Talk about climate change is, inevitably, talk about the apocalypse. The form of this talk is not singular. In fact, narratives of catastrophe animate a variety of apocalyptic stories: from techno-optimist hopes in the latest silver bullet, to soothsaying preppers shilling bugout bags on amazon, to youth activists attempts to goad adults into action. The vital energies of apocalyptic discourse induce a whiplash of emotions. We are simultaneously called to turn back from the cliff and told there is nothing we can do.
The ambivalence of this kind of talk is not only visible on the fringes. It shows up in mainstream debates too.
In the wake of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), some environmentalists were thrilled for a codification of climate change action. The legislation was hailed as “a critical turning point” and “transformational.”
Others, however, were outraged at the compromises embedded in the bill. Pointing to the “poison pill” buried in sections 50264 and 50265, critics from grassroots, frontline, and fenceline communities decried tying wind and solar development to the continuance of oil and gas leasing, extraction, refinement, and production. If Exxon CEO Darren Woods is happy with the legislation, it is likely not good for those who call for us to #KeepItInTheGround.
These battle lines are fairly predictable. Whether responding to the most recent COP (Conference of Parties), the publications of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), or the promulgation of the Inflation Reduction Act, climate change politics recurrently evokes a longstanding debate between realists advocating piecemeal reforms and revolutionaries calling for radical systemic change. Reformers see the inclusion of concessions as necessary to get a compromise win. Revolutionaries see such tradeoffs as a counterproductive reinstatement of the nefarious power of gas and oil industries.
The debate between revolution and reform is neither new nor unique to climate change. For example, amid the Second International, Eduard Bernstein offered a now classic call for Marxists to embrace social reform as a more fruitful avenue of emancipatory politics. Rosa Luxemberg responded with her Reform or Revolution in which she rejected Bernstein’s opposition claiming, “the struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.” These well-worn grooves of leftist politics are easy to recycle for current purposes.
But such recycling does little to reveal actual political divisions.
Instead of clean categories of reformists and revolutionaries, a fecund tangle of political proposals comes into view. Each proposal tells a distinct salvific story. Oil companies claim to be forging a green future. Extinction Rebellion proclaims the end of the world in a bid to avert our hurtling over the climatological cliff. Neo-conservatives promote fossil fuel development for the purpose of saving the poor in so-called developing countries. And, Biden announced that the IRA was the “most significant legislation in history” to tackle the climate crisis. Each soothsayer has their own apocalyptic flavor, whether deterministic fatalism, technological utopianism, or radical system change.
Amid the cacophony, one coalition that I have paid special attention to for its apocalyptic insight is the Climate Justice Alliance. It may be helpful to think of apocalypse here in its etymological sense as unveiling or disclosure. The revelatory apocalypsis of these frontline and fenceline community organization highlights the disproportionate impact of fossil fuel exploitation on communities of color.
Commenting on the IRA, Juan Jhong-Chung of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition pointed to the impact in his state saying, “Unfortunately, the fossil fuel giveaways in the Inflation Reduction Act will cost us dearly: from Tribal and rural communities in imminent danger of a spill from Enbridge Line 5 to Black and Brown communities in Southwest Detroit living in the shadow of the Marathon Oil refinery.” In a similar vein, the Micronesia Climate Change Alliance decried the “false market solutions” of the bill, pointing to their islands’ vulnerability: “We have so much at stake; whole homelands, countries, cultures, lifeways and the vitality of our ocean. Pacific wisdom and indigenous resilience can drive true wins in global goals to combat the crisis. But our voice, ideas and solutions are absent in this legislation.” Joshua Dedmond of Cooperation Jackson sums up the critique, “The IRA has some strengths, but does not fully encompass an equitable or just transition that fully protects frontline communities and those who have been gravely impacted by climate change.”
The framework that Dedmond cites, the just transition, lies at the center of the CJA’s work. With the just transition framework, these frontline and fenceline community organizations respond to environmental catastrophe in ways that seek to evade simple divisions between reform and revolution.
The just transition framework emerged initially at the call of labor organizer Tony Mazzochi and the members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAWU). From this origin, the framework has come to be used by movement organizations like Movement Generation and the Climate Justice Alliance, as well as UN centered campaigns for climate responsive governance. From its origin and in its diverse current uses, the just transition framework centers the well-being (buen vivir) of those communities most directly impacted by environmental injustice. It advocates a visionary economy: not the extractive economy that we have now, but a regenerative economy aimed at ecological and social flourishing.
The CJA proposals offer neither the pseudo-apocalypses (false prophecies) of doomsday preppers or techno-utopians. Rather, its apocalypticism offers a revolutionary stance of living in the world but not of it. The CJA’s proposal for a just transition reveals possibilities for living into a new world even while we reject false solutions and confront the inevitability of change.
1. Stopping the bad while building the new. The just transition framework is often visualized as two circles, one representing the current extractive economy and one representing a hoped-for regenerative economy. The transition proposed by the visualization is sweeping: the shift impacts resources, governance, work, purpose, and worldview. The circles represent the world as it is and the world as it could be. This type of apocalyptically-inflected world critique and world making frame is replete in leftist politics (consider, for example, the Industrial Workers of the World slogan “building a new world in the shell of the old” or the World Social Forum slogan of the early 2000s “Another World is Possible”). Like Jewish and early Christian apocalypses, these old world / new world visualizations preform a critique of the world as it is by imagining another possibility. They tell the lie on realist resignations to the status quo through imagination of worlds otherwise. Babylon, Rome, and the global system of resource extraction and commodity exchange are not the final world order. No empire will last forever. An apocalyptic reading of the just transition framework illuminates the critical, constructive potentiality of imagining worlds otherwise and living, proleptically into the reality of those new worlds now.
2. Rejecting false solutions. The just transition framework is rooted in the hope for end of the world of extraction and a hope for a new world of regeneration (new heaven and new earth). Because of this, it resists half measures and false solutions that re-invest wealth and power in the world as it is. As such, the just transition framework has resonance with recent calls for police abolition and organizer’s advocacy of “non-reformist reforms.” The method proposes using meaningful local processes of change to transform our modes of relationship. Where reforms are utilized, they stop the bad and build the new. Abolition and the just transition framework are apocalyptic insofar as they cultivate an indifference, or even disdain, toward the world as it is. They refuse to invest their hope in this world, a world of extraction and domination.
3. Transition is inevitable, justice is not. The just transition, read apocalyptically, has a certain conditional determinism. It recognizes, first in the lived experience of frontline workers and fenceline communities, and second in the scientific predictions of accelerating climatological catastrophe, that there is no turning back, no unwinding the doomsday clock. That determinism can function to deflate human agency: what can we do if there is nothing we can do? But, in keeping with some apocalypticisms, such conditional determinism injects human agency with appropriate, creaturely urgency. We cannot save the planet, but we can care for one another, prioritize those directly affected by environmental and economic policy, and pursue distributive justice in our relations amidst an inevitable transition.
While these resonances emerge from an apocalyptic reading of the just transition framework, dissonance must be acknowledged as well. First among such contradictions is the central principle of “Nothing about us without us.” Frontline and fenceline communities may or may not find this apocalyptic reading compelling. Some have resisted rather than drawn on the spectre of the apocalypse.
And the long legacy of apocalyptic terror that Christian colonialists and capitalists unleashed, what historian Gerald Horne rightly names as the apocalypse of settler colonialism, justly leads some Black and Brown community leaders to resist any re-occupation of the cosmologies of their communities by Christian concepts and practices. Critique followed by rejection is one understandable response. And, should activists take that path, it is for those directly impacted to decide.
But, as a Christian theologian noting resonances between the apocalyptic and CJA’s approach, I find the resonances verdant with possibility for collaboration. Especially if we follow recent empire critical readings of the apocalyptic, the revelatory cry of the dispossessed in scripture rhymes with the revelatory protest of the dispossessed in our own age.
The accelerating cascade of climate catastrophes shows no sign of slowing, and so also our collective apocalyptic sense that some worlds are ending. The just transition framework narrates this catastrophe in a distinctively apocalyptic way. It fits neatly into neither reformist or revolutionary approaches, even as it proposes a vision of a new way of relating.
The world of extractavism must end, whether by our own agency or by the collapse of the system it unsustainably supports. “Transition is inevitable, justice is not.” Those of us living in this apocalyptic moment do well to listen carefully to those traditions of the oppressed for wisdom for life amid world endings.