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What Zombies Can Teach Us About Fighting Climate Change

According to Environmental Humanities expert Malcolm Sen.

Climate change and a zombie apocalypse are two very different scenarios. Generally, to incapacitate zombies it is best practice to aim for the head and not the heart. But for climate change, and the humans who cause it, it is essential to aim for both body parts: not to incapacitate, but to jolt us out of our zombie-stupor as we face our greatest-ever challenge to civilization. Our rational abilities and our empathetic capacities both need to be energized to imagine the consequences of not wholeheartedly addressing the effects of human activity on climate.

Unlike climate change, a zombie apocalypse isn’t real. Nonetheless, the projected fear of the end of humanity that zombies narrate may be worth our attention. If there is one tag line that is universally relevant to all zombie movies it is this: “Save Humanity.” To my mind, it should replace the common environmentalist chant, “Save the Planet.” All worthwhile geoscientists attest to the fact that what is at stake here is the future of civilization as we know it and not necessarily the longevity of the planet. Our planet should continue spinning around our sun for another five billion years, until the sun consumes itself. Extinction, however, is a serious matter often underplayed in so-called pragmatist climate change discourse; that is, the discourse that speaks to a so-called “green” economy, which in truth, maintains the status quo. Addressing climate change fully should in fact appear terribly impractical and as difficult as facing off a zombie incursion.

Climate change asks us to reshape our carbon-fueled economies and daily lives in so many ways that our deep-seated definitions of “success,” “happiness,” and the “good life” will need to be completely re-evaluated. Thus, whereas the apocalyptic as a broad genre often suggests the end of the American Dream, or life in the first world, the zombie apocalypse often goes a step further and projects the end of humanity altogether. Zombies lack empathy and rationality, love and language, cultures and civilizations. Are these already at stake in our world? The books I discuss below have nothing to say about zombies. They are neither science fiction nor speculative or climate fiction books. But they do ask us to take the matter of extinction seriously. Through different perspectives, all four of them call upon our capacity to speculate futures by re-imagining our present.

Imagine a world, Alan Weisman asks, “from which we all suddenly vanish. Tomorrow.” The World Without Us is a breathtaking thought-experiment spanning three hundred and fifty pages. Weisman’s book, which was published a decade ago, still remains one of most trenchant critiques of modern civilization. He replaces historical timescales with geological ones, and cultural geography with plate tectonics, to produce unique perspectives through which to view our contemporary environment. New York in this book is not a symbol of engineering triumph but a symptom of hubris: “When New York’s 19th-century planners imposed a grid on everything north of Greenwich Village…they behaved as if topography were irrelevant,” he writes. New York, “a city that buried its rivers,” appears not as the towering metropolis many imagined it to be but a site of impending disaster: “Even buildings anchored into hard Manhattan schist, like most New York skyscrapers weren’t intended to have their steel foundations waterlogged.” Like many environmental predictions, Weisman’s book seems to uncannily predict events such as Hurricane Sandy, still five years in the future when the book was published. Replete with interviews with engineers, city workers, geologists, microbiologists and funeral historians from across the world, the book offers a serious contemplation on a post-human planetary future.

When the New York Times reviewed The World Without Us in 2007 their praise was undercut by their use of the term “eco-thriller,” a description suggesting that speculation about a human-free planet, even that which is grounded in science, is no more useful to our discourse on climate change than works of fiction. Since then many more books that analyze mass extinction events on this planet have been published, many of which look forward in time even as they comment on the past.

One notable example is Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which was published seven years after The World Without Us. Unlike zombie movies, Kolbert’s future-oriented narrative can hardly be described as “thrilling.” Kolbert’s book is written from the perspective of the five previous extinctions – the first from the Ordovician period, 450 million years ago, to the most recent one in the Cretaceous period that witnessed the end of the dinosaurs – but is about a sixth mass extinction which may already have begun. Kolbert was introduced to this idea when she read an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Are We in the Midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction? A View from the World of Amphibians”. It seems that a large number of species are dying off at rates comparable to previous extinction level events. This fact leads Kolbert to speculate geologically: while she narrates non-human extinctions the threat of a human extinction, and a geological record of humanity left fossilized on the earth’s surface, is never from her focus.

It would seem that the extinction of humanity, as a concept, is quickly losing its aura of fantasy. The greatest rebuttal comes from the work of geologists who comprise the “Working Group on the Anthropocene.” This group voted to formally propose that our geological epoch should be named the Anthropocene, or the Epoch of the Human, in 2016. It has yet to be accepted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy because research still continues to determine which exact geological signal marks the beginning of this epoch. We should all take note when geologists are moving towards naming the timescale we inhabit as the Epoch of the Human, because one thing is a certainty: all geological epochs to-date have come to an end.

A recent book that offers some exciting ways to think through this geological concept is The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis (2015), edited by Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil and François Gemenne. The Anthropocene concept affects all human activity which seems intricately, although often unwittingly, interconnected: “The conception of the natural world on which sociology, political science, history, law, economics and philosophy have rested for two centuries– that of an inert standing reserve of resources, an unresponsive external backdrop to the drama of human affairs–is increasingly difficult to defend.” The Anthropocene acknowledges this fact and proposes that in addition to being actors of history, humans are at the same time agents of geology: “Humans have become a telluric force, changing the functioning of the Earth as much as volcanism, tectonics, the cyclic fluctuations of solar activity or changes in the Earth’s orbital movements around the Sun.” The argument here, made popular by the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, is not simply that there is an evolving global environmental crisis but rather that humanity has entered a new existential condition altogether (especially since the Industrial Revolution and the discovery of nuclear energy in the twentieth century). The Anthropocene tempts us to speculate on our place in the planet and our future in it. The yet-to-be-named epoch after the Anthropocene may or may not have humans in it. Some view the possibility of a post-human future as catastrophist. Others see it as a rational outcome of humanity’s treacherous climb towards geological agency.

The Anthropocene has gained wide currency across all disciplines. But, as François Gemenne reminds us, “the Anthropocene is now as much a political statement as a geological epoch.” The flat category of the “Human” in the Anthropocene does not in any way reflect the great discrepancy between those who are most responsible for climate change (the industrialized global North) and those who are at the front line of its catastrophic effects (the global South, and the many island and indigenous communities who are located in the North). If “Humans” have caused climate change then they have not done so as one unified group. Gemenne writes that we should not use environmental changes “as a Trojan horse to ‘depoliticise’ migration.” Indeed, if the Anthropocene ushers in an era where the idea of a post-human civilization becomes less and less a fantasy then we should keep in mind that we are also witnessing extinctions on smaller scales right now: The heightened displacements of people because of climate change are ultimately nothing less than the end of entire cultures and ways of life. Perhaps, in time, these forced migrations will also mean the death of numerous languages and their corresponding linguistic universes. They have already resulted in the death of countless individual lives. For migrants from Syria and other places the apocalypse is already here even though we have not crossed our two-degree Celsius threshold.

The scenarios I have been charting above about climate change and the Anthropocene, or of endangerment and extinction, are framed very differently in Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species. Heise’s book provides a rigorous analysis of a single question: “how, when, and why do we invest culturally, emotionally, and economically in the fate of the threatened species?” In this scheme humanity is not given any prominent role except for the fact that human stories, Heise says, grant “sociocultural traction” to our understanding of and engagement with threatened species. We are witnessing, biologists claim, the sixth mass extinction event on this planet. This is the first such extinction event that is caused singularly by humans. Heise’s book is important in allowing us to revisit the primacy we give to “flagship species” – iconic fauna – like the mammoth rather than fish, for example. Unlike Wiseman, humanity is not necessarily under a threat of extinction in this book but is the source that endangers and makes extinct, and sets the terms for what endangerment is. Heise’s prescription for a way forward is a vision of what she terms “multispecies justice” where both human and nonhuman actors come to be considered by conservationists.

The threat of extinction is a matter often underplayed in climate change discourse that is decidedly shaped by economic and political rhetoric. The extinction of the human species, diversely contemplated by science-fiction and speculative fiction, is especially deemed fantastical. It is interesting, therefore, to note that one of the effects of climate change, rapidly thawing permafrost, is revealing for the first time in millions of years, bacteria and viruses, to which the modern human may not have any resistance at all. Robinson Meyer in a recent article in The Atlantic called them the “zombie diseases” of climate change. NPR used a similar analogy: “Are There Zombie Viruses in the Thawing Permafrost?

It seems that zombies may indeed have a role to play in our understanding of, and reaction to, climate change after all. The comparison is not as startling as it may first seem. Zombies are creatures who inhabit in-between spaces, alive but not quite, human but not quite, and have always reflected deep fears about disenfranchisement and disinheritance, slavery and servitude. Zombies also feature in much racial discourse by becoming vehicles through which racial hatred or fear of miscegenation are narrated.

If we were to take a lesson from zombies it would be this: Zombies are deadly to humans, and it’s only through collective, urgent action that we can ward them off. Addressing climate change in the Anthropocene demands a similar response.

malcolm sen headshot

MALCOLM SEN is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He was the Irish Research Council and Marie Curie Elevate Fellow at Harvard University (2014-2015) and has been awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship at the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame (2011-2012). Other awards include a Humanities Institute of Ireland Research Scholarship (2002-2006) and the Moore Institute Visiting Fellowship at the National University of Ireland Galway (2014). In addition to publishing in academic journals and books, he has been a broadcaster on Irish radio and has written for The Irish Times and History Ireland. Sen is also the series editor of a podcast series on “Irish Studies and the Environmental Humanities.”

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