Change in the Face of the Apocalypse: Issues of Environmental Justice and Emigration
by Laura Shieh 12.11.18
Introduction and Contextualization:
Conversations of the apocalypse in a wider context and imaginations of the post-apocalyptic engage cultural narratives beyond simply the Judeo-Christian and this is necessary to amplify the voices of the marginalized and the victimized. In the light of the status quo and the impending threat of apocalypse via irreversible climate change it is especially important to consider how apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic imaginations can fuel productive discourse on environmental justice and how best to extend it to the people of this planet. The migrant caravans at the U.S.-Mexico border hoping to come to America to escape social, political, and environmental ills provide a clear example of a previously invisible marginalized community finding a voice and demanding inclusivity. Upending the world order as we know it and its discussion in relation to the apocalyptic lends itself to promoting inclusivity and visibility in the face of the catastrophic change afflicting our real world.
Consider that the word apocalypse itself is derived from the Greek “apo-” and “-calypse,” which mean “off, or away from” and “to conceal,” respectively. The apocalypse then, in its original definition, is a grand reveal – catastrophic change strips away the trappings of the old world order and leaves its skeleton bare. In the Judeo-Christian eschatology this is death in totality. Other cultures, including the Mexica Maya-Quiche, see in this end a new beginning.
The wider apocalyptic narrative, however, belongs to the former eschatology: end-of-the-world discussions and imaginations are often rooted in Judeo-Christian ideologies and leave no room to spare for other interpretations. This exclusion of other cultural narratives is a form of erasure that perpetuates a toxic white colonial narrative that only serves to further otherize marginalized populations, both in apocalyptic fiction and in reality. Discussions of the post-apocalypse – what comes after – are key to enhancing visibility and increasing discourse to promote positive change. There is no one single narrative; deconstructing toxic settler-colonial logics and challenging the entrenched Eurocentric Judeo-Christian eschatology is a critical first step to speaking out against cultural erasure and marginalization.
Decolonizing the Post-Apocalyptic:
Coloniality is inherent to the predominant Judeo-Christian apocalyptic narrative that remains so prevalent in Western culture today. As Steven T. Newcomb writes in his discussion of the “conqueror model” in Pagans in the Promised Land, “according to the conqueror worldview, it is self-evident that the conqueror is being most virtuous, morally sound, and obedient to God when he uses the tools of coercion, terror, fear, and dread to fulfill ‘God’s will’ by conquering and subduing” (31). In this way the concept of Judeo-Christian divine right was used to perpetrate abuse against and exploitation of indigenous peoples. Newcomb goes on to argue that this toxic narrative is a core quality of America today: “the imperial mentality of Western Christendom became institutionalized as a central part of the collective consciousness of the society of the United States” (61).
Judeo-Christian apocalyptica is intertwined with imperialist narratives that have created and continue to create lasting toxicity. Language, after all, is “the perfect instrument of empire” and literature, performance, and art were used to communicate Western ideals as a result (qtd. in Newcomb 71). Indigenous texts such as the Maya-Quiche Popol Vuh underwent near-complete erasure; today, only fragments remain. On the other hand, plays such as Andres de Olmos’ Juicio Final were constructed to implicitly communicate Christian ideals in line with the 16th century Western colonization of the Americas. This Eurocentric eschatology has had an active role in punishing and alienating those who failed to fit the Judeo-Christian mold and creating for them the class of the perpetual “other.” The Judeo-Christian apocalyptic narrative was used as a colonizing tool in the western takeover of the Americas and its impacts are still felt today, with toxic systems of heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalist exploitation.
It is therefore critical to challenge this narrative and turn it on its head: the Western Eurocentric narrative is far from the only one that matters and it should not be treated as such. It is valuable for indigenous cultures to reclaim their own eschatologies and reenage with the grounded normativities that predate colonization.
Cultural reproduction is achieved in large part through language, and through literature, performance, and art. Just as imperialism utilized language as a tool to achieve its own ends, decolonization can do the same. Jose Rivera’s Marisol acts as a critique of the “tidy-world” facade that features so prominently in traditionally Judeo-Christian narratives. create are as true as they were in the 80s In his play, Rivera foregrounds borth social injustices as well as marginalized populations, including the homeless. The status quo is sick and in need of drastic overhaul, and Rivera not only makes this clear in his play, he also employs mechanisms of magical realism to achieve this change. Marisol is still relevant today – because the play’s underlying critiques of society and its implications of the change we need to create are as true as they were in the 80s. Rivera chooses to employ Marisol as a form of outwards-facing social commentary: the play opens the eyes of the audience to the suffering going on in the underbelly of society. This revelation is yet another nod to the etymology of the word “apocalypse” – and it is a dramatic reveal from which change can finally begin to emerge.
The post-apocalypse is where this change fully materializes. In addressing the question of “what comes after” other cultural narratives are able to occupy a space that enables them to challenge the dominant Judeo-Christian narrative and begin a process of reclamation and repossession. Yvette Nolan’s Unplugging, for example, addresses digital dispossession in particular: by stripping away technology in the titular apocalyptic event, the play also strips away the pretensions of society, such that the grounded normativities of indigenous peoples are once again revealed and put into use. It is the knowledge of the “before” – the knowledge of indigenous peoples, and their grounded normativities – that sustains Bern and Elena after the titular unplugging (Nolan 313). There is value in remembering the lessons of the past, and this particular depiction of the post-apocalypse highlights this understanding.
The Unplugging also explicitly considers the woes of consumerism and its impacts in prompting apocalyptic change, with Bern accusing Seamus: “This is how we got into this situation in the first place, people indiscriminately taking and using and wasting without any thought to the future – ” (Nolan 321). We – that is, human civilization – impact the world around us and when the time comes, we pay the consequences. No one is exempt, not even those who adhere to the Judeo-Christian narrative. This is implicit in the audience’s understanding of Seamus, who is coded as a white heterosexual male of Irish origin. He survives only because of the aid he receives from Bern and later, Elena.
Acknowledgement is the first step to promoting discourse, which in turn is critical to facilitating lasting impact. We recognize post-apocalyptic narratives, then, as a viable way to construct a decolonial project – they are a way to combat the Judeo-Christian colonizing narrative and reclaim cultural identities and ideologies. In this way, the construction of post-apocalyptic narratives is a mechanism we can use to speak up against and oppose the Judeo-Christian apocalyptica that so colors the colonial narratives of the Americas.
Environmental Justice in Today’s America:
So how exactly does environmental justice factor into this discussion of marginalized populations in the face of catastrophe? In short, the catastrophic climate change of the status quo raises the stakes of the apocalyptic tradition; this has the potential to compel the global community as a whole to act on environmental justice campaigns on a worldwide scale.
Especially in light of today’s rapidly changing planet, environmental justice is the stage where the intersectionality of race, socio-economic background, geographic location, and gender and sexuality come together. It is the marginalized who suffer the most from environmental concerns such as air quality, droughts and flooding, and resource misallocation; at the same time, it is the suffering of the marginalized – in addition to the marginalized themselves – who receive the least visibility. In America, it has become indisputably clear that environmental contamination most affects poor and minority groups (Provost and Gerber). Race and socioeconomic status are inherent to policymaker decisions when it comes to choosing to address environmental injustice in America. For the most part, it is only when these marginalized populations come together to form some perceived threat to white America that they receive any press.
This is exactly the case with the migrant caravans attempting to make their way across the U.S.-Mexico border today. Climate change is one of the primary drivers of the crises pushing thousands of migrants north: “climate change in [Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador] is exacerbating – and sometimes causing – a miasma of other problems including crop failures and poverty” (Milman, Holdman, and Agren). Robert Albro, a researcher at the Center from Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, tells us that “the focus on violence is eclipsing the big picture – which is that people are saying they are moving because of some version of food insecurity” (qtd. in Milman, Holdman, and Agren). And this moment in the status quo is by no means the climax of climate change-induced mass emigration: “The World Bank estimates that warming temperatures and extreme weather will force an estimated 3.9 million climate migrants to flee Central America over the next 30 years” (Milman, Holdman, and Agren). There is no rain, agricultural patterns are being disrupted, crops are dying due to widespread diseases and fungal infections, the price of coffee – a key export – is tanking, and people are losing the means to support themselves. These migrants come to the United States in the hope of forging a better future. The migrant caravans are more than the victimized subjects fleeing violence or opportunistically seeking advancement portrayed by American mass media – linking climate change to global migration reveals the complexity of the social and environmental crisis at hand.
To view this through the lens of an apocalyptic narrative, these migrants are attempting to escape the end of the world – and the dramatic harms of climate change for them certainly represent a very real end to their current ways of life. They are drawn to the United States because it symbolizes a kind of modern-day promised land or even a utopian state; this is a viewpoint derived from the Judeo-Christian understanding of Heaven and the problematic settler narratives it is intertwined with (Newcomb 39). Struggle, in the Judeo-Christian epistemological framework, is supposed to yield eternal happiness. But if the U.S. is meant to be Heaven, it is one with its gates barred shut to those in need. Today, thousands of migrants wait at the U.S.-Mexico border to seek a brighter future, but the response from the Trump administration has been one of racism, xenophobia, and disregard for human suffering.
Migration and America’s Chosen:
If America is indeed a promised land – and migrants seeking alleviation from climate change certainly see it as such – then why are its doors closed to those who need it the most?
Even – or perhaps especially – in the face of the apocalypse, white Eurocentrism remains uncompromising. The settler colonial narrative still dominates the American socio-political sphere, as do the Judeo-Christian ideologies that it is inextricably intertwined with. “[The] Old Testament narrative...is the origin of the Chosen People-Promised Land cognitive model” that remains a key characteristic of the national consciousness of the U.S. today (Newcomb 39). It comes as no surprised that the “Chosen People” of the American “Promised Land” are not the indigenous tribes of the Americas, but rather, the white European colonizers. The sole basis for qualifying colonizers as the “Chosen People” can be found in religions – specifically, the Judeo-Christian epistemological framework.
But America is not entirely made up of European cultures, nor are all its inhabitants adherents to the Judeo-Christian ideology. The Trump Administration’s nationalist rhetoric parallels the toxic imperialist combination of religion, alienation, and conquest and it reflects the ongoing colonial understanding that “[the] many indigenous peoples...already living in those promised lands [were] entirely irrelevant” (Newcomb 51). But who is to say who exactly land belongs to? And why is it accepted today that it belongs to white America when it had been stewarded by indigenous peoples for generations earlier?
Today’s world is on the verge of apocalypse – not because of any form of divine retribution, but instead because of our own excess in consumption and what we have done to the environment. Privilege is temporarily staving off those harms for those of us living in relative affluence, but for millions of people around the world, lacking basic needs security is a facet of daily reality.
At the point where this environmental crisis becomes a unilateral reality – which is not unrealistic, considering where the environment is at today – the world as we know it may very well be upended, similar to how things are turned “upside down” in Marisol and in The Unplugging. Capitalist gains may be entirely useless when the air everywhere is too toxic to breathe, and if there is a global power outage it will likely be those with lasting knowledge of generations prior that will be best equipped to survive. Addressing cataclysmic change requires collaborative effort that reaches beyond the lines drawn by white imperialism.
The fact that some individuals are excluded from receiving resources, such as in the case of the migrant caravans and the political uproar they have elicited from Washington D.C., on what appears to be a basis of imperialist-based othering is morally abhorrent. The debate surrounding the migrant caravans in addition to the crises countless other marginalized populations face on a day-to-day basis point to the lasting toxicity of maintaining a single, non-inclusive cultural narrative.
Apocalypse as Change:
The environment is collapsing around us on a global scale, and all of us are feeling its effects to some degree – none more so than the marginalized. Excluding those individuals and continuing to other them will only exacerbate the crisis we all face. To truly combat climate change there needs to be a concerted, unified effort that takes into account not only how our actions impact the environment but also how they impact the people living in said environment. The old world order and the vestiges it carries from white imperialism can be rejected in favor of a more inclusive reworking of society. Understanding this through the lens of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives help us to engage with a wider discussion that prompts us to establish our imaginations and visions of a more inclusive future.
Unpacking our normalizations of the apocalypse and reimagining what comes next is key to addressing the dilemma of the status quo. This starts with open discourse and recognition of the wide variety of converging and conflicting notions of the apocalypse that exist in our world today. The Judeo-Christian narrative and its message of impending doom should not be allowed to drown out other cultural ideologies. Consider, for example, the Mexica-Maya Quiche ideology, which focuses on four directions of energy that work in concerted balance, rather than the good versus evil dichotomy so central to Judeo Christian epistemology. The universe, as seen through the beliefs of the Mexica-Maya Quiche, is composed of raw and morally ambivalent energy, or teotl. “Teotl is simultaneously the weaver of reality, the weaving of reality and woven reality itself”, and it follows a processual pattern that simply is, independent of constructs of good and evil (Maffie 513). With every ending, renewal will follow.
The emphasis here is on transition, transformation, and change instead of on a cataclysmic end. The outlook for the environment today is decidedly negative but people are resilient – and there is also weight in saying that it is never too late to provide restitution, whether that be for the environment or for the peoples fallen prey to the settler-colonialism that plagued and continues to plague the Americas.
The apocalypse is approaching in the form of dramatic climate change and environmental degradation. But recall the definition of the word itself – the apocalypse is a grand reveal. And in the face of climate change, the suffering of the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed in the underbelly of the world is being exposed. The next step is to acknowledge the harm befalling our planet and the people who live on it and by doing so, promote discourse to prompt positive change.
By deconstructing settler-colonial logics we can re-engage with other cultural perspectives of renewal rather than death, cyclical change rather than a definitive end, and inclusivity rather than othering to neutralize the toxic model of abuse that so characterizes the history of America down to the present day.
We speak out against toxic constructs through fictional representations of world-ending catastrophe. By challenging the status quo we seek to establish our imaginations and visions of a more inclusive future – by viewing the migrant crisis through the lens of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic imagination we are able to visualize the thematic similarities between oppression in America today and all throughout its colonial past. These themes resonate through our real world, especially when taken in light of climate change and an ongoing push for environmental justice.
Ideas of the post-apocalypse address our conceptions of what happens after the articulated end – for the most part, we are delving into some unknown space. Different narratives are often conflicting and contradictory, but it is important to understand that they do not invalidate each other. Foremost to our attempt to decolonialize is making the effort to give each voice equal weight. As the world as we know it ends, we must stand together: there is still a future out there for us, and in that future there is hope.
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Milman, Oliver, et al. “The unseen driver behind the migrant caravan: climate change.” The
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Newcomb, Steven T. Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian
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Nolan, Yvette. The Unplugging. Playwrights Canada Press, 2013.
Provost, Colin, and Brian J. Gerber. “In the U.S., black, brown and poor people suffer the most
from environmental contamination.” The Washington Post, 18 September 2018,
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Rivera, José. Marisol. Theater Communications Group, 1997.