Apocalyptic Literature


For the first two centuries of settlement, American environmental thought remained millennial rather than apocalyptic, driven by the vision of wilderness as an inexhaustible resource waiting to be transformed into productive farms, towns, and cities, in the spirit of the biblical promise that the desert shall blossom as the rose.  Though Thoreau knew the New England forests were endangered, though he knew that a number of species had disappeared from the region, though he knew agriculture and commerce could not be trusted to respect the land, though he profoundly distrusted technological fixes, he was too committed to demonstrating the proximity of a nearby nature almost as good as wilderness to make the abuse and endangerment of nature his main theme.


Only now are some Americans willing to curtail their taste for abundance to alleviate pressure on the environment.


Premise:  “The vital energy coursing through nature is a “web of curious contexture, wrought with soft, weak, fragile, delicate materials, forming all together a piece admirable in its construction and destination, and for this very reason subject to ten thousand accidents.”  John Bruckner (1768)


Charles Darwin characterized the affinities among the plants and animals, remote in the scale of nature as being “bound together by a web of complex relations.”  (1850)


The “soil community” consists of “a web of interwoven lives, each in some way related to the others.”  --Rachel Carson 


Wendell Berry wrote of the apparent distinctions between body and soul, body and other bodies, body and world that “these things that appear to be distinct are nevertheless caught in a network of mutual dependence and influence that is the substantialization of their unity.”


·        Apocalypse literature is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal.


·        Nuclear Holocaust:  None of us can be sure that at any second we will not be killed in a nuclear attack.  Nothing is more serious than nuclear holocaust, yet many have found it hard to take seriously, especially after the end of the Cold War.

·        Pollution, global warming, genetic mutation, genetic cloning.

·        The fate of the world hinges on the arousal of the imagination to a sense of crisis.  It presupposes that “the most dangerous threat to our global environment may not be the strategic threats themselves but rather our perception of them, for most people do not yet accept the fact that this crisis is extremely grave.

·        It will probably take a Great Ecological Spasm to convince people that something is wrong.

·        The fate of all living things may hinge on a minor transaction taking place in a remote cultural niche.


Examples of Apocalypse Literature:  An Old American tradition


·        Michael Wigglesworth”s The Day of Doom

·        Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

·        Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Think of Julia Ward Howe’sBattle Hymn of the Republic”…the grapes of wrath…

·        “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot  (a dying society in the aftermath of world war)

·        Racial and cultural struggles

·        Silent Spring by Rachel Carson  (catastrophic disruption of physical health)

·        From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston

·        Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko  (ecological and cultural illness from nuclear pollution)


The bases of late twentieth-century environmental dystopianism:


·       Millennialism—the doctrine that world destruction will precede the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.

·       The Copernican and Newtonian revolutions on Christian cosmology threatened the belief that the world must end in a divinely ordained catastrophe. 

·       The vision of exploitation leading to “overshoot” (excessive demands on the land) or interference producing irreversible degradation

·       The vision of a tampered with nature recoiling against humankind in a kind of return of the repressed.  We are producing pesticide-resistant insects our poisons cannot control.

·       The loss of all escape routes.  We are poisoning ourselves irretrievably