From Volcanoes To Revolutions, Past Catastrophic Events Remind Us That A Planetary Crisis Can Lead To Profound Social Transformation — Or Mass Extinction.
Srećko Horvat / ROAR Magazine
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air
— Lord Byron, “Darkness,” Summer, 1816
(October 18, 2020) — Everyone speaks about the Apocalypse as if it means “the end of the world.” But, if we really want to grasp the complexity of the contemporary threats that are leading to mass extinction, we should return to the original Greek meaning of apokalyptein as of “unveiling”, “uncovering” something. What is happening today — from the ongoing climate crisis to the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic — is luckily not the end of the world just yet, but in its horrifying destruction it is a warning, a “revelation” about the near future to come.
If there is one poem that comes to my mind when I see the images of red and orange skies above California caused by devastating wildfires in the midst of a pandemic in the rapidly disintegrating United States; when I look at the fire — and now floods — in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos as a symbol of a collapsing European Union; it is Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness.”
The poem was written in 1816, which was called the “year without summer.” A year earlier, Mount Tambora — the most powerful volcanic eruption in human history — erupted in the Indonesian archipelago and sent millions of tons of ash and sulfur-dioxide gas into the atmosphere, turning into a massive cloud that covered Earth. This event immediately caused abrupt changes in the climate across the world. First it cooled the air, then the land and finally the oceans across the globe, causing crop failures and food shortages.
This new sudden catastrophe hit as Europe was still recovering from the Napoleonic Wars and already suffering from famine. The climate anomalies lead to internal migration and densely crowded settlements, which in turn led to severe typhus epidemics in southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean region, while the disruption of Indian monsoons caused harvests to fail and led to famine across the subcontinent, contributing to the first cholera pandemic.
As Tambora’s stratospheric aerosol cloud began to cool the global temperatures, it produced sublime optical phenomena, like the spectacular red and orange sunsets in London in the summer and autumn of 1816. Paintings from the years following the Tambora eruption used these colors, most remarkably Turner’s paintings of the unusually spectacular sunsets of this period.
During the summer of 1816, an unexpected rainfall forced Lord Byron along with his four companions — John William Polidori, Mary Shelly, Percy Shelly and Claire Clairmont — to stay indoors overlooking Lake Geneva and writing about “the day when the fowls all went to roost at noon and candles had to be lit as at midnight.”
The darkness was sudden and the writers — like in times of Decameron when a group of young women and men sheltered in a secluded villa outside of Florence to avoid the Black Death — were passing their time telling scary stories by the fireside and devising some of their own, like Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre.
Besides immense suffering, it was this major planetary catastrophe that led to some of the most beautiful artefacts of human creativity — painting, literature and music — through which, even today, we can get a better understanding of the particular apocalyptic Zeitgeist of 1816.
When we are faced with our present “Darkness,” we might find comfort in the fact that other people before us had similar experiences and also had “the sense of an ending,” the title of an influential book by the British literary critic Frank Kermode who famously claimed that eschatological thinking is inscribed into our very understanding of the world.
Nevertheless, the difference is that, unlike our ancestors who at that time did not know that the darkness above Geneva in 1816 was in fact caused by the eruption of the Tambora in a seemingly distant part of the world, today the news of the California wildfires travels across the world via our Twitter and Instagram feeds in a matter of seconds. And we know exactly what caused it; the climate crisis.
Yet, what many still do not seem to know, paralyzed by the daily images of the instagrammed Apocalypse, is that our current crisis is only a footnote to a much bigger planetary catastrophe that will finally lead to mass extinction. It is not only the climate crisis that is already leading to abrupt weather patterns, turning our skies into Turner paintings and our collective unconscious into Byron’s dark poem, it is also the permanent nuclear threat that could easily turn this already dystopian reality into something much more sinister.
In January 2020, the “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was for the first time set at 100 seconds to midnight, or, as the scientists put it, it has been set “closer to Apocalypse than ever.” They stated that “humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers — nuclear war and climate change — that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond.” Then came the pandemic. Then the wildfires in California, the Amazon, the Russian tundras, Syria, Lebanon and now Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenia is on fire as well.
The “revelation” (Apocalypse) of both Byron’s poem from 1816 and the recent wildfires across the planet might read as follows: What if a nuclear winter produces hundreds of firestorms that would lead to an unprecedented global climatic cooling effect? If volcanic eruptions can cause the climate to cool by several degrees, a nuclear catastrophe could have much more devastating planetary effects.
What if, due to the accelerating climate crisis, soon some parts of the world will turn into permanent “year without summer,” an eternity without sun, while in other parts of the world it will be eternal summer without rains?
Eschatoligical Tipping Points
And once again, our daily reality has surpassed science-fiction. While the Bay Area was covered by Blade Runner skies, in Colorado heatwaves turned into snowstorms. In fact, abrupt climate changes were happening not only in one country, but in one region and one city — Denver — where the temperature dropped from 33 to 2 degrees Celsius in a single day.
In Los Angeles temperatures hit nearly 50 degrees Celsius with wildfires leading to such a bad air quality that it was safer to stay indoors, despite the fact that the coronavirus had previously caused many social activities to move to the relative safety of the outdoors.
This tension between two contradictory eschatological threats reminded me of my hometown city Zagreb that was hit by a strong earthquake in March while in coronavirus lockdown. For weeks politicians and epidemiologists have been telling the people that they had to stay at home and in isolation, and now suddenly the only way to be safe was to run out to the streets as quickly as possible.
What we encounter here, is what in my new book After the Apocalypse I call “eschatological tipping points.” The term “tipping point,” widely adopted by climate scientists today, usually refers to a nonlinear rapid change in parts of the climate system that irreversibly “tips” from one state to another. What I suggest is that, if we really want to grasp the multiplicity of threats humanity and the planet is facing today, we need to bring the term “tipping point” closer to eschatology, to the doctrine of the last things.
In short, besides just taking into account climate events — heatwaves, global warming, sea-ice thinning, permafrost melting — we should broaden the very concept of “tipping points.” We have to reflect on the interconnectivity and the current planetary cascade of tipping points that beside the climate crisis, include the everlasting nuclear threat, pandemics, the virus of racism, disintegration of societies and civil wars across the world.
While in 2020 we have to “flatten the curve” of the spread of a virus, we must now also make it our priority to “flatten the curves” of the climate crisis and that of the impending nuclear threat — and it is not one or the other, but both, or rather all eschatological threats at the same time. If we just flatten the curve of the spread of a virus without a radical transformation of how we treat nature — extraction of resources, destruction of habitat, meat-consumption — and other human beings — inequality, racism, exploitation — nothing guarantees that another, even deadlier, virus will not appear next time, whether that will be in ten years’ time or whether it is already around the corner.
In other words, both the current COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires in California are part of a bigger picture, they are part of a deep transformation of our planet on the verge of mass extinction. And this is not only a consequence of the so-called Anthropocene, it is a result of the Capitalocene. The more extraction, expansion and exploitation — the three E’s of the Apocalypse called global capitalism — the less chances for survival.
What is happening in our era — or what the still neglected philosopher Günther Anders called the “End-Time” — is not just a consequence of humans; it is a consequence of a particular world system that is grounded in the very destruction of worlds and the planet itself. The Apocalypse — even if it quickly becomes commodified in our Instagram era (turned from the sublime into a simulacrum) — is a political event par excellence.
Faced with the COVID-19 crisis, our contemporary ruling class is well aware that we are in the midst of an unprecedented political event. They know that a deep transformation is taking place and that the only way for things to remain the same is the emergence of a new social, political and even biological re-arrangement that can keep them in power.
What other proof is needed of the “Apocalypse as political event” but the spiking of Jeff Bezos’s fortune by $13 billion in a single day in July 2020, while, at the same time, Amazon workers have been dying of COVID-19 and protesting their inhumane working conditions?
What other proof than Elon Musk, the embodiment of the capitalist expansionist dream, who, when challenged with the claim that the United States coup against Evo Morales occurred to enable him to obtain Bolivia’s lithium, simply answered: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”
And this is not the first time that the ruling class has openly proclaimed that there is a class war going on. Remember Warren Buffet? Another billionaire, who famously said: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” With the COVID-19 crisis, which is exacerbating existing inequalities and enhancing the accumulation of profit for exactly those driving the planetary catastrophe, it has never been so tangible that a brutal class war is happening. And they are, again, trying to win.
Only, their “victory” would this time mean mass extinction.
From Laki To The French Revolution
While each crisis — even the contemporary unprecedented planetary crisis — serves as a good opportunity for further capital accumulation, major disruptions can, at the same time, also lead to major social transformations. The eruption of the super-volcano Tambora did not only lead to various conspiracy theories — as is the case with COVID-19 today — and produced Byron’s “Darkness,” Turner’s paintings as well as many other great works of art, it also sparked many instances of social unrest all across the world, leading to social and political transformations that changed the course of history.
If there is another volcano — even if volcanologists would refrain from doing this sort of “political volcanology” — that exemplifies the “Apocalypse as a political event” even more than Tambora, it is the eruption of super-volcano Laki in Iceland in 1783.
Not only did its effects contribute to the increase in poverty and misery all across Europe, the aftermath of the eruption might as well have contributed to the events leading to the French Revolution in 1789. Remember the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010 which ash led to over 100,000 flight cancellations and cost the global economy around £3 billion?
Now imagine the 2010 eruption, but several hundred times more powerful and you will get an idea of this past catastrophic event and its consequences. According to the volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer in his book Eruptions that shook the world, the activity of Eyjafjallajökull “was rather trivial in terms of magnitude or intensity” compared to Laki.
The eruption of Laki was the largest-known lava-flow eruption in the past millennium that led to the death of around a quarter of the Icelandic population and caused an environmental crisis all across Europe. As Oppenheimer vividly shows in his book, the haze reached continental Europe less than two weeks after the eruption. In Sweden it was referred to as sol-röken (sun smoke) and in Germany Höhenrauch (lofty smoke).
The effects of the volcanic supereruption in Iceland soon reached Switzerland, Poland, Italy and France, where Benjamin Franklin, one of the “founding fathers” of the United States, while he was in Paris to sign the Treaty of Paris, observed that the “dry fog” plunged Europe into a bitter winter. Three weeks after the eruption, the haze reached Russia, Syria, Iraq and four weeks later even China. The world went through climate extremes: while Europe was experiencing a blazing summer in 1783, in Alaska this year is remembered as “the time when summer did not come,” writes Oppenheimer
As winter approached, rivers froze across Europe, traffic crossed the iced surface of the Thames in London, while major European cities like Vienna, Paris and Bratislava experienced some of the most devastating floods in history. In Prague, the Vltava rose four meters in just 12 hours, a record that was not even surpassed during the catastrophic flooding in 2002. Then the volcanic winter came, one of the most severe in the past 500 years in Europe, and with it, crop failure, loss of livestock and famine.
Food prices rose to a point where the majority of people could not even afford their daily bread. And even if that event was still several years in the future history, everything was leading to the fall of the Bastille. In other words, the effects of the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland were not just spatial, they were not just felt in places across the world, they traveled through time too, they had effects on the political reality of that time and future history itself.
As Oppenheimer notes, “the official response to the disasters across Europe had significant political repercussions, reminiscent of the situation following Hurricane Katrina in the USA in 2005.” For instance, in December of 1783, Marie Antoinette, the notorious Queen of France,
had let it be known she wished the snow to remain on the streets of Paris as long as possible so she could continue to enjoy sledging. When she realized her faux pas, she donated 500 gold coins to support Parisians stricken by the flooding. And on March 14, 1784, King Louis XV himself issued a decree providing for compensation of three million pounds to victims of the flooding. Though this represented a trivial 1 percent of the annual royal revenue, it was nevertheless the first time the monarchy had extended such financial assistance to the kingdom.
Whether the eruption of Laki was the catalyst for the coming French Revolution or not, we still cannot say with certainty. What is certain, however, is that the response of the elites, their arrogance and mismanagement of a devastating crisis, created a fertile ground for a social revolution.
After The Apocalypse
The lesson of this historical episode is that if we want to fully grasp not our contemporary moment that could as well be described as an “eternal present,” we urgently need to develop a perspective of the longue durée. And this perspective, which, as long as humans are not extinct, necessarily has to take into account the class question, namely the structural inequality grounded in the political economy of the late Capitalocene that is leading to irreversible planetary catastrophe.
“How can I save you? It already happened!” says James Cole (Bruce Willis) in the movie 12 Monkeys, when a psychiatrist in a mental institution in 1990 asks him: “Are you going to save us?” He is considered crazy for claiming to be coming from the year 2035, a future in which almost the entire population of the world was annihilated by a deadly virus.
To think of our present period as the time after the Apocalypse requires, first and foremost, a similar shift in temporality. The Apocalypse as “revelation” has already happened. But if we are unable to understand the “revelation” of the rapidly unfolding planetary events and if we are not capable of radically reinventing the world in the time that remains, it might very well be that the end itself — the destruction of the biosphere and mass extinction — has already happened too.
Srećko Horvat is a philosopher and author of books such as The Radicality of Love, Poetry from the Future and most recently After the Apocalypse. He is co-founder of DiEM25 and Council member of the Progressive International.
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