Climate Disaster Is Here—and the State Will Never Save Us
“States demonstrate, again and again, that not only do they not protect the Earth, they facilitate its destruction.” Dean Spade on the promise of speculative fiction and a review of The Ministry for the Future and The Deluge.
Global temperatures have reached new record highs, flooding and wildfires reaped widespread destruction this summer, and rainwater was declared, for the first time, unfit for human consumption around the globe. Amid these crises, I delved into two novels portraying our current and developing ecological and societal crises: The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Deluge by Stephen Markley.
Reading fiction about ecological crisis and societal collapse — including heavily researched books like Deluge (Simon & Schuster, 2023) and Ministry (Hachette, 2020) that aim to realistically paint future scenarios, as well as young adult stories (often with elements of magic or science fiction) — can be useful for combating the persistent culture of denial of current conditions. Seeing how an author imagines emerging conditions also helps me grapple with and digest the difficult-to-comprehend onslaught of daily news.
Even those of us who know that climate change is already killing and displacing tens of millions of people (let alone other species) annually are mostly missing the scale of the impending global collapse. It’s not just decades of media refusal to adequately cover the ecological crisis, or conspiracies by polluting industries designed to mislead us. We are also lulled into complacency by self-serving liberal politicians and nonprofits overselling the promise of wildly insufficient policy reforms and bullshit tech solutions. Even as this previously preventable collapse unfolds, we have been misled about how dire things are. We have been told that governments and experts will fix this. That our consumer way of life can continue. The catastrophic impacts are multiplying yet we are fed feel-good stories about renewables and urged to funnel our concerns and anxieties into individual consumer choices, social media posts and donations to nonprofits that work on policy reforms that only tinker with the systems causing the crisis.
Even in many collaborative, abolitionist and anti-fascist spaces, we are often still trying to strategize how to dismantle the current power structures and build new social relations without sufficiently grasping that, for the rest of our lives, our resistance will be shaped by cascading disasters and the escalating violence that state systems foment in response. We cannot be debating tactics and proposing scenarios with timelines (“imagine 100 years out”) that are frankly unrealistic given the now-inevitable and imminent collapse of our food and energy systems alongside the widespread impact on billions who are forced to migrate away from soon-to-be uninhabitable
swaths of the planet. In the same way we insist on feminist and abolitionist tactics in any of our approaches to resistance, we must now incorporate a rigorous acceptance and anticipation of the impacts of ecological crisis and societal collapse into all our strategies.
Fiction and other media that help us imagine the severity of the current crisis might help us to internalize what feels unimaginable. It makes sense that many of the thinkers who I rely on for wisdom about all sorts of current conditions have also written these kinds of stories alongside their other political work — people like Margaret Killjoy, adrienne maree brown, Andrea J. Ritchie, Nalo Hopkinson and Mia Mingus, among others. Ministry and Deluge each attempt a more comprehensive accounting of how ecological crisis will unfold than other books I have read. In part because of their failings, these two books helped me understand an important dynamic in the current efforts to prepare for the crises to come: how avoidance and denial perpetuate and stem from people’s hope for state-based solutions and the belief that states or corporations are the only actors that can ultimately implement solutions to these problems. The (often suppressed) awareness that the very entities that got us into this mess are not going to get us out of it — much less contribute to building a society where people have what we need — can, of course, cause our overwhelm and immobilization if we believe they are the only answer.
By now, it is obvious that pretty much every piece of disturbing news about global heating, mass extinctions, sea level rise, extreme weather, failing crops, ocean acidification, zoonotic diseases, deforestation, melting ice sheets and the like is actually much worse than what scientists predicted just a few years ago. The truth is the industrial consumer society that created this crisis has already caused such substantial irreversible damage to the planet that our lives are not going to continue in the ways we are used to. Even if all governments in the world stopped pandering to the interests of the ultra-wealthy and even if all industries immediately stopped polluting (neither of which is happening) the damage already done is drastically and irreversibly changing the planet. We can, and should, try to stop the ongoing damage but a critical level of destruction has already taken place. Worse, we are dependent on extractive systems for survival — the way we eat, move, get health care and communicate all pollutes and extracts. The Covid pandemic (which was less disruptive than what is coming) revealed how fragile supply chains are. And those awful polluting systems that we unfortunately depend on to survive are on the verge of collapse or already collapsing. It’s all so bad — and it’s about to get so, so much worse.
Before I dive into the lessons gleaned from The Deluge, it’s helpful to discuss The Ministry for the Future so I can better explain why I preferred The Deluge. Ministry is, in part, the story of a fictional subsidiary body of the United Nations, the Ministry for the Future, tasked “to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens” and “charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection.” Ministry has some useful speculation about impacts of climate change alongside harrowing accounts of massive lethal heat waves, fires and sea level rise.
At 576 pages, Ministry covers a lot of ground, including detailing massive geoengineering projects and carbon tax schemes in the category of what I previously labeled “bullshit tech solutions” and “inadequate and unlikely policy reforms.” To his credit, Robinson does provide some readable (if didactic) breakdowns of neoliberal economic policy’s production of human suffering and ecological damage. However, Ministry ultimately portrays a future in which the ecological crisis will be resolved by supposedly enlightened countries investing in geoengineering to restore arctic ice and use monetary policy to create global equality. Projected displacement of billions of people is resolved through a new “world citizenship” quota system that assigns refugees to some new country (though not necessarily that of their choosing). Even worse than this dismal “solution” for migrants — one that keeps deportation systems in place — the book endorses imperialism by having dominating countries intervene on countries labeled “unstable” to make them suitable so that refugees can be returned to their countries of origin. Who at this point in history could envision such imperialist intervention as a solution? Well, after I finished Ministry I found out it was one of former President Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year and was also endorsed by Bill Gates, who liked that it was “hopeful.” Not surprising that the very people who have helped create the hellscape we are living in, and have facilitated and benefited from the worst extraction, liked this story of top-down solutions.
Direct action makes a minimal appearance in Ministry, including some eco-terrorism that discourages airplane travel and shipping. The main characters work within governments and the international organizations that serve them. The grassroots interventions that Robinson includes, like cooperative businesses, are the most palatable, non-disruptive versions, for example the Spanish co-op MONDRAGON, (which critics have argued can be complementary to capitalism) rather than more disruptive, re-distributive, and illegal tactics like factory takeovers or squatting movements. In this way, Ministry serves up a happy ending that maintains border imperialism and capitalism by adding reforms that liberals can be comfortable with — but the reality is that even these are unrealistic under a global system dominated by a wealthy elite that thrives on war and extraction.
One of the most telling examples of how Ministry misses the mark is toward the end of the book when the head of the Ministry for the Future, Mary, goes to the 58th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) where we see a celebration of the Paris Agreement. The third-person narrator tells us, “[i]ndeed, it can never be emphasized enough how important the Paris Agreement had been; weak though it might have been at its start … [it was] the greatest turning point in human history.” After this outrageous claim, Mary learns that “world civilization was no longer using up more of the biosphere’s renewable resources than were being replaced by natural processes” in part because “broad swaths of each continent had been repurposed as wild land, and to a large extent emptied of people.” (From Palestine to North America, South Africa to Australia, we should know enough by now about the violence and coercion required to force people from their homelands for others’ utopian purposes to fear this “solution.”)
Mary further finds out that state-centered solutions — like tax plans from central banks, jobs guarantees, caps on annual personal income above 10 times a guaranteed basic income and universal basic services — have delivered equality around the world. Rich people could no longer hide their money in tax shelters due to blockchain technology and a seamless global banking system. Overall, (suddenly benevolent) central banks and (suddenly sufficient and enforceable) international agreements do what they have never done and never will do — make capitalism kind, gentle and economically just. In fact, those institutions were carefully designed to facilitate brutal extraction.
Despite massive social movements and whole revolutionary eras that have exposed and opposed the violence of racial capitalism since its beginnings, the technology of state domination has continued to sharpen. While many governments have promised equality, environmental regulation and clean up, wealth is more concentrated now than at any time in human history, the basic necessities of survival are more out of reach than ever before for most people and the planet is more poisoned than ever. So although Ministry includes interesting and worthwhile speculation about what might unfold as the climate changes, and a clearly articulated critique of neoliberalism’s impacts, it fails to imagine a world sufficiently different that it would end neoliberalism’s violent plunder. It’s painful to read an accurate portrayal of the brutal costs of current systems that concludes with an unrealistic redemption of those very systems. Ministry perpetuates the narrative that experts and elites will save us, that policy reform and tech solutions are feasible, with the demobilizing implications that most people can do little to resist these big systems besides begging those systems to become what they are not. It is reasonable to wish that the systems and actors that caused these problems had to fix them, but it is unreasonable to expect that will happen. Yet Robinson writes, “it will be legislation that does it in the end, creating a new legal regime that is fair, just, sustainable, and secure.”
The Deluge similarly offers useful speculation about the unfolding crisis, but portrays a broader spectrum of resistance. Stephen Markley is a journalist who has published three non-fiction books and one other novel (Ohio). Deluge is 896 pages (that’s more than 40 hours of audiobook!), and took Markley more than a decade to research and write. It has been widely lauded for its ambition and one reviewer remarked that Deluge “depicts an apocalypse in slow motion … it’s a story of incremental chaos, political lethargy and scientific minutiae, and it is utterly mesmerizing. There have been many more flamboyant end-of-the-world scenarios in fiction, but few as frighteningly plausible.”
Deluge benefits from strong character development and, compared to Ministry, includes more characters who are not elites, and provides a broader picture of climate change’s impacts. One ongoing character named Keeper is a young, white, working-class man dealing with criminalization, addiction and poverty. He is living in a mobile home during worsening storms and being recruited by both a right-wing white militia and into an eco-terrorism plot as a patsy because he is so desperate for basic resources. A multi-racial cast of working-class and professional class characters participate in activist groups, mutual aid projects, and an eco-terrorist cell. Characters engaged in change tactics debate the costs and benefits of legislative reform, of single-issue eco-centered politics, of making unsavory political alliances to forward particular reform agendas, of using disruptive tactics like sabotage and property destruction, and of engaging in resistance tactics that take human life.
One of the eco-terrorists in a cell that has so far targeted infrastructure but not people proposes assassinating any “defender and apparatchik of the regime” while “offering amnesty to anyone who turns against the fossil system, who joins us in sabotage or resistance.” She argues that nothing else is working. “These people, the carbon profiteers and the politicians who do their bidding — they own every aspect of the system. They own the courts, the media, the political process at every level. That’s why this has all been futile so far.” Other members of her cell disagree. “We’re never winning this in any military sense. It’s … about hearts and minds. Right now, we’re folk heroes to a certain set. We will lose popular support the minute we start killing people .… All we’d be doing is killing cogs in a machine.… They mint thousands of new ones in the Ivy League every year.”
Characters in Deluge also have conversations about co-optation, tokenism and reductive identity politics, as dominant institutions in the book brand themselves as “green” or hire women and people of color as spokespeople to provide cover for their extractive operations. I have rarely seen fiction provide an account of social movement work that shows much of any complexity within movements, and the doubts and regrets that organizers have about tactics they have taken up. Markley does a good job showing how various groups recruit people (including how fascists do it), and how people become more radical as they dig into organizing and see that restricting themselves to condoned channels of dissent (voting, petitions, permitted marches, social media posts) doesn’t bring enough change.
Markley effectively portrays the limits of legislative reform and the ways that organizers can get swept up in those efforts — and lose badly even after governments declare that the problems were resolved through the legislation. At one point in the book, a big climate bill finally passes, gutted of what might have helped the crisis, but with many new provisions increasing the capacity of the police state to surveil and criminalize resistance movements. One of the characters involved with working on the bill reflects, “A decade of work, we line it all up, and then the whole thing goes up in flames.… Global emissions have yet to peak. One and a half degrees is already here .… Two degrees is a guarantee, no matter what we do.… And maybe this is our fault. We didn’t understand how hard they would fight, who they would finance, what kinds of strings they would pull to hold on to power. “
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the book is Markley’s ability to scaffold so many levels of societal structure into the narrative. Much of fiction about the climate or other end-of-the-world scenarios — as well as the television and movies on those themes — has a narrow focus. Often we are following some survivors who have been cut off from communicating with the world, know very little about what is going on, and are on their individualist quest for survival. Those accounts encourage a worldview of individual survival through hoarding weapons and food. Collective action is rarely represented except when people are forming cannibalistic cults, survivalist militias and the like.
Also, much of this type of storytelling is apocalyptic in a very abrupt way — Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and The Last of Us created by Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin are popular examples right now — where we are suddenly plunged into a world in which almost all of the familiar is gone. The Deluge is an account of the next 20 years, where the impacts of ecological crisis widen and worsen and the rise of fascism continues, but some elements of contemporary life persist. Just like our current reality, the collapse is uneven in how it unfolds and the predictors for the worst scenarios of food shortage, pandemic and police state are already present. The coming disasters are an intensification of the familiar.
Although the book is decidedly U.S.-focused, Markley leverages diverse viewpoints. Pages full of headlines that feel eerily similar to today’s appear throughout the book and give flashes of the changing conditions, and the range of characters living in different regions and being impacted by different kinds of disaster paint a broad picture. Markley’s
background as a journalist is palpable in the portrayal of tensions in each electoral cycle over the next 20 years, manipulations of charismatic figures and organizations that arise and influence outcomes, expansion of artificial intelligence and surveillance technologies, and material impacts on people who are living under those developments. Deluge also points to the dynamic of how rising fascism and ecological crisis unfold together.
Deluge includes a complex representation of the trajectory of the (fictional) most visible climate-focused nonprofit in the United States, A Fierce Blue Fire (AFBF). Markley portrays some of the problems with charismatic leadership in AFBF, particularly in the figure of the group’s fiery, brilliant leader, Kate Morris, and her treatment in the media and conflicts within the organization. At one point, people from AFBF are part of a large Occupy-type public space takeover, and Markley portrays their “peace policing” (when activists regulate each other’s behavior at protests to prevent disruptive tactics and make the gatherings more palatable to elites). I couldn’t tell if it was a critical portrayal or an endorsement. Overall, in the portrayal of AFBF, it’s not clear how critical Markley is of institutionalization and centralization of authority in social movement structures. At one point we learn that AFBF is organizing mutual aid projects when the working-class white character, Keeper, gets support to recover from addiction, but details are lacking of how institutionalized or autonomous that mutual aid work is.
For all its strengths, glaringly missing in The Deluge is a deeper account of social movement work that is not embedded in a nonprofit context and is outside of legislative reform and electoral politics. Besides some eco-terrorism, Markley misses most of the other key arenas of resistance that are currently — and will be — essential to the growth of any efforts to stop relentless extraction and help people survive. Indigenous resistance gets only passing mention, primarily as supporting cast for AFBF’s public occupation action. The range of disruptive tactics against cops, border enforcement, the military, bosses, polluters and landlords that is actually fomenting now, and that we know is the real place from which survival and transformative change could emerge, is underdeveloped. As a result, the hopeful elements of his ending still feel unrealistic and elite-centered.
The ending, which to Markley’s credit is not rosy or perfectly happy, still centers national climate legislation and comes off as inconsistent with the rest of the book. Worse, it portrays, though somewhat critically, the U.S. enforcing “solutions” on the rest of the world through military imperialism. The new climate-focused president, he writes, “was not shy about using military power to stem chaos in the Global South: rapid reaction forces to manage disorder; surveillance of foreign populations; the Pentagon annexing small chunks of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia where displaced persons live under the control of the U.S. military. Even as the global economic order reshapes itself, the rare earth minerals powering decarbonization, particularly lithium, must keep flowing.” It is as if suddenly a set of systems that forced extraction globally to the point of terrible disaster, and were brutally violent to people seeking change, simply sobered up and reversed course, using the same tools and weapons (including imperialism) to stop climate change.
I’ve been thinking about why Ministry and Deluge both had such unsatisfying endings. Why did both authors portray the systems that created the crisis as somehow managing to solve it? What kept these authors from developing a more robust account of resistance formations and tactics?
Both authors demonstrate how governments of all kinds have facilitated extraction for the profit of elites to produce the current collapse, and how impossible it has been across centuries for people to appeal to them to change that. The unsatisfactory and unrealistic endings of these novels parallel what I see more broadly in our movements: People believe that only nation-states and elites have the capacity to address the problems we are facing at the scale they are unfolding. Since this approach (convincing politicians and elites to do right) is not working and is pretty clearly not going to work, people feel overwhelmed and disempowered, and move toward escapism, denial and avoidance. I wonder if Markley and Robinson believe the endings of their books are truly possible, and why they didn’t portray anything beyond state-centered worldviews.
Before I read these two books, I also read Peter Gelderloos’ The Solutions Are Already Here (Pluto Press, 2022), which I highly recommend as a companion to The Deluge. Gelderloos is an independent scholar-organizer whose books, including How Nonviolence Protects the State (South End Press 2007) and Anarchy Works (Active Distribution 2015) are packed with radical analysis grounded in real world examples of resistance.
The Solutions Are Already Here starts with a succinct, sober assessment of the current crisis conditions and then provides a compelling argument that these crises were not created by the people, but were created by states. Humans have resisted the concentration of power, the extraction of our labor, war and pollution at every turn. Elites, Gelderloos writes, attempt to dominate us and force all those conditions on us and our planet despite our resistance. It is so helpful to remember that no matter what fictions are used to justify domination, we did not design or consent to these arrangements of extraction, and people lived for tens of thousands of years without them. To resist and survive the current crisis to whatever limited extent is still possible, we have to work against states, not inside them.
Gelderloos recounts coordinated fare strikes and protests to push for public transit that ended up as sites of multi-issue solidarity. He tells the story of Puerto Rican and Hasidic neighbors winning a multi-decade fight against a trash incinerator at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He describes the long-term land occupation at Notre-Dame-des-Landes in western France that successfully stopped the construction of an airport in 2018. He shows that location-based fights against pipelines, mines and other extractive projects are not random one-off efforts, but are part of a global trend of people building new ways of living together and stopping harm.
He shares stories of urban and rural communities building systems to feed people when the industrial, fossil-fuel driven ones we rely on collapse. He shares successes of Indigenous people taking land back, and urban and rural reforestation projects. Gelderloos lays out the tactics and tendencies these kinds of efforts have in common — including autonomy, anti-colonialism, intersectionality, lawlessness, heterogeneity of tactics, and becoming ungovernable. The Solutions Are Already Here offers grounded, realistic ideas about resistance based on the bold, sustained, complex, risky, principled experimentation ordinary people are taking up together all over the world.
As I finished writing this essay, the Fulton County grand jury indicted 61 people involved in the fight to stop a new police training facility from being built on top of a forest in Atlanta under criminal conspiracy charges. This targeting of people involved in a campaign that looks like many campaigns against carceral expansion or environmental destruction lines up with the expanding surveillance and criminalization of environmental activists portrayed in Deluge.
We will be seeing much more of this kind of political repression with the rise of the Right, worsening ecological crisis, and the continuing expansion of carceral and military apparatuses. The Atlanta indictment spends pages detailing how the #StopCopCity fight is anarchist, and equates solidarity, mutual aid and anti-police sentiment with terrorism.
In moments like this, when our opponents trot out the boogeymen of “anarchism” and “terrorism,” we who care about defending life on Earth have to stand with those given these labels, and refuse to participate in the stigmatization or criminalization of people who use bold tactics in our fights. We must expand our analysis beyond the limits of state solutions, as states demonstrate, again and again, that not only do they not protect the Earth, they facilitate its destruction, and criminalize people who try to stop it. For those of us who are urgent for transformation, it is essential that we take up tactics that might actually stop some of the destruction and create whatever conditions for survival are possible.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Dean Spade is a professor at Seattle University School of Law. The second edition of his book, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law was published by Duke University Press. His most recent book, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the next), was published by Verso Press. Find out more about his work at deanspade.net.