In this episode of the Quillwood Podcast, host Eric Garza talks with Harlan Morehouse. Harlan teaches at the University of Vermont and has a keen interest in how people negotiate their futures with regard to 21st century social and environmental uncertainties. He talks with Eric about how catastrophism and apocalypticism show up in modern film and literature, how they tend to favor individualism over collectivism, and how he stays balanced while immersed in these narratives, among other things.
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Eric Garza: Welcome to the Quillwood Podcast. I am your host, Eric Garza.
Today’s journey begins back in late December of 2008 when I attended my very first survival class at a school in Vermont. It was marketed more as “primitive” skills course, but in the end, I think it was all in the context of survival that the group came together to offer this particular class. I would go on to take probably a dozen classes through the same organization where I took that first one, and in one of those classes I met today’s guest, Harlan Morehouse, who would eventually become faculty at University of Vermont, where I am also faculty. We have gotten to know each other quite well over the years. In today’s conversation, which was originally recorded in 2019 before the onset of the pandemic, we talked about his academic work in catastrophism, which is a timely topic.
Before I share our conversation, know that this episode is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. Through Quillwood Academy I offer courses, reading groups, and workshops to help people just like you learn to navigate the changing world in which we live. The first offerings in 2022 are reading groups on the Tao Te Ching, which is a sacred Chinese text, and Sacred Instructions, a book written by Penobscot attorney Sherri Mitchell. The reading group on the Tao Te Ching starts in late January, and the Sacred Instructions reading group begins in February. Both of these I expect to be great experiences for those who participate. You can head over to the Quillwood Academy website, at quillwood.org, to learn more.
So now that I have that intro out of the way for today’s episode, on to Harlan and my conversation
Eric: Harlan, welcome to the podcast.
Harlan: Thank you Eric. Thank you for having me here.
Eric: Cool. So you and I first met years and years ago at this point when we were taking a Scout Class at a survival school. And scout is in not Boy Scouts, but scout is in like Apache Scout, I guess for lack of a better term, kind of like guerrilla warfare stuff. Do you think that’s a fair…
Harlan: I think that’s a fair, a fair description of it. Though there might be a little bit of an aspect of the Boy Scouts involved in that, but…
Eric: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. So that’s where you and I first met. And at the time you were doing research towards your doctorate in anthropology, is that correct?
Eric: Geography, studying catastrophism and apocalypticism.
Harlan: Yeah, that’s a fair… Yeah, and with the kind of questions around catastrophism apocalypticism about, How is it that individuals and communities, what steps might they take in the present to shore up some measure of social or ecological resilience in the face of hypothetical challenges in the future?
Eric: Yeah. I guess the first question I wanted to pose, is what intrigued you about that realm enough that you decided to focus your doctoral research on that?
Harlan: That’s a good question. I would say, initially I had gone into graduate school to research labor relations in big box retail stores. And…
Eric: That’s a bit of a switch!
Harlan: It’s a bit of a switch. And I was thinking in the context of ethnographic field research and like, well am I really going to want to do this undercover ethnographic research in big box retail stores? And part of me was like, if given the opportunity I’d rather be outside. So I was really drawn to the idea of researching communities, especially under the rubric of like eco survivalist communities. In part, because of the nature of that field research, it might just be a bit more enjoyable than working in a big box retail store. And the other part of it is I have always been by some measure drawn to questions around catastrophism and apocalypticism in a very general sense.
Eric: Your doctoral work was done in Minnesota, University of Minnesota, right?
Eric: What inspired you to come to the US Northeast?
Harlan: Oh, I think it was in part I had a personal connection with somebody within this community that preexisted from the early two thousands. And it was just a good bridge to build into that community. One has to be relatively careful about conducting research in, for lack of a better term, fringe communities. For good reason, some fringe communities might not welcome outside researchers. But I think given that personal connection, it made that much easier to not only conceive of this research but actually pulled this research off as well.
Eric: And just to give my listeners a heads up, we’re making efforts to avoid naming names and exactly the places, for a lot of different reasons. So if it sounds like we’re finding our way around that and avoiding that, it’s deliberate on our part.
Harlan: Precisely because we are.
Eric: You mentioned you had that initial connection. I’ll say that when you and I first met, I actually didn’t realize that part of the reason why you were there was because you were doing research. I thought you were just another person who happened to be taking classes at this place. And I only found out about that, that was all part of your research years later. And so I’m wondering if I was unique in that I was unaware, or if that was a, I don’t want to say a secret, but maybe it was, like more of a…
Harlan: That’s a good question. I think it’s a question that revolves around ethics and research. Everything I did was above ground. I went through IRB approval and everything and I really restricted the research to a set of individuals within this community, not, for example, students coming into some courses to take. So I wasn’t conducting research on fellow students, and if I was drawing on experiences taking particular courses, for example, I would frame those experiences as a personal reflection, not as student X or student Y or fellow student Z said this, and this is interesting and unpack it, and those kinds of ways. So for all intents and purposes, I would say to a certain extent yes, I was there for research, but in another more fundamental sense, I was there because I was interested in these things, personally, outside of the realm of strict academics. And also, I think by the time that I had defended, gone through the orals of the dissertation proposal and defended that, that I was ready to stop being an academic. I was ready to forget how to be an academic. And one way to do that is to throw myself into the world in a very different kind of way. And if you are there, even though it’s a course, it’s a course that’s very different than the kind of courses that we experience within the realm of academia.
Eric: Oh yes.
Harlan: Yeah. So I would say that around the question of what drew me there as a guest, the research, but I think it’s more than the research. I think what drew me to that particular class where we met each other was a longstanding interest that goes beyond my particular research at the University of Minnesota. A longstanding interest in catastrophism or apocalypticism.
Eric: And just to give folks a sense, we made some illusions to what scout class entailed, but some of the things we learned about where animal tracking and human tracking, we learned about self defense, we learned about camouflage and a bunch of other stuff, on top of those things. I guess I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty details of all the crazy things that we did in that class. But you had a longstanding interest in apocalypticism and catastrophism and I guess I’m curious, I certainly have had that interest for a very long time too, although I did not pursue it academically quite in the same way that you have. So I’m curious where your interest in that originated, and what kind of a path you followed to deciding, Oh, I’m going to study this for my doctoral work.
Harlan: Oh, yeah. Okay. That’s a good question. And I think part of it, and maybe you can relate to this as well, is that I think catastrophism or apocalypticism are these enduring tropes of living in popular culture in the late 20th century, into the 21st. I think of growing up in this kind of white middle class, kind of pasty Midwestern suburban environment there was a frequent exposure, whether through books, through film, through television, of that whole narrative, or the trope, of the apocalypse. And there’s something that’s really fascinating about that. So I think of movies, for example, that I found unnerving, like the Andromeda strain, like ideas of apocalypse, whether it’s viral or coming from outer space, or whether it’s a nuclear kind of situation. These are these cultural touchstones of what it means to grow up in the United States. I can’t speak, of course, for everyone’s experience growing up in the United States, but I think that it’s not… I guess what I’m trying to say is I think that a kind of persistent interest in questions around the apocalypse or questions around catastrophe, with the capital C, are actually quite common. Yeah. What about you?
Eric: That’s a great question. I guess my interest in catastrophism and apocalypse is somewhat bi-modal. I don’t know exactly how old you are. I might have a few years on you. I grew up in the late seventies and early eighties, and grew up in the Midwest as well. And this was at a time where I still have memories from elementary school, and even I think into junior high school is probably when this stopped, of doing nuclear drills as part of my weekly experience of school where, and of course this is utterly useless, a particular alarm would go off that was different from the fire alarm and different from the tornado alarm and we would all hide under our desks as if that would have any positive impact on our likelihood of survival.
Harlan: Don’t look at the light!
Eric: Yes, exactly. Something like that. And so, just conversations with a couple of teachers, I really didn’t engage with a lot of teachers on this, but conversations with my mom and my dad about why we did this and the tail end of the cold war leading up to when Soviet Union finally dissolved in the early 1990s, and inheriting that sense from my mom and my dad that the reality and the comfort that we knew could very well be fickle, and it could evaporate literally in an instant. And when that instant arrived was simply not something that any of us had control over. And I think those drills, that would come unannounced during elementary school and maybe my first year of junior high were reinforcing that.
And then the Soviet Union dissolved and there was probably six or eight years of respite. And then I finished from college and went to, after working for a couple of years, went to grad school at Indiana university. And that was where I first immersed really myself in modern environmentalism. And I never read Paul Ehrlich’s population bomb, but a lot of people in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs talked about themes that come up in that. And it was a very real thing for a lot of people. And that was where I eased into catastrophism 2.0, not so much from a fear of bombs dropping like a nuclear Holocaust, but from the population bomb or any numerable other environmentally related things that could prove that society as we knew it, in our comforts, were very fickle and we had little control over exactly when whatever would transpire. I would say that my interest in it was driven largely by those cultures that I was immersed in. One, the tail end of white middle class America for fearing this nuclear Holocaust with Russia. And then later on being immersed in more of an environmental movement, and they’re unique and certainly very different from the previous one, take on imminent catastrophism.
Harlan: Right. Yeah. And I feel like your trajectory is fairly similar to mine where as I became equipped with more insight or data as far as what’s happening with the contemporary global environmental condition, that those kinds of concerns become grafted onto this preexisting fascination with catastrophism or apocalypticism. And I think there’s something interesting at work there, where I see them in part… Perhaps we can see it as catastrophism, like you say, 2.0, but there’s also ways in which they feed into each other.
Eric: Oh, they totally do.
Harlan: I think there’s a lot of, perhaps some positives to locate in that, and may be it’s the case that in growing up around this fetish for catastrophe that allows us to feel better equipped to deal with these things once we become armed with, or become equipped with, different data. It’s also problematic in the sense that if you look back on a lot of those pop culture films, wrapped up around viruses or zombies or…
Eric: Day After Tomorrow is somewhat more recent. I don’t remember exactly what year that came out in, but…
Harlan: Yeah. That, yeah, I forgot. I think that’s like early 2000s or something. But we look back on those and they have a really problematic politics to them, oftentimes. I guess the concern is to what extent are those problematic politics that we see underpinning these kinds of more Hollywood stylizations of a catastrophe, how are those politics carried over into, say, an environmental politics? And I think that’s a big question that I have and the kind of research I do is What are the political implications of certain kinds of catastrophic imaginaries, and how are these not just flights of fancy, but how do these politics become manifest in the world in deeply problematic ways?
Eric: As you were speaking, I was remembering how the environmental movement as we know it today really had its roots in deeply a catastrophic and apocalyptic time. Deep in the cold war is when Rachel Carlson emerged with Silent Spring and gave birth to the modern environmental movement. You may or you may not have actually read her book, but if you read through it…
Harlan: I admit that I have not read her book. I know of it. I know the premise.
Eric: Yeah. But the, the language, and she caught a lot of flack for this, but I think this is one of the reasons why it caught on. The language that she uses is very much rooted in the whole crying wolf, imminent catastrophe thing. A lot of her critics accused her of doing that, crying wolf at a time when there’s no wolf.
Harlan: I still hear the birds.
Eric: And that was such a pivotal moment in the birth of our modern environmental movement that a lot of that catastrophism seems like it has stuck around, and it has changed its form, and people pay attention to different things. Like nowadays we don’t as much pay attention to toxics in the same way that Rachel Carlson did, at least on average. Some people certainly pay a lot of attention to that, and people’s attention has wandered off to a global climate change and some people’s attention has wandered to population, the population bomb, and other things. It’s hard to separate the modern environmental movement from this whole idea of catastrophism.
Harlan: That means it can have a useful function to it in lots of respects because at the very baseline, what catastrophism does is that it makes an argument that the status quo is unsustainable. That if it continues on and if it remains in the structures that underpin and remain unchallenged, then we’re going to find ourselves in a fundamentally catastrophic scenario. I think there’s certainly some of the lineage… So Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, it’s the spring that the birds don’t sing. Well, look what’s happening now and the fields of Western Europe with all of these pesticides and herbicides being dumped onto monocultural fields, that you have this precipitous 70% decline in insect populations. And what follows after that? Bird populations crashed. So Europe right now is experiencing its own Silent Spring, and a silent summer because of that.
A catastrophists argument can shock people, the aim could be to shock people into making a decision or making a change in the immediate, but catastrophes work on different kinds of temporalities too. And I think what we see with the kind of slow toxification of the environment, we see what Rob Nixon calls slow violence taking hold. So what, Carson was writing about in the 1960s, 1950s?
Eric: 1960s I think. I don’t know how long she was working on that book before it was published, and I think it was published in the very early 1960s.
Harlan: We are fully within the legacy of that and living it in very concrete ways right now.
Eric: Earlier you mentioned that there are elements of catastrophism and apocalypticism that you found problematic in some ways and I think it’s worthwhile for us to delve into that.
Harlan: Yeah, I find it mostly problematic.
Eric: We can take out a lot of directions. I’ll let you choose where we go first.
Harlan: Okay. Yeah, that’s a big question because I… So if I could boil it down and could say that there’s three points that I have, or points of contention that I have, with catastrophism. But there are certainly a lot more that one could take. One of them is born out of this idea of catastrophe, or especially apocalypse, as this kind of future threat. This threat that looms over the horizon, and that if we don’t make adequate steps to either address that, or prepare ourselves for that, then we’re going to be screwed. And I think that’s oftentimes the narrative, or the arc, that catastrophism takes is something looming on the horizon.
Eric: Which is probably a unique narrative for those of us who live in very affluent countries because…
Harlan: And that points to one of the specific problems of this is if catastrophism remains this future oriented concern, that means that we’re overlooking existing catastrophes that we, by virtue of our class position, by virtue of our gender, by virtue of the color of our skin, by virtue of a whole host of other things, that we don’t necessarily have to confront that catastrophic material realities of these events. So it can overlook existing catastrophes. And those can be… The list is very long to choose from. There’s a lot of catastrophes whether they’re social with, whether they’re political, whether they’re economic or whether they’re environmental.
Eric: Yeah. I’m thinking of Puerto Rico and yeah, it’s something that’s still going on now and is relatively recent in its origins. The natural disaster in what’s officially part of the United States, and we treat them as like a 5th tier… They’re not a state. So like a frontier territory and largely ignored what was going on there.
Harlan: Right, exactly. And the case of Puerto Rico brings up another problem with this future orientation of catastrophe. Not only does it overlook existing or ongoing catastrophes, it also overlooks historical catastrophes that persist.
Eric: Like colonialism.
Harlan: So we can’t think of the structural vulnerabilities that Puerto Rico, that made hurricane Maria that much more catastrophic for Puerto Rico. Those aren’t just about this happenstance of geography, coming into contact with this massive storm. That vulnerability is also produced by previous decades of colonial rule, and overbearing economic chokehold that the United States had over that territory which compromises the ability to really fully face a storm of that magnitude. With any catastrophic event, there’s always a before to it. We’re always worried about the after. We’re not doing a very good job of paying attention to what’s happening now, and what happened before now.
Eric: Yeah. We can think of that same issue in the context of New Orleans and hurricane Katrina. I was early on in grad school at Indiana university when hurricane Katrina struck. I think that was 2005 maybe. It’s interesting to think back to some of the statements that faculty made. We had an environmental economist got up and said it makes no sense to rebuild, the cost benefit analysis says this. And at the time I just bought it, because I didn’t have the critical eye that I have now. And now looking back, this guy should’ve been skewered. He wasn’t, at the time. But yeah, such a long, long history of new Orleans that created Hurricane Katrina. It was not just a Category 5 storm washing up.
Harlan: Yeah. You bringing up the person who said Oh, this cost benefit analysis doesn’t make sense to rebuild. This reminds me of catastrophe as an opportunity for the accumulation of new forms of capital, for example. Some people thought of Katrina as is kind of great leveling, right? Provided this kind of clean slate for new modes of development that couldn’t have otherwise happened if there were concentrated populations there, but those populations were moved out. So catastrophe offers an opportunity for the accumulation of capital. This is something that Naomi Klein writes about with Shock Doctrine. It’s also something that applies itself to the case of Puerto Rico as well, where the Hurricane Maria comes in, there’s this kind of great leveling, and all of a sudden there’s new opportunities for privatization of the electrical power grid. Elon…
Eric: Elon Musk, I was just going to say…
Harlan: Elon Musk plays a role here, what do you do with that? So we have this technocratic elitist who is saying, I’ll send you batteries. That fulfills a very urgent and important need, and I’m not going to take that away. There was a need to have access to this, but what’s the long run of that? How does this fit into these preexisting and continuing legacies of colonialism and privatization.
Eric: And neocolonialism, in that case.
Harlan: Absolutely. And just the general kind of like neoliberal drift, I think about that in the context of when the Andaman Earthquake of 2006, 08?
Eric: I’m not remember the exact year of that.
Harlan: The one that killed 250,000 people throughout Southeast Asia and South Asia. The tsunamis hit Sri Lanka, and they wiped out some fishing villages. And in the name of emergency and protection, the Sri Lankan state said, we’re going to move these villages further inland just to protect you from this. And these villages were moved further inland, and while there were inland some high-end resorts went up on their ancestral land. So this becomes, the catastrophe becomes another accumulation strategy.
Eric: Too risky to have this micro-scale fishing village there, but perfectly risky for a tourist resort.
Harlan: Right? I think that’s one of the things that I think is problematic about catastrophism is that in as much as it is a kind of clearing, like a catastrophe as a kind of clearing and provides a blank slate, then one can think of catastrophe as an object of desire in that way. Where it catastrophe is not something to be fully feared, but it’s actually something to be desired because people might have a different kind of stake in it.
So from the perspective of a speculative landscape developer who’s like, Oh, I really would like to develop that area if only…
Eric: All those people can be moved away.
Harlan: And who was… I don’t remember who wrote it or who said it, I want to say Rahn Emanuel, but it could be totally wrong on that. Is there like a fact checking afterwards we can do? But somebody had said, What Chicago needs is its own Katrina to wipe out a lot of the South Side’s so-called problems, right? So catastrophe becomes this object of desire that allows for people to build or to accumulate in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t because they’re all of a sudden freed from social constraints or infrastructural constraints or whatever the case.
And that desire is not only about speculative accumulation of capital, but that desire also maps on to other problematic aspects of catastrophism. If I think about this in the context of say like the prepper movements, or survivalist movements in the United States. Here, what you have, not exclusively, but generally speaking, it’s like middle-aged disaffected white men for whom catastrophe is an object of desire. Because when that catastrophe takes hold, that’s when they’re better versions of themselves are actuated. Their more masculine, their more virile sense of their self comes into bring, and then they get to realize that. But they can’t realize that as long as the status… They’re held back…
Eric: They’re held back by laws and norms…
Harlan: Social conventions, all this kind of stuff. That’s a really dark, politically deeply problematic framing of catastrophism where catastrophe is that which sets into motion the better versions of ourselves.
Eric: Yeah. The “better” versions here. You’re reminding me of that Purge movie. I don’t even know if it’s a trilogy, but there’s a series of movies built around The Purge. Are you familiar with that?
Harlan: I know… I haven’t seen the movies, no.
Eric: I’ve never seen any of the movies, but the general sense is that for some period of time, once each year, the United States government basically suspends all laws, which means that if you want to go out on a murdering spree for 12 hours or 24 hours or whatever it is, you can do that and there are no repercussions. And the movie is usually, just from reading about them on the internet, what they do is they chronicle some particular individual’s quest to survive The Purge. For whatever reason they’re a valuable person, valuable enough for the movie producers to decide they want to focus on them and then they’re beset with various people who are trying to kill them for whatever reason and they have to survive for 24 hours. Or something like that.
Harlan: That’s really.. I know you said you haven’t seen it, but I’m left wondering if, in that whole Purge universe, if there are any people who take advantage of it to do altruistic things? To be using that suspension of all laws for, you say, 12 hours?
Eric: 12, 24…
Harlan: 24 hours or something, to radically redistribute wealth to people in need?
Eric: Go after all of the wealthiest people in the world to see if you can spread some of their wealth out? If that happens, they don’t focus on that in the movies.
Harlan: I think that would be a more compelling thing, as opposed to this supposedly Darwinian war of all against all. What about the opportunity for mutual aid to actually take hold.
Eric: And that speaks by itself to what kind of fantasies of catastrophism do the writers and the producers of this film have, and what is it that compels them to write this kind of movie? To write and to produce and to distribute this kind of movie.
Harlan: Yeah. You know, and I think that’s a good question. And maybe it’s the case in… Maybe this goes back to the issue that we brought up in the very beginning. What does it mean to grow up with catastrophism as being this really common trope to popular media? And that what we see in that trope is usually it’s about survival. It’s about this way in which it’s the individual, or the family unit up against these insurmountable kinds of challenges.
What one doesn’t really get a sense of, that the way that catastrophism works its way through popular culture, is the emergence of things like societies of mutual aid. Instead what you get is, and it’s a wonderful book of course, it’s Cormack McCarthy’s The Road. What you get a sense of is this lawless, post-apocalyptic hellscape in which any sort of social convention…
Eric: Is gone with the wind…
Harlan: Is gone and you’re left with the raw edge of cannibalism, you know. And I think that speaks to a certain kind of poverty of the imagination that we can’t think of a different way to understand how community might cohere differently, and perhaps more beautifully in a catastrophic scenario.
And I have to admit my own idealism is creeping through here, but I would like to see, in that Purge example you used, instead of going out on a murder spree, why don’t you go out and, like I said, radically redistribute wealth. That’s so much more compelling. That’s so much more compelling vision of the future, I think.
Eric: Yeah. And it’s interesting, you mentioned how this might be your idealism sneaking in. But another way of looking at that, we can kind of turn that on its head and say instead of that being your idealism creeping in, it’s this part of you where individualism has not sunk it’s claws. And how much of our modern understanding of catastrophism and survivalism is driven by, at it’s very most fundamental base, individualism and this idea of perpetuating ourselves as an individual. And if we can do that and we can perpetuate our family, and if we can do that, maybe we’ll reach out to more distant family members or something like that. But there’s no sense of belonging to anything bigger than my very immediate genetic relatives, after I take care of myself first. And what kind of catastrophism does that build? It seems like it builds a very particular sort.
Harlan: Yeah, I think it does. It doesn’t strike me as even remotely democratic or egalitarian, you know? It strikes me as man versus world, and man, the gender, being very intentional in that sentence. I think it speaks to the long legacies that we have in this country of, even before Rachel Carson in terms of the environmental movement coming up in this country about, it’s about rugged individualism and it’s westward, and it’s facing the immensity of the grandeur of nature, but still figuring out a way to survive to hack it out.
Eric: Like those deeper cultural myths that have been part of what is now America for so long that most of them are completely invisible to most people.
Harlan: Right. And you see that also there’s that long legacy that certainly has its roots in manifest destiny. But we see that also manifesting itself in shows like Survivor or Naked and Afraid, which still carries on with that tired trope of man versus nature.
So I teach this course at the University of Vermont called The Geographical Perspectives on Catastrophe. It’s very relevant to our conversation today. What I do the first class of each year is I do this group work exercise where I explain what a go bag is, or what a bug out bag is, and say these are the things that someone would have put in their bag to be able to pick up and be able to survive a given catastrophic situation. And what I do is I break them up into groups of five, and I say, you have two tasks. You have to identify what your catastrophe is, and you can be imaginative about it. It could be a nuclear situation. It could be zombies, it could be whatever. And then you have to say what’s going to go into your go bag. What do you feel is going to be necessary for you to survive in this catastrophic scenario? And without fail, every group, the things that go into their go bag are things that would ensure individual survival. There’s nothing that goes into their go bag that might ensure collective survival.
There are a couple exceptions to this. Once person said, Oh, we should put some seeds in our go bag. And I found that to be a beautiful poetic kind of thing because a seed is an investment into the future. It’s the possibility of life continuing to thrive in conditions that are far from ideal. And I thought that was really nice. But what about storytelling? What about culture? What about even things like card games? How do you maintain some semblance of joy in these circumstances that are far from ideal? And that doesn’t really enter into the imagination of the students. Granted this is a relatively small sample size and granted it’s at the University of Vermont, so we’re generally, but not exclusively, pulling on in particular kind of demographic for that course. So there’s going to be bias in that. But I think it speaks volumes about why it is so difficult for us to imagine a different kind of way of persisting through catastrophe that doesn’t reinforce this old trope of the individual against the world.
And I think that what’s at work there… And I certainly don’t blame the students. I don’t go out there and be like, you should all feel terrible about yourselves for not investing…
Eric: You suck…
Harlan: Investing in this sense of community or collectivity. But I think it speaks to the cultural context. When we find ourselves, we’re always bombarded with this idea of individual versus world. And it graphs onto notions of bootstrapping yourself up into the American dream. If you work hard enough, you will succeed. If you prepare hard enough, you’ll be able to survive the apocalypse. And those two things are very similar to each other in ways.
Eric: Yeah. I can totally see a lot of connections there. Yeah.
You spent a good chunk of your time, certainly with your research, investigating catastrophism and apocalypticism and yet, I’ve known you for a long time and you’re a very well-balanced person, by my estimate. And I point that out because I know a lot of people who spend a lot of time thinking about catastrophism and apocalypticism who are not well-balanced people, in my estimation. What are some of the things that you do that allows you to stay well balanced in the face of what you’ve chosen to immerse yourself in?
Harlan: That’s a good question. And it makes me think initially that I present well. I’ve been looking at catastrophism and apocalypticism, especially ideas wrapped around the Anthropocene, and this notion of What does it mean for a civilization that thrived in conditions of the Holocene to move into something different? What’s at work, as Roy Scranton says, in like accepting that our civilization is already dead. And that’s a pretty heavy thing to work on or to stay with. And I used to think that I could do it by maintaining a certain kind of gallows humor, a certain kind of like dark humor to be able like, we’re screwed, whatever.
And then I realize that was just a band aid, and not a particularly well-placed one at that.
Eric: A short-term solution.
Harlan: A short term solution because I think that I’m facing the… Staying With the Trouble as Donna Haraway says, I’ve something very difficult like how does one understand, or even begin to understand, something like massively distributed environmental violence. I found myself, in staying with the trouble, of actually slipping into periods of depression and having deep anxiety, which I think is in many respects an understandable reaction to this situation. And the gallows humor was just a poorly placed band aid, and it wasn’t actually addressing the core… It didn’t do a very good job of providing me with some semblance of balance. Of course, I teach in the classroom, so I have to present well. I’m not going to come loading that depression or that anxiety into the classroom.
To kind of back up for a second. So how do I deal with this? It’s a tricky question. I still haven’t figured it out. My sense is that it’s not good to turn away from it. And for lack of a better phrase, I feel like there’s a kind of ethical imperative to stay with this, if not to bear witness to this kind of great violence, this great unraveling that we’re seeing all around the world. This huge questions about the future, I think it’s really important to stay with it. I stayed with it and I tried to process it and the way I process it is primarily through teaching. That’s my mode. And I try to write about it, but I haven’t figured out a way to write about it that doesn’t feel cheap, that doesn’t feel opportunistic, or doesn’t feel somewhat melancholic or nostalgic.
So I’m still working on it. I’m learning to write about these kinds of things, so I haven’t figured it out. I’m not in that sense well balanced at all, because I think it’s very tricky to balance out a notion of individual mental wellbeing in the face of these kinds of immensities. The scale of global degradation, and the temporal scales of what does it mean to think about the slow violence that’s been at play. We can go back, as Raj Patel and Jason Moore say, like this begins in the long 16th century and we’re still in the wake of that. How does one individual face that, is not an easy question.
But that said, I think that there’s another way that I’ve been thinking about this because, I think generally speaking, catastrophic narratives are deeply problematic. One, like I said, it tends to overlook the past and the present in giving privilege to this idea of a hypothetical or future catastrophe. Secondly, catastrophe becomes an object of desire in which we imagine oftentimes more masculine, more virile versions of ourselves that are capable of existing in a post catastrophic scenario. And that’s problematic because what that does is it means that we don’t actually engage the present, we engage the hypothetical. And the third thing that we didn’t really talk about, how sometimes catastrophism can sanction a kind of technocratic managerialism, as its sometimes called. Yes, the future is in question. Those in positions of power, I think of people like Al Gore, even Elon Musk, be like, yes, the future is very uncertain but believe in us because we have the technological, infrastructural means to get us through that.
And so oftentimes what we do is that we hand over our politics to those in a position of power who have a vested interest in the maintenance of the economic status quo, if not taking that economic structures and moving them into more drastic directions. And in that sense, I think that this is where I think of the work of Erik Swyngedouw, where he says discourses on catastrophism and apocalypticism, what they really do is that they are depoliticizing and they serve the interest of those who are in a position of power. So in view of all of those things, I still wanted to maintain a sliver of positivity in catastrophic thinking. I had mentioned this earlier, where at the very base what catastrophic thinking does is it signifies that the status quo is unsustainable, and that if it is to continue that things will only become more entrenched in a much worse way.
And granted now, people might take that as a launching pad into the more kind of ridiculous or politically suspect desires. But I think it provides an opportunity for us to imagine the possibility of another future. And I think this is where you talk about like, like how do I maintain my balance? This is a kind of recent move that I’ve made to be like, I’m staying with the trouble of this. I’m trying to work my way through and not to turn away from this, but face this head on. But I’ve got to figure out these techniques, these footholds that allow me to do it without losing my mind.
And one of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is that if we are concerned about catastrophe, if we’re concerned about the apocalypse, we would do well to listen to stories from those cultures that have survived apocalypses, who have survived, continued to persist through purely catastrophic circumstances. And here what I have in mind, for example, is indigenous cultures who have, for all intents and purposes, been experiencing apocalyptic conditions since the advent of the Colombian exchange in the long 16th century. And when you think about what happens with the Spanish and the Portuguese, land in present day Latin America, you think about 95% population die off. You think about significant changes to the physical environment through resource extraction and the movement of wealth from the periphery to the core. Those are the kind of conditions that we might describe, well describe and justifiably so, as apocalyptic, certainly catastrophic and those kinds of ways. Yet despite that, these cultures and their stories have persisted. So we would do well to listen to those cultures that have persisted. And here I think of the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Braiding Sweetgrass, and be like, listen to these stories. They have something to teach you.
I think that the work of Zoey Todd, who it challenges us to say we need to listen again to these other stories that might provide us with a sense of what it might mean to live differently, and perhaps more beautifully, in a world even if that world is very far from ideal. And so I’ve started to think about that. Why indigenous literatures, why indigenous cosmology matter in the world today.
But that’s a tricky question, because I don’t want to in any way say that indigenous culture is going to save us, however we might define us. And in many senses I think that, not to strategically essentialize all indigenous cultures, but there are ways in which what imperative do indigenous cultures have to save the very structures that have…
Eric: Destroyed them.
Harlan: Destroyed them and have been destroying them over the last 400 plus years or 600 plus years? But nevertheless, I think that there’s something. If we, if the huge stumbling block into imagining the possibility of a different future, which is not saying the ideal future, this might not even be a better future, but a different future that is slightly off the trajectory in which we find ourselves on, which I think is a very dark trajectory. If we want to think about the possibility of doing that, we might have to listen to those stories that are coming, or being articulated, and have been articulated from cultures that have been systemically marginalized by these very structures that produced this problem, which we now inhabit. And I think that what that listening does, what it requires is also learning how to shut the hell up and to say that we might, we, and again, I’m using this term we, and I don’t know how to define it, but you know, in a sense I’m thinking of this in the context of European culture, even that’s problematic to use that because… I’m tripping over myself here. But defining who the we is and this is deeply problematic. Because I don’t think it’s a we, I think it’s an it, that’s responsible for this problem. It’s not humanity. This isn’t human nature. I think what’s at the core of this problem is like a globalized industrialized capital, that has its roots in colonialism. But anyway, I digress. What was I saying?
Eric: You’ wee answering the question of how do you stay well balanced.
Harlan: Okay. Yeah. And so working through that and what does it mean to listen? What does it mean to actually be willing to shut up and listen? I think it’s something, and I think that a willingness to shut up is an admission that we might not have the answers, that we can’t rely on the idea of this kind of technocratic solutionism or this kind of, Oh, human ingenuity is going to get us out of this problem. That might not well be the case. And if that’s not the case, then the solutions might not come from within those very structures that produced this problem in the first place. We might have to look outside of those structures. But there’s a delicate politics to that, and I don’t want to suggest in any way, shape or form that indigenous cultures, even using the term indigenous cultures, it’s like…
Eric: Taking a whole bunch of very diverse peoples who don’t see themselves as all the same and lumping them into this big glob.
Harlan: Exactly. So that’s problematic, homogenization that’s at work there. I don’t want to suggest that the answer is somehow there, and I call into question whether or not there actually is an answer. And I think that the desire to have an answer is a desire that is unique and specific perhaps to the very same kind of thing that we’ve been talking about for the past 45 minutes, which is this idea of the individual consensus. Like we can figure it out or somehow, what does it mean to persist in a culture that is pinned to this notion of progress, which has always said that the future is going to be better.
Eric: “Better”. Do you have any kind of parting thoughts you’d like to offer before we wrap up?
Harlan: Oh, no, not necessarily. I wanted to talk about James Howard Kunstler. I went and re-read the final chapter of The Long Emergency and the things that he’s writing about, his desires, his fears, his fears of the inner city, which read African-American, is kind of like denunciation and infantilization of African American culture. His fears and anxieties around immigration across the Southern border are all wrapped up in this kind of like Malthusian environmental catastrophist narrative. But those same concerns are the kind of concerns that have a lot of traction with the alt-right and with the Trump Administration as well. And I’m really fascinated about what those points of contact are between James Howard Kunstler’s seemingly kind of like progressive environmentalist kind of catastrophism—environmental catastrophism is not inherently progressive as we know—with the rise of the Alt-right, its ascension to power. And I don’t know, you know.
Eric: It is interesting. What’s interesting about James Howard Kunstler is that when you talk to him, he certainly identifies himself as a leftist, but at the same time having read—I don’t know how many of his World Made By Hand books he’s written, but I read the first three…
Harlan: That’s what I read too, yeah.
Eric: And, and at the time I read them I just felt like, wow, there’s something here that is grating against me. Part of me wants to keep reading, part of me finds this very worthy of disdain. And then it was only maybe in the last year or so, especially after Trump was elected, when I reflected back on that. It’s like, Oh, that’s like Alex Jones who happens to portray himself as a liberal.
Harlan: Mm. Does he? I’ve known that he’s taken… He refers to himself as liberal?
Eric: I’ve always thought that he perceived himself as being a left leaning liberal.
Harlan: Really? Oh man, that’s wild.
Eric: Supporting a democratic causes and that sort of thing. Maybe I’m totally misreading him.
Harlan: Maybe he’s a Libertarian, I don’t know. But Alex Jones is a whole other topic for multiple podcasts. But, so back to your kind of falling out with James Howard Kunstler. What were you…
Eric: I guess I just, and I think this was the end of catastrophism 2.0 and maybe the beginning for me of catastrophism 3.0, which was more the ability to look at that whole narrative in a much more critical way of seeing the darkness that draws a lot of people there, and how it’s completely unconscious, and how it leads them, just to pick on James Howard Kunstler, to write books where the only role for women is as subordinates or whores or evil manipulative witches or something like that. I guess, and you know, part of my revulsion comes from wanting a very different relationship to people who identify as women. The more I thought about it, just so much about the world that he crafted from his fantasies, and then sold to other people as their fantasies, so much of that world is not a world I would want to live in, on one hand, but also I can see why it sells well because I can see how it teases the fantasies of a lot of different types of people.
Harlan: And maybe that’s one of the issues around catastrophism is that, and I think about it in the context of James Howard Kunstler work, his work is not about the future. I mean in a superficial sense, it is. It’s about this post collapse, hypothetical scenario at some point in the future.
Eric: Post-apocalyptic sort of thing…
Harlan: Right. But his product is about resurrecting the past.
Eric: And a particular vision of the past.
Harlan: Pastoral idealism. And so here we see like very gendered labor roles, we see a certain kind of…
Eric: Not just labor, but governance roles as well…
Harlan: Governance roles. We see a kind of like a folksy pragmatic know-how, kind of rugged individualism is what is ultimately the kind of bedrock for stability in this scenario. And I wonder what are those points of contact between that kind of catastrophism and the rise of Trump’s kind of ethno-nationalism and nativism. Trump’s slogan to make America Great Again, maybe James Howard Kunstler’s is to make the pastoral great again.
Eric: Or to make America pastoral again.
Harlan: Make America… MAPA. I think that’s the danger about , even apocalypticism, even if it remains future oriented in ways that we’ve discussed are problematic, it also offers this opportunity for nostalgia and idealism to creep in, to resurrect and redeem the past to make the past new again. In new circumstances, because we’ve been provided with that proverbial blank slate. And if catastrophism is used to smuggle in an idealized and overly wrought conception of the past, then it runs the risks of reproducing those inequalities of the past as well. And that’s precisely what I think you see in James Howard Kunstler’s worldview as well. But the problem is with that view is, and I remember seeing him speak at the University of Vermont probably six, seven years ago…
Eric: Yeah, I remember that too.
Harlan: Is that it’s compelling for a lot of people. I remember that room was packed! Probably like 300, 400 people. And it was all extensively, well-meaning Vermont Public Radio listeners who were nodding in this kind of…
Eric: Whole body nods.
Harlan: Whole body nods. It’s kind of affirmative, to say like, yes, yes. While he was going on about the problems of hip-hop culture. And granted, other things that he’s talking about, about the unsustainability of suburbia, I don’t disagree with him. I think that’s a very unsustainable way, huge amount of energy inputs, it’s unsustainable. I agree with that. Where he takes that collapse of suburbia is something I don’t disagree with. But I remember leaving that talk and wondering what is it about, say, the white middle class that is so fascinated with the conditions of its own demise? And I think that goes back to this initial part of our conversation about how catastrophe and how apocalyptic narrative, and these tropes that were all steeped in, in this culture, how they become these objects of desire. And I think there’s something at work there. It’s like we in some respects maybe a recognition that, comparatively speaking, we have it well. Maybe this catastrophe is a way for us to alleviate ourselves of this guilt of being relatively well off without actually having to make any real sacrifices. I don’t know.
Eric: Yeah, I was thinking about another, and I thought about this earlier on too and I thought about bringing it up. It also occurs to me that one, and this is particularly true since the 1950s, one element of the United States that a lot of people struggle with is change and the rate of change and how the rate of change on technological fronts and on social fronts has been increasing. And I wonder if part of the attraction of catastrophism is finding a way to slow down that rate of change and grab something that you are accustomed to from behind, from the past, and bring that back with the expectation that will stay that way for a long time. And maybe that factors in with your idea of a clean slate is that we have this technological rate of change and there’s social rates of change that go with it. The Civil Rights Act, women rising in society and all kinds of other things, gay marriage, and you can write a long list and that rate of change seems like it is accelerating. And a lot of people, especially the stereotypical person who might vote for Trump or who would share James hard Kunstler when he bemoans hip hop culture. People struggle with that rate of change. Maybe that’s part of what makes this whole idea of catastrophism and the blank slate it promises so compelling is that you get this blank slate and if you don’t like the way things were going, you don’t have to go there anymore. You can grab something from the past, bring it here, and with this blank slate it’s going to last the rest of your lifetime. And of course, whatever happens after that is not your problem.
Harlan: Yeah, I think you’re onto something. And I can admit to myself that I also find that compelling too. I mean, I personally have my own struggles and challenges about the rate of change, and there’s aspects of what I do, and this is maybe one of the reasons why I went into the dissertation research that I conducted, where I’m really fascinated about what does it mean to go back? What does it mean to go back and to draw on a skill that we might locate sometime before the emergence of civilization, however you want to date civilization. What does it mean to bring that skill and apply it to contemporary circumstances?
I think that there’s risk involved in that, risks of nostalgia and idealization of the past. But I also think that there’s something that could open up opportunities for imagining different kinds of futures as well. So for example, because I’m an academic I spend an embarrassing amount of time behind screens. But one of the things that I’m able to maintain some semblance of balance in my life is by going out into the woods and walking and finding myself just amidst different patterns. And I think that in these kinds of circumstances which we find ourselves, catastrophic, apocalyptic, or otherwise, perhaps the most radical thing that we can do right now is to figure out how to fall in love with the world again, even if that world seems to be falling apart. And that might require that we look back and bring something up from the extensible past to allow it to thrive, to breathe again in the present and to open up onto different futures.
Eric: Yeah. Cool. Well that sounds like a good spot to end.
Harlan: I think so too.
Eric: Do you have a social media presence or web presence you’d like to let folks know about?
Harlan: Uh, no, not really. I have a Twitter account that I rarely ever post on. My social media presence is very minimal, and I’m actually okay with it being that way.
Eric: Okay. Yeah. Well thanks for sitting down me.
Harlan: Yeah, thank you, Eric.
Eric: Thanks again for listening to this episode of the Quillwood Podcast. This is Eric Garza signing off. Walk softly, and take good care.