The world is careening towards climate catastrophe at ever-increasing rates. The overwhelming sense that there is nothing to be done is pervasive, especially as the understanding begins to spread that most of us are not contributing to the lion’s share of emissions personally, but that corporations and the ultra-rich are the culprits who are dumping obscene levels of pollutants into the air, water, and earth.
“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,” Mark Fisher wrote in his seminal book Capitalist Realism. Fisher outlines how the hegemony of neoliberal ideas – their claim that “there is no alternative” (Margaret Thatcher) – turned into the biggest obstacle for change. Drawing a parallel to the 1960s and ’70s, Fisher reminds us of the expectations of that time, that for a whole layer in society revolution seemed not just realistic, but inevitable. Fisher writes:
Of course, we now know that the revolution did not happen. But the material conditions for such a revolution are more in place in the twenty-first century than they were in 1977. What has shifted beyond all recognition since then is the existential and emotional atmosphere. […] We must regain the optimism of that Seventies moment, just as we must carefully analyze all the machineries that capital deployed to convert confidence into dejection.from Unfinished Introduction to Acid Communism
So, if humanity is going to have any kind of shot at survival on a mass scale, it is paramount that we overcome fatalism and enact a new kind of radical imagination, a cultural rejection of despair in favor of optimism. Indeed, avoiding the worst of climate disasters will go hand-in-hand with the end of capitalism, linking these two imaginaries inextricably.
Dystopia, Doomerism, Eco-Horror
The public imagination exists in our art and media, and especially our fiction. It is how we communicate our ideals, our hopes and dreams, our fears. When we look towards it to understand society’s feelings about climate change, indeed about our future in general, we overwhelmingly see despair. Novels set in nightmarish futures of authoritarianism and violence are extremely popular; just think of The Hunger Games, The Road, The City of Ember, and hundreds more.
In film, many titles that deal with the environment and humanity’s relationship to nature fall into the category of “eco-horror,” a subgenre of horror that examines nature as a malevolent force set upon destroying humanity in much the same way it has been destroyed. Such films include Annihilation, The Happening, The Birds, and more. Occasionally one of these films might end with some level of optimism, but more often the final moments show the destruction of society and devolution of humans back into nature. Essentially, collapse.
A similar but distinct genre is that of the disaster movie. Think Twister, The Impossible, and The Day After Tomorrow. In disaster films nature also plays the villain, less in a malevolent and more in a ruthlessly violent way; but unlike in eco-horror the focus of these films tends to be on the triumph of human spirit over even the worst of nature. In disaster movies, people win; in eco-horror, generally nature wins.
One popular example is the video-game-turned-TV-show The Last of Us. It is set in a world that has been ravaged by a global outbreak of a cordyceps fungi that has evolved to infect human hosts, turning them into mostly mindless but violent creatures. In this post-apocalyptic world what remains of society is a dystopian nightmare – the cities that remain are under martial law, while smaller rural communities rely on fierce control and policing of their members to maintain safety from outsiders. Combining malevolent mushrooms with a zombie apocalypse and ensuing societal collapse makes this a perfect example of eco-horror: humans are literally reclaimed by the forces of nature and in turn become agents of nature’s wrath. However, the possibility of immunity and a potential cure gives it a slightly more hopeful edge.
These are just a handful of efforts to discuss environmental issues in art and media. If we take a broader view, these represent a relatively small portion of the media produced and consumed worldwide. Most of our imagination is focused on distraction, escapism, and fantasy. It is painful to face the realities of late-stage capitalism and imminent climate catastrophe. It is telling that some of the most popular entertainment of our times are murder and crime stories, glamorizing and fetishizing crimes of rage and despair that are often the direct result of our economic and political reality – capitalist realism made trendy.
Resisting Doomerism – Embracing Acid Communism
One of Mark Fisher’s last works before he died was titled “Introduction to Acid Communism,” the beginning of a book he would never finish. Many have since taken up the debate as to what exactly he meant by the phrase Acid Communism, but my understanding of it is this:
Much in the way LSD has the ability to open one’s mind and create a profound sense of connection to nature, the universe, and your fellow humans, so too do artistic expressions have qualities of transcendence and connection that create potential avenues for political radicalization. Fisher goes out of his way to clarify that he does not simply mean that if everybody just dropped a tab then we’d have a socialist revolution, but instead goes into depth about the ineffable, nearly hallucinogenic effect that art, music, dance, films, theater, and community gatherings can impart. This suspension of reality and raising to a higher mental, emotional, even spiritual plane represent a vital opportunity to grow political consciousness in ways that people can connect to on a different level than a debate or book study might have.
Essentially, Acid Communism is a call for radical imagination. It is Fisher’s answer to “capitalist realism,” the hegemonic sentiment that it’s not realistic to expect anything except capitalism’s continued dominance. To counter what “the last forty years have been about,” according to Fisher: “the exorcizing of ‘the specter of a world which could be free’.”
Revolutionary Imaginaries: Afrofuturism, Solarpunk, and more
There are already artists who are exploring the potentials of imagining new, hopeful possible futures for humanity.
Science fiction is one area that contains infinite possibilities for a revolutionary imagination. Though the purview of sci-fi is typically things like space and time travel, some authors take a more grounded approach. Writers in the subgenre of Afrofuturism are an excellent example. Though diverse in tone and content, Afrofuturism imagines a future Earth where the African people are finally raised to the level of political and economic power that their continent’s vast natural resources should provide, if it weren’t for the insidious intervention of the white West. Octavia Butler is a paragon of this genre, and another popular and noteworthy author is NK Jemisen, whose short stories and novels explore many different aspects of an Earthly society that is built on equity, justice, and African power.
Another author exercising a radical imagination is Kim Stanley Robinson. In his books, such as 2312 and New York: 2140, Robinson explores a future Earth society that is more in harmony, both with nature and within humanity. The Ministry for the Future is a particularly compelling work. Set in the extremely near future, approximately 2030 to 2050, it is an imagining of how humanity might finally deal with the climate crisis. Though it is considered “sci-fi,” it is thoroughly researched and feels realistic, depicting scenes of extreme weather catastrophes like a deadly Indian heatwave and the flooding of Los Angeles which in turn catalyze humanity towards climate action.
Robinson’s works are some of the most prominent examples of the solarpunk subgenre. Solarpunk is a sort of spin-off of other sci-fi subgenres, such as steampunk and cyberpunk, but whereas steampunk imagines alternate histories where modern technologies are created using analog mechanics and cyberpunk imagines often dystopian futures where computer and robot technology permeates every aspect of life, solarpunk imagines worlds both present and future wherein nature holds the most power in society, not human institutions. This is a relatively new but growing genre. It is important to point out that solarpunk is not just a genre of creative fiction, but is also being embraced as an actual movement striving for a post-capitalist, eco-socialist future.
A Diffused Media Landscape
The media landscape has dispersed over several streaming and social media platforms, and not everybody uses every service. This complicates the idea of a “cultural touchstone” – something that nearly everybody has seen and understands. If you don’t shell out for a premium HBO subscription, you may not have seen The Last of Us, for instance.
This may seem like a death knell for any idea of climate optimism “going viral,” but in fact it opens the field up to a more diverse array of content that can reach into all facets of society. In fact, it is silly to hope that one single work could possibly have the kind of global impact that is needed. We need artists of all types to embrace climate optimism and center their art on it. We must reject capitalist and climate realism and embrace alternative imaginations of a future in harmony with Earth and each other.
But eco-positive art is not the end. It is only one very important step in our transformation of society. A deluge of climate positive art can help tip the scales of cultural hegemony away from doomerism and towards revolutionary optimism, but it will be empty and void without a robust mass movement for climate justice, environmental equity, and eco-socialism behind it. We must begin making these cultural shifts now. Without a decisive break from capitalism we will never win a just transformation of society, and every small reform won along the way will be subject to rollback, declawing, and counter-reforms. The cultural movement towards climate positivity must go hand-in-hand with a socialist revolution. We have a world to win!
Climate Optimism in Social Media
The solarpunk genre is especially beginning to grow in social media circles. Posts under the solarpunk hashtag on TikTok regularly gain hundreds of thousands of likes and are widely reshared. But even a cursory glance through TikTok and Instagram hashtag feeds show the same images being shared over and over. There is room, even hunger, for more artists to create and share art that imagines radically sustainable futures. Here are just a few of my personal favorite “climate influencers”:
@joan_de_art is a self-proclaimed “social worker by day, solarpunk artist by night” on Instagram whose widely shared drawing “Our Environmental Dreamhouse” taps into the current Barbie-mania with a climate-positive and communal twist. (See image)
Author, environmental journalist, and BookTok-er Sim Kern (@simkern on TikTok) not only explores climate issues in their writing, including their most recent novel “The Free People’s Village,” they also have an ongoing TikTok series called “Solarpunk Grampy” where, using the aged filter, they talk to imaginary future generations about the incredible climate-positive society they live in and take for granted, using the “back in my day” trope to point out the utterly ridiculous and unsustainable habits of today.
Oli Frost (@olifro.st on Instagram) is a musician making “novelty songs about the climate crisis, mostly.” Perhaps his most “viral” hit has been “The Vampire Conspiracy,” which begins, “Of course climate change is a conspiracy made up by socialist vampires to push policies. A greener, fairer world, that’s our evil plot. Free-range organic humans have the most delicious blood!”
Eco-rapper and comedian Hila the Earth (@hilatheeearth on Instagram) also makes novelty and educational songs and videos for the social media age, singing and rapping about everything on this “Wet Ass Planet” from mushrooms to the ocean, often while wearing a giant Earth costume or costumes of other Earth creatures. She also recently performed in a climate drag show hosted by drag queen, National Park ranger, and another of my favorite social media environmentalists, Pattie Gonia (@pattiegonia on Instagram).
These artists show the depth and range of creative expression that can be utilized towards climate optimism. But even though combined they have millions of followers, their reach is inherently limited, as is any individual artist. There is so much space for yet more artists, working in all mediums, to create art that envisions positive and radical responses to climate change, encourages people to embrace nature, and generates climate optimism.
Meg Morrigan (they/them) is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and DSA’s Reform & Revolution caucus.
This article was first published in Reform & Revolution #13 and is reprinted here with permission of Reform & Revolution. You can learn more about Reform & Revolution by visiting their website and checking out their online magazine.