More than a Tin of Fava Beans: On the Almost-Apocalypse and the Anti-Apocalypse by Andrew Woods

I bought a tin of fava beans in that first frantic week of quarantine. I thought that it would be sensible to fill the cupboards with tinned food. Trips to the grocery store became missions to buy as many tins of tomatoes, tuna, and beans as possible. I felt like a survivalist without the camo. I felt like I was ready for the end of the world.   

Several weeks later, I feel embarrassed and guilty about those initial sprees of panic-buying and stockpiling. I don’t actually know any recipes that require fava beans, so I use the tin to prop the kitchen window open. It is a reminder of my brief and foolish flirtation with the practice known as “Doomsday Prepping.”

Evan Osnos’ 2017 article, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” documents the pre-apocalyptic measures taken by Silicon Valley programmers and entrepreneurs. For example, a former Facebook product manager named Antonio García Martínez bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest, installed generators and solar panels, and stocked thousands of rounds of ammunition. He confesses to Osnos that “people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”

Several members of the wealthy elite have placed their trust in the Survival Condo Project, which offers refuge in a “fifteen-story luxury apartment complex built in an underground Atlas missile silo.” The price-tag for a floor in this complex is three million dollars. Larry Hall, C.E.O. of the Survival Condo Project, claims to have sold every floor. 

Like most forms of Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich, the Survival Condo Project is an instance of what Peter Frase calls “exterminism.” As Frase puts it, exterminism’s “ultimate endpoint is literally the extermination of the poor, so that the rabble can finally be brushed aside once and for all, leaving the rich to live in peace and quiet in their Elysium.” Those who can afford to escape the apocalypse are granted a kind of pseudo-afterlife in a plutocratic heaven. Everyone else is forced to face the consequences of what Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes as “the hellification of the world.” As Eddie Yuen quips, “the elite think they are exempt and invulnerable.” 

In 2019, Scientific American reported that the death toll of environmental activists—those who have been murdered in retaliation for protecting land, water, forests and other natural resources—has doubled over the fifteen-year period between 2002 and 2017. This is the opposite of the Doomsday Prepper. Whereas environmental activists sacrifice their lives to save the world, Doomsday Preppers abandon the world to save themselves. 

Evidently, the class perspective of Super-Rich Doomsday Preppers blinds them to their complicity in a destructive and exploitative capitalist system that perpetuates acts of ecological devastation. Yet, I sense that most Doomsday Preppers also model their lives on the narcissistic fantasies of post-apocalyptic movies and novels. The typical post-apocalyptic narrative prioritizes the successful survival of the few over the protection and preservation of the many. Think about 2012, The Road, Dawn of the Dead. Each of these post-apocalyptic narratives favour competition and conflict over cooperation and concord. Doomsday Preppers are ready to become the protagonists of these tales of death and disaster. In “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” Hall mentions to Osnos that the Survival Condo Project is equipped with a Sniper Post for shooting at anyone who dares to come too close. Clearly, Doomsday Preppers are members of a death-cult. 

Consequently, we—writers and artists—are responsible for creating new representations of our planetary crises that resist the typical exterminist motifs and post-apocalyptic clichés. No one is excused from this responsibility. As the novelist Catherine Bush argues, “all writers today write in relation to the climate and ecological crises, or planetary emergency, whether these things are acknowledged or not.” To abstain from this task is to deny one’s place in the world, to renounce one’s duty as a writer and artist. Yet, Bush recognizes that the tricky part is to confront these crises in one’s writing without “swinging about with an apocalyptic sledgehammer.” Not every crisis is a conspicuous and dramatic cataclysm.
Over the past week or so, I have come across two ideas—the “almost-apocalypse” and “anti-apocalypse”—that offer alternative ways of thinking and writing about what Patricia Robertson calls our “age of unravelling.” I admit that they are not the only or best ways to think and write about our planetary emergency. Yet, they encourage us to think beyond the post-apocalyptic narratives that set us on the bleak and violent road to Exterminism. 

I encountered the idea of the “almost-apocalypse” in Síle Englert’s “The Museum of Dead Bees,” which pays lyrical tribute to the “bee taxidermy” of multidisciplinary artist Ruth Marsh. Since 2011, people have mailed packages of dead bees to Marsh’s studio in Halifax, Nova Scotia (“in the almost-apocalypse, late bees arrive through the mail”) where she repairs them with discarded technology and transforms them into “cyborg bees.” Marsh’s stop-motion animation Reanimate imagines an afterlife for these “electric steampunk bees” in a cybernetic hive. Englert uses a quote from Marsh as an epigraph for the poem: “I use this impossible exercise as a way to stave off hopelessness.” Despite her sense of hopelessness, Marsh seeks solace in these little hopeful gestures (“soldering gun hiss repairing, reanimating, / copper wire coiled into reborn legs / or twisted for antennae, gilding limbs.”)  

In “How to Write about a Vanishing World,” Elizabeth Kolbert observes that “Hope, and its doleful twin, Hopelessness, might be thought of as the co-muses of the modern eco-narrative.” Colony Collapse Disorder—the global decline in bee population—may inspire despair about our vanishing world. Last year, Bee Informed reported that there was a 37.7% decline in managed bee populations between 2018 and 2019. We may feel stunned into passivity and apathy by the sheer scale and speed of the losses. After all, the prefix “almost-” implies that the apocalypse is inevitable, that ecological depredation is irreversible. In this sense, Marsh’s bee taxidermy is simply an act of pre-emptively mourning the end of the world. In the final lines of “The Museum of Dead Bees,” Englert writes, “this is how / we remember when the last of them are gone.” 

Yet, as Kolbert points out, “the question is how we relate to that loss.” The losses of the “almost-apocalypse” should not cause us to retreat into our bunkers to count our tins of fava beans. The prefix “almost-” is not always fatalistic. You can almost kill yourself through addiction before you realize that you need to quit the habit. The point of the “almost-apocalypse” is to reject the nihilism and narcissism of the Doomsday Prepper, and embrace the generosity and true foresight of the Environmental Activist. Unless we fight for the care and conservation of non-human species, we will be left with a barren planet. The only sounds in the sky will be the shots fired from the Sniper Post at the Survival Condo Project. 

Unlike the “almost-apocalypse,” the “anti-apocalypse” intimates that humans will not remain in this world to remember and mourn the deaths of animal species. In fact, humans seem completely absent from Tom Cull’s poem “Anti-Apocalypse.” None of the other poems in Cull’s 2018 collection Bad Animals are so bare and sparse. When spoken aloud, each line of “Anti-Apocalypse” hangs in the air like a solemn chime. The first stanza foresees “no nuclear winter / no ice age / no superbug / no second coming / no robot revolution.” The second stanza presents a list of objects and organisms: “a pear tree / buckthorn / plastic bags / a river / turtles.” 

“Anti-Apocalypse” implies that the end of human life does not entail the end of the world. As Andrew Forbes points out, most of our post-apocalyptic literature forms “a deeply anthropocentric field” that reinforces “some of our worst narcissistic tendencies” and equates “the world with our presence in it.” Cull resists this anthropocentric perspective on our ecological crises by stripping his poem of grammatical marks and consistent meter. Consequently, “Anti-Apocalypse” puts forward a vision of the apocalypse that exists outside the concerns and constructs of human-orientated time. 

Whereas conventional post-apocalyptic stories place the survival of human beings at the core of their narratives, the “anti-apocalypse” emphasizes the continuation of the non-human world. Ironically, one of the most disposable and insignificant objects—a plastic bag—acquires a new sense of permanence in this portrait of the non-human future. Yet, it is a monument to a civilization that was always far too eager to throw everything away.  

Like the “almost-apocalypse,” the “anti-apocalypse” reminds us that we should not abandon or abuse the other-than-human world. Thinking and writing about our ecological crises should lead us to support and participate in environmental activism, and to form a basis for an “anti-apocalyptic” politics. As Yuen points out, we must conceive of this politics as “prefigurative and practical as well as visionary and participatory.” For instance, Cull co-organizes the Antler River Rally that runs monthly clean-ups of the Thames River in London, Ontario. Such efforts may be limited and local, but it demonstrates the potential overlaps between one’s work as an artist and one’s struggles as an activist. It suggests that the arc of our modern eco-narrative may take a more hopeful turn.  

 

 

Andrew Woods is a PhD candidate at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism, a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, and co-host of the Radical Thoughts podcast. His writing been published in CommuneFair Observer, Public Seminar, and Temporary Art Review. He used to write the “Polymathically Perverse” column for Terse Journal.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com