For some reason, perhaps deep in our past, humans easily fixate on catastrophe, whether real or imaginary. Does the nation, the economy, or even civilization need to collapse in order to start anew? Who benefits if we think like that, and would things get better or worse? Radio Ecoshock 161019



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The producers of the long-running radio program “Against the Grain” teamed up with others, to write an influential if controversial book about all that. It was published in 2012 with the title “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth.”

Why bring that back now? Three reasons: some listeners suggest I’m too fixated on collapse, at the expense of solutions. Meanwhile, in America Donald Trump, and others in Europe, feed on creating public fear. And finally, there are signs more people are afraid something awful is about to happen, or already happening behind the scenes. Not to mention the science of the rapidly developing climate catastrophe, which is all too real.

I’ve reached out to one of the authors, Eddie Yuen. Eddie teaches in the Urban Studies Department at the San Francisco Art Institute. He is the co-editor, of the book “Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement.” He’s written about popular movements, the politics of Right and Left, and the role of apocalypse in environmentalism. Along with Sasha Lilley, another author in the book, Eddie has been a radio producer for “Against the Grain” on KPFA, the Pacifica flagship station in Berkeley and the Bay area.


Our guest, Eddie Yuen

During the program I run a short clip from “Against the Grain” about the risks of believing in catastrophism as our way out of deep crisis. Eddie’s co-author and radio broadcaster Sasha Lilley explains. She’s one of the authors of the book “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth“. Find out more at or Against the Grain Radio on Facebook. You can download or listen to that show, broadcast November 12, 2012 here. You can also find it at here.


Broadcaster Sasha Lilley

In December 2012, Sasha Lilley gave a 47 minute talk about Catastrophism and the book, which you can see on a free Vimeo here.


One of the basic ideas of catastrophism is not just that things may collapse, but really they SHOULD fall apart, so we can rebuild things like the economy, the social system, or maybe an emissions-free world. These authors look at the historic record, finding that crisis may just as easily bring on reactionary right-wing “solutions” as progressive social change.

Have people on the “Left” been borrowing from the strident media and bloggers who say we need much more authority, precisely because things are falling apart, or about to fall apart? For example, is “Peak Oil” really an extension of the Malthusian argument of limitations?

I shared with you the dirty little secret known by anyone in progressive radio. We get way more listeners when we talk about collapse and other awful things, than when we do interviews about solutions. What does that tell us?

What should we think about the various awful predictions that never happened, like the Y2K computer breakdown in 2000, or repeated claims that a mysterious Planet X is interfering in human affairs? Who benefits from creating this constant haze of fear in the general population?

Perhaps, as Eddie points out, we are so stumped about the huge problems without solutions, that we are invoking magical thinking. Some great disaster will occur, to stimulate the “sleeping” masses, to prepare us all for dynamic change. But is that a way out of doing the REAL hard work of changing our own lives – and then working to organize our communities and countries for social change?

In this feature length interview, Eddie Yuen explains three general patterns of solutions to the problem of climate change. We start with the technocratic.

A second fundamental reaction could be Eco-fascism, or eco-nationalism. In Europe the right-wing are not climate deniers. They may blame immigrants.

I recall the British scientist and inventor James Lovelock saying a few years ago that Britain would become like climate lifeboat, flooded with refugees, because the UK is an island somewhat buffered by cooling seas. Europe is getting a lot of refugees, with more to come thanks to climate change, and now we see the Brexit vote, and other right wing gains in recent elections.

But the only solution acceptable to the New York Times is the third path: a neo-liberal approach. It’s market based solutions, carbon derivatives, or even saying the Third World is “under-polluted, as Lawrence Summers said in a leaked email.

At the most extreme, (we may all consider this at times), is a tendency seen in the communists in the 1930’s. They said we should increase the contradictions, “the worse the better“. Some even said “after Hitler, us”. Maybe after President Donald Trump destroys the Environmental Protection Agency, and opens lots of new coal mines, things will get bad enough we’ll be ready for the new non-carbon age? Somehow I doubt it, and I don’t hope for that!

What about an economic crash? In her part of the book, Sasha Lilley investigated whether a Depression or financial crisis always leads to positive social change. It appeared to do that (eventually) in the Great Depression and the New Deal. But at other times in history, an economic crash led to either social chaos (even civil war) or even more repression by a ruthless Dictator. There’s no guarantee which way it will go.

Personally, I keep discovering that this civilization is mobile, and slightly adaptable to calamity – but that it’s also very fragile. More of the public is discovering that international banking is really a kind of magic show, which can collapse over a week-end, as Lehman Brothers did in September 2008. So we may find out what happens next.
I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for supporting Radio Ecoshock! ┬áPlease join me again next week as we search for answers for the extreme future, and the damaged now.