I know this is not the stage of my seasonal round in which I typically submit new posts, but for the sake of timeliness, I offer this one on a subject that has recently been gaining a lot of attention: the Apocalypse. The perspective and implications may surprise you. This essay was originally published in Dark Mountain Issue 11 (spring 2017).
Welcome the Aftermath:
Apocalypse and Post-apocalypse Redefined
The stratospheric ejecta from the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens took a day to cross the Columbia Plateau and the Rocky Mountains. I was up early on the morning of May 19 when it reached Colorado Springs. In my nine-year-old imagination, I anticipated a rain of ash thick enough to form drifts like grey snow and create a noontime twilight reminiscent of the TV footage from Yakima, Washington where five inches fell. Instead, little more than a faint, smoke-like haze fuzzed the view of Pikes Peak and the only place where the ash could be seen at all was on the glass of car windshields. Had I not been looking for it, I might not have even noticed it.
Now, 37 years later, and living in a world of amplifying climatic upheaval, mass extinction and the industrial toxification of every habitat on Earth, it occurs to me that the fallout from the spread of agricultural civilization across the globe has been much the same: indiscernible unless you’re looking for it. And even then, its cataclysmic nature remains largely hidden, obscured by the long sweep of time separating the present planetary socio-ecological calamity from its comparatively humble origins. It is also obscured by an assumption that is almost as opaque now as it was when it first emerged as the assumption underlying civilization’s deepest guiding stories. What is this assumption?
That the end of the world – the Apocalypse – is an event forthcoming, and that the civilized order is the only thing standing in its way. As supporting evidence for this view, we, the citizens of this order, proudly cite our numeric, territorial and technological expansion over the last few millennia. But perhaps our spread — now exponential in rate and scale — suggests something else: a shared tunnel vision focused so tightly on the civilized branches of one hominid species that it has rendered invisible the apocalyptic impact of civilization on everything else in the world.
Only now, as that impact has reached global proportions, is it possible to see that the Apocalypse isn’t somewhere out there on the horizon. As far as the greater community of life is concerned, the term accurately describes an event that has been under way for 10,000 years. It began with agriculture, intensified with the emergence of urban civilization and reached cataclysmic intensity with global industrialization.
In other words, in relation to the countless lives degraded, displaced or extinguished by every forest razed, every grassland plowed and every indigenous culture extirpated to make way for a field, pasture or city, the apocalypse is not some future potentiality that can, in theory, still be avoided. It is, at this very moment, in progress, like a slow-motion asteroid collision or volcanic eruption. Actually, it only appears slow from the perspective of an individual human lifespan. On an evolutionary/geologic time scale, there is no significant difference in the rates at which natural disasters and expanding civilizations devastate the earth. We have but to graph climatic upheavals and their associated extinction spasms on a scale measured in billions of years to see that these events all appear as spikes.
This shift in temporal perspective allows us to visualize how we are part of an agriculturally-fuelled human explosion that has swept the planet like a scouring shockwave, moving outwards from urban epicenters at far too rapid a rate to allow most other forms of life to adapt to the transformed landscapes left in its wake.
We not only have a hard time sensing this explosion because it is slow relative to any given human generation, but also because it is not singular. It is diffuse and contained, taking place inside millions of internal combustion engines, thousands of fossil-fuel-driven power plants and hundreds of nuclear reactors. But add all these micro-bursts together and factor in the years — decades! — they’ve been going off without pause and you get a blast that makes the eruption of Mount St. Helens look like a firecracker.
In this light, a post-apocalyptic world becomes not something to prevent at all costs, but rather a very appealing goal towards which to strive. We have but to realize that the common vision of a post-apocalyptic world as a charred wasteland, popularized most starkly in the Mad Max films, is exactly backwards. From an ecological perspective, the landscapes subsumed within the explosion of industrial civilization are charred wastelands when compared to their prior conditions (and to the rare wildlands as yet
modernity’s reach), and a post-apocalyptic world is a world in which the
expansion of these wastelands reverses — where frontier becomes ebbline —
thereby allowing the recovery of wild verdancy to commence, with humans as
active, contributing participants. Thus,
Mad Max lives not in a post-apocalyptic world as we’ve been led to believe, but
in the late stage Apocalypse, where the struggle continues to keep the engines
In order to invert this grim cinematic forecast and arrive at a positive post-apocalyptic awareness, we must first understand that the myriad crises presently afflicting the Earth reflect the immune response of a planetary metabolism adjusting to counter apocalyptic conditions. When we understand this, we’ll stop trying to save the shockwave and instead seek ways for the unavoidable cultural transformation out of the Apocalypse to unfold slowly, cooperatively and attentively rather than rapidly, violently and catastrophically.
It begins with the stories we tell ourselves. So long as the prevailing stories continue to paint the Apocalypse as a nightmarish tomorrow rather than as a current event, we’ll continue to prolong and worsen the very thing we are trying, with increasing desperation, to avoid. We will also continue to miss the opportunity before us: a better world.
The Mount St. Helens blast zone shows us what we might anticipate. Instead of the long grey centuries predicted by the experts, the scorched and leveled landscape erupted green only days into the aftermath. Yes, by comparison, the industrial shockwave is of a whole different order, having created a blast zone on a global scale. But the same planetary response will likely hold true. Past mass extinction events offer supporting evidence; they tend to be followed by mass diversification events. The present age of mammals serves as a case in point. Were it not for the K-T extinction 65 million years ago, we would join thousands if not millions of other species in having never come into existence.
We might find inspiration from the only dinosaurs who did survive: the birds. And not only did they survive, they flourished, branching into ten thousand species, filling the world with color, song and unmatched beauty. Imagine if we took their example to heart and strove to diversify into ten thousand cultures, each fully integrated into its local ecosystem and committed to the celebration of the Earth through story, art and music. What kind of an age might we usher into being? What kind of beauty?
The only way to find out is to make this our intention. Like the scientists who first set foot in the Mount St. Helens blast zone following the eruption, we will step into the future expecting nothing, but finding green shoots breaking through the ash of our assumptions.