Writings – Essays – The Slow Apocalypse


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This essay was published

in The Globe and Mail
on November 6, 2009
The Slow Apocalypse

Planet abuse. Everyone is talking about it these days. Melting ice caps and climbing sea levels, polar bears losing weight and fish fleeing the rising heat of Texas: Conversation about climate change tends to resemble campfire competitions to tell the scariest story. Many such tales will be told at the international climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen next month. Expect gloom from the experts.

Doom will likely figure into the prognostications as well. The hour for any kind of repair job, we’re being warned, is getting late. Former vice-presidents are saying as much. So are Nobel laureates. In 2007, Oprah Winfrey selected a new Cormac McCarthy novel for her book club that begins with time, in effect, already expired.

The America of The Road is dead, the poisoned land still smouldering. Survivors dine on tinned goods, or on each other, and can only dream of vanished brook trout, their backs showing “vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming.” Now the novel is a movie starring Viggo Mortensen, its release later in November a few weeks too tardy to retail Halloween frights.

Welcome to the slow apocalypse. The world un-becoming not with a bang but the whimper of ash rain and contaminated soil, less and less food to eat or clean water to drink. Mr. McCarthy’s The Road is part of an imaginative project that is both an extension of post-Second World War nuclear anxieties, and worries unique to this millennium.

That project is the dramatizing of incremental, rather than catastrophic, change to our circumstances on Earth, a process many of us still find difficult to conceptualize. But conceptualizing is what artists do, generally in the most vivid terms possible.

First, some background. As long as there have been novels, there have been ones set in an imagined future. Dystopias from Gulliver’s Travels to 1984 addressed, it was commonly understood, the ills of their own society and age, thin or thickly disguised. Orwell probably settled on the title for his book by simply reversing the final two digits of the year it was completed: 1948.

But once the A-bomb posed the dilemma of humans wielding power beyond our moral and, perhaps, developmental qualifications, the focus of dystopian writing and, more recently, filmmaking, expanded. The novels On the Beach and Riddley Walker, the movies Dr. Strangelove and the Mad Max trilogy emerged from the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were not only satires of their present-day venality; they were also staring ahead into the abyss and thinking ahead to the unthinkable.

With the scale of human-made disasters expanded from local Armageddons to planetary ones, the lid came off what needed to be envisioned, and why. Parallel or complimentary end-game scenarios came naturally to probing minds. Science fiction in particular proved deft at outlining an array. Viruses were especially popular, as were computers with big ideas. For some reason, zombies continue to pop up.

The detonated nuclear weapon or unleashed virus often resulted from error or wild caprice. In Dr. Strangelove, a nutty general launches a nuclear air-strike on the Soviet Union. In I Am Legend, book and movies alike, researchers develop a cancer vaccine that goes awry. Critiques of modern society underpinned the madness – in the Kubrick film, the military-industrial complex is rife with warped sexuality and a death wish – but a crazy person still had to push the button or a robot had to get uppity before the unthinkable occurred.

Yes, the late 20th century was admitting, we are overreaching, building things we don’t understand and can’t be trusted to use properly. Yes, it is unsettling. But rightly or wrongly, human agency still felt in play in the era of nuclear apprehension. Neutralize the crazies and pull the plug on Hal. Ensure that cooler heads prevail.


That feeling may now be gone. Or else it has been supplanted by newer, still darker portents. In The Road, the ravaged landscape the father and son must negotiate is, in fact, the aftermath of nuclear war some years before. But Mr. McCarthy is so intent in conveying this broken world, and does so with such acuity, that the novel – or, at least, the zeitgeist’s embrace of it – is tapping into 21st-century anxieties about how we are breaking our planet.

What we have done to the environment over the past several decades isn’t only a lunacy comparable to stockpiling nuclear weapons. It also appears ever more beyond our fumbling agency. A bomb (or 27,000 active warheads, to be exact) you can conceivably – conceivably – deactivate; a murdered Earth you can’t resuscitate – or maybe not in time.

The shelf of books meditating on our emerging crisis is already distinguished. Available for readers who wish their nightmares extended into the daylight realm are David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), with its six stories spaced over several centuries and nested into each other, and the water-logged Britain depicted in Ronald Wright’s pioneering A Scientific Romance (1997). Then there is Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, a novel published in 2008 but set over a span of 64 million years. It takes the speculative in speculative fiction very seriously.

This fall, three new Canadian novels further outline the worry. Jean McNeil’s The Ice Lovers takes place in the aftermath of a 2013 global flu pandemic and in a steadily disintegrating Antarctic. Douglas Coupland’s Generation A envisions a near future where the damage done to nature has rendered bees extinct, and most humans are addicted to a drug called Solon.

By far the sternest visions, though, are contained in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. It is a loose sequel to her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, another foundational work of the age of environmental anxiety. Like its predecessor, the novel is set in a future where planet abuse has triggered the collapse of nation-states. In their stead are giant corporations with ferocious security militias to keep the “pleebrats,” as she calls the less fortunate, in slums.

All the more fearsome for the precision of Ms. Atwood’s speculations on the outcomes of our preoccupations with everything from reality TV to genetically modified foods and animals, The Year of the Flood foresees a bad end to our Earth – or, at least, to our thriving on it. She is far from alone in predicting this outcome. “It’s re-evolving,” a character in The Stone Gods declares in the wake of a world war induced by melting ice caps, toxic levels of carbon dioxide and religious fanaticism. “It’s Life after Humans, whatever that is, but you know what? It can’t be so much worse, can it?” The answer, for Ms. Winterson, is a categorical “no.”

Is the end actually so nigh? While the reality of climate change is beyond dispute, the singularity of it, along with the reversibility of its effects, remains subject for debate. As responses to the crisis, too, even the most exacting of these novels are closer to expressions of foreboding than real argument.

(For argument, plenty of non-fiction books will oblige. Prominent among them are Jared Diamond’s Collapse and Mr. Wright’s more recent A Short History of Progress. The title of another fall 2009 Canadian release, Gwynne Dyer’s Climate Wars, summarizes its prophecy.)

But that is the mood of many at present. Good artists may get their forecasts wrong, but rarely mistake the larger emotional weather. Often, they are predicting what we fear, consciously or otherwise, will fill in the skies in the days to come. Specifics vary – Mr. McCarthy and Ms. Mitchell source the implosion to nuclear war, Ms. Atwood to environmental degradation, Ms. Winterson to a combination – but tones and time-frames are largely consistent. Here, these millennium voices are foretelling, lies our fairly near future, steadily, irrevocably unfolding.


Two qualities of the slow apocalypse compel these jeremiads. Again, the absence of specific human agency to climate change is vexing; we can’t quite locate the right people to blame, and so halt their nefarious activities. Lacking an easy villain to arrest, the unravelling may be especially hard to arrest.

As well, we know ourselves as a species. Humans are rarely content until we have exhausted a resource, never mind how fragile or finite. The Canadian government will be bringing a proposal to Copenhagen. Its target for greenhouse-gas reductions, the so-called “20 per cent by 2020,” won’t be adequate. Nor are most observers expecting it to honour that target, or even try.

There may be, in other words, an animal logic to our flirting with ruining the planet. It’s how we are designed: aggressive and cocky, disinclined to moderate our appetites or take responsibility for our actions. We get this self-destructive tendency lurking, if not necessarily dominating, our nature. It is a problem, and always has been. With nuclear and now environmental scenarios, the problem is suddenly of a scale, and consequence, without precedent. These chilling fictions are born of that cold fact.

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