Reviewed for Nomadic Journal.
French cultural critic Pascal Bruckner has made a career out of diagnosing strains of psychic weariness in Western life. In The Tyranny of Guilt, he warned that excess levels of guilt over past atrocities had hamstrung Europeans, rendering them incapable of confronting the problems of the present. In a seeming departure, Perpetual Euphoria found Bruckner questioning the shrill consumerist imperative to pursue happiness at all costs, making a case for the right to be maladjusted, even downright unhappy. Unlikely as it seems, there is a loose thread running through both of these books: Neither suffering nor happiness can form the basis for action. Both must be subordinated to freedom. With his latest book, Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Bruckner has teased out another strain of inertia tugging at the Western conscience: ecological catastrophism.
We’ve been groomed by unthinkable calamities like Fukushima—reinforced by Hollywood disaster flicks, or vice versa—to see cataclysms looming on the horizon, and to filter anything less compelling. Bruckner calls this the “seductive attraction of disaster.” Like the threat of nuclear annihilation that previous generations grappled with, the threat posed by global climate change is so vast in magnitude that it can paralyze us with fear. Put another way, climate change is a panacea, allowing us to trade a multitude of lesser fears for one all-encompassing fear. Here we find ourselves in the same territory as Tyranny: saddled with guilt for having incurred nature’s wrath, unable to formulate concrete solutions. In the case of climate change, the correctives on offer—consuming less, renouncing growth, retreating from science and technology—at best merely staunch the bleeding and at worst, turn us into irrational ascetics.
Bruckner isn’t skeptical of climate science, per se; if anything, he argues for a more rigorous form of scientific inquiry. Rather, his polemic takes aim at two broad follies attaching to the problem of climate change.
The first is the folly of enforcing a strict moral boundary between the natural and the artificial. The paragraph heading, “Nature is not our guide,” telegraphs Bruckner’s unsentimental view of nature. He belabors the point in Hobbesian fashion: “The whole human adventure is a merciless struggle against the physical, biological, and psychological fatalities imposed on our species.” So much for the original affluent society of hunter-gatherers. Moreover, human intervention has had a salutary effect in some places. He cites the role of the human hand in shaping and cultivating the hyper-fecund forests of the Amazon: “The parts of the forest transformed by human presence have a richer variety of flora and fauna than the virgin parts.” Nonetheless, Bruckner recognizes the beauty and intrinsic worth of the vast, protected open spaces of the American West. A compromise: “We have to protect nature, but we also have to protect ourselves against nature.”
The second folly is that of rich nations already enjoying the comforts (and delicacies) of development preaching austerity—a strict carbon diet—to the poorer nations of the global South. Such an asymmetry amounts to a denial of human potential and civilization itself, defined for Bruckner’s purposes as “a multiplication of desires.” If this sounds like a defense of the status quo, it is. “Luxury and refinement are indispensable for the blossoming of any great civilization,” Bruckner proclaims, with an echo of the French colonial administrator.
But Bruckner goes further. Each new technological advance is an enlargement of ourselves, granting us new powers and redefining our very nature. In perhaps the creepiest passage in the book, he claims that “the future human being will be prosthetic or he will not be at all.” Communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek made similar remarks for the documentary film, Examined Life: “We need more alienation from our, as it were, spontaneous nature. We should become more artificial. We should develop a much more terrifying new abstract materialism.” Zizek shares Bruckner’s conviction that the way to confront the threat of ecological catastrophe is more, not less, faith in technological work arounds and abstract management of natural systems.
Fanaticism isn’t all polemic and provocation. There are mordantly entertaining asides that showcase Bruckner at his best, skewering the fashions of the day. One section in particular reads like Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, or Teju Cole’s update, “In Place of Thought.” See, for example, the entry on EQUITABLE:
When a product is simultaneously ethnic, ethical, and equitable, it accumulates the maximum of meaning and justice. Adding ‘eco’ and ‘bio’ to any word is enough to sanctify it. What is sought, through the proliferation of abbreviations, is neither more nor less than absolution. The nomenclature has a purifying aim.
Thus absolved by the arbiters of fairness, we may go about buying and consuming with a clean conscience.
Pope Francis recently chastened that we have “slapped nature in the face,” and that “we may have exploited nature too much.” It would appear that ecologists, whom Bruckner attacks for their latent religiosity throughout Fanaticism, and the oldest religious institution in the West, the Catholic Church, have reached common ground, united in their condemnation of the ravages of consumerist capitalism and crimes against nature. Bruckner frames the argument as a choice between the self-imposed poverty of religious types and insatiable, market-driven consumption—a false choice—casting his lot definitively with the evangelists of perpetual growth and novelty.
Should we be skeptical of Bruckner’s cool head in the face of probable ecological collapse, rejecting it as a cynical disavowal of the real threat at hand? Skeptical, yes, but not to the point of fanaticism, for there is much generosity and nuance to be found in Bruckner’s defense of the French humanist tradition and Enlightenment ideals, not easily written off as cynical stalling. In a paradoxical twist, he muses, “Perhaps the Old World is better adapted to change than the New, to the extent that its ideal of competition is less ferocious, the cult of work less frenetic, and the ability to rediscover slowness and sweetness—that is, new uses of time, new intoxications with the minuscule—more firmly anchored.” Bruckner finds much to be optimistic about. From an “age of gluttony,” floated on credit and violently punctured by the economic crash of 2008, we may be entering an “age of duly considered desires.” The world hasn’t ended. Perhaps that is enough to be optimistic about.