The Collapse of Our Natural World Won’t Be Like a Hollywood Disaster Movie

The climate and biodiversity crises unleashed by capitalist development are already happening. Predicting a sudden apocalypse may draw attention to impending climate catastrophe, but it ultimately diverts us from the work needed to preserve a livable planet.

In his new book on climate change, Richard Seymour recovers a politics of transformation amid a politics of despair. (Getty Images)

“The twentieth century. Oh dear, the world has got so terribly, terribly old.” This quotation arrives at the beginning of Richard Seymour’s new book, The Disenchanted Earth. A form of solastalgia — a sense of loss for the things not yet lost — pervades his work; “It’s all dying,” he declares on the back of the dust jacket: “Visit it, as you would a dying patient.”

Seymour borrows this first quotation from Tony Kushner’s epic play series Angels in America, a “Gay Fantasia” which subverts our more conventional ideas of tragedy by, among other things, undercutting the sublime and elevating the uncanny. Kushner’s play, completed in the early 1990s, visits many “dying patients” — men struggling with a terrible virus, a nation gripped by apocalyptic visions of collapse. Kushner takes the familiar metaphor of the “net of human life” — a favorite metaphor of the old tragedians — and repurposes it for the twentieth century.

In turn, his “net” becomes a metaphor for both the AIDS crisis and the holes in the ozone layer. His characters struggle to make sense of the tragedy, of the chaos that surrounds them. As one character puts it in the final scene: “You can’t live in the world without an idea of the world, but it’s living that makes the ideas. You can’t wait for a theory, but you have to have a theory.”

Seymour follows this quotation with another, quick on its heels: “Don’t be afraid, says Yeshua. Far more can be mended than you know.” This line comes from Francis Spufford’s defense of Christianity, gesturing toward the importance of myth in a dying, disenchanted world. It is a hopeful pairing — the “old world” leading us, tentatively, toward the new. The net may be fraying and broken, Seymour reminds us, but do not give up; more can be mended than you know.

The author is clearly preoccupied with this central entanglement: the politics of transformation versus the politics of despair. How do we acknowledge the scale of the crisis? How do we, despite it all, choose to resist?

In working through these complexities — and indeed his own anxieties — Seymour identifies a path through. “The success of recent years mean we need not be in thrall to our doom,” he writes in one essay. “We despair, but we do not submit.” It is an obvious conclusion, but also an eminently necessary one.

Ecological Awakening

The Disenchanted Earth is a short collection of essays, many of which have already been published on Seymour’s Patreon account. Still, I am pleased they have been arranged in this collection. The book is a diary — or, as Seymour describes it, a “chronicle of my ecological awakening” — which shows the shifts in thinking that are a necessary part of grappling with the scale and knotted complexity of the climate and ecological crisis.

Ideas form and reform, repeat and refute one another. In one essay, Seymour predicts that denialism will be short-lived for the authoritarian right: denial is only possible, he writes, “for as long as the effects of climate change are remote, abstract, or in the future.” Two essays later, he issues a spectacular contradiction: “Climate disaster intensifies denialism. This is a rule of the capitalocene.”

In the hands of another writer, these inconsistencies might become frustrating — and sometimes they are. However, Seymour makes a virtue of the not-knowing, the never-quite-understanding. He praises the idea of the “amateur” in his introduction, noting its etymological connection to the word “lover.” “Ignorance is no longer forbidding,” he suggests. On the contrary, it is vital for understanding the future:

Assuming that we don’t achieve a socialist revolution in the next thirty years, let alone the next decade, this means that we need to find a way to make capitalism energy efficient. Which is a contradiction in terms.

Sitting in these contradictions is the tricky work of the modern-day thinker. Rejecting a simplistic analysis, Seymour encourages us to take the “glut of doom-mongers” seriously and to grapple, humanely, with the important questions they raise. He is not looking down his nose at anyone, not pretending to have all the answers. “What kind of democracy would be equal to the depth of the challenge we now face,” he asks. And — more importantly — “how do we get it?”

The Disenchanted Earth walks a line between acceptance and defiance; Seymour understands that people should be frightened by climate change, but also acknowledges our lack of agency in fighting against it. He feels the lure of the catastrophist — “then melt the tundra, turn the oceans acid, let the methane rip and make the Arctic boil” — but he does not succumb to despair. Instead, he uses these anxieties to reach more hopeful conclusions.

Optimism of a Whale

The importance of “not-knowing” is helpful here, too. Seymour sometimes seems to embrace the “ecosocialism or ecobarbarism” dichotomy and, at other points, tries to reach beyond it. For decades, ecosocialists have, borrowing from Rosa Luxemburg, imagined the future as a forked path; one path leads to socialism and the other to barbarism.

The author does often fall into these familiar binaries, but at other times, he impels readers to think more deeply. What if ecocapitalism does not lead to complete cataclysm but merely accentuates our preexisting injustices? While deep ecologists dream of collapse, he tries to complicate our understanding of what collapse actually means.

He argues that while apocalyptic visions of the future may be efficient for short-term mobilization, they ultimately fail to prepare people for “the complex negotiations and struggles ahead.” If we imagine climate change as a moment of disaster, as opposed to one symptom of a wider disorder, then we risk misunderstanding the harm it is already doing.

We also risk building short-lived social movements, trapped in cycles of boom and burnout. The breakdown of the natural world is not happening in the way that Hollywood would have us believe. It is slower, more complex, and more insidious.

So what, then, are the solutions? In terms of practical suggestions, this book has few concrete offerings — but it does not pretend otherwise. Seymour contrasts this way of thinking with the importance of new sensibilities — “we need to cultivate sensibilities as much as ideas and strategies” — which can be a balm for our climate-induced anxieties. The author makes the case for a planetary sensibility, one that goes beyond borders, beyond wealth redistribution and reparations, and looks at reordering and restructuring society on a global scale.

Seymour also advocates for an understanding of ecosocialism that is less anthropocentric than that of many of his contemporaries. He argues that the biodiversity crisis is as important as the climate crisis, if not more so. There is, of course, self-interest at play here, too; if ecosystems collapse, human civilization will feel the ramifications. But ultimately the argument that Seymour makes is a moral one.

“We are speaking not merely of cognition,” he writes, “but of consciousness, of beings capable of love, play, and mourning.” Besides, he argues, the animal kingdom is also a victim of capitalism. Capitalism is to blame for the extinction crisis:

The capitalist mode of production is simply not the kind of machine that enables our species to be responsible. It necessarily takes the whole of nature as its object, but necessarily takes no responsibility for its effects beyond the extraction of value. So that to take responsibility would mean liberating all species from capitalism.

Seymour revels in the beauty and the wisdom of the animal kingdom. He writes passionately about how whales love one another and feel pain, how they were dreaming for millions of years before the arrival of human beings. Animal liberation, he concludes, is the only moral answer.

This is a persuasive call for a new, radical understanding. In her brilliant essay “What’s the Value of a Whale,” Adrienne Buller agrees: “To take responsibility would mean liberating all species from capitalism. It’s time to free nature from finance.”

Strolling Through the Capitalocene

In this area, Seymour is conscious of the thinkers that have come before him. Indeed, much of the book is dedicated to ongoing debates on the Left, including considerations on nuclear power and carbon capture. At its most interesting, The Disenchanted Earth feels like a wandering, meandering stroll through climate politics.

Indeed, this sensation serves as one of the central metaphors. In one of the best essays, Seymour talks about the importance of “walking up strange paths,” stopping to reflect on the work of Robert Macfarlane, Catherine Keller, and Marion Milner. “I try to memorialize whatever has produced a stir,” he writes. “The ambulatory doctrine of thought is a counterpoint to the anti-naturalism, indeed sociocentrism, of radical social theory.” This is another of his “new sensibilities.” In plain English: meandering is good, actually.

The Disenchanted Earth has a familiar cast of fellow travelers. References to Marx, Darwin, and Freud pepper the text. But contemporary thinkers also provide reassuring counsel. Jason W. Moore is a constant companion, along with George Monbiot and David Wallace-Wells, whose book, The Uninhabitable Earth, feels like a helpful counterpart to this particular journey. Walking alongside these other writers, Seymour anchors his own thinking in an emerging ecosocialist tendency.

However, he diverges from their path in one important way: by rejecting a purely material analysis. “We need a better myth than this,” declares Seymour early on, giving way to his central thesis. “In a disenchanted world, everything is in principle calculable, intelligible in the light of scientific and rational principles.” This is, he argues, not sufficient to understand the world. Disenchantment has robbed us of agency and separated us from one another; we must, in response, redefine both the sublime and the uncanny.

The concept of disenchantment here draws on the work of Max Weber. Seymour name-checks the work of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer as well; he argues that disenchantment signaled “a gigantic civilizational rupture as the sixteenth century turned into the seventeenth century, bringing new modes of oppression and exploitation with it.” The process of disenchantment has produced an atomized and mechanistic society that has deprived us all of any agency. The author also references Freud and his concept of the unheimlich, the uncanny, which he transforms into a sort of untimelich, “the supernatural sense of being out-of-time.”

Helpfully, this is his most original contribution, too. Seymour declares that “worldliness is a kind of narrow-mindedness.” He points out that Marx was skeptical of utopian blueprints, and for good reason — but he also asserts the need for re-enchantment, or rather, the “need to rediscover at the level of theory what has been blotted out of everyday perception.” The natural world is both enthralling and unsettling; the climate crisis is turning the world upside down. If we are to have any hope of understanding it, we will need better myths, better stories, better sensibilities.

Seymour declares, passionately, that “other worlds exist.” Disenchantment and disavowal have persuaded us that the future is set, and that we are powerless to stop it; but in actual fact, the future is diverse and various. Faith is one solution. Love is another. “To be enchanted by something in the world is to be simultaneously surprised, charmed and unsettled by it,” he concludes. “Dreaming has a share in history, enchantment has a share in the future.”

The Disenchanted Earth is the first in what Seymour promises will be a series of books on the climate and ecological crisis. I look forward to wandering with him again through the various fault points of the twenty-first century. This is not a complete book; it contains many gaps, many dead ends, many circuitous routes. There is, of course, much to disagree with. But that begins to feel part of the point. To quote Angels in America: “You can’t wait for a theory, but you have to have a theory.”