unevenly. It this therefore deeply problematic to consider environmental harm and risk in the context of a “we.”