How to Feel About the End of the World

Catastrophe, capitalism, and unlikely optimism in Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.

October 15, 2014

Drew Nelles is a producer on the podcast Crimetown and a freelance writer living in New York.

Our relationship with climate change is a model of ambivalence, in the word’s truest sense: the coexistence of utterly opposing impulses, a kind of cognitive dissonance. Anthroprogenic climate change means the end of the world, or more accurately the end of us. And yet, the problem is so vast that it inspires a host of contradictory conclusions, none of which lead to meaningful action. Global warming is the most pressing threat to our continued existence, but is also either a) impossible to stop b) so easy to stop that doing so will require little to no effort or c) not, in fact, happening in the first place. It’s as if we live in multiple, overlapping worlds, in different realities transposed atop one another: climate change as apocalypse, minor irritant, and phantom, all at once.

Two of the most important books of the season—Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything—confront the dizzying scale and complexity of the climate crisis. (I reviewed both books separately for the Globe and Mail.) But they arrive at a more hopeful conclusion: if we are capable of such devastation, then perhaps we are also capable of its opposite. The books come to this position in very different ways. Lerner is a poet who writes literary fiction set in the hermetic universe of contemporary New York; 10:04 is a slim, stylized novel that explores questions of reality and perception, with the eco-apocalypse looming in the background—how it feels to witness the dawn of the end of the world. Klein is a journalist and activist addressing a popular audience; This Changes Everything is a hefty tome of non-fiction, part reportage and part call to arms, positioning climate change as a menace so all-encompassing that addressing it will require the reorganization of our entire mode of life.

The reporter tells us what’s wrong, and how to fix it; the novelist gives us something more refracted, an ode to the folly of our time and place. But both works are loaded with the weight of trying to do good in a world full of bad. There is a great deal of overlap between these two books—which, formally, have very little in common—and that points to the unanswered questions humming in the air around us: If climate change is so pressing, so destructive, then why have we not yet changed course? Why do we keep having children in a world on the brink? Reading these books in tandem, one gets the sense of a society finally grappling with what Klein calls “the scope and depth of change required.” Klein and Lerner look in horror at the devastation we have wrought, but, in that devastation, see the seeds of possibility. The climate crisis is too big to ignore, almost too big to understand—but the very fact that we have, together, created a problem of this size means we can undertake the kind collective action required to solve it.

 “Bad forms of collectivity”

10:04 follows a narrator, mostly unnamed but occasionally referred to as “Ben,” as he tries to write a follow-up to his successful debut novel, fathers a friend’s child, frets about a possibly deadly aortic condition, and reckons with unresolvable dualities: fiction and nonfiction, fraudulence and sincerity, hope and fear. Above all this, climate change acts as plot point, symbol, and tertiary character. Sometimes it propels the action forward, as when Hurricane Sandy and Superstorm Irene, which bookend the novel, move in on New York. Sometimes it illustrates the book’s core concern with overlaid possibilities, as when the narrator, watching coverage of Sandy on television, keeps “failing to experience” the storm. And sometimes it takes on a life of its own, as when an ultrasound of the narrator’s unborn child depicts that very “coming storm, its limbs moving in real time, the brain visible in its translucent skull.”

Global warming is what instils 10:04 with its sense of exigency. There are countless references to “unseasonable warmth,” to “dramatically changing weather patterns,” to “a future I increasingly imagined as underwater.” This is an unabashedly political novel, and it might be the first major work of literary fiction to reckon with climate change so directly.

For its part, This Changes Everything is an attempt to reframe the debate around global warming. It is less about the science behind climate change (which is already well-understood) or possible technological solutions (ditto) than it is about politics: who causes climate change, who profts from denying its existence and obfuscating progress, who stands to win and lose on a warming planet. As in 10:04, climate change works as a sort of theory of everything. Klein argues that, given the degree of damage already done and the centrality of fossil fuels to industrial capitalism, nothing short of a massive “Marshall Plan for the Earth”—an immediate global shift in resources and priorities—will be enough to avoid catastrophic warming.

10:04 and This Changes Everything concern themselves with a central problem: how to alter a system as complex and entrenched as capitalism, and what it might mean to do so. The effects of climate change, resource extraction, and pollution are unevenly distributed: vulnerable island nations such as Nauru will be the first underwater, and African-American towns such as Mossville, Louisiana fall victim to the “environmental racism” of nearby petrochemical plants. Meanwhile, the rich will simply buy their way out of the disaster; both Klein and Lerner employ the vivid symbolism of the Goldman Sachs building, glowing in the surrounding darkness during the Sandy blackout, to drive home this point. “Climate change pits what the planet needs to maintain stability against what our economic model needs to sustain itself,” writes Klein, who puts the logic of endless growth at the heart of the environmental crisis.

Like the end of slavery, the end of fossil-fuel use will demand the forfeiture of trillions of dollars in wealth, and the extinction of the ethical and economic framework that allowed that wealth to be extracted.

In both books, capitalism is almost analogous to nature—a sublime wonder before which we feel powerless. Lerner’s narrator seems hypnotized by the economy that arranges itself around him, as if it is dedicated to meeting his every need; the idea of the world “rearranging itself” around a character, following one revelation or another, comes up frequently, part of the book’s fabric of cognitive dissonance and existential unmooring. The narrator falls into fits of reverie while contemplating capitalism’s creations, as in a key moment when he ponders the Manhattan skyline:

Bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity—whenever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of its possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body.

“Bad forms of collectivity” that act as “figures of its possibility” is an elegant way of expressing an obvious idea: if our communal work can warm the planet and create financial instruments of almost unbelievable complexity, surely it can also develop alternatives. Although the narrator models himself on Whitman, his perverse admiration for what he describes, elsewhere, as globalized capitalism’s “great majesty and murderous stupidity” is more Marxist in its enthusiasm. Marx, contrary to how he is often caricatured, rapturously praised capitalism’s organizational sophistication and technological advances. Indeed, a central tenet of Marx’s dialectical materialism was his theory that industrial capitalism was a necessary phase in society’s evolution toward communism.

Klein, too, devotes This Changes Everything to exploring how the wrongs perpetrated under capitalism provide a counterintuitive source of hope. The environmental crisis, she writes, “offers an overarching narrative in which everything from the fight for good jobs to justice for migrants to reparations for historical wrongs like slavery and colonialism can all become part of the grand project of building a non-toxic, shockproof economy before it’s too late.” Much of This Changes Everything is concerned not just with the environment but with ideology: how the dominant, market-driven thinking of our time has blinkered us to our own power, our ability to work together in times of great need. The most obvious precedents, from an environmentalist standpoint, are the fuel rationing and victory gardens of World War II; during the war, public-transit use in Canada increased by 95 percent, and 20 million American households produced 42 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed in 1943.

But there are more difficult—and relevant—examples, too. Stopping climate change will ultimately require the death of the fossil-fuel industry as we know it—a seemingly impossible task, given the sector’s economic and political power. And yet, Klein points out, the abolition of slavery required a mass movement unafraid to take on the wealthy, and it eventually succeeded, even if its legacy is mixed. Although no one would argue that producing fossil fuels (however objectionable) is morally equivalent to owning slaves, the analogy is compelling: like the end of slavery, the end of fossil-fuel use will demand the forfeiture of trillions of dollars in wealth, and the extinction of the ethical and economic framework that allowed that wealth to be extracted.

10:04's narrator imagines his future child asking, “Why reproduce if you believe the world is ending?” He answers, “Because the world is always ending for each of us and if one begins to withdraw from the possibilities of experience, then no one would take any of the risks involved with love.”

Fundamentally, Klein writes, our task is to construct an “alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.” Klein is vague on precisely what such a world would look like, but it seems to be one in which leftist wish-list policies such as a universal basic income, a massive expansion of renewable energy, and high-quality public transit become the norm.

“Why reproduce if you believe the world is ending?”

At a recent International Festival of Authors event in Toronto, Lerner said that 10:04 is about, in part, how to imagine “sustainable forms of care for others.” The novel, for all its moodiness, is indeed almost relentlessly optimistic. This is largely owed to its narrator’s obsession with reproduction. He agrees to father a child with Alex, his platonic best friend, and he spends much of the novel seized with terror about the planet onto which the child will be born; in one crucial scene, he imagines his future child asking, “Why reproduce if you believe the world is ending?” He answers, “Because the world is always ending for each of us and if one begins to withdraw from the possibilities of experience, then no one would take any of the risks involved with love.”

But the reader is better off interpreting the entirety of 10:04 as an answer to this question—as a love letter to the future. Initially, when the narrator begins writing his sophomore novel, he intends for it to be about a character who fakes a library of correspondance with famous authors. Eventually, though, he has an epiphany: “I resolved to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures”—that is, he resolves to write the novel that would become 10:04. The narrator has a child and creates 10:04 for the same reason: to stake a claim in the world to come.

Klein also addresses the question of why anyone would reproduce on a dying planet. In a particularly thoughtful chapter, she writes movingly of her struggle to get pregnant, a period of time that overlapped with her work on This Changes Everything. For years, she resisted having children, in no small part because of the same sense of environmental despair that Lerner mines in his book to such pointed effect. But after spending time in the climate-justice movement, she began to “imagine various futures that were decidedly less bleak than the post-apocalyptic cli-fi pastiche that had become my unconscious default”—that is, futures in which Indigenous rights are respected, the planet is allowed to heal, and we have begun to create, as Lerner put it, “sustainable forms of care” for one another.

Even after pursuing fertility treatments, Klein suffered several miscarriages. She started to see her own issues as linked to the ecological crisis she had devoted herself to understanding: for example, there is some evidence that mothers who live close to fracking zones are more likely to have children with congenital heart defects, neurological defects, and low birth weight. Residents of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation have seen a shocking decline in the number of boys being born—just 35 percent of all births between 1999 and 2003—probably as a result of the petrochemical plants in nearby Sarnia, Ontario. Meanwhile, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had a disproportionate impact on fish larva, and appears to have killed a staggering number of infant dolphins. Klein began to feel “what I can only describe as a kinship of the infertile”—another form of collectivity in the face of catastrophe.

Eventually, after moving to rural British Columbia and going on an aggressive health kick, Klein got pregnant and gave birth to her son. But her difficulties taught her a lesson: for all its miraculous powers of resilience and regeneration, her body, like the environment, was still vulnerable. “Just because biology is full of generosity does not means its forgiveness is limitless,” she writes. “With proper care, we stretch and bend amazingly well. But we break too—our individual bodies, as well as the communities and ecosystems that support us.” The final chapter of 10:04, for its part, sees Alex successfully pregnant, but the narrator’s joy is similarly hedged in the language of encircling chaos: “We will stop to get something to eat at a sushi restaurant in Prospect Heights—just vegetable rolls, as Alex is pregnant and the seas are poisoned and the superstorm has shut down all the ports.”

How should we feel about the end of the world? What both books share, above all, is this feeling: wide-eyed awareness of the damage done, but hope for a future we have not yet realized. It is a feeling best described—admiringly—as utopian. However noble Klein’s prescriptions are, they probably won’t come to pass anytime soon; not in a Canada addicted to the tar-sand boom or in a US where a quarter of the population does not believe in climate change at all. But the fact that Klein’s social-democratic ideas are contentious doesn’t mean they’re any less necessary—or any less possible. 10:04 has an epigraph, a Hasidic parable about “the world to come” in which “everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” In a recent interview with The Believer, Lerner said that the story “is a peculiar way of saying that redemption is immanent whether or not it’s imminent, that the world to come is in a sense always already here, if still unavailable.”

This is a powerful political idea, he went on, because it is an “antidote to despair”: “there are all kinds of moments in our daily lives that break—or at least could break—from the logic of profit and the modes of domination it entails.” Moments like those spent rearing a child, or considering the New York skyline, or marvelling at the bravery of the people who confront the biggest industries on the planet. We do not know what the future will look like, but that’s all right—it is alive with possibilities. We live in a world worth saving.

Drew Nelles is a producer on the podcast Crimetown and a freelance writer living in New York.