It is easy to give up hope in this era, to embrace imminent collapse and view extinction as an insurmountable inevitability. Inversely, it is just as easy to abandon all critical faculty and deny the very existence of a problem in the first place – to displace the existential threats to human civilization onto unseen oppressors in the form of shadowy world government, ‘Cultural Marxists’, alien invaders, or just blame the Jews directly. These form a simple dichotomy of future visions – the world as we know it is over, human extinction is now; or the world is fine, there is no need to consider such an existential threat to human civilisation.
This makes sense. The evidence for the shear destruction of ecological collapse is overwhelming, and even among media sources or public intellectuals who take the matter seriously there remains much confused thinking as to the causes, measures for alleviation, and consequences. Reversions to arguments about population overload, personal responsibility, or political willpower (or, lack thereof) are common; even ‘corporate greed’ is not a particularly correct diagnosis (though it is sufficient to push action in the right direction, at least initially). Beyond this the mix of denialism, cynicism, and more recently ‘climate nihilism’ by the governments of the hard right (those of the USA and Brazil are particularly notable examples for this point) adds to the perception that desirable changes which might be pursued by those who recognize the need is nigh impossible. It is, as such, the case that even those actively pushing for necessary measures are likely doing so under the impression their actions likely will not work. Accepting the end appears, and indeed is, a reasonable response.
At the opposite end, it must be stated that conspiracy theory is in its own an understandable response to the social crisis which both accelerates and is accelerated by the ecological nightmare hanging low above humanity. Conspiracy is, after all, the reactionary class consciousness of the petite-bourgeois (those who have not realised the inherent instability of their own position, and the need as such to abolish it altogether). The reversion to grand conspiracies is the natural crisis response of those who do not have the answer to the crisis at hand, but nevertheless grasp blindly for a theory that fits. Anything to break from the unacceptable conditions of today, regardless whether it necessarily makes any sense or not – precisely because in all outwards appearances the horrors of today are nonsensical.
To put aside the conspiratorial response and focus on the pessimistic vision of the future, it is unsurprising that at the deepest level what drives the urge to give in is a resigned fear. The ecological disaster facing the planet Earth is one which is seeing the mass extinction of countless species, and indeed will likely see the suffering & eventual death of billions of people. This is the fear. The resignation is coming to accept that the human species will be, as in some apocalyptic novel, entirely extinct like so many other species within a couple hundred years at best – and perhaps by the end of this century. But it is this that misses the most truly terrifying aspect of the disaster facing everyone – that there are fates worse than death. And specifically that just as there are fates worse than death for the individual, there are fates worse than death for the species.
To sidetrack briefly: the imagination of nuclear holocaust sweeping the Earth is twofold – one pictures extreme genetic mutation and a life of techno-primitive survival in the vein of hunter-gatherer society, while the other imagines a world gone entirely silent of all life. The comical mutations of nuclear fiction is just that, the basis of what are often quite good fantastical stories. There is no escaping the kind of sickness that comes with atomic devastation. But this is not the story of an ecologically devastated world. And it is a mistake to think that the vision of Silent Earth is the one that will come to be with the current disaster.
The fate most terrifying, far more so than the clean end to the human species, is that it survives. Not that the crisis is solved, or at least made manageable with the worst effects mitigated. Nor that small bolt-hold communities survive in the remaining hospitable regions, or in fully self-contained bubble societies sealed away from the ravaged Earth. No, the fate in question is the one in which we find ourselves locked, that nothing changes policy-wise, that capital maintains an ever more iron-fisted grip on the human species, that civilisation does not collapse but only becomes steadily ever more brutal. The fate worse than death is that of apocalypse capitalism, of the most savage latent tendencies in the ruling class of today being the norm of tomorrow – unleashed by the needs of a desperate class and unshackled from the bitterly won niceties of liberal democracy.
Life will not end, nor will it degenerate to the conditions of hunter-gatherer society amidst the ruins of advanced-capitalist society. It will continue as now, but will get harder, colder, less forgiving and more punishing. The fate worse than death is the return of the worst conditions visited upon human beings by colonial slavery and the early days of unregulated industry. It is the steady reduction in living conditions for the vast body of humanity, the steady increase in the discipline of daily life, the steady erosion of the lines between the workplace and the home, between working and social life. It is the degeneration of the quality of food you eat, water you drink, roof over your head, medicine on which you rely, services available to you; but never so much as to entail death before a set amount of your labour-power has been bought and used for ever diminishing returns.
Who knows what exactly that looks like for us? Fortress Aotearoa seems likely, as Pacific refugees flee coastal erosion, sinking islands, and the spread of infertile land across the many islands that will not sink below the waves. The worst abuses of the Dawn Raids era visited daily as refugee labour is subjected to the most heinous conditions imaginable while so many others are left to drown. Perhaps agreements between New Zealand and island nations facing existential ecological threats for the use of land and oceanic territory for extractive industries. Something akin to the Depression era ‘relief’ camps, too, is not out of the question; presented, obviously, with a sheen of market disruption rhetoric and the ‘personal freedom’ of labour deregulation. Environmental protection won’t matter when it’s all fucked anyway, and intensification of land use for agriculture will of course only take the cheapest, dumbest, and most destructive tracks. Capital is a beast which is incredibly capable at self-reinvention, the mistake is thinking that the capitalist class can control or tame it – it is not tied to human need, at the end of the day not even that of the capitalist class in which it is embodied.
Perhaps the future looks like a Manus Island, concentrated in its savagery, spread across the length & breadth New Zealand? Humanity pushed to the limits of human tolerance, but no further, never so far as to grant the embrace of death. No, for those that choose not to go out without a fight, it is not extinction being fought, but a fate far worse still.