View of the A15 motorway near Paris, where the demonstration of farmers in tractors, are blocked by the police on January 29, 2024. Photo: Franck Legros.

Connection Between Populism and Identity Politics in the European Union Before the 2024 European Parliament Elections

The 2024 EU parliament election polls show the populist right and far right as the main winners. The fact that voters tend to choose populist parties could increase the populist agenda of the left to compete with the far right, as an attempt to transform xenophobic tendencies by the right into inclusionary populism, which describes the conservative elite as the other and creates further social conflicts. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how populism (both left and right) impacts EU legislation and what forecasts we can identify for the elections in 2024.

By Katharina Diebold

The upcoming elections of the EU Parliament and the next presidency of the Council of the EU, which will be Hungary, are contentious issues for the European Community (Henley, 2024). The polls for the 2024 EU elections and the Hungarian presidency indicate a rise of right-wing and anti-Europe populist parties. These tendencies fuel the transformation of the EU towards the right and conservativism (Wax & Goryashko, 2024). 

The 2024 EU parliament election polls show the populist right and far right as the main winners. The fact that voters tend to choose populist parties could increase the populist agenda of the left to compete with the far right, as an attempt to transform xenophobic tendencies by the right into inclusionary populism, which describes the conservative elite as the other and creates further social conflicts (Henley, 2024; Suiter, 2016; Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how populism (both left and right) impacts EU legislation and what forecasts we can identify for the elections in 2024.

In this essay, I propose that recently adopted EU legislation, the Green New Deal (including the Nature Restoration Regulation and Deforestation Regulation), and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, are influenced by populism and identity politics and harm the EU. In connection with this, populist candidates driven by identity politics threaten the future of the EU. 

Theoretical Framework 

Populism is defined as a thin ideology comprising three key elements: the people, the general will and the elite, (Zulianello & Larsen, 2021; Mudde, 2004). Additionally, it incorporates the dimension of the “dangerous others,” often represented by migrants, positioned in contrast to the people (Rooduijn & Akkerman, 2015).

Even though populism is in Western Europe closely associated with the right, the left has increasingly adopted populist strategies. The negligence of academic research about the populist left can be responsible for those recent findings. This seems even more relevant when we consider the outstanding electoral performance of populist left parties compared to populist right parties for the last elections of the European Parliament in 2019, such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and Sinn Féin in Ireland (Bernhard & Kriesi, 2021; Statista, 2024).

For example, The Greek Syriza Party (founded in 2004) and the Irish Sinn Féin Party (founded in 1905) were only recognized as left-wing populist parties in 2014 (O’Malley & Fitzgibbon, 2014; Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). Nevertheless, Syriza’s populism has been questionable through its government term and recent opposition in 2021 (Markou, 2021). 

Identity is a set of labels describing persons distinguished by attributes (Noury & Roland, 2020). Identity politics is the belief that identity is a fundamental focus of political work, which can be connected to lifestyle and culture (Bernstein, 2005). Politicizing immigrants as the other is an example of that. In Europe, identity politics is referred to as the protection of the “silent majority” from harmful consequences of immigration, which is used by right-wing populists (Noury & Roland, 2020). 

The effect of rising populism within the EU on the right- and left-wing can already be recognized by looking at EU-party campaigns or populist candidates for the upcoming elections. Besides the right, the left populists also employ identity politics. The left populism can be seen in promoting marginalized identities, such as racial and ethnic identities and seeking to transform the shame previously associated with these identities into pride (Salmela & Von Scheve, 2018). Accordingly, these protests generate others, including people who abide by a different value system and also the privileged elite who overlook intersectional identities as a threat. While promoting human rights, advocacy for intersectional identities can also fall into the trap of populism among leftist groups and other advocates (Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). However, intersectionality may not be the only advocacy that can turn into a populist movement in the name of advocacy. Climate and human rights activists can also be politicized and positioned as polarized identities (Mackay et al., 2021). 

Inherent Populism in EU Legislation

Environmental politics presents contention for both the right- and left-wing populist parties.  Both the right and left-wing parties instrumentalize newly adopted legislation to increase the public appeal of voters (European Commission, 2023). This can be exemplified in the recent regulations. The newest adopted legislation, the European Green New Deal, including its Deforestation Regulation and its Regulation on Nature Restoration, and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, have elements of otherization and marginalization of identities. A closer examination of de jure analysis and how these laws, as portrayed in political language, unearths the need for more interest in realizing the general goals of protecting nature. It looks like nature is wiped of its identity within the hands of humans who instrumentalize nature as a theme broadly advocated by large swaths of society. Therefore, identity politics exploiting nature must be identified and widely discussed to protect nature and the shared values of humanity, not to sacrifice basic human dignity for politics, especially before the upcoming elections. 

The European Green New Deal

The European Green New Deal, including the Deforestation Regulation, entered into force on June 29, 2023, and the provisional agreement for the Regulation on Nature Restoration was accepted on November 9, 2023. These legislations gaining the support of the left can also be instrumentalized to boost the attention and sympathy of left-wing parties before the elections.

The populism surrounding the Nature Restoration Regulation can be approached as a case showcasing populist politics appealing to the left (The EU #NatureRestoration Law, 2023). The left uses advocacy of this legislation, especially the Greens/EFA, in the elections for greenwashing purposes and voter accumulation. However, this law focused more on economic benefits than actual environmental protection and lost its progressiveness throughout the legislative procedure. Therefore, it is based on the misconception that this regulation substantially improves nature restoration and indigenous rights protection (Pinto, 2023). Moreover, this law increases the financial burden for the forestry, fishery, and farming sectors, claims the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) (Weise & Guillot, 2023). However, these realities are dismissed in the political language of environmental advocacy. 

The Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) campaign clearly describes the people as the “citizens, farmers, fishers and business in the EU.” The elite is defined as “the conservatives, far right and some liberals” who “try to tear down a new EU law to restore nature.” The general will of the people focuses on tackling “biodiversity and the climate crisis (GreensEFA, 2023). The campaign by the Greens/EFA for this regulation plays into identity politics as the party uses a language claiming to advocate for the protection of marginalized indigenous and local communities. While this claim remains to be only a discourse, regardless, it boosts the popularity of the Greens. Zoomed closely, the ostensibly evergreen legislation advocating the protection of biodiversity promotes local cartels and exploitative companies that benefit and take advantage of the EU partnerships (Euronews, 2023). The hypocrisy and the tact in the use of language can be seen in the advocacy language of the party that left these cartels intentionally out.

Deforestation Regulation 

The Greens/EFA campaign for the Deforestation Regulation shows characteristics of populism (European Commission, 2023). Greens/EFA characterizes “the people” as the “people that must always come before profit.” Thus, this regulation favors European distributers instead of the exploited farmers in the developing countries. In this case, “the elite” is the group of companies that need to safeguard no deforestation or human rights violations along the production.” “The general will” is intended to “end EU-driven deforestation” (Greens/EFA, 2023). This is an example of how left parties connect political anti-elitism to economic anti-elitism and the argument that hardworking, ordinary citizens are betrayed by the political-economic power elite (Rooduijn & Akkerman, 2015). 

Additionally, the new regulation will only prevent EU customers from buying products derived from deforestation. However, the actual deforestation and sales of deforested products to other customers worldwide can continue (Greenpeace, 2021). The regulation also lost its progressive and ambitious character throughout the legislation procedure (Fairtraide.net., 2022).

New Pact on Migration and Asylum 

The left and the right use identity politics as a tool to increase sympathy for the upcoming elections through the usage of marginalized identities such as “migrants” and “asylum seekers” (Greens/EFA, n.d.). The recent pact on migration can be shown as an example of populist identity politics transcending the right and left binary, uniting the voters around the so-called threat posed by the influx of migrants and asylum seekers. 

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum reinforces the topic of illegal migration and thus supports the right-wing campaigning for the European Elections 2024. The political language on this regulation is laden with populist elements. Firstly, the right-wing European Peoples Party defines “the people” as “the hard-working EU citizens.” Secondly, “the elite” is defined as “smugglers and traffickers controlling illegal migration” (Press Statement von der Leyen, 2023). Thirdly, “the general will” is defined as stopping the suffering of the EU through migrants (Press Statement von der Leyen, December 20, 2023; Press Statement Schinas, 2023). 

The populist language forebears the identity politics around migration appealing to both the right and the left. The New Pact and statements by the EU Commission play into identity politics through the terminology of the “bad migrants,” positioning them as “dangerous others.” Unfortunately, the New Pact has been under debate in the EU since 2020 and is now used as a promotional tool for the upcoming elections to attract voters on the right and the left (Georgian, 2024). 

The New Pact can also be used by the Greens/EFA populist campaign for the European Elections 2024, reinforcing the idea of a unified peace union. “The people” are defined as “us and the migrants and asylum seekers, that we do not leave behind.” “The general will” is to “uphold human rights and international law” (GreensEFA, 2023). “The elite” is defined as the authoritarian national governments of developing countries, making it necessary for refugees to flee (Greens/EFA, n.d.).

Additionally, the Pact favors the reinforcement of border controls, returns and re-admissions over legal migration opportunities. Those stay symbolic, vague, and distant policy goals. Recent reviews of policy documents show that the EU prioritizes regulating irregular migration, and despite its rhetoric for “strengthening legal migration,” concrete action is missing (Sunderland, 2023). 

Identity Politics and Candidates 

Introducing inexperienced candidates tailored to resonate with particular social groups is a common strategy employed by both left and right populist parties to garner support. This practice serves as another instance of identity politics shaping the European political landscape. Following in the footsteps of their forerunners, like Marie Le Pen or Hugo Chávez from the past, these charismatic political figures engage in populist rhetoric, addressing a diverse range of social and legal issues in their political discourse—from environmental protection to EU identity and migration (Serra, 2017).

Examples for the upcoming European Parliament elections 2024 include Nicola Gehringer, promoted by the German right-wing party CSU (Christian Social Union), on place nine. Gehringer is a successful executive assistant of a big corporation “Neoloan AG” with potential to attract successful business owners. Another figure is the farmer and agriculture expert Stefan Köhler, who runs for the CSU on place six to attract farmers (Zeit Online, 2023). With the recent increasing farmer’s protests in Germany, France and the Netherlands, farmers have become increasingly crucial in the European discourse (Trompiz & Levaux, 2024). 

Legal and security experts are also running with public appeal to the voters across political divides. The German candidate for “Die Linke,” a leftist Party, is Carola Rackete. She is a human rights activist fighting for better refugee rights and asylum laws, running for the second position (MDR.DE., 2023). The human rights activist as a candidate can increase the amount of more radical voters from the left. The German Green Party is heading with a policeman on place eighteen towards the elections, trying to include more right-leaning social groups as well in the Green voter repertoiresince police officers can tend to vote for conservative and right-wing parties (Papanicolaou & Papageorgiou, 2016).

In Austria, the first candidate for the Greens party is Lena Schilling, a climate activist of “Fridays-for-future.” Schilling has a high chance of attracting young voters as she is the only young female top candidate among all running top party candidates in Austria (Völker, 2024). The second place will be Thomas Waitz, a sustainable and organic farmer who aims to attract sustainable farmers in Austria (Waitz, 2023; Schweighofer, 2024). The references to elite vs the people in their language blur the lines between the right and the left ideologies and connect these figures around a shared sentiment: fighting for the people against a designated elite. This populist sentiment fuels populism and social conflict, undermining liberal democracy and EU values. 

Conclusion 

The increasing populism of left and right parties in the EU and the fanatism of those who want to increase their share of voters for the upcoming EU elections are tremendously responsible for the outcomes of recent EU legislation. The populist rhetoric before and after the adoption of new EU legislation clearly shows how parties instrumentalize the outcomes of EU legislation procedure instead of trying to find real compromises and long-term future-oriented solutions for the problems of unregulated migration and the climate crises. 

Regulated migration is still almost not touched upon in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which has been part of discussions in the EU since 2020. The Green New Deal, especially with the Nature Restoration and Deforestation Regulations, was a proper start to increase sustainability, environmental protection, and indigenous rights. However, both proposals lost their progressiveness and lacked ambition and actual help for developing countries outside of the profit-making fetishism of the EU. If the upward trend of populism persists on both the left and right, EU politics and legislation may increasingly adopt populist and voter-driven approaches, potentially jeopardizing the democratic and compromise-oriented decision-making process within the EU. This heightened polarization between parties could further contribute to a climate of bashing and hinder cooperative efforts.

Remarkably, identity politics not only permeates the populist rhetoric of EU party politics but also extends to the selection of candidates for upcoming elections. If identity politics continues to embed itself deeply within the strategic political framework of EU parties, the shift towards prioritizing short-term voter turnout and popularity contests over substantive and long-term democratic considerations seems inevitable. This trend risks undermining EU values by leveraging EU legislation for immediate political gains rather than establishing enduring goals for the European Community. It is imperative to educate voters about this form of political manipulation that compromises EU values for short-term advantages. No political gain should supersede long-term EU objectives, as such a scenario would entail the erosion of EU values and identity.


 

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The refugees migrate to Europe. Photo: Shutterstock.

Climate, conflict, and migration: Europe’s next frontier of populism

The far-right populists are able to predicate on the securitisation of refugees in high welfare economies. Should welfare economies become overwhelmed by refugees displaced by the climate crisis, it is likely that the far right could become even more potent in Europe. To prevent a populist backlash against refugees fleeing the effects of climate change, a number of policy changes must be made immediately.

By Jake Moran*

It is not so long ago that we began to witness the reincarnations of far-right, anti-immigrant populist movements in Europe. UKIP and the BNP in Britain, Front Nationale in France, Brothers of Italy, and the Sweden Democrats drawn support from across the political spectrum and became electorally successful. Their alarming tone about rising levels of inward migration seemed to appeal to voters. The political successes in the Italian and Swedish elections this year are particularly poignant because they demonstrate that, seven years after the peak of the refugee crisis, refugees in Europe remains a significant issue for voters. 

This article extends the discussion of my previous piece on climate related migration and the rise of the populist far right. Here I will discuss how the climate crisis could displace vulnerable populations and force them to migrate to Europe. I argue here that the success of far-right, anti-immigrant populist parties in Europe today serves as a blueprint for what could occur in the next 50 years as climate-related migration potentially increases. After a short literature review, I will discuss how this could produce Europe’s next frontier of populism. I will end with policy recommendations aiming to prevent this dual catastrophe of humanitarian disaster and political crisis facing the continent.

Refugees and Far-Right Populism: A Brief Literature Review

The 2015 refugee crisis, which spurred a wave of far-right populist victories across Europe (Tomberg et al., 2021; Zimmermann, 2016; Vadlamannati et al., 2020), continues today. Many studies have examined how economic migration propelled populist reactions, but only a few have examined populist reaction to refugees specifically (Tomberg et al., 2020; Vadlamannati et al., 2017). This literature can guide our enquiry to establish whether rising refugee numbers can be linked to the growth in far-right populism, and therefore whether refugee populations displaced by climate change will increasingly incur far-right populism.

The literature broadly establishes a link between increased refugee intake and support for the far-right by examining data in specific countries at a macro level (see Dustmann et al., 2019; Dinas et al., 2019; Hangartner et al., 2019; Torres, 2022). For example, a study found a 1.2 percent point increase in the vote share for the far-right for every 1 percent increase in asylum seekers accepted by Germany. Crucially, they find that support for the far right grows in relation to refugee numbers despite high levels of employment nationally, signalling that their relationship is independent of economic factors (Tomberg et al., 2022). 

Scholars highlight the link between the increase in refugee numbers and far-right support in 27 industrial democracies between 1990-2014 (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). Accordingly, the concomitant rise in the numbers of refugees and far-right populism is dependent on ‘welfare chauvinism’ — the concern that refugees settling in a country of high welfare payments will receive a greater share of national resources than they are entitled to–. The concern about refugees getting paid by welfare state without proper work fuels a sense of grievance against the refugee population (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). 

Overall, there is a consensus in the literature that growing numbers of refugees accepted by a host country incur greater support for far-right populist parties. While the economic conditions of host countries do not appear to impact this trend (Tomberg et al., 2022), countries with large welfare states funded by high taxes form a key variable in inflating the popular grievance against refugees (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). 

On the other hand, the research highlighting the economic contributions of refugees to their adapted country can be read as a response aiming to lessen the social impact of potential far-right responses on the lives of refugees both in the countries of study and where the research is published (Betts et al., 2017). However, there is more to be done. Considering these discussions, we can argue that a surge in refugees displaced by climate change would incur a growth of support for far-right populist parties in Europe. 

Securitization of Refugees and the Discourse of Threat

Social conflict in response to climate refugees can emerge in many forms. The far-right could launch a populist backlash using disinformation campaigns that promote harmful and false narratives about refugees inflating concern to their electoral advantage (ISD, 2021). The more likely route for populists launching this backlash is the ‘securitization’ of refugees as a threat requiring an urgent political response.  

Securitization refers to the transformation of an issue into a threat against the collective from beyond normal or ordinary parameters of governance (Elander et al., 2022). ‘Securitizing’ an issue allows policy makers and other actors to issue emergency responses or employ extreme framing outside of policy norms to deal with such ‘threats’ (Elander et al., 2022). In the context of refugees, securitization has the potential to transform discourse around asylum seekers from that of a humanitarian issue into a discourse about a security ‘threat’ which society needs urgent protection from.

One particularly relevant example of the securitization of refugees in recent years can be found in how Sweden handled the 2015 refugee crisis. Sweden has one of the most generous welfare states in Europe. When the crisis began in 2014, the Swedish people were told to ‘open [their] hearts’ to refugees fleeing Syria and other countries afflicted by war (Elander et al., 2022). Yet in 2015, only a year later, this invitation was revoked, and refugee access was restricted following widespread concern that the enormous burden of integrating refugees was overwhelming Sweden’s welfare system (Elander et al., 2022). 

The above-mentioned dramatic U-turn in government policy clearly demonstrated how the issue of refugees can be rapidly framed as a threat thus, securitized. This change in the attitude and policy about migration illustrates how a welfare state that was known to be an inclusive society can change by seeking ways to limit the migration. Eventually, we witnessed a great success of the populist anti-migration Sweden Democrats in the elections of September 2022 to be second biggest party in Swedish politics and to have great influence over the conservative coalition government, despite it did not take part in the coalition. 

The rise of the Sweden Democrats (SD) was at the heart of the changes in policies and electoral preferences. The opposition to the then government’s ‘open hearts’ policy increased the electoral support for the SD. The Sweden Democrats launched their populist appeal by framing the large inbound refugee population as a threat. This framing resulted in cultural and ethnic differences and the Islamic faith perceived in a negative light. Moreover, the concerns around terrorism and crime were consequently attached to the refugee population (Elander et al., 2022). 

Presenting refugees as a threat to the Swedish people, the Sweden Democrats have made a meteoric rise. Unfortunately, SD is not the only party using securitization to gain political power. All far-right populist parties garnered electoral success through securitizing refugees in recent years in other parts of Europe (Tomberg et al., 2020).

The case of Sweden lends weight to the findings of the literature and precisely demonstrates the argument this article is making. Without sufficient management of refugee populations across Europe, most of the burden will be placed on a small number of countries. The literature finds that far-right populists are able to predicate on the securitization of refugees in high welfare economies. Should welfare economies become overwhelmed by refugees displaced by the climate crisis, it is likely that the far-right could become even more potent in Europe. Refugees from the MENA region are at particular risk of being securitized by far-right populist forces by the ‘othering’ of their ethnic and religious characteristics (Telford, 2018). This is due to underlying assumptions about these groups relating to terrorism and cultural differences from European societies (Telford, 2018). 

Policy Recommendations: Prevention, Management, and Improvement

To prevent a populist backlash against refugees fleeing the effects of climate change, several policy changes must be made immediately. I divide these recommendations into prevention, management, and improvement. We need to prevent displacement in the first instance. Failing this, we need mechanisms of protection for the vulnerable populations fleeing from their countries through policies to effectively manage refugee lives. Reducing economic inequality in ‘host’ countries is crucial to prevent populist forces gaining footholds to secure electoral gains. In other words, supporting the climate and refugees acts as a stress test on democracy in Europe.

Preventing displacement of these populations from their homelands should be our starting point. The obvious motive for doing so is that nobody becomes a refugee by choice. All refugees would rather keep their homes, their lives, their communities, and their futures, before dispensing with them out of fear. Protecting people from displacement is not simply a political priority for European democracies, but an essential humanitarian objective which we must all prioritize. However, such a global preventive step requires collaboration of international community. 

We see examples of global governance on climate and refugee crisis; however, they are not sufficiently effective. In line with the recommendations of the UNHCR, overseas aid and climate change relief funds should be targeted at the most vulnerable countries (UNHCR, 2021). This includes meeting the commitment to provide $100 billion annually to support mitigation measures, with at least 50 percent funneled towards adaptation strategies (UNHCR, 2021). For example, building dams in Pakistan, which was recently afflicted by enormous flooding, or building irrigation infrastructure in Syria to adapt their agricultural communities to drought, could prevent massive displacements of people in the future.

However, notwithstanding the efforts we apply to this objective, the reality is that climate change is already displacing populations, and will continue to do so (UNHCR, 2021). To avoid dangerous unregulated refugee migration, an appropriate framework of management must be developed between states and at an EU level. In this new age of the climate crisis, the EU has an important and historical role in developing preventive measures and better policies in global context. 

We need to work on the international governance of refugees at state and interstate level as well as regarding theoretical and policy aspects, to meet the challenge of managing the potential increase in the future climate refugee flows. To achieve this objective, we need a transformative and radical overhaul of international law. 

To develop effective international regulations, we must firstly address the central legal problem facing climate refugees: that the current UN Refugee Convention does not provide legal rights for people displaced by climate change (Acras, 2012). Thus far, the issue of governing climate refugees has been addressed with the creation of a Taskforce for Displacement (TFC) alongside the Paris Climate Agreement 2015 (Vanhalla & Calliari, 2022). Yet, there is debate about its powers and jurisdiction in relation to other UN agencies, and whether it is endorsed by the EU (Vanhalla & Calliari, 2022). 

Another aspect of such global governance might include working on the distribution of refugee flows more equitably to ensure that European countries (such as Greece, Italy, Germany, and Sweden) are less likely to become overwhelmed. Equitable management of refugee distribution would seek to minimize any populist backlash by reducing the risk of national resources being over exhausted. As the literature shows, this imperative is even greater in high welfare economies where the securitization of refugees is more likely.

Finally, there is significant evidence that economic inequality caused by globalization provides fertile electoral ground for the populist far-right. They exploit ‘touchstone issues’ like asylum and migration to pray on anxieties felt by the ‘left behind’ and ‘losers’ of globalization (Kriesi et al., 2012; Ford & Goodwin, 2014; Vadlamannati et al., 2017). Therefore, a strong recommendation for policy makers seeking to insure their democracies against populist gain, would be to improvethe economic conditions of voters. Pursuing redistributive tax policies and shielding industries from the negative effects of globalization would reduce the economic grievances felt by voters. Doing so would decrease the susceptibility of disaffected voters to populist forces relying on the securitization of refugees to expand their reach (Tomberg et al., 2021).

If followed, these policy recommendations have potential to minimize the suffering of refugee populations and protect European democracies from a new frontier of populism by passing its stress test on global governance of climate crisis.

Conclusions

The purpose of this essay has not been to throw refugees under the proverbial bus to avoid a pile up of populism further down the road. Rather, I have tried to highlight the impending risk of a dual catastrophe between humanitarian disaster and a new frontier of populism in Europe.

I accept that my predictions rely on certain assumptions about how individuals, states, and the international community respond to climate change. However, my analysis finds a strong, evidence-based link between climate change, migration, and support for the populist far-right. I further argued that this trend will outgrow the populist surge of 2015 onwards, as climate related migration to Europe will only rise with global temperatures (Moran, 2022).

Action to address the combined challenges I have raised in this article should begin immediately, with a level of response akin to what we have witness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the international community is aware of this tide approaching, but remains nowhere near the vicissitude of reaction necessary to impede its hastening approach.


(*) Jake Moran is a graduate of International Relations from the University of Leeds, specializing in populist studies and the politics of national identity, particularly around Brexit.


References

— (2021). The networks and narratives of anti-refugee disinformation in Europe.  Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). https://www.isdglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/The-networks-and-narratives-of-anti-migrant-discourse-in-Europe.pdf

— (2021). Key Messages and Calls to Action. UNHCR. [Leaflet]. Glasgow.

Acras, R.L-A. (2012). “Climate Migrants: Legal Options.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 37, pp. 86-96

Betts, A.; Bloom, L.; Kaplan, J. D. & Omata, N. (2017). Refugee economies: Forced displacement and development. Oxford University Press.

Dinas, Elias; Matakos, Konstantinos; Xefteris, Dimitrios & Hangartner, Dominik. (2019). “Waking up the Golden Dawn: Does exposure to the refugee crisis increase support for extreme-right parties?” Political Analysis. 27(2), pp.244–254.

Elander Ingemar; Granberg, Mikael and Montinc, Stig. (2022). “Governance and planning in a ‘perfect storm’: Securitising climate change, migration and Covid-19 in Sweden.” Progress in Planning. 164, pp. 100-634.

Ford, R.A, & Goodwin, M.J.G. (2014). Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. London: Routledge.

Hangartner, Dominik; Dinas, Elias; Marbach, Moritz; Matakos, Konstantinos & Xefteris, Dimitrios. (2019). “Does exposure to the refugee crisis make natives more hostile?” American Political Science Review. 113(2), pp.442–455.

Kriesi, Hanspeter; Grande, Edgar; Lachat, Romain; Dolezal, Martin; Bornschier, Simon & Frey, Timotheos. (2012). “Globalization and its impact on national spaces of competition.” In: Kriesi, Hanspeter; Grande, Edgar; Lachat, Romain; Dolezal, Martin; Bornschier, Simon & Frey, Timotheos. ed(s). West European Politics in the Age of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-22). 

Moran, J.M. (2022). “Will the climate crisis lead to Europe’s next refugee crisis?” Voice of Youth. European Centre for Populist Studies. November 16, 2022. https://www.populismstudies.org/will-the-climate-crisis-lead-to-europes-next-refugee-crisis/ (accessed on November 28, 2022).

Telford, A.T. (2018). “A threat to climate-secure European futures? Exploring racial logics and climate-induced migration in US and EU climate security discourses.” Geoforum. 96, pp. 268-277.

Tomberg, Lukas; Smith Stegen, Karen & Vance, Colin. (2020). “’The mother of all political problems’? On asylum seekers and elections.” Ruhr Economic Papers, No. 879, ISBN 978-3-96973-018-8, RWI – Leibniz-Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung, Essen, https://doi.org/10.4419/96973018  

Torres, K.G. (2022). “The 2015 refugee inflow and concerns over immigration.” European Journal of Political Economy. October 26, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpoleco.2022.102323

Vadlamannati, K.C.V. (2020). “Welfare Chauvinism? Refugee Flows and Electoral Support for Populist‐Right Parties in Industrial Democracies.” Social Science Quarterly. 101(4), pp. 1600–26.

Vanhalla, L.V. & Calliari, E.C. (2022). “Governing people on the move in a warming world: Framing climate change migration and the UNFCCC Task Force on Displacement.” Global Environmental Change. 76, pp. 102-578.

Zimmermann, K.F. (2016). Refugee Flows, Labor Mobility and Europe. ASSA Meeting Chicago 2017: Princeton University.

A group of people carry a boat by hand for the disappearance of the port due to rising sea levels due to climate change in Kutubdia, Bangladesh in July 2009. Photo: Salva Campillo.

Will the climate crisis lead to Europe’s next refugee crisis? 

The discussion of climate refugees has long been a feature of environmental security studies and predictions about the effects of climate change, particularly on Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African populations. One of the basic assumptions about climate-induced migration is that the shortage of water and damage to crops because of rising temperatures and drought will result in conflict over these scarce resources.

By Jake Moran*

As COP27 enters its second week in Egypt, stark warnings from world leaders have put climate refugees at the top of the agenda. Last week, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley issued her prediction that the number of people displaced by climate change internationally will swell to 1 billion by 2050 (Mottley, in Greenfield, et al., 2022). The 2015 refugee crisis in Europe saw a humanitarian catastrophe unfold across its borders and on its seas, as multiple conflicts in the Middle East forced millions to flee their homes. 

In this article, I consider whether a similar chain of events could unravel from the destruction caused by climate change in the region and recommend greater international governance of refugee populations if this occurs. This enquiry forms the prelude to the subsequent article, in which I assess how climate-induced migration could produce a new frontier of far-right populism in Europe.

Climate Change, Conflict and Migration: A Tenuous Link

The discussion of climate refugees has long been a feature of environmental security studies and predictions about the effects of climate change, particularly on Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African populations (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffman, 2014a). One of the basic assumptions about climate-induced migration is that the shortage of water and damage to crops because of rising temperatures and drought will result in conflict over these scarce resources (also known as a Malthusian crisis) (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffmann, 2014b).

Reports by the Pentagon in 2003 and Christian Aid in 2007 cited the case of water scarcity caused by drought in Darfur, Sudan, which caused an outbreak of conflict in 2003. The reports further predict that such conflicts will continue as climate change pushes temperatures higher in arid regions (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffmann, 2014b). More recently, studies have pointed to the role of climate change in sparking the uprising in Syria in 2011, as prolonged droughts caused by rising temperatures devastated rural agriculture and forced populations to migrate into cities (Abel, et al., 2019; Gleick, 2014; Kelley et al., 2015). It was partly the lack of resources in urban areas to accommodate these rural populations that resulted in anti-government protests that sparked the war, and the case of Syria is often talked of as a blueprint which future climate-induced conflicts could spring from. 

However, these examples do not demonstrate a causal link between climate change and conflict (Abel, et al., 2019). Rather, climate change played a role in exacerbating existing socio-economic conditions which can lead to conflict (Hartmann, 2010). Readdressing the case study of Syria, while rising temperatures caused prolonged droughts, scarcity of water and agricultural destruction, climate change was not the only variable involved in this chain of events. The droughts took place against the backdrop of years of neglect by the Syrian government, which managed farming poorly and increased irrigation of agricultural lands, leaving these communities far more susceptible to droughts made worse by climate change (Abel, et al., 2019; Kelley, et al., 2015). 

Indeed, other authors highlight examples of resource scarcity caused by climate change that did not result in conflict but rather greater regional and community cooperation to manage these resources (Brown et al., 2007; Witsenburg and Roba, 2007 in Harmann, 2010). So, while climate change will result in greater resource scarcity for countries which are most vulnerable to its effects, it is the relationship these resources have with other socio-economic factors including government policies and demographic pressures (Abel, et al., 2019) which could provide the conditions necessary to induce conflict, as demonstrated in the case of the Syrian conflict.

With regards to the enquiry of this article, the literature establishes a pathway to understanding how climate change can spark conflict under certain pressures and that this will become more likely as the effects of climate change worsen. It is, thus, conceivable that in countries such as Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria, etc. that climate change will pose a greater threat and increase the likelihood of conflict and forced migration.

While I am cautious to avoid establishing a causal link between climate change, conflict and forced migration, especially given the criticisms made of the ‘neo-Malthusian’ narrative around ‘failed states’ being uniquely susceptible to climate-induced conflict (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffman, 2014b), the next section of this article will demonstrate how conflict in the regions most affected by climate change—Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries—are likely to produce a growing refugee population as the effects of climate change in this region worsen.

Destination: Europe. Will Climate-Afflicted Refugees Migrate to Europe?

11 years after the Syrian Civil War began (European Commission, 2021), refugees are entering Europe at an unprecedented rate. The growing number of small boat crossings to the UK from France, and the increased settling of Syrian as well as Afghan refugees, demonstrate that Europe remains a focal destination for refugees coming from the MENA region. So, if the next chapter of the climate crisis is indeed a story of conflict and migration in the most vulnerable regions of the world, will Europe become host to an even greater population of refugees? To answer this question, this section will examine how conflict and migration have already played out in Europe.

What became known as the Refugee Crisis in Europe, began in 2015, when around 868,000 refugees arrived in the year’s second half—almost six times the refugees who arrived in the first half of the year (UNHCR, 2018 in Torres, 2022). Indeed, conflicts in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere had already contributed to a rise in refugees from the MENA region, but the influx from the Syrian Civil War pushed that number to its peak, as Syrian refugees came to represent the largest group of asylees in Europe (Petillo, 2021). Most entered by either land or sea through EU border countries like Hungary, Greece, Italy and Macedonia. Many went onward to France, Sweden and Germany, the latter of which received more asylum claims in 2015 (BBC News, 2016).

Europe is a destination for refugees fleeing from MENA, not least because of its geographical proximity to the region and ease of access, but also because of its relative wealth, social services, stability and scale of economic opportunity. All these factors make Europe an appealing place to start a new life (Kings College London, 2015). Further still, language plays a crucial role in the decision of many refugees to migrate to Europe, especially in the context of former colonial countries, where speaking the language of their former colonists—mainly French or English—allows migrants to integrate and find employment quicker. Displaced people also often have family or relationships with other refugees that have already fled to Europe and seek to follow them for reasons of support or familiarity.

So, does the previous wave of refugees which escalated due to the Syrian war and Europe’s relative attractiveness, mean that this is bound to be repeated as the climate crisis increases conflict and migration in the MENA region? I argue that this is likely.

It is certainly true that not all migration attributed to climate change will be bound for Europe. Mobility within countries affected by climate change is already predicted to be the main route taken by populations displaced by climate change (USA for UNHCR, 2021). This means that the brunt of refugees may not enter Europe at all. Instead, they are more likely to move to towns and cities within their home countries where surviving economically without relying on climate-afflicted sectors like agriculture is possible (Chung, et al., 2022). Additionally, countries within the region received a greater number of refugees than Europe during the Syrian refugee crisis, in particular Turkey and Lebanon (Cockburn, 2015). Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the majority of refugees affected by climate change in this region will migrate to Europe.

However, the plight of refugees fleeing from conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, have all produced a sizeable upturn in the refugee population migrating to Europe. The story of Syria shows just how far refugees from the MENA region will travel in search of safety. Numbers of small boat crossings to the UK from France are at an all-time high with most refugees coming from Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria (Home Office, 2022). So, while refugees affected by climate change will migrate within their own countries and to neighbouring ones, the experience of the 2015 refugee crisis and persistence of refugees migrating from the MENA countries to Europe today, clearly indicates that any future conflict or devastating climate event will likely result in an upsurge of refugees migrating to Europe for safety. 

Since the entire MENA region will be affected by climate change—and many states (such as Yemen and Afghanistan) are already in a state of conflict, poverty or weak governance, impeding their ability to support vulnerable populations—this increase in refugee numbers will be substantial. 

Conclusion

This article described the tenuous link between climate change, conflict, and migration. While acknowledging that this is not a causal link, it remains to be seen if socio-economic pressures currently experienced by vulnerable countries and regions could be exacerbated by climate change, sparking conflict. As the Syrian experience demonstrates, such conflict is likely to result in a growth of the refugee population migrating to Europe, especially due to its multiple ‘pull’ factors for refugees originating in the climate-vulnerable MENA region.

Therefore, it will be incumbent on the international community to develop a rigid framework of governance to manage this new population of refugees displaced by climate-induced conflicts and share responsibility for the burden on each European country and region. Doing so will be crucial for humanitarian reasons, especially given the role that Europe has had historically in causing climate change and avoiding the chaos of 2015 which resulted in unnecessary suffering for refugees. I will discuss the establishment of this framework in future writing.

The findings of this article form the basis of my next piece: assessing whether the increase in refugees displaced by climate change will result in a surge of far-right populism. In this subsequent article, I will argue that failing to support regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change is likely to produce a new wave of populism in Europe.


(*) Jake Moran is a graduate of International Relations from the University of Leeds, specialising in populist studies and the politics of national identity, particularly around Brexit.


References

— (2016). “Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts.” BBC News. Marc 4, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911 (accessed on November 12, 2022). 

— (2018). “Refugee situations — Mediterranean situation: Operational portal.” UNHCR,http://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean#_ga=1 (accessed on November 15, 2022).

— (2021). “How climate change impacts refugees and displaced communities.” USA for UNHCR. September 21, 2021. https://www.unrefugees.org/news/how-climate-change-impacts-refugees-and-displaced-communities/ (accessed on November 8, 2022). 

— (2021). “Overall figures of immigrants in European society.” European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/promoting-our-european-way-life/statistics-migration-europe_en#RefugeesinEurope (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

— (2022). “Factsheet: Small boat crossings since July 2022.” Home Office. London: GOV.UK.https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/factsheet-small-boat-crossings-since-july-2022/factsheet-small-boat-crossings-since-july-2022 (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

Abel, G.A.; Brottrager, Michael; Cuaresma, Jesus Crespo; Muttarak, Raya. (2019). “Climate, conflict and forced migration.” Global Environmental Change. 54(1), pp. 239-249.

Brown, O; Hammill A. & McLeman, R. (2007). “Climate change as the new security threat: implications for Africa.” International Affairs. 83(6), pp.1141–1154.

Chung, J, et al. (2022). “Climate mobilities into cities: A systematic review of literature from 2011 to 2022.” Urban Climate. 45(1), pp. 101-252.

Cockburn, P. (2015). “Refugee crisis: Where are all these people coming from and why?” The Independent. September 7, 2015. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/refugee-crisis-where-are-all-these-people-coming-from-and-why-10490425.html (accessed on November 12, 2022). 

Gleick, P.H. (2014). “Water, drought, climate change, and conflict in Syria.” Weather Climate Society. 6(3), pp. 331-340.

Hartmann, B.H. (2010). “Rethinking climate refugees and climate conflict: Rhetoric, reality and the politics of policy discourse.” Journal of International Development. 22(2), pp. 233-246.

Kelley, S.K, et al. (2015). “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought.” PNAS. 112(11), pp. 3241-3246.

King S College London. (2015). “Why do refugees and migrants come to Europe, and what must be done to ease the crisis?” The Telegraph. September 4, 2015. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/11845205/Why-do-refugees-and-migrants-come-to-Europe-and-what-must-be-done-to-ease-the-crisis.html (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

Mottley, M. (2022). “Barbados PM launches blistering attack on rich nations at Cop27 climate talks.” The Guardian. November 7, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/07/barbados-pm-mia-mottley-launches-blistering-attack-on-rich-nations-at-cop27-climate-talks (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Petillo, K. (2021). “Out of place: Why Europe needs a new refugee policy.” ECFR. February 4, 2021. https://ecfr.eu/article/out-of-place-why-europe-needs-a-new-refugee-policy/ (accessed on November 11, 2022).

Selby, J.S. & Hoffmann, C.H. (2014a). “Beyond scarcity: Rethinking water, climate change and conflict in the Sudans.” Global Environmental Change. 29(1), pp. 360-370.

Selby, J.S. & Hoffmann, C.H. (2014b). “Rethinking Climate Change, Conflict and Security.” Geopolitics. 19(1), pp. 747-756.

Torres, K.G. (2022). “The 2015 refugee inflow and concerns over immigration.” European Journal of Political Economy.October 26, 2022. pp.102-323. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpoleco.2022.102323

Witsenburg K. & Roba, AW. (2007). “The use and management of water sources in Kenya’s drylands: Is there a link between scarcity and violent conflicts?” In: Conflicts over Land and Water in Africa. Derman, B.; Odgaard, R, & Sjaastad, E. (eds). James Currey: Oxford.

Illegal deforestation to make land for agriculture and cattle pasture in Para, Brazil.

A pivotal election: Reversing Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental legacy?

The policies of far-right populist leader Jair Bolsonaro, who claimed that environmental protection “suffocates” the economy, have decimated large swaths of rainforest that serves as a key carbon sink and a haven for biodiversity. On Sunday, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won enough votes to defeat Bolsonaro. “Let’s fight for zero deforestation,” Lula said in a victory speech. He pledged to unite the country and restore the regulatory agencies needed to protect the rainforest and Indigenous lands. However, even if these efforts are successful, the Amazon rainforest’s return to health will take far longer. 

By Heidi Hart

Photographer Sebastião Salgado, known for his sweeping black-and-white images of Earth’s plains, mountains, ice sheets, and sites of environmental destruction, recently spoke out about the presidential election in Brazil. Citing far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s “brutal” policies against the environment (and Brazil’s own people, with staggering numbers of Covid-19 deaths), Salgado noted that “[t]he government has massively destroyed the Amazon rainforest, without respecting indigenous communities and other minorities” (The Limited Times, 2022). Salgado himself, together with his wife Lelia, have been actively reforesting degraded land in Aimores in Brazil for the past 20 years. Restoring 2.7 million trees and 293 varieties of plant species in 555 acres as part of the Instituto Terra project, the couple and over 70 employees offer hope in a country where Bolsonaro’s policies have decimated large swaths of rainforest that serves as a key carbon sink and a haven for biodiversity. 

That hope became a larger reality on Sunday, as former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won enough votes to defeat Bolsonaro, who (as of this writing) has not yet conceded. “Let’s fight for zero deforestation,” Lula said in a victory speech. “Brazil is ready to resume its leading role in the fight against the climate crisis, protecting all our biomes, especially the Amazon forest,” (Lula, Twitter, 2022).

Brazil’s elected President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and former President Bolsonaro participated in the debate over Brazil in São Paulo on October 16, 2022. Photo: Isaac Fontana.

In the close runoff election, police blockades in Lula-supporting northeastern parts of Brazil led to fears of voter suppression, but a tense Sunday yielded to jubilant celebrations in the streets. Despite a prison term for corruption (later annulled), Lula will return to office and has pledged to unite the country and restore the regulatory agencies needed to protect the rainforest and Indigenous lands. During his previous terms, Amazon deforestation fell by 43.7 percent (2003-2006) and 52.3 percent (2006-2010), while under Bolsonaro, the rate of deforestation increased by 72 percent in favor of “Amazon development serving as a key policy plank” (Freedman, 2022). 

Deforestation in Brazil is nothing new. In the western area of Rondônia, for example, the rate of clearing has been especially rapid: “4,200 square kilometers cleared by 1978; 30,000 by 1988; and 53,300 by 1998” and by 2003, “an estimated 67,764 square kilometers of rainforest—an area larger than the state of West Virginia” (NASA Earth Observatory, 2009). Sounding alarms about the large-scale efforts to push back the rainforest using legal and illegal roads, encroachment by small farmers, and eventually large cattle operations, Brazil’s National Policy on Climate Change founded in 2009 was an attempt to place checks on this rampant destruction. But policy and practice diverged: deforestation rose 215 percent in 2014-15, while official government reports at the Paris climate talks in 2015 placed that rate at only 16 percent (Redy, 2016: 4).  

Enter Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right populist leader who has claimed that environmental protection “suffocates” the economy. Even before he took office in January 2019, Brazil reneged on its offer to host the 25th United Nations Conference of the Parties on climate change in November 2018 (Viscidi and Graham, 2019). By 2020, resulting from changes to the Brazilian Forest Code in 2012 and further loosening of environmental enforcement after Bolsonaro’s rise to power, deforestation in the Amazon rose to the highest rate in a decade, to 182 percent above the climate target established by the National Policy on Climate Change in 2009 (Anderson, 2021: 144). 

In the first half of 2022, the rate of “slashing and burning to raze the jungle” rose 11 percent beyond the past year’s record to a record high of “4,000 square kilometers (1,540 square miles)” (Freitas, 2022). This rate of destruction not only depletes biodiversity and carbon-absorbing tree cover but also raises the risk of wildfires during the dry season, with respiratory threats as a result, and increases the spread of disease due to habitat loss, releasing of pathogens, and favorable conditions for mosquitoes (Kaminsky, 2020). 

In a still fiercely divided country, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has vowed to reverse the trend of deforestation, massive fires, and attacks on Indigenous communities, but during the election season he performed poorly (not surprisingly) in logging and palm oil regions such as Roraima (Cowie, Costa, and Prado, 2022). Brazil still faces economic crisis and related social stresses after its mismanaged Covid response, and as Bolsonaro’s party still rules Congress, its support of the cattle industry will make policy reversals difficult (Jones, 2022). How effective Lula’s presidency will be in restoring what has become, in some areas, a carbon source rather than a sink – a tipping point that has ripple effects in accelerating global heating (Knutson, 2021) – is still an open question. 

As climate policy advocate Christiana Figueres has noted, “We have brought our natural world to several perilous brinks from which it may not be able to recover on its own. It is like an elastic band that stretches and contracts normally but if stretched too far will snap” (Figueres and Rivett-Carnac, 2020: 72-73).

At this point in the inexorable global heating trajectory, adaptation, and mitigation, at least, are still possible. In his 2017 handbook for ameliorative climate strategies, Drawdown (referring to bringing carbon back to Earth, with more optimism for “reversing” global warming than sounds workable today), Paul Hawken describes several ways humans can help to restore some level of tropical forest health. These include “mosaic” restoration, which combines forest and agricultural land; releasing land from “non-forest use” to “let a young forest rise up on its own, following a course of natural regeneration and succession,” with protective strategies to mitigate fire risk; and the more aggressive approach of removing invasive plant species and planting native seedlings in their place (Hawken, 2017: 115-116). 

Though governmental policy is crucial to these practices, especially in fraught countries like Brazil, where regulatory agencies have been weakened under Bolsonaro, Hawken notes that “[r]estoration cannot be done in the halls of power alone” and requires local, collaborative efforts (116). Reforestation projects such as Sebastião Salgado’s will continue to make a difference. At the same time, the next several years will be a crucial period for Lula’s administration to listen to Indigenous communities while enforcing environmental policies to block illegal logging and to regulate commercial farming and mining. Even if these efforts are successful, the Amazon rainforest’s return to health will take far longer. 


References

Anderson, Liana. (2021). “The Brazilian Amazon deforestation rate in 2020 is the greatest of the decade.” In: Nature Ecology & Evolution, Vol. 5, February 2021, 144-145.

Figueres, Christiana and Rivett-Carnac, Tom. (2020). The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis. New York: Vintage. 

Hawken, Paul. (Ed.) (2017). Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York: Penguin. 

Kaminsky, Valéria; Ellwanger, Joel Henrique; Kulmann-Leal, Bruna and Valverde, Jacqueline. (2020). “Beyond diversity loss and climate change: Impacts of Amazon deforestation on infectious diseases and public health.” In: Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, 92 (1), DOI 10.1590/0001-3765202020191375.

Remains of one of world's largest Joshua Tree forests after the Dome Fire in California's Mojave National Preserve. Blackened stumps and dead trees.

Unlearning the Anthropocene: Readings for Human Humility

Seeking the ways of keeping the world less cruel, if no less dangerous, in the critical decades ahead, Dr. Heidi Hart’s commentary considers books by Annie Dillard, Joanna Zylinska, Timothy Beal, and others in light of the climate crisis and populist fears in a changing world. 

By Heidi Hart

In the late 1990s, before terms like “Anthropocene” and “climate crisis” had become part of everyday vocabulary, I heard American writer Annie Dillard read from her book For the Time Being in manuscript form. This generously ecumenical cycle of prose fragments startled me: here was a writer describing humanity from the perspective of geologic time. The book had equally startling humor, too, even when facing grim facts: “Many of us will be among the dead then. Will we know or care, we who once owned the still bones under the quick ones, we who spin inside the planet with our heels in the air? The living might well seem foolishly self-important to us, and overexcited” (Dillard, 2000: 49). From the excavation of clay soldiers in China to a neonatal hospital ward, from the Qur’an to Kabbalah, Dillard’s incisive vision refuses to reduce human specificity and mystery, while at the same time acknowledging that all of this, too, will pass. 

I return to this book in the burning summer of 2022, having fled the megadrought in the American West and watching in pain as war, water and food scarcity, fires, and floods threaten humans and many other species, and as populist fears continue to drive exclusionary thinking as resources contract across the world. Dillard’s take on humans’ brief, creative, and destructive reign on Earth comes as a welcome contrast to much Anthropocene writing of the past ten years, with all its wrangling over terminology and worry over how we humans perceive ourselves. 

Two more recent books respond to the Anthropocene in bracing and generous terms that remind me of Dillard’s, but from very different perspectives. Joanna Zylinska, a photomedia artist and professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, published a slim but powerful book in 2018 titled The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse. Noting existing theoretical variations on the word “Anthropocene” (“the Anthrobscene, the Capitolocene, the Chthulucene, the Eurocene, the Plantationocene, and the Technocene,” to name a few [Zylinska, 2018: 5]), this author tests Kate Raworth’s term “Manthropocene” to signal the problem of mostly male climate science panels, Silicon Valley bro-culture neoliberalism, the cult of scientific genius, and Elon Musk-style “planetary messianism” (Zylinska, 2018: 15). 

The End of Man is not the kind of “man-bashing” rant stereotyped in far-right circles but rather an effort to understand how the Anthropocene idea became entangled in gender and race norms that exclude “others.” This occurs either by focusing so much on humankind that other species become tokenized, fetishized, or simply sidelined, or by taking White male cultural norms for granted to the point that even educated thinkers can block movement out of the status quo, if not directly feeding populist fears of the White establishment being “replaced.” Zylinska draws on a key concept developed by science fiction writer Stanisław Lem (perhaps best known for inspiring – and resenting – Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris): the idea of “encystment,” in which “a civilization …  threatened with the loss of control over its own homeostasis … will construct ‘a world within a world,’ an autonomous reality” (Zylinska, 2018: 31, citing her translation of Lem, 2013) that sounds much like what current political commentators would call a “bubble.”

Progressive and regressive “cysts” are not mutually exclusive, however. Just as concerns about organic food and wellness culture can spill from left to right on the political spectrum, sometimes veering into conspiracy or “conspirituality”thinking, the wish to conserve a healthy planet can also feed xenophobic populism and even ecofascism. Zylinska puts it this way: “[t]he progressive politics of degrowth on the planetary scale in the face of the Anthropocene finds, perhaps too easily, its ugly twin in the localized discourses of information and matter overload: cyberterrorism, multiculturalism, immigration flood, the refugee crisis” (Zylinska, 2018: 32). 

As an antidote to Anthropocen/tric end-times thinking that panics over White patriarchal structures at risk of collapse, Zylinska proposes what she calls a “counterapocalypse,” an alternative vision that includes both human-nonhuman “relationality” (a common thread in much feminist environmental writing) and “precarity” (drawing on Anna Tsing’s example of mushroom pickers and others who live without “the promise of stability” [Tsing, 2015: 2] outside privileged capitalist structures). This is not a romantic or naïve approach to “Nature” but an ethical re-orientation that accepts that humans are already “invaded” by the world (Zylinska, 2018: 56).

As Tsing notes, “Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves” (Tsing, 2015: 20). How different from the fear-based populist stance of barricading or “encycsting” oneself, as war and climate disaster send refugees fleeing for survival, and as other species need habitat protection and restoration as well. Tsing’s idea of the “encounter” recalls Annie Dillard’s recurring sections with that title in For the Time Being, in which she traces, without sentimentality, a shared cigarette and language misunderstanding with a Palestinian van driver, or a moment in the desert when “two humans stand side by side to look at a crab … Who are we people?” (Dillard, 2000: 112). Openness to the “other” is key to adapting to a burning world, where collective solutions must come before rigid or fear-based individualism.    

But what if “we people” don’t actually survive the next century or centuries on a damaged planet trying to return to its own homeostasis?  What if we are one more casualty of biodiversity loss? The Malthusian temptations of a “world without us” may seem grimly appealing (and they do drive some strains of ecofascism), but ultimately humans may not have a choice. The world may well go on, long after we are gone. How to imagine such a future without falling prey to populist fantasies of “other” people going first, or to simple depression that leaves no energy for creativity and care?  

Pointing out that many ages have suffered from apocalyptic anxieties, Annie Dillard finds that fear of death is difficult enough for the human individual, not to mention the whole species. She asks, “Are we ready to think of all humanity as a living tree, carrying on splendidly without us?” (Dillard, 2000: 119). Extending this question to the planet at large, in a posthumanist sense, I keep returning to the word “splendidly.” The image of a thriving ecosystem that may or may not include humans as we currently know ourselves is unsettling but relieving, too. If the image loses its ecofascist utopian edge (of any remaining people looking White and heterosexual in a “pristine” landscape), it reminds me that every day we have on Earth is still worth savoring.

A newly released book takes this view, not from a feminist but from a critical religious-studies perspective. Timothy Beal’s When Time Is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene argues for appreciation and “deep adaptation” over depression or overly optimistic, profit-driven climate fixes. The book is grounded in biblical thought but seeks to outgrow the “denial of death” that is also “denial of the body” (Beal, 2022: 68) and the exclusions that come from Christian populism (Beal, 2022: 37). Noting that the word “apocalypse” implies “unmasking” (102), Beal calls for honest grief that yields both anger (at White supremacist systems that harm both people and planet) and hope. 

Learning from Indigenous and other traditions that resist what Beal calls “the dominionist strain” of the Anthropocene (Beal, 2022: 122) also helps to encourage respectful relationship with the Earth and the vulnerability to recognize our own small place in it. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass, which bridges Indigenous knowledge and academic botany, has become a touchstone for ecologists and general readers alike, as a guide to seeing other species as subjectivities in their own right. “In the indigenous view,” Kimmerer writes, “humans are viewed as somewhat lesser beings in the democracy of species. We are referred to as the younger brothers of Creation, so like younger brothers we must learn from our elders” (Kimmerer, 2013: 346). Throughout When Time Is Short, Timothy Beal uses the word “creatureliness” to describe this re-orientation. Like all creatures, we humans exist on Earth for a short time, enmeshed with others and more or less vulnerable to forces beyond our control. Knowing the limits of a lifetime makes that life more precious, as conventional wisdom goes, and there is truth in this. 

Annie Dillard meditates repeatedly on sand, not only in the cinematic desert but also in the “micrometeorite dust” that “can bury you, if you wait,” in the detritus of locust swarms and spider legs, in the rising of the New York City streets (Dillard, 2000: 122-123). If she were writing about rising seas now, about deserts growing where seas used to be, about the floods that carry off small children in Kentucky and the wildfires burning from Yosemite to southern France, she would be as sad and anxious as most other humans. But I sense that she would also note the balance of the fight for what remains and the strange, generous acceptance that comes sometimes at the deathbed. She would note the beauty of a chance encounter with another creature in the woods or on the road. This is how to keep the world less cruel, if no less dangerous, in the critical decades ahead. 


References

Beal, Timothy. (2022). When Time Is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene. Boston: Beacon Press.

Dillard, Annie. (2000). For the Time Being. New York: Vintage. 

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.

Lem, Stanisław. (2013). Technologiae. Translated by Joanna Zylinska. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Zylinska, Joanna. (2018). The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Demonstrators protest against corona regulations in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany on August 1, 2020. Photo: Berit Kessler.

Hearts, Trees, Hymns, and Hate: Populist Mixed Messages

The coincidence of far-right and anti-vaccine/mask protest cultures has been common in Germany, often erupting in racist rhetoric, too. In Berlin, onlookers approached from Alexanderplatz, some obviously confused by the collision of hearts, hugs, and an amplified voice that quickly reached a screaming pitch. Anyone familiar with the sound of Hitler’s speeches would have shuddered, as I did. 

By Heidi Hart

On a gusty afternoon in Berlin, police vans lined up near the Neptune Fountain. A small crowd gathered, enthusiastically hugging without masks. Some came in costume, as a prince in a fuzzy cape covered with hearts or as an inflatable Super Mario. Others carried Berlin Haupstadt flags, a green-and-white flag proclaiming parental care, or flags emblazoned with the Coronavirus emblem, a heart at its center, and the words “FREEDOM PARADE.” Everyone in the group seemed to know each other, except for a man in a facemask wearing a placard saying “#vollständig immunisiert” (“completely immunized”) who moved silently through the group of performative huggers. 

Demonstrations against Covid-19 measures have continued throughout Germany since 2020, with several hundred protesters and counter-protesters in cities from Düsseldorf to Freiburg the first weekend in February (Die Zeit, 2022). In Berlin, the gathering of hearts and hugs began with a group on the fountain steps singing “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that originated in William Wilberforce’s moment of conscience against the slave trade in the late 18th century (Apted and Metaxas, 2007). The hymn has been taken up by congregations and musicians all over the political spectrum, but it sounded especially at odds with what became, more and more clearly, a forum for populist rage. 

Protest against Covid-19 measures in Berlin. Photo: Heidi Hart.

The protest’s first speaker thanked the police and warned that violence is never a solution, as some Berlin Covid-measures protests have indeed turned violent this past year (Associated Press, 2021). Still using a polite voice, the speaker made a point of stating that social distance requirements were “only because of the police” and that facemasks “do not actually work.” The second speaker took a completely different tone, her voice growing hoarse as she shouted into the microphone that “this is a war like any other war,” that “these dangerous Corona-measures are harming society,” and that “they are no different from Stalinism or fascism” (translations mine). 

On the fringes of the main crowd with their peace-and-love imagery belying their angry agenda, black-clad nationalists with German flags carried their own implicit message. The coincidence of far-right and anti-vaccine/mask protest cultures has been common in Germany, often erupting in racist rhetoric, too (Källgren, 2022). In Berlin, onlookers approached from Alexanderplatz, some obviously confused by the collision of hearts, hugs, and an amplified voice that quickly reached a screaming pitch. Anyone familiar with the sound of Hitler’s speeches would have shuddered, as I did. 

The conflation of “Stalinism” and “fascism” with reference to Covid measures is common in the US, too, and clearly shows a lack of understanding about political terms, not to mention history. Hannah Arendt found links between the two forms of political oppression in her 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism, noting the difference between the terror-and-control mindset of totalitarianism and autocratic regimes that pursue political power without employing “crackpots and fools” (Arendt, 1951: 416). But Communist thinking and fascist thinking are still profoundly different, with the latter raising a far uglier head in the current global turn toward populist nationalism. Complicating this picture even further is the co-opting of historical imagery out of context, particularly in the US.

Recently in the state of Utah, in a county known for its Latter-day Saint conservatism, a local government meeting shocked a local journalist and rippled into social media by displaying a Pine Tree flag. This flag, with origins as protest against the British monarchy during the American Revolution, included a phrase by John Locke, “An Appeal to Heaven.” The idea is that, as Locke applied biblical conflicts to his own time, the highest authority is not an earthly king but “the supreme judge of all men” (Locke, 1690, Chapter 3 Sect. 20-21). This motto and the pine tree image have become part of the iconography of Christian nationalism in the US, appearing at the January 6 insurrection and even flying in the Arizona state house as of January 2022.

Like the appropriation of “Amazing Grace” in the Berlin protest, the use of Revolutionary War imagery in the context of anti-vaccine, anti-mask local government meetings is not neutral. Ideology is “sticky” and attaches easily to images and songs (Kramer, 2012) that have their own sensory power, dragging cultural associations along with them. Just as Hitler’s propaganda machine took up Beethoven’s music as a nationalist soundtrack, ignoring the composer’s own commitment to French Revolutionary values and later repudiation of Napoleon (Lee, 2018), nationalist groups today co-opt cultural materials out of context and attach their own meanings to them. 

Material elements of religion have a particular charisma that can be especially tempting to plug into political rhetoric, on the spectrum from pagan nativism to Christian hymns and salvation stories used by populist groups (see Zúquete, 2017). The Pine Tree flag calls up associations not only with a far-right version of Revolutionary War history but also, for Christians generally, images of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, and for Latter-day Saints, the Tree of Life seen in a dream in their Book of Mormon scriptures. Cultivating these associations makes far-right adherents feel at home in their imagery, however far it has traveled from its sources. 

Adapting and re-contextualizing familiar material is of course how human culture works, from novel-to-film treatments to mythology re-imagined in video games. The field of adaptation studies is well established, examining processes of media transformation as creative in themselves and even dialogic between source and adapted material (Bruhn, 2013). Ethical concerns arise, though, when a song, motto, or image is appropriated with cultural disrespect or in the service of harmful political movements (music in advertising is of course another, but related, subject). A number of well-known musicians have sued or censured Donald Trump for using their songs in his rallies, for example (Solender, 2020). 

But sometimes the mixing of cultural media, even when messy, can lead to critical thinking and care rather than lockstep ideology. In contrast to the mixed messaging at the Berlin anti-Covid-measures protest, a recent performance at the city’s Komische Oper combined iconic German and Turkish poetry and song with the intention to explore questions of migration and vulnerability, not to push a particular agenda. This production, Üçüncü mevki – Im Wagen dritter Klasse(“In the Third-class Car”), set poetry by Nazim Hikmet and Turkish popular songs in motion with texts by Bertolt Brecht and other 20th-century German poets. A Turkish-German dialogue in a train car, with the actors sometimes speaking both languages simultaneously, formed a backdrop to the musicians and singers all wearing white onstage. 

The “we are all migrants” idea, and the blending of Brecht’s words about wartime mourning with the voicing of hüzün, a particular sensation of sadness in Turkish culture, did not quite work, as they come from different backgrounds. Still, that uneasy fit made for an important conversation with my Brecht-scholar friend who attended the performance with me. He reacted with his own sense of melancholy about the loss of the German Hausmusik tradition, in which friends and neighbors gather and sing along with music they all know. We watched as many in the audience rose, sang, and danced with the Turkish songs performed onstage, celebrating café favorites like Tarkan’s “Şımarık” (“Kiss Kiss”). 

In a time when Turkey, too, is threatened with ongoing anti-democratic populism, the singing of popular (and of course there is a difference) songs in Berlin was cathartic in the best sense, especially in an opera house usually offering Eurocentric fare. The mood onstage and in the audience was genuinely joyful, not exaggerated like the hugging at the Neptune Fountain protest. No one shouted into a microphone. The mood was one of welcome, not fear, even though we all wore masks.  

References

Arendt, Hannah. (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Harvest Books.

Bruhn, Jørgen. (2013). “Dialogising Adaptation Studies: From One-way Transport to Dialogic Two-way Process.” In Bruhn et al., Eds., Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions.  Bloomsbury Academic, 69-88.

Locke, John. (1690). Second Treatise of Government. Digitized Version, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7370/7370-h/7370-h.htm.

Kramer, Lawrence. (2012). Keynote address, Ideology in Words and Music conference, Word and Music Association Forum, Stockholm University. 

Zúquete, Jose Pedro. (2017). “Populism and Religion.” In: Kaltwasser et al., Eds., The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Oxford University Press.  DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.013.22.

Photo: From Netflix.

Climate Satire and Anti-science Populism in Don’t Look Up

This commentary reviews the 2021 film Don’t Look Up, an allegory about climate-crisis apathy in an imagined populist future in the USA. 

By Heidi Hart

Allegory is as tricky an art form as satire. The 2021 film Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay, attempts both in its treatment of impending planetary crisis. McKay’s production company’s name, Hyperobject Industries, apparently refers to eco-philosopher Timothy Morton’s term from his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, which posits that global warming is a force too immense and strange to be easily graspable. Since 2013, that “hyperobject” has come all too close to home for humans faced with record heat waves, wildfires, monster storms, and floods, even in the most unlikely places. If the recent COP26 Summit on climate change is any indication of the future, governmental inertia will continue to prevent the broad, deep changes necessary to unhook wealthy nations from dependence on fossil fuels. The planet may well be as doomed as Don’t Look Up declares it is, though from a different (hence the allegory) threat. 

Photo: From Netflix

The film’s chirpy aesthetic (retro 1960s titles, upbeat dance music, onscreen memes) belies its serious theme, announcing satire as if this were not obvious enough. In the not-too-distant future, a couple of scrappy astronomers from an average state university (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet on a collision course with Earth. When they finally get the attention of the Trump-blonde-style US President (Meryl Streep), she and her wisecracking Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill) dismiss the crisis until a steamier political scandal calls for a distraction. The astronomers appear on a shallow Fox News-ish talk show, and, predictably, DiCaprio’s character is rewarded with “sexy” status while Lawrence’s explosion of grief and anger leads to a cascade of “crazy lady” memes. President Orlean stages an aircraft-carrier press announcement, à la George W. Bush, of a Pentagon-backed plan to nuke the comet before it strikes. 

When that mission fails, enter a slightly spacey Steve Jobs type (Mark Rylance), who – without bothering with the inconveniences of peer review – breezes in and excites Madame President with a whole new plan to mine the comet for valuable resources before exploding it. Randall Mindy, DiCaprio’s character, wins brief fame and a fling with “Fox blonde” talk-show host Brie Eventee (Cate Blanchett). Meanwhile, the disenchanted Ph.D. candidate who discovered the comet in the first place, Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), drifts into the baggy counterculture world of Yule (Dune star Timothée Chalamet). As the comet speeds ever closer, threatening tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, an already split USA breaks into irreparable halves, with “Just look up!” memes battling “Don’t look up!” rallies featuring the President in a MAGA-style baseball cap. Distrust of science and faith in the quick tech fix meet in a populist frenzy. When the mine-and-explode plan fails, too, last concerts- and dinners-on-Earth ensue. I won’t give the ending all away, but it does send bits of phones and photographs drifting into the cosmos. The film’s post-credit epilogue is a darkly comic take on billionaire space tourism (enough said here as well).

Maybe it’s just my age as a too-earnest Gen Xer, but the film’s meme-based satire and too-obvious allegory trivialize a genuinely terrifying future, instead of destabilizing comfortable assumptions, as satire does when it works well. As an example, Daniel Dencik’s 2013 Expedition to the End of the World works as almost-mockumentary about a group of researchers and artists sailing to Greenland to witness its melting ice. Like Don’t Look Up, it features soundtrack music suddenly interrupted, but in an oddly uncomfortable, not gimmicky, way. Random conversations about spiders and microbes unsettle black-and-white ideas of what humans can know about threatened ecosystems. Genre ambiguity (is this satire or not?) fosters curious criticality in viewers, instead of cementing already entrenched political differences, as Don’t Look Up does in its heavy-handed treatment of American populism. 

Another example of humor used effectively in environmental film is Benedict Erlingsson’s Woman at War (also 2013). This film features an Icelandic eco-warrior who also happens to be a choir director, leading her community in songs about national pride and thus complicating the environmental/populist binary. A band of musicians (who may or may not be visible to her) pops up on hillsides, in her flat, and at the airport, echoing Icelandic outdoor music practices and adding an element of estrangement as well. The protagonist’s difficult decision to adopt an orphan in Ukraine complicates the drama further, showing the challenges activists face in caring for the planet and its human occupants. Ultimately the film’s surprise, humor, and ambiguity foster energy rather than despair in the face of climate crisis. 

Don’t Look Up is one of many films imagining an impact event on Earth. Most do not relate to climate change directly but hold implications for the current planetary crisis. Bille August’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) imagines deadly microbes deposited by a meteorite in Greenland’s ice, which now, in real life, is thawing at a rapid pace and releasing long-dormant and potentially dangerous bacterial archives. Lars von Trier’s rhapsodic disaster film Melancholia (2011) juxtaposes a rogue planet’s impending impact with the beauty, cruelty, and banality of life on a wealthy family’s estate; the film’s feverish slowness, set to orchestral music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, foreshadows the strangeness of time’s passing in our current age of pandemic and collapsing ecosystems. More recently, Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) alters Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same title by framing interspecies genetic mutations in the eerie “Area X” as the result of a meteor strike. Though VanderMeer did not set out to write a climate-crisis novel (Woodbury, 2016), his “new weird” Southern Reach trilogy reflects dark ecology anxieties and aesthetics. None of these films is satirical, and none takes on the political divides that Don’t Look Up sends up, but all three show how planetary dread is easier to narrate and digest if it concerns a crisis humans have not caused. 

This distinction brings us, naturally, to the film often mentioned as a forerunner of Don’t Look Up: Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1964 Dr. Strangelove. That film, with its subtitle How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is also satire about impending planetary doom, but it works in a far more terrifying way than Don’t Look Up, for three important reasons. First, it brings seriousness and humor into such close contact (lines like “You can’t fight in here! It’s the War Room!” amid heavy discussions of US military policy against pre-emptive strikes) that viewers need to bring their own critical curiosity to the giant table in the Pentagon. Second, war film conventions in the B-52 scenes (profile close-ups, relentless repetition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) make the pilot’s gung-ho cowboy bravado all the more painful to watch today, as it comes close to truth in this age of endless wars and the populist-militarist January 6 insurrection. Third, Dr. Strangelove does not imagine a random object from space colliding with Earth; human arrogance is what unleashes the ultimate nuclear disaster, via one rogue pre-emptive strike that automatically triggers the Soviet “Doomsday Machine.” 

Photo: From Netflix.

 

Watching Dr. Strangelove again for the first time in ten years, now that human-caused climate crisis is pressingly upon us, I found the ending more moving than I’d remembered. The soundtrack’s counterpoint in the final scene (mushroom cloud after blinding mushroom cloud, to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again” in Vera Lynn’s warm voice) served its painfully satirical purpose, unlike the glib ending of Don’t Look Up, with Earthly debris scattering in space to the tune of Bon Iver’s breathy pop song “Second Nature.” In both cases, music is meant to work against the images onscreen, as has become a film convention since its first uses as a distancing technique (Adorno and Eisler, 1947), but to very different effects. I would rather feel the shock and sadness of humans’ destruction of our home than be mildly entertained by an imaginary comet and political caricatures. Too much is at stake in this age of ideological and environmental menace for satire to fall short. 

References

Adorno, Theodor and Hanns Eisler. (1947/2010). Composing for the Films. Continuum.

Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press.

 

EatingWorld

Eating and Environmental Consciousness

The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject.” Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse. 

By Heidi Hart

“Western consumers should put aside their reservations about eating crickets,” states a recent Economist commentary, “and give plant-based burgers, 3d-printed steaks and vat-grown artificial tuna a try” (Pascual, 2021). What is happening here? Consumers in privileged countries have taken dietary luxuries for granted for several generations, eating beef and buying wild-caught fish at the supermarket, choosing to go gluten-free or vegan for health or political reasons, abiding by religious food traditions and taboos. Now, simply finding what you want to eat is not so simple after all.  

Covid-era food shortages, with familiar items missing from grocery shelves in wealthy countries, are only part of the story. Long-term droughts, locust invasions, and lingering shortages from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in west African countries complicate the picture (Burgeon, 2021). The current megadrought in the western US, one painful side-effect of global warming, is straining farms and ranches beyond their already environmentally costly water use for irrigation (Nelson, 2021).

Climate leaders Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac (2020: 16) have envisioned two scenarios for Earth’s livability in 2050, depending on the level of global warming in the next several decades. In once scenario, air pollution is endemic, droughts and famines commonplace, and food production unpredictable. “Disasters and wars rage, choking off trade routes,” they predict in this scenario. “In some places, the inability to gain access to such basics as wheat, rice, or sorghum has led to economic collapse and civil unrest more quickly than even the most pessimistic experts had previously imagined.” 

In the alternate scenario, which seems painfully far-fetched after the recent disappointments of COP26, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac (2020: 26) imagine emissions halved every decade until 2050, keeping global warming at the 1.5-degree threshold. In this case, industrial agriculture has given way to regenerative farming, which involves “mixing perennial crops, sustainable grazing, and improved crop-rotation on large-scale farms.” Food shopping has shifted from large commercial centers to small, local markets and co-op purchasing groups. Meat and dairy products have all but disappeared. “We’ve come to realize,” the authors continue, “by growing our own, that food is expensive because it should be expensive – it takes valuable resources to grow it, after all. Water. Soil. Sweat. Time.”

However idealistic this scenario sounds, it does reflect present concerns about food deserts, in which poorer city dwellers do not have access to fresh produce and other healthful options, and about farming practices that deplete rather than nourish the soil. 

Environmentalists have long spoken out against genetically modified foods and pesticide-heavy industrial agriculture. Proposed solutions include organic and no-till farming, which regenerates the soil with minerals, as well as  “multistrata agroforestry,” which creates vertical plant layers and horizontal “blankets” of crops to mimic forest biodiversity (Hawken, 2017: 46-47). Dietary changes by individual consumers, such as avoiding environmentally costly beef consumption, can make a difference as well. 

These solutions come with their own problems, however. The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject,” as environmental philosopher Timothy Morton described it in 2013. Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse. 

Regenerative farming may not be enough in areas without sufficient water. Consumer food choice may become a luxury even for those who have never had to worry about finding the ingredients they need in a short errand to the market. For those who have already suffered from food insecurity, indoor “vertical” farms and 3-D printed meat (Pascual, 2021) may still be far out of reach. Privileged proponents of “full stomach” environmentalism may come closer to understanding their “empty stomach”-driven counterparts (Guha, 2006 in Nixon; 2011: 5), but this is a long process, and the planet is warming and drying and flooding more quickly than human empathy may be able to catch up. 

Two results of this profound environmental stress have already begun to show: on the one hand, increased rigidity around food choices among those wealthy enough to choose (dietary “purity culture” that crosses political lines and spills into Covid vaccine debates as well); and on the other hand, deeper engagement with food sources that takes Indigenous values as a guide. Creating community gardens based on historical practices in the Ute (Utah, US) tribe is one example; growing only as much as each community needs and working from a shared economy allows the tribe to “go from an experience of exploitation to one of authentically living with each other” (Braidan Weeks, in Bitsóí and Larsen, 2021: 67-68).

“As a human being who cannot photosynthesize,” writes US Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, “I must struggle to participate in the Honorable Harvest” (2013: 180). What she means by this term is the ecologizing mindset that treats plants as beings in their own right, that honors the animal killed for meat, that does not take more than one’s share. “Cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much are ubiquitous in Native cultures,” she notes, “but it’s hard to recall a single one in English. Perhaps this helps to explain why we seem to be caught in a trap of overconsumption, which is as destructive to ourselves as to those we consume” (Kimmerer, 2013: 179). 

Learning limits and humility is difficult for humans used to consumption-based economies. Paradoxically, though, Indigenous gift economies have fostered a sense of abundance and community reciprocity, rather than scarcity and individualism. Kimmerer (2013: 29) recalls an experience at a market in the Andes, where the transition “from private goods to shared wealth” created a sense of gratitude and, with a meal in every basket exchanged, “justice” as well.

The deep community work required to shift collective mindsets may seem impossible, but with droughts and supply chain breakdowns already occurring, it may soon become essential for survival. The alternative is a future of pandemic-style hoarding and water wars. Smarter farming, access to birth control, education for women, and local food co-ops (see Hawken, 2017) may help ease the strain of feeding a crowded, warming planet. At the local level, learning to share rather than hoard one’s groceries is a good start.  

References

Bitsóí, Alastair Lee and Brooke Larsen, Eds. (2021). New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, & Climate Crisis. Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press.

Figueres, Christiana and Tom Rivett-Carnac. (2020). The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis. New York: Vintage.

Guha, Ramachandra. (2006). How Much Should a Person Consume? Environmentalism in India and the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 

Hawken, Paul, Editor. (2017). Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York: Penguin. 

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

COP26A

Grief, Rage, and Courage at COP26

At the end of the conference, the 1.5-degree goal still appears far out of reach. “Beyond that threshold,” scientific consensus warns, “the likelihood significantly increases of deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and species extinction. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius”. With this dire situation in mind, climate activist Greta Thunberg has called COP26 a “global greenwashing festival” – using a term coined in the 1980s that refers to corporate sustainability claims that do not actually improve the environment.

By Heidi Hart

Observing the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) from a virtual distance has created a fractured impression. The official program website shows a swirling green and purple Earth, with links to live-streamed press conferences, speeches, and the #TogetherForOurPlanet Twitter feed. This Earth looks clean and healthy, as if such an ideal were an easy goal to reach. Meanwhile, mounds of trash fill the outskirts of the conference city Glasgow, amid a garbage-collectors’ strike that makes human “throwaway society” all too clear (Gross, 2021).

News reports showed internal fault-lines even before the conference began. In the pre-conference summit in Italy, G20 leaders from the wealthy countries “collectively responsible for around 80 percent of current greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide” largely failed to come together, though they did agree to cuts in methane leaks and in coal financing overseas (Economist, 2021). Protests on the outskirts of the main Glasgow conference and around the world have included thousands of young people, who insist that carbon reduction pledges fall woefully short of the profound value shifts and decolonializing efforts that must occur in order to avoid unlivable conditions for humans and countless other species (Pruitt-Young, 2021). 

COP26’s makeup of 30,000 delegates consisted mainly of political and business leaders, who worked to draft a document that, before the delayed end of the conference, reflected disappointment in wealthy countries’ failure to reach earlier goals of financial reparation to their poorer, more climate-stressed neighbors, as well as “rage” at ongoing resistance to urgent carbon-cutting measures (New York Times, 2021). The final document created a new “Glasgow Climate Pact” that includes accelerated carbon-reduction plans, efforts to support poorer countries in adaptation measures, and worldwide infrastructure for a carbon market, but extends the target year for emissions cut to 2030, rather than the 2025 date set in the 2015 Paris agreement – “[n]ot the stuff of triumph, but not a trainwreck, either” (Economist, 2021).   

Speeches included several long, populist ramblings (by India’s prime minister Narenda Modi, for example, who did conclude with a concrete pledge to “reach net-zero emissions by 2070” [Economist, 2021]), but some voices from marginalized communities also found a place to be heard. Elizabeth Wathuti, a climate activist from Kenya, named the climate-change-induced drought leading to failed harvests and starvation in her country, where she has seen children crying by a dried-up river after walking twelve miles to reach it with their mother. “As we sit comfortably here in Glasgow,” she called for an opening of hearts and a moment of silence for those suffering and dying in poorer countries affected most painfully by global warming (see the complete video here). As Mary Annaïse Heglar has noted, “Climate grief is not an illness to cure. It is a condition we will have to live with.” Grief can lead to courage (Marvel, 2018), if not the easy optimism some may expect from a global climate conference. 

The first week of climate talks ended with a focus on agriculture and land use, with somewhat vague pledges to increase international “dialogue” on the commodities that lead to deforestation (beef and palm oil, for example) and to promote “innovation” in sustainable farming, without the concrete goals or attention to biodiversity that protesters demanded (Economist, 2021). The second week began with discussions about adaptation to the inevitable droughts, floods, and famines that will result even in the best-case scenario of the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and about “loss-and-damage” efforts in which wealthier countries compensate poorer ones for the damage their carbon emissions will continue to cause. These discussions have been largely disappointing for developing nations (Sengupta, 2021).

On November 10, a draft of COP26’s “cover decisions” outlined stronger pledges than in the Paris agreement to reduce emissions (and, unlike that document, actually uses the phrase “fossil fuels” [Economist, 2021]), but without mentioning specific dates or enforcement measures, and without offering developing countries the financial assistance they need to help with decarbonizing efforts. One dramatic and encouraging turn of events occurred that day, when China and the US announced a long list of future joint measures to reduce emissions in concrete ways, from research and alternative energy policies to methane reduction and bans on illegal deforestation (Economist, 2021). Critics have noted, however, that China’s methane efforts are only are their own terms, and the joint list is still not enough to curb global warming already out of control (NPR, 2021). 

At the end of the conference, the 1.5-degree goal still appears far out of reach. “Beyond that threshold,” scientific consensus warns, “the likelihood significantly increases of deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and species extinction. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius” (New York Times, 2021). With this dire situation in mind, climate activist Greta Thunberg has called COP26 a “global greenwashing festival” – using a term coined in the 1980s that refers to corporate sustainability claims that do not actually improve the environment (Watson, 2016). The “PR event” that Thunberg calls COP26 has failed to address deeper issues of “colonialism and beyond” that cost poorer countries as their wealthy counterparts show unwillingness to sacrifice fossil-fueled industrial comforts (Campbell, 2021). 

Thousands of people taking part in a demonstration against climate change in Glasgow city centre during UN COP26 climate conference on November 6, 2021. Photo: Bruno Mameli

Alongside the official meetings in Glasgow, a large-scale “counter summit” took place, drawing on indigenous and other “frontline” communities. This alternative conference also included progressive lawmakers and landworkers, along with representatives from trade unions, social justice organizations, and faith groups (Lakhani, 2021). On the design level, the summit’s website applies COP26’s signature purple background but with emergency- and heat-signaling orange as well. Images of humans attached to rising plant spores offer a sense of hope from the ground up. 

Discussion topics at this People’s Summit for Climate Justice included carbon pricing, the impact of British mining in Brazil, trauma and resilience among activists, environmental warfare in Kurdistan, and energy transitions in Latin America. The program offered virtual as well as in-person participation and translation services, to be as globally inclusive as possible. While this conference may not have been as optimistic as its official counterpart (with headlines such as “Landmark Agreements at COP26 Put Nails in Coal’s Coffin” celebrating cutbacks in large banks’ support of fossil fuels), it has taken a more local, grassroots approach that does not shy away from painful questions of colonialism, racism, and “slow violence” (see Nixon, 2011). 

Where to go from here? For all its limitations, the very fact of US-Chinese cooperation is a large and unexpected step. Financial commitments to decarbonization and reparations may materialize at least in time to keep warming below the truly catastrophic 2.7-degree increase the world is headed toward today (Chestney, 2021). Elsewhere in the world, many communities feeling the stresses of global warming still find themselves left out, however, from deforested Indigenous zones in Brazil to rural areas in France with out-of-reach gas prices, where residents feel very far away from the “green energy transition” discussed in Paris (Cohen, 2021).

Historian Andreas Malm takes a boldly Leninist approach to current climate debates, seeing the need for a revolution that actually challenges capitalism. Though Malm might be accused of “cosplaying revolution while the planet burns,” one reviewer of his new book White Skin, Black Fuel finds his attitude to be one of “tragic realism,” a historically informed climate grief that calls for courage, too (Tooze, 2021). Malm and his collective call for direct and even destructive action to dismantle new carbon-emitting machines, pipelines, and even the homes of the planet’s most damaging capitalists (see Malm et al., 2021). But this radical approach is not the only possible solution to a climate crisis that leaves no safe place on Earth (Peach, 2019).

Indigenous and other frontline leaders, like those who participated in the COP26 counter-conference, are bringing generations-deep wisdom to the crisis at hand. As Ute Indian Tribe (Utah, US) representative Braidan Weeks has put it, “Creating a sustainable future means empowering communities to take care of themselves and reassess that value of always having to produce. Why do you need five hundred pounds of tomatoes? You don’t. My community needs a hundred pounds of tomatoes and we do that by growing and sharing it together” (Bitsóí and Larsen, 2021: 67). Traditional controlled-burn practices to reduce the impact of wildfires (Sommer, 2020), international support of the Water Protectorsorganizing to stop the Dakota Pipeline in the US, and land-rights movements from the Arctic to Latin America are only a few of the efforts inspired by communities who have long put circular economies over ideologies of endless growth.  

On a smaller scale, individuals can still make a difference in choosing how to consume (or not), how to travel (or not), and how to recreate responsibly in natural areas. Developing an attitude of care that does not avoid grief or even rage is a good place to start, to cultivate the courage needed for protecting Earthly futures. For those of us lacking the youthful energy of activists like Greta Thunberg and Elizabeth Wathuti, the example of an older climate educator in Sweden is inspiring: 73-year-old Gitte H.D. has just released a “climate rap” that demonstrates how people of any age can feel and act for climate care. There’s still time to learn and change. Enjoy her video here, with the kind of concrete advice large climate conferences often fail to deliver. 

References

Bitsóí, Alastair Lee & Larsen, Brooke. Eds. (2021). New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, & Climate Crisis. Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press.

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Malm, Andreas & the Zetkin Collective. (2021). White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. London: Verso Books. 

A dying stalker in jacket and gloves in damaged gas mask with filter reaching out his hand to camera on destructed apocalyptic wasteland city background.

“Ruin Porn,” the Populist Apocalypse, and Art as Antidote

This commentary considers several populist frameworks for apocalyptic thinking in Europe and the US, in historical and environmental perspective, with reflection on art forms that counter right-wing “ruin value.”

By Heidi Hart

Teaching American undergraduates in Berlin in the early 2010s, I asked my students to create short documentary films in places that held particular historical interest for them. Many of them chose dystopian remnants of the former East Germany, from an empty-windowed primary school to the famous Spreepark with its silent Ferris wheel and tumbledown dinosaur parts. Following the Abandoned Berlin website, these young students on the cusp of the Instagram age were already sensitized to dystopian films and graphic novels, though the totalitarian resurgences and up-close climate crises of our current decade were yet to come. Ruins seemed fun then; Berlin’s gentrification had not yet transformed all the peeling, shell-pocked back courtyards of now trendy neighborhoods. 

Ten years later, ruins have become pathologically fun (I think of the selfie-driven tourism around Chernobyl) and at the same time painfully foreboding. Abandoned office buildings during the Covid-19 lockdown, with dead, ghostly potted plants, became a harbinger of an upended labor market amid rapidly intensifying climate disasters, from monster floods and megadroughts to heatwaves in unlikely places,  as capitalism’s costs have become apparent on a planetary scale. The “new weird” genre of film and fiction, in which strange life forms might overtake an abandoned swimming pool (as in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation), now seems too close to home to be merely entertaining. 

Especially for climate educators, artists, and activists, ruins are more than Instagrammable tourist destinations or spine-tingling movie scenes. They are all too real, as in the loss of giant redwood trees to California wildfires, the flooding of a temple complex in Thailand, or the exposure of archaeological sites as a dam-built reservoir recedes to record low levelsin Utah. The climate crisis has made “the fragility of our collective cultural enterprise” all too clear, as “[p]apyrus rots, paper burns, museums get sacked, hard drives crash” (Scranton, 2015: 100), not to mention whole towns charred to chimney-stumps by a wildfire. 

For some populist groups, however, ruins and apocalyptic thinking hold a different and dangerous power. Instead of a sense of weirdness or “wrongness” (Fisher, 2016: 13) that might lead to critical re-evaluation of human industrial comforts, ruins in the right-wing populist or eco-fascist imagination can signal pleasure in a world without humans at all – or at least without those white supremacists would like to see gone. 

Two elderly German men, one wearing the armband signifying blindness, the other his helper, sitting on a crate amid the rubble during Battle of Berlin in May 1945. Photo: Yevgeny Khaldei – Everett Collection.

This take on what is now called “ruin porn” is not new. “Ruinenwert” or “ruin value” was “one of Hitler’s favorite concepts … actually foreseeing the future ruins that would symbolize the greatness of the Third Reich, even after the demise of the empire” (Horvat, 2021: 88-89). Going back further in German culture, ruins were a key focal point in much Romantic art (see Pinto, 2016); the aristocratic gardens designed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe just outside Weimar include “sham ruins” to evoke the melancholy of time’s passing.   

Well aware of this history, Hitler commissioned Albert Speer in 1934 to design a Greek-inspired proto-ruin for the Zeppelinfeld rallying ground (Horvat, 2021: 88). Speer provided Hitler with “a science fiction drawing that depicted the Zeppelin Field after the Götterdämmerung – or ‘after the Apocalypse’ – overgrown with ivy and with its column fallen” (Horvat, 2021: 89) according to the National Socialist “law of ruins” (Speer, 1970: 56). More recent architectural projects in Germany (the renovation of Frankfurt’s Old Town, for example) have raised specters of Nazism not only in their valorizing of an ideal “Heimat” but also in the far-right populist views of the designers and their political supporters (Moore, 2018). 

The idea of a violent collapse of civilization (or at least the democratic version) has also regained traction among far-right groups in Germany. The case of Franco A., a soldier posing as a Syrian refugee and caught retrieving a loaded weapon from an airport bathroom in 2017, exposed a complex network of military and police personnel planning attacks on individuals and on the German government. Their goal: an unspecified date of armed insurrection that would send German democracy up in flames (Bennhold et al., 2021). 

Author Dirk Laabs has traced the spread of this far-reaching movement in a recent book that reads “like a cancer diagnosis,” describing secret meetings, weapons stashes, and contact with the AfD party, as groups with names like Uniter and Nordkreuz have  attempted to cause “Germany to fall like a house of cards on ‘Day X’” (Hemicker, 2021, translation mine). Members have ranged from elite soldiers to one of Angela Merkel’s former security officers. Though assassination plots and an attempt to storm the Reichstag in August 2020, fueled partly by anger at Covid restrictions, have mostly failed, the threat of “spontaneous” attacks remains (see Laabs, 2021). 

In addition to end-times ideologies in Europe, eco-fascist fascinations with human ruins left behind, and widespread far-right interest in the Middle Ages (often for racist reasons, imagining a “threat from the East” [S.N., 2017]), apocalyptic notions appeal strongly to many Trump supporters in the US. Building on post-9/11 wishful thinking for a conflagration in Israel that would bring about the Second Coming of Christ (as popularized in the Left Behind fiction series [see Gribben, 2004]), an ideology of Trump’s inciting chaos to accelerate the end of the world has gained traction even among those who dislike his personality (Lecaque, 2019). 

Though Trump himself is hardly a religious figure, “his lack of apparent belief in anything has freed him up to seek out and uniquely cater to whatever group would show the most allegiance” (Morris, 2020). Stacking his staff with Christian fundamentalists, inciting reactionary thinking in his rally rhetoric as well as actual chaos on the world stage, Trump appears (even after his 2020 loss) to revel in teetering at the edge of the end times. The January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington evoked a Götterdämmerung atmosphere, amid economic crisis and a global pandemic. What ruins of American democracy would be left behind? 

As Amir Ahmadi Arian pointed out as early as 2017, anti-Trump apocalyptic thinking is equally dangerous. The Spiegel’s post-election cover image of Trump as an open-mouthed meteor hurtling toward Earth is one example of “push[ing] Trump so far down the ladder of evil that he ultimately ceased to be a human, and became endowed with magical destructive forces” (Arian, 2017). The risk in demonization is turning one’s enemy into a god and taking pleasure (however guiltily) in watching the world burn. 

A doll in a gas mask in abandoned city of Pripyat in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in February 2016. Photo: Ondrej Bucek

Some antidotes to enjoying the threat of destruction (or commodifying it, in the case of Chernobyl tourism) include rhetorical “prose” instead of “poetry,” as Arian suggests, as well as clear-eyed and compassionate approaches to images of loss, toxicity, and decay. A helpful model is Andrei Tarkovsky’s iconic film Stalker (1978-79), filmed in the literal ruins of a “factory and two hydroelectric plants” outside Tallinn, Estonia (Riley, 2017: 21). In the film, the “stalker” or guide leads a writer and professor into this toxic landscape (which may well have led to the director’s early death from cancer), imagined as a mysterious “Zone” where wishes can come true. It is actually a liminal space between the “remnants of a ruined civilization” and “imminent human catastrophe” (Tarkovsky, Jr., Schlegel and Schirmer, 2018: 164), where humans must come up against their limits.

This Cold War-era film, with its dripping tunnels and overgrown train tracks, may call up contemporary associations with Chernobyl, but its slowness avoids the quick thrills of “dark tourism” that trivializes places where humans and whole habitats have died. It also counters eco-fascist celebrations of “empty” landscapes. The film works as a deeply phenomenological meditation on industrial waste, but with as much attention to human pain and care as it gives to human arrogance. 

Films and artworks like Stalker that approach ruins with critical curiosity recall Jacques Derrida’s term “hauntology,”coined in a 1993 corrective to triumphalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not wanting to throw Marx out with the Cold War bathwater, Derrida re-imagined the 19th-century philosopher’s thinking as a “spectre” (as in Marx’s own words about the “spectre of Communism” haunting Europe) countering neoliberal fantasies of endless growth (Salmon, 2021, Derrida, 2006). 

In the wake and waste of these fantasies, grass and water surface: “Stalker’s visual landscape represents a natural world that industrialization is incapable of industrializing, a landscape that modernization can no longer modernize” (Riley, 2017: 22). In the moment when the Stalker lies down in that grass to feel it fully, however, the film overcomes any illusion of natural “purity” restored after humans have gone. 

Still, even critical contemplation of human-made ruins can be a luxury. For Indigenous communities whose worlds have already ended, ruins are not just artifacts or aesthetic reminders of human fallibility. In 2020, the Indigenous Action group in the US released Rethinking the Apocalypse: An Indigenous Anti-Futurist Manifesto. This document refuses White end-times ideology by acknowledging cycles of death and rebirth that include human-made climate crisis. 

From a post-apocalyptic perspective that carries genocide, stolen and poisoned sacred lands, forced education and mass graves of Native children, the end of the capitalist-industrial world may mean a rebirth of more grounded values – but not in the ecofascist sense of removing humans perceived as “other.” The manifesto includes this passage, as much invocation as provocation, with a different take on “ghosts” from Derrida’s:

As Indigenous anti-futurists, we are the consequence of the history of the colonizer’s future. We are the consequence of their war against Mother Earth. We will not allow the specter of the colonizer, the ghosts of the past to haunt the ruins of this world. We are the actualization of our prophecies.

This is the re-emergence of the world of cycles.

This is our ceremony.

Between silent skies. The world breathes again and the fever subsides.

The land is quiet. Waiting for us to listen.” (Indigenous Action, 2020).

Likewise, as slave histories are rising up amid fear and backlash in the American education system, Black artists are finding powerful ways to expose their own inherited ruins. Choreographer Mayfield Brooks’ 2021 Whale Fall takes its title from the bodies of whales that fall to ruin and feed smaller creatures on the ocean floor, as a way to embody grief and regeneration through movement and sound in a bare-bones theatre. Brooks describes the piece not only as a vehicle for processing the generational trauma of slavery but also as a response to experiencing Covid; “I just felt like my body was decomposing” (Kourlas/Brooks, 2021). This slow, solitary piece ends with a trio of Black women in a ritual of nourishment after grief. 

Making art with or from ruins is not new for artists from marginalized communities. Beverly Buchanan’s 1981 Marsh Ruins is a humbler, more historically embedded land installation than ephemeral works by Andy Goldsworthy or monumental constructions by Robert Smithson. In a tidal area on the Georgia coast, Buchanan constructed mounds of tabby (“a concrete made from lime, water, sand, oyster shells, and ash,” once used to build slave quarters (Art Papers, 2020) that serve as carriers of collective memory. Her work responds to literal tabby ruins in the area, including the remains of a former slave hospital that inspired the artist to create a container for “loss and unknowability – affirming the incompleteness of the historical record – while also evoking strength and endurance” (Groom, 2020: 51).

Having grown up in a privileged relationship to ruins (exploring a skeletal castle near my childhood school in Germany or visiting Native American sites in the American desert), I am learning to see these remnants with more attention to histories of power and loss. I try to take to heart Beverly Buchanan’s tongue-in-cheek attitude toward tourism, making her own mock signs to direct people to her “roadside attraction” Marsh Ruins (Groom, 2020: 14). I will not be visiting Chernobyl, for all its overgrown mystique.

I am also more aware of my own tendencies to romanticize natural spaces that humans have apparently left behind, and to wish to hold memory in place – of the American mountain town where I lived before “resort” development, or the 19thcentury foundations exposed as drought dries up the local reservoir. After all, as Caitlin Desilvey has noted, “With each act of preservation, the vulnerable object becomes (a little bit of) us, and its unmaking threatens to unmake our identities as well” (2017: 13). This threat to identity can be an opportunity for more humility, for knowledge of our human limits in a world we’ve damaged beyond our own control. 

References

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Derrida, Jacques. (2006). Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

Desilvey, Caitlin. (2017). Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Fisher, Mark. (2016). The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books. 

Gribben, Crawford. (2004). “Rapture Fictions and the Changing Evangelical Condition.” Literature and Theology18(1), 77–94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23925696

Groom, Amelia. (2020). Beverley Buchanan: Marsh Ruins. Boston, MA: Afterall Books/MIT Press. 

Horvat, Srećko. (2021). After the Apocalypse. Cambridge, UK:  Polity Press.

Laabs, Dirk. (2021). Staatsfeinde in Uniform. Wie militante Rechte unsere Institutionen unterwandern. Berlin: Econ Verlag.

Pinto, J. A. (2016). “Speaking Ruins: Travelers’ Perceptions of Ancient Rome.” SiteLINES: A Journal of Place11(2), 3–5.http://www.jstor.org/stable/24889511

Riley, John. (2017). “Hauntology, Ruins, and the Failure of the Future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.” Journal of Film and Video. 69(1), 18–26. https://doi.org/10.5406/jfilmvideo.69.1.0018

Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.

Speer, Albert. (1970). Inside the Third Reich. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. London:  Trafalgar Square. 

VanderMeer, Jeff. (2014). Annihilation. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.