I’ve been meaning to take a look at Jacobin, and their publication of Alyssa Battistoni’s The Flood Next Time gave me a good excuse.
Basically, it’s a caution — in this case against ever expecting an extreme event, even one as extreme as “Superstorm Sandy,” to act as a real wake up call. And the author has done her homework. For example, here’s a nice part of the setup:
But do disasters act as turning points, or wake-up calls, or teachable moments? Do those oft-discussed silver linings really materialize? It seems easy to conjure examples in the affirmative. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire led to stricter factory safety standards, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to the Mississippi River levee system. But those are the exception, not the rule. The BP spill was supposed to wake us up to the costs of our reliance on fossil fuels — as were the Exxon Valdez spill and the 1970s oil shocks. Aurora followed Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech followed Columbine, and gun control laws remain unchanged. When disasters throw a kink into frenzied everyday life, we talk about the things we’re now forced to talk about — but what happens to all those conversations when urgency diminishes and regular life returns?
Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, James Davis, with a foreword by Doug Henwood. PM Press 2012
(Click here for a shorter version of this review on Earth Island Journal)
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. 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.