The first thing I thought when I got the email last spring about the anniversary theme was, man, that’s a dangerous question to ask a woman in her early fifties. I mean, who didn’t take it personally, at least for a minute? We are academics, solipsists by trade if not character. But then I thought, okay, it is an odd question, but I can come up with something by the end of the summer.
It turned out that it was a bad time for perspective—I spent all summer obsessing about the Christian alt-right, maniacally consuming Christian news, blogposts, videos, chat room conversations, lurking balefully on Gab.ai, and making myself ill watching white supremacists on YouTube. My three kids were sick to death of my ranting, and the cats didn’t give a shit. It seemed like a dangerous mood for writing ontological or existential reflections, aside from the fact that I’m a hopeless procrastinator. So I put it off—blew past the August deadline, then the September one, then month to month with the excuse of term. But it’s a new year, term starts again on Tuesday, so enough already.
I still thought I would talk about the right turn the political zeitgeist has taken, which of course has been going on for quite a while. It’s funny how an event like November 2016 suddenly made it something even academics couldn’t ignore. I’ve had my eye on it for a while—but then, I’ve always had a weird fascination for a politics I can’t get on board with: Nigerian Pentecostals, ethnic-cleansing militias in Ivory Coast, US Christian apocalypticists.
I remember feeling murderous at the American Academy of Religion conference that year. With each shock! horror! virtue-signaling lamentation, each presenter announcing their personal grief and trauma from the podium, I grew more enraged. So I thought maybe I’d do something along the lines of—“Hey colleagues, friends, here’s what’s been going on where you weren’t looking or didn’t want to.” Wipe off on everybody who hadn’t been paying attention, all the sheer awfulness that’s been clinging to me from these past years of skulking in the worlds of the paranoid anti-Christ detectors, the fearers and loathers of liberals, women, LGBTQ folk, Muslims, Jews, blacks, democracy itself . . .
Still, that’s a lot of negativity and way too much self-righteousness—just because I’m perverse enough to read Breitbart comment sections every day like a penance, why put it on everybody? It’s not like I really do anything with it, about it. I can’t even seem to write about all this “research,” put into meaningful, edifying prose the things I observe and what I’m slowly coming to understand about the times we’re living in. I’m no Hannah Arendt. I should just start spending my spare time on Facebook like everybody else, sharing edgy reposts and curating my leftist intello persona.
Because for me, the anniversary question is not ontological—why is there something rather than nothing; is this something all there is?—but rather, “Is this all there is to do?” Given the world as it is now, what have we done, what are we doing, what is to be done? Is this all there is? Go to the Women’s March. Write a blog post or an article. Teach a new course. Join an anti-fascist campus group. Put a feminist poster on your door. Rage with silent tears in your office with the lights off.
So although I could write about my forays into the political and Christian Far Right, or indeed, my difficulty in writing about them, I’ve decided not to. While it is my professional obsession, on a larger, existential scale, these Christian apocalypticists with their regressive politics and moral bankruptcy are a diversion I can only expend so much angst on. They are one among many contemporary testimonies to our incredible human capacity for fabulation and destruction, just another convulsion of a world that is dying—and I don’t just mean Western liberal democracy. There’s something comforting about focusing our liberal outrage and angst on the illiberal amongst us when we’re all totally paralyzed by the real crisis. There should have been ten times more people out to demonstrate when Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord than at the Women’s March. A hundred times, a thousand! We’re talking about the actual world dying, with the catastrophic tipping point not in some far distant future, but in our own children’s lifetimes. Of course, the planet won’t die, per se, just a lot of the life on it—as Empedocles said, the rhizomata are eternal. But the world will, indeed it already has: a real sense of world, literally a worldview that comprehends the urgency of our planet’s shared and mortal nature, is what we most need and most lack now.
Last year I told my kids that when I was twenty-four I had a summer job going door to door for a University of Toronto–based research organization, The Pollution Probe. We had to sign up Torontonians to use blue recycling boxes. I told them that our group participated that summer in the 1988 Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere, with three hundred scientists and groups from forty-six countries, a key moment in bringing climate change to the global agenda. The youngest said, with the studied cynicism of the fifteen-year-old, “Lotta good that did.” I’m hoping it’s a phase, and not the default reaction of her generation to what has been bequeathed them. And yet, as she finished a project on the polar ice caps she wailed at me, “It’s so bad, Mom!” I agreed and suggested she join an environmental group. Her answer cut right to the core: “What’s the point of joining some group? It’s too late already! Your generation f-ed it all up for us. What can I do? I’m only fifteen and it’s already too late to fix it!” I wanted to cry. I held off—nothing annoys the teenager more than the crying mother. But she has a point. Let’s think about our attitudes and actions concerning this overwhelming existential threat, and try and deny we are all happily ignoring it in our daily lives. And please don’t tell me you bike and recycle!
Of course, we all have those moments of panic and dread, where we fully envision the real impact of it, when we use our imaginations a little bit, apply our knowledge, remember all those dystopian sci-fi films we’ve seen. Those moments when you want to stand up and scream to the entire world, “WAIT!! STOP!! Everybody needs to stop what they’re doing RIGHT NOW! We need to FIX this!!” But of course, nobody is listening, and right now you need to clean out the cat box, so it passes.
And does anybody reasonably imagine that our capitalist democracies can deal with it, or even do something meaningful to slow it down? Or our oligarchies, to be more exact—with Jim Inhofe throwing snowballs in the Senate, and Trump tweeting about Chinese plots? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care about the rise of the populist Right, as well as the new anti-science, anti-expertise ressentiment—we should. I do, and if anybody wants to hear me go on and on about it, I’m happy to oblige. But I also think that while it has a clear connection to the crisis of climate change action, the rise of right-wing populism is also an epiphenomenon that the real power holders are only too happy to cynically exploit and foster. There are too many extremely powerful interests running the world who have no care whatsoever for the global commons, never mind the common person, and certainly not democracy and its values. The terrifying thing about climate change at a global level is not just that so many people in the South are powerless and/or have more immediate existential threats to deal with, and so many in the North are ignorant, many willfully so, or that so many others are not, but are paralyzed by its unthinkable enormity. It’s what it would take to address it seriously, to act on a global level before it’s too late, if it isn’t already. The political will and degree of concerted action required, the sheer power and authority, are unthinkable in the current moment.
So we in the academy have given up all thoughts of revolution, and seem content being armchair apocalypticists. We can call it end-times globalism, Western cultural pessimism, where the end is both threatening and morbidly yearned for, living under the “rational cynicism” of societies driven by “the latent will to catastrophe,” in the words of Peter Sloterdijk. Like the specter of nuclear holocaust, the reality of the climate-changed future is still governed by what Jacques Derrida called “the fable,” the idea of a disaster that has not yet happened, an event that has happened only “in fantasy,” even if fantasy “is not nothing at all.” Yet unlike the annihilating nuclear strike, climate change is not so much a single event as an extended series of tipping points, each more catastrophic than the last. It is an event not measurable by the human temporality of the evental—it has already happened; it is happening now. Yet, we continue to fabulate it into the future, or away altogether. Otherwise, why are we all just sitting here?
The worst part of the question as I feel it is that, despite all the illusions we foster in giving ourselves over to this academic “vocation” and the attendant virtue we cultivate and jealously guard, we can only just go on doing our jobs. And thinking, as we do it for the most part—governed by our disciplines with their specific rationalities, professional norms, forms of cogitation, speculation—is not acting, as Hannah Arendt so clearly argued. Teaching isn’t really either, as the adage tells us.
So we hold our classes, write our books and articles on the research we care so much about. We try to ignore our students’ apathy and our superfluity in the world outside. We digest the bitter fact that a certain mad professor in my own university airs his alt-right views in the media and attracts a social media troll army of over half a million in under a year, and is currently raking in more than sixty thousand dollars a month from them on his personal Patreon page to fund his YouTube “work.” If I started a GoFundMe for my research I’d probably get fifty bucks, and it’d be from my mom. We organize reading groups and activist groups, we petition our university to divest from fossil fuels, we hold monthly meetings among like-minded colleagues. We bike. We recycle. We worry about our kids and our potential grandkids. We walk around with a permanent knot in our stomachs. We lament, as I’m doing here.
One of the sweetest ironies for me at a personal level in my thinking about this is my beloved younger brother, a senior executive in a major US company, whom I have teased for years about being a capitalist pig. A few years ago, he taunted back saying that in the Margaret Atwood-esque dystopia that awaits us all, he’ll be behind The Wall, lying around in the pool, as the desperate masses descend into Mad Max-ian anarchy outside the gates—and he won’t let me in. It’s a funny, touché riposte to his lefty sister. Because unlike most of us, he is actually doing something. In his “spare” time (and this in a professional world where full-time is considered skiving) he has assembled a huge group of America’s top marketing and advertising companies, tech leaders, scientists, donors, lobbyists, opinion leaders, and political operatives, all working together to try and change the way the climate change message is sent and received across the United States. To break through the science-denying, conspiracy mongering, hopelessly partisan denial of the problem and raise a sense of collective awareness and alarm that can spur concerted, bipartisan political action.
When people would ask me what my brother did for a living, I used to say, I dunno exactly, he’s one of those masters of the universe. Well, he kind of is. He has real power to try to make change, and he’s using it. Meanwhile, as I often joke, I get paid to read books.
So I guess it turns out that I do take the question personally. And who knows if this despair and angst about my children’s futures, the future as such, the sickness that is this doing-nothing, isn’t just a way of dressing up a middle-aged woman’s reckoning with “Is this all there is?” Or, something just as common, the engaged academic’s experience of the helplessness and nihilism that is the ideological despair of late capitalism. And while I recognize that what seems unprecedented in our current moment may not be so very new as far as human experience goes—history has always appeared as catastrophe piled on catastrophe, and apocalypticism was written into the Judeo-Christian West from the start—I know that climate change is a novum, a limit to all human nova, that we simply must begin to think.
Thinking isn’t doing if it is mere contemplation, speculation, cogitation. But thinking in Arendt’s sense (via Heidegger) of “the being that in man is freed to be action,” thinking as “complete concentration or absolute waking” is something else. It tears us from our world of ease and routine and demands we attend with concentration to that which is difficult. It’s where thinking and acting come together. Thinking about the novum, thinking as a novum; something unexpected, new. A surprising thinking that speaks or says itself in public, that draws others to it, impels them to create their own stories about it, inspires them to act. This is something we can do. But it seems to me that it also means getting out into the world, reaching beyond the narrow confines and comforts of academic life, and being driven by much more than citation index scores and the approval of our peers.
Will I do it? I dunno—I’m still thinking about it.