Oscillating Futures: Visions of

Apocalypse Amongst

Climate Activists

Claire Gardner interviewed by Odette Shenfield |June 02, 2017


Image: Credit: Kristian Buus / 350.org

Claire Gardner is a recent graduate from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society. She spent her Honours year researching visions of the apocalypse amongst climate activists with 350.org. We sat down to discuss her findings, as well as her personal visions of climate apocalypse and social change.

Odette Shenfield: Can you briefly describe what your thesis was about?

Claire Gardner: There’s quite a lot of commentary about how a lot of climate communication uses this apocalyptic, catastrophic narrative. You know, “The world’s going to end and everything is terrible, and we somehow need to stop it, but it’s all going to be terrible anyway.” There’s quite a lot of theorising that this narrative is a really bad way to motivate people. If you can’t do anything about it, why would you bother engaging? The point of my thesis was to look into the empirical evidence – can we talk to people and see how they’re motivated? Do they have these visions?

My finding was that, amongst people who do care and do act on climate change, they do have these fears – but they hold them as only one possibility. It’s sort of like a worst-case scenario. They also hold complementary visions of things turning out fine, or more than fine – things working out because people come together, and “save the world,” so to speak.

As for the implications of this, it’s not so much that we can’t tell people bad news, because obviously climate change is serious. We just need to understand it in a broader context. People are familiar with the bad news and don’t need to be told more bad news if all that’s all they’re hearing. We need to be focusing on providing people with a story of hope and possibility – not that things will be fine, but that we can do things if we come together. There’s still time to take action. We need to build people’s sense of collective agency.

OS: Your thesis explored four different apocalyptic narratives. Can you explain these?

CG: Within the apocalyptic literature there’s quite a lot of discussion around what the apocalypse means from a theological or literary perspective. However, it was clear that when people were talking about climate apocalypse they were talking about a bunch of different narratives that weren’t properly distinguished. For example, there’s apocalypse in a pure theoretical sense, and there’s apocalypse in the popular imagination, and they’re two totally different stories.

The four categories of climate apocalypse are ones I drew from the literature on climate apocalypse. These four narratives became the framework through which I analysed my participants’ visions of the future, which also allowed me to test whether these narratives were present in people’s imaginations.

The first one is apocalypse as eschatological catastrophe – so climate change as the end of the world. This is the apocalypse in Hollywood movies; the apocalypse in popular understanding – a big catastrophe and floods and droughts and fires and the Four Horsemen and then everything ends. And this is an apocalypse you can’t do anything about, it’s just going to happen.

The second narrative is the post-apocalypse; that there’s been an apocalypse, but we’re now focusing on what comes after. In the case of climate change, this is saying, “Yes, we had big climate disasters, maybe civilisation collapsed, but then we’re looking at where we go from there.”

The third, is apocalypse as continual catastrophe – the idea that we’re in the apocalypse already. “We’re seeing climate impacts, seeing things unfold right now – it won’t be something big and sudden but the world will continue to disintegrate.”

The fourth is apocalypse as emancipatory transformation. If you look at the Ancient Greek and Biblical origins of ‘apocalypse’ it means ‘revelation’ or ‘unveiling’. The apocalypse is therefore the unveiling of the ‘real world’ and some ‘true meaning’ through the destruction of an old and corrupt world. This apocalypse in the case of climate change is a story of climate science warning us that there are terrible things going to happen if we continue business as usual, which highlights huge inequalities and injustices in society.  But we can learn from this revelation and transform our society quite deliberately to make it more just and beautiful and sustainable.

OS: Who did you interview?  

CG: I was quite deliberate in picking my sample of climate activists – people who were volunteers or staff-members with 350.org. To understand how people’s visions of the future affected their motivation, I needed to use a sample who were already motivated and taking action.

OS: Were the four apocalyptic narratives from the literature manifested in your interviews?

CG: I didn’t want to prompt people with any of the narratives or even use the word apocalypse. I just asked them to talk about their fears around the future of climate change. The vast majority of participants actually used the word apocalypse anyway, it just kind of came out. It was pretty clear that most people’s visions fell into one of these four categories. And definitely more of one, three and four, but a couple of people had number two in there as well. There are elements of all narratives with their own distinct temporal features in the sample, and they seemed to inspire people in different ways.

People who were thinking about the first version of apocalypse – climate change as everything is going to end, civilisation will collapse and lots of species will go extinct, these people were saying that just made them feel really hopeless and unmotivated. People were saying that was really terrifying so they tried to avoid feeling that way.

Some participants whose visions were more in line with the second were saying, I think it’s too late to stop this, but I’m looking forward to what happens to that. “Yes, civilisation will turn into a big mess, but I’m going to learn to grow veggies or something, be self sufficient.” Which is extreme in its own way but it was its own form of coping – “I’m looking past the worst and seeing how we rebuild.” They were also saying we need elements of our society to break down because they’re so unsustainable and we don’t have the ability to cleanly transform them.

For the third vision – some participants were saying, “Yeah you can see things happening already, climate change impacts here and now, it’s not just a thing of the future. We can’t solve it all, but there are bits and pieces that we can hopefully do something about.”

And then there’s the complement of number four. Some people were quite clear about talking about two visions – kind of oscillating between one and four, a negative and a positive pathway.

Nearly all activists in the sample held this belief that we have this huge amount of agency to actually make change. Most people would say, “We’re not there yet,” but they don’t give up hope in the possibility of people acting. This was the really crucial point, that there is a faith in collective agency. That if people actually decided to take the necessary action, then we can change society because they’re man-made systems.

OS: I’m interested in where you think you fit in terms of the four narratives, and how your research has shaped that?

CG: I think that I’ve gone through a similar journey as many others.  Most people’s trajectories started with vision one – seeing this big catastrophe climate change would inevitably cause. Inevitability, that’s not very motivating, so you shift towards something else where you see a possible way out.

I think I’ve gone through all of them. I have an element of hope in social change, otherwise I wouldn’t do what I do. You have to have hope otherwise it makes things pointless. But if I’m really honest, I think we’re kind of quite a way down number three. We can see already, just because it hasn’t hit us in our comfortable houses in Canberra or Perth or wherever, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening for other people.

In a terrible way, I feel like apocalypse three gives me some hope. The idea of being trapped in disintegration forever, while it seems really bleak, also highlights that your lived experience of climate catastrophe will just be like a tinted, grey-scale version of your current life. And if you live through them, you live through them and other things happen and keep happening. It’s not a happy, inspirational message though.

OS: So you still have an element of hope for social transformation to avoid apocalyptic climate change?

CG: At some level I definitely believe that it is possible for us to do things differently if we choose to do things differently. One of the participants said, “We could be such a better world, why don’t we just do that? When you look at what we’ve done historically there’s no reason to think we couldn’t if we just put our minds to it.”

I think where my hope waivers is the likelihood of that actually happening based on what people are doing at the moment. And that’s where we need to work. And to be quite critical, I don’t think we can just assume people will get together and sort things out, that’s why we need activism so much, to push people to work together.

OS: How did your sample respond to the tension between the feeling that collective action has the potential to do something and the feeling that it’s all completely hopeless?

CG:  People aren’t very hopeful that a positive social transformation will result from collective action. A good portion of the sample was able to say, “I think it’s unlikely, but I need to hold onto this vision and ignore my doubts because it’s what gives me hope.”

They spoke about how they managed that. Participants’ hopes about the future at any point in time were largely dependent on news they were hearing, where they were and who they were around. So, they tried to avoid certain negative climate and political news, if they could. People also spoke about how being involved in activism and being surrounded by other activists gave them hope.

The thing that really stuck out for me was the notion of changing or alternative futures. In the reading that I had done, people’s changing visions of the future, oscillating pathways, wasn’t something that was very prominent. But the vast majority of the sample had multiple visions and spoke very clearly about this being a source of their motivation – why take action if the future is set? We need uncertainty and we need a space for us to work within.

Yet, there were two people in the sample who had totally set visions about what future was. And they still found motivation to act. I think this raises a really interesting question: where do you find agency in a set future?

For one person, they had to work towards a positive future. A positive vision makes the problem a bit easier to engage with. I imagine they were so terrified of things not being okay, that they needed a positive vision to make the problem a bit easier to engage with.

The other person was at the opposite end. They were convinced that everything was going to be terrible but still believed they needed to make an effort. They had less sense of agency and saw action as more of a more imperative.

OS: It sounds a bit like they were seeking redemption.

CG: I think that’s what it was, “If all this is going terribly, at least I know I did all I could to not be part of it.”

OS: This reminds me of how Rebecca Solnit talks about the difference between hope as opposed to optimism or pessimism in ‘Hope in the Dark’. She says both optimism and pessimism have set views of the future and they both provide an excuse for inaction. Either everything will be fine so I don’t need to act, or it’ll be terrible and so I don’t need to act. And she says that hope is knowing the future is inherently unknowable, and finding some possibility within that.

I think perhaps that for activists and for people who have this sense of collective agency, then uncertainty is something they can often deal with. But perhaps for some people, and this is stuff I don’t know, if their sense of collective agency is so small, then maybe they need to believe we’re already on a pathway to something, before they can feel like they can contribute to that. I think this is where research into people’s perception of collective agency could be really important. How can we get people with less belief in collective agency to get on board?

We can’t forget the role of social norms in determining a lot of behaviour. Activists are kind of a psychologically unusual bunch of people. For the people I spoke to, hope and uncertainty was really important – mainly because their vision was a predominantly negative one, one that was really overwhelming.

But I wonder whether if you had a vision of a certainly positive future, whether that might be even more engaging to more people, because there’s a sense of, “There’s not a choice about this, we just need to get on with it, this is the way the world is going, you have to join in.”

If we are seeing physical, tangible changes around the world, maybe we can show people what’s happening to cut through the negative stories and so that people can hear about growing change and action. Even if we haven’t solved everything yet, there’s a sense of momentum. Maybe that would be more inspiring for people, and might make climate action more accessible to more people.  

OS: Your previous article on Demos discussed the lack of clear visions for the future and for how to organise society differently. Did your participants have visions of different ways of organising society?
CG: Visions reflected really general stuff about the need to make society much more sustainable. More than just technological changes to climate change, but engaging with nature and valuing nature a lot more. There wasn’t much clarity about how to achieve that. People would say things like we need solar panels, renewable energy, to ride our bikes more, have more public transport and grow more local food. They could talk a lot about things that are easy to connect back to your own life – lifestyle habits, things that are quite tangible, things people see already. There wasn’t really any sense of a kind of coherent macro-level arrangement. And for good reason, we don’t really have that in the popular imagination. People were able to acknowledge that the vision didn’t have as much in it as they’d like.

OS: Did most of your sample critique capitalism?

CG: Most of the sample did critique capitalism, but those who talked about capitalism didn’t have really sophisticated understandings of what they didn’t like about capitalism apart from infinite growth and consumerism. And there wasn’t a strong idea of what an alternative economic structure would look like. A clear vision was absent.

Where the critique came was that capitalism is a huge cause of climate change. People in the sample recognised that because capitalism is a socially-created system there is a need for collective political action. “I don’t know the policy details about how to move away from a capitalist system, but I do know that collective political action is required to engage in system change, rather than my consumer choices.”

OS: I recently went to a talk by Dr Kyle Whyte where he argued that Western theorising on the Anthropocene ignores indigenous perspectives on climate change. He argued that some for certain indigenous peoples in North America, they already experience what their ancestors would have viewed as dystopia. How did you pick your sample? What made you decide to pick Western activists?

 CG: Part of it was practicalities: I wanted to look at people who were already active and find out what got them to be active. 350.org was one of the more active, easier organisations to engage with, and they do have a predominantly white, middle class volunteer base here. Also, a lot of the literature I was engaging with didn’t engage in those colonial and historical issues so much. To try to engage with both would have been very complex.

There was one Indigenous person in my sample. That came out very strongly in their story. Their view on civilisation collapsing was comparatively positive, because they were seeing that as Western civilisation collapsing, and they saw their own civilisation still existing and their own cultural practices continuing past Western civilisation crumbling. That was almost seen as a positive thing in terms of bringing back Indigenous connections to the land. I think the perspective of other backgrounds and countries would change this. If you went to the Pacific and asked questions about climate apocalypse, I’m sure you’d see totally different stories as well.

OS: Did your sample critique colonialism?

CG: It was mentioned, but I think less so. And I think this comes back to having a pretty white sample, for the Indigenous person, colonialism was a big part of what they spoke about. For other participants, there was concern for international injustice, colonialism and land rights, but it was less personal and less focal.

OS: Do you think this could be because Western environmentalism can at times be hyper-localised, at times ignoring the broader geopolitical issues, colonialism – the contexts of environmental issues?

CG: I think that’s a really valid point. Even amongst the environmentalists aware of the impacts of environmental injustice and how stuff we’re doing is bad elsewhere, our solutions also seem to be really localised. You know, we’re talking about an issue that impacts people elsewhere, what can you do about it in your own place? Rather than, how can we have a solution that crosses those borders?

OS: Speaking of crossing borders, did your participants discuss issues to do with climate displaced persons, or consider, for example, whether we need to dismantle unjust Western borders?  

CG: I think we perhaps didn’t get that far in the conversations I had. Part of it could have been the way the conversation got led, people were talking more about technology and lifestyle change, kind of this rosy vision of a sustainable paradise, rather than legal dimensions and states. And this is perhaps part of my broader point about us lacking a bigger vision about national and international arrangements – what those changes might look like?

If we think seriously, we know climate change will create huge numbers of refugees, so we know in some way that dimensions of society will change – either for the better, or for the worse. We’ll put up more walls, or we’ll actually do something about bringing them down. A lot of those things I think were not a huge part of people’s visions about a positive future. Visions of conflict were present in people’s fears, but visions of changing political arrangements were less present in their hopes.

OS: To finish up, you’ve done a lot of climate activism, what are you working on at the moment? How does your research influence that?

CG: Two things to answer that. I work for a company called Future Super, and a big part of our existence depends on a positive hope for the future. We believe, as an investment manager, that there will be a transformation so we’re literally banking on positive change, as well as hoping to inspire it in other people. I’ve taken quite a bit out of my thesis about how I talk to people, and the need to challenge the fossil fuel industry. At least within the financial sphere we’re seeing bigger, almost inevitable trends out of fossil fuel investments.

That work is a bit different to the volunteer work I’m doing for Stop Adani with 350.org, about stopping the giant Adani coal mine in Queensland. This mine was supposed to be dead and buried three years ago and it’s come back with a real vengeance, yet there’s also a lot of momentum building around the Stop Adani campaign itself. I find doing that work really enjoyable because I am surrounded by very inspiring people, but it’s much harder to say that I think we’re winning because it is really pushing against oppositional forces. It’s a fight that we have to win. I haven’t thought too much about whether we will or not, we just have to throw everything we’ve got at it.

Claire spent her time at ANU studying sustainability and campaigning with Fossil Free ANU. She now works for Future Super and is co-coordinator of #StopAdani Canberra.

Odette Shenfield is a Demos editor.

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