Why is it so much easier, as the saying goes, to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism? In 2017, the question felt particularly acute. With relentless hurricanes and wildfires ravaging the United States, the fears of doomsday preppers tipped into the mainstream: “Apocalyptic Thoughts Amid Nature’s Chaos? You Could Be Forgiven,” declared a New York Times headline last September, just weeks before publishing a Style-section guide on “How to Survive the Apocalypse.”
The most straightforward answer to the question, perhaps, lies in the sticky substance that fuels capitalism as we know it, and is daily bringing us closer to the apocalypse of the preppers’ imagination: oil. “No petroleum, no modern war machine, no global shipping industry, no communications revolution,” writes cultural studies scholar Imre Szeman in Energy Humanities, a recent anthology he co-edited. In other words, oil fuels and constitutes so much of what we desire—convenience, travel, year-round avocados, perpetual novelty, and cheap, plentiful goods—that it is hard to imagine life without it. “Oil capital,” writes Szeman, “seems to represent a stage that neither capital nor its opponents can think beyond.”
It’s not that capital’s opponents haven’t been trying—a dedicated minority of them at least. Clustered in and around the academy, a growing number of left-wing thinkers have taken up climate change under the umbrella of the humanities, producing a variety of subfields, research groups, conferences, books, and journals dedicated to understanding, and eventually dismantling, what they call our “petrocapitalist” system. Unease about our climate-changed era, the “Anthropocene,” has spilled into novels, movies, and the broader cultural realm—and not just science fiction. A growing genre of literature, sometimes described as “climate fiction” (or “cli-fi”), is imagining how climate change is reshaping the world.
But these efforts have yet to permeate into the mainstream, where climate change registers at the level of sci-fi apocalypse, or barely at all. Between the two lies an impasse. It takes the form less of outright denial than of inertia. This manifests in different ways. Even in the United States, a large majority of people now believe climate change is a threat, and increasing numbers recognize it as the result of burning fossil fuels. A majority of those polled by Pew in three dozen countries in 2017, including the United States, even see it as a leading security threat. Yet for most, the enormity of the problem leads to a sort of numbing, or imposes itself in more subtle ways: a series of new studies suggest that environmental dread is fueling stress, anxiety, and depression on a large scale. None of those responses do much to mobilize people against the status quo—and meanwhile, petrocapitalism chugs along, bringing ever more of the world into its ambit.
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