The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse

| 10th September 2013
Martin Spray reviews a book which contains the words 'punish human beings' in the title. Despite experiencing severe annoyance and mild disgust during his read, he also admits to finding the work undeniably intriguing..............
The human race - an invasive species that should be shrunk to the size of a pin?

Sometimes, one reads a book, enjoys it, perhaps learns from it, but does not understand it. Such seems to be the case of me and The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings.

I do not understand what it wants me to conclude, what it is written for. Maybe something is lost in its translation from the French. Maybe I cannot distinguish the different directions of its arguments. Or maybe I simply missed the point. I was certainly from time to time lost in the thickets of hyperbole - I came out of them not knowing quite where I had arrived. Nonetheless, I had an interesting and largely enjoyable read. 

One can, I think, approach Bruckner's book with something like Robert Graves's ‘poetic unreason' - the ability to read out of a poem an ‘understanding' that is satisfying, although it may be quite contrary to what the poet understood when writing. With this in mind, interest and enjoyment are a little surprising, at first, as the thrust of the book appears to be that "humanity, and especially Western humanity, has taken a sudden dislike to itself", and that into this context ecologism, the "sole truly original force" for half a century, has entered with a form of redemption.

Pascal Bruckner is right: environmentalists are prone to pessimistic misanthropy. Some can even be paraphrased - or indeed quoted - as thinking all would be well if Homo sapiens became extinct overnight. I have not been there myself, although I have certainly several times found myself arguing that we are not the nicest species enjoying the planet, and that we'll bring down the whole show if we don't mend our ways. That is a strong version of the Apocalypse.

Bruckner (and Rendall) has an annoyingly, teasingly, poetic style. One of today's main concerns, for example, is our ‘carbon footprint' - "the gaseous equivalent of original sin". Now, I do not have to believe in original sin for that to conjure up an amusing but alarmingly stark image. That image is strengthened by later reading that "[t]he matrix of the whole environmentalist discourse is the story of the Fall [...]: in the beginning there was the earthly paradise [...]". You also probably know plenty of people, some of them ardent unbelievers, for whom that image is a daily motivation....

Throughout the book there are many bons mots. I have picked out a few from the early pages that lay down some of the characteristics of ecologism, and suggest that, whether or not you are annoyed by them, and even if they seem inordinately silly, it is worth stopping and (as it were) sitting down to quietly reflect on them, in case there is some sense in them - and there usually is.

If you are not game for reading it to find out what points of argument to take issue with, you might well want to read the book to see what image at least one writer (and philosopher) says ecolog(ism)ists put before the world. We are told that it is largely negative, catastrophismic, and fanatical.

Have we soiled Eden? Judging by the way they talk and write, many environmentalists (a.k.a. greens, ecolog(ism)ists, etc.) think ‘Yes' - even when proclaiming that they are ‘a part of nature', but without asking how we differ, say, from the elephant knocking down a tree for the topmost bunch of leaves.

Is our world-view sour? Is it true that "[s]aving the world requires us to denigrate everything that has to do with the spirit of enterprise and the taste for discovery.... We have ceased to admire; we know only how to denounce, decry, whine". I know it is often said as shorthand, but it is misleading to talk about ‘the environmental movement' when there are several bundles of movements.

Some do seem to fit Bruckner's description well; some much less closely. As I see it, some are rooted in a kind of love; some in what is almost hate. Or, that might be some in love, some in fear. We are asked (p.53) if making society seem uglier than it really is shows discernment. It depends, of course, on what one considers ugly. I find my world becoming uglier, but I share it with many others who apparently do not.

One does not make friends (let alone share love) by lambasting people. Nor by acting as though "[we] alone see things correctly [...]. [We] alone have emerged from the cave of ignorance [...]". Even were it true, we are criticising innumerable ‘ordinary' people for doing things which are closer to universal than extraordinary. Indeed, if we want to sloganise our position as ‘living lightly on the Earth' - well, I can't think of any of us who really are. Many greens, of course, are rallied by other slogans than this one....

We may be all in the same boat - "The first axiom is: we are all responsible for the world's misfortunes, whether we want to be or not" - and (to garble metaphors) letting him (more likely, her) without sin cast the first stone could cost us a long wait. Mea culpa.... Although we must all accept some responsibility for environmental problems because of what we do, we may be half-excused because we have little choice but to do it.

Today - and after the disintegration of Communism - the complaint commonly heard is, as Bruckner puts it:: "capitalism [...] weighs on the planet's fate [...]: it is not credited with any good deeds, but is held responsible for all harms". The choice, as Bolivian president Evo Morales (with many others) sees it, is that "[e]ither capitalism dies, or Mother Earth dies". Or as an alternative to capitalism being bringer of all our ills, the nebulous ‘Western society' is pilloried.

This is the version I used to favour, and still sometimes use; but it needs some qualifications: a favourite of mine is a quote from Maori leader and academic Tipene O'Regan, who said he dreaded to think what his ancestors would have done if they had had bulldozers.

When we have heard of them, most of us want bulldozers. Morales may be right, but with the help of (metaphorical) bulldozers matricide could be pinned on socialism, or localism, or whatever - Pale Greens included. "Let's be clear: a cosmic calamity" - if that is what we're looking at - "is not going to be averted by eating vegetables and sorting our rubbish".

One might want some other word than ‘cosmic', but a version of that quotation would be a useful post-it on our computers / fridges / bedposts. It is important. "There are two ecologies", says Bruckner: "one rational, the other nonsensical". This is too harsh, but it would do us no harm if, from time to time, we checked that what we cherish with respect, awe, and love, is somehow grounded in the first ecology.

This takes us through only about a quarter of the text. The pithy quotes continue, but the text as a whole seems to become increasingly introverted, as though the book can be taken just as well as a story as an eco-philosophic essay. In places, I found I was reading sympathetic passages; but a spillage of bile soon overtook the sympathy, for example as I read that "[t]he bigots want mad laughter and gaiety to mask the ascetic plague they are propagating" (p.146); or "The ultimate end [...] is the slow extinction of the human race, an invasive species that should be shrunk to the size of a pin (p.154). I think I detect the odour of sarcasm....

I found it at times difficult to identify with what the author calls ‘ecology' and ‘ecologism'. Just what constitutes the nonsensical version of the former is not explicit. I think it unfortunate that ‘ecology' is as often thought of as an outlook on life and a way of living as it is a science, and where Bruckner tars ecologism, greens and environmentalists with the one brush, some of us see a colourful spectrum of philosophies. I eagerly agree that I don't want to be associated with what Bruckner calls "a philosophy of twilight", but the loveless scenario he portrays is not one I recognise.

Page numbers for quotes from the book given within this review are available on request. Email

Martin Spray is an ecologist who retired early from the University of Gloucestershire, England, where he taught aspects of ecology, landscape architecture, environmental philosophy, and professional ethics. He is an editor and writer for Ecos - A review of conservation. He writes for a variety of magazines on conservation, landscape, and gardens. He has Parkinson's Disease.

THE FANATICISM OF THE APOCALYPSE. Save the Earth, punish human beings. Pascal Bruckner translated by Stephen Rendall, 2013, Cambridge: Polity Press 204 pages, hardback, £20, ISBN 978-0-7456-6976-2. First published as Le fanaticisme de l'Apocalypse, 2011, Editions Grasset & Fasquelle

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