Learning to Die Read More in the Anthropocene the Time We Have

Mo Pareles, University of British Columbia

A lot of people I know and don’t know were irritated by an article by Jonathan Franzen, a famous non-expert, called “What If We Stopped Pretending?: The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.” You can read excellent rebuttals of here, here, and (most delightfully) here. Most of these focus on Franzen’s pessimism and on the fact that, like the other famous white male novelists (Jonathan Safran Foer, Paul Kingsnorth, et al) who have appointed themselves climate philosophers, he confuses his (well-written) angst with political, historical, and/or scientific expertise. These critiques are on point, but what annoyed me most as a scholar of medieval temporality was the word “apocalypse,” which is a secularized Biblical temporal concept (it has resonances in several sacred traditions, although its current valences are specifically Christian) that has been adopted almost uncritically and without historicization throughout the popular discussion on climate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this view of time, but it’s the product of a particular intellectual history and I’m not sure it serves discussions about climate change well.[1]

Image: “Myths,” by Eiko Ojala, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

IPCC projections suggest that total human extinction is a fairly unlikely short-term possibility (although not impossible!) and that what we’re looking at instead is genocide and ecocide of unprecedented scale, which fossil fuel companies and their friends continue to perpetrate recklessly and knowingly for profit and convenience. But as a result, a number of salient historical comparisons have become possible and useful. As N. K. Jemisin notes of her own literary response to climate discourse, “An apocalypse is a relative thing.”[2] Genocides, ecocides, and crimes against humanity have all happened before, and in some cases they have also been prevented. Small groups of people have profited from acts of extreme greed and cruelty—and, more rarely, they have been prevented from doing so. Certain groups of humans including my own (and many others) have, in fact, survived multiple rounds of genocide, ecocide, and horror, and have developed sophisticated praxes of survival, resistance, and regeneration[3]—and, indeed, resistant temporalities.[4] Reading can teach us much more than how to die on an imposed timeline.

While it’s pleasurable to make fun of famous people who speak from ignorance with smug authority, it’s a guilty pleasure—because none of us read widely enough (and many of us lecture for a living). Almost all of us think we came up with things that we definitely did not come up with; we generally have no idea what is happening in adjacent disciplines or even adjacent classrooms. It would be good to get together and help one another fill in the blanks. Hence, a reading group.

In the Oecologies reading group, we discuss ecocritical and animal studies scholarship that engages directly with race, colonialism, temporality, and other crucial issues of framing. We focus particularly on work by scholars who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). This work also often has a queer and/or trans focus. In the first three reading group meetings, we had participants from a dozen universities in the US and Canada; more than half were graduate students. In October, we met for the first time on Discord, a chat and voice app, to discuss Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation,” an early version of a chapter from her recent book As We Have Always Done, which connects ecological survival to Indigenous (specifically Nishnaabeg) feminist resurgence and political sovereignty. This article, which envisions Kwezens, a Nishnaabeg child, directing her own moral and ecological education without colonial interference, tends to be very challenging for settler readers (which included everyone at that particular meeting) because it assumes an Indigenous readership and specific political praxis; it is not written for us. We talked about why non-Indigenous readers who cannot directly use Simpson’s concepts, and indeed do not want to appropriate Indigenous work, might benefit from reading her.

Image: “Myths,” by Eiko Ojala, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

In our recent group on November date, we read the introduction to Radhika Govindrajan’s Animal Intimacies. This time, we met in a text-only Discord chat channel, and this way of talking suited us; we had the freedom to pursue several different lines of conversation at once and to circle in and out of one another’s conversation. In this meeting, we discussed negative and queer affect in multispecies village life and Govindrajan’s concept of otherwild, which reads animal life in the context of “intersecting projects of colonial, caste, and species difference and power.”[5]

Most recently, a mix of old and new colleagues joined us in discussing Tavia Nyong’o’s “Little Monsters: Race, Sovereignty, and Queer Inhumanism in Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which connects climate disaster on a local scale to questions of race, childhood, queerness, and sovereignty, as well as to histories of Indigenous displacement in the US and ecofascist rewilding projects in Nazi Europe. We used more than one Discord text channel, and a number of discussions erupted—we noticed dissonances in the use of sovereignty (in terms of bodies, lands, and governance) across African diaspora studies, critical Indigenous studies, and medieval and early modern studies, and attempted to connect these uses. We asked about the labor that girls and queer children, especially racialized girls like Beast of the Southern Wild’s Hushpuppy, do in the environmental imaginary—a particular concern of Nyong’o’s—and spoke of Autumn Peltier, Little Miss Flint, Greta Thunberg, and (looping back to the year’s first reading) Betasamosake Simpson’s Kwezens/Binoojiinh, who is a girl in one iteration and a nonbinary/gender-nonconforming child in another. We also shared our terror about the widespread appeal of green fascism, from the Nazi cattle experiments Nyong’o recounts to the green white supremacists of contemporary Europe and North America. The question of temporal frames—the futurity or non-futurity of childhood, the apocalypticism of extinction and colonialism—preoccupied us throughout.

We have two more meetings this year: on March 5, we will read the introduction to Juno Salazar Parreñas’s Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation, and in May we will read Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage.

We are having a really good time—without agreeing on what kind of time we have. Please come read with us.


[1] Indeed, anthropogenic climate change and its attendant horrors are partially the products of linear fictions of history, as Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing points out in her critique of “progress.” Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015, esp. 20-23.

[2] Hurley, Jessica, and N. K. Jemisin. “An Apocalypse is a Relative Thing: An Interview with N.K. Jemisin.” ASAP/Journal 3 (2018): 467-477, at 476. See Eklund, Hilary. “Unwatering Earth: The Control of Nature in Colonial Mexico.” Earth/Sea/Sky Conference: Earth. Oxford University, September 19, 2019; Yusoff, Kathryn, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Thanks to Hilary Eklund for sharing her unpublished piece and for the Yusoff reference.

[3] See Mary Annaïse Heglar’s essential essay, “Climate Change Ain’t the First Existential Threat.” Medium. https://medium.com/s/story/sorry-yall-but-climate-change-ain-t-the-first-existential-threat-b3c999267aa0 (content warning for extremely graphic images of violence)

[4] See for instance Rosen, Alan. The Holocaust’s Jewish Calendars: Keeping Time Sacred, Making Time Holy. Indiana University Press, 2019. As Rosen notes (and as Eli Rubin highlights in this review), the shiny new 21st century is also a secularized Christian concept; the Jewish calendar places us in 5780, still slogging through the miserable century that began with 12 million murders (Rosen 4; Rubin). What would it feel like to place climate change in the same temporal frame as these recent obscenities? What connections—in terms of worldwide indifference and corporate collusion—would we have to acknowledge? And how different—how much less glamorous—would our RPC scenarios look if they referred to degrees of warming by 5860? I am grateful to Andrew Gow for the reference.

[5] Govindrajan 12.

Works Cited

Govindrajan, Radhika. Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas. University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Nyong’o, Tavia. “Little Monsters: Race, Sovereignty, and Queer Inhumanism in Beasts of the Southern Wild.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21 (2015): 249-272.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Rransformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3, no. 3 (2014): 1-25.

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