In Conversation

Meditations in an emergency: James Berger on climate, fiction, and apocalypse

Berger, a lecturer in English and American studies, discusses the relevance of apocalyptic literature in an age increasingly defined by a real climate crisis.
An abstract illustration of a woman calmly reading a book with fire and storms raging across the globe beneath her.

(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

What do John of Patmos, Mary Shelley, and George A. Romero have in common? Each is responsible for an apocalypse.

Stories about the world ending have been around almost as long as written literature — since well before John’s Book of Revelation, Shelley’s “The Last Man,” and Romero’s “Living Dead” film franchise. But what is it that compels us to imagine the end of the world?

Yale’s James Berger is in a unique position to consider the question. A senior lecturer in English and American studies and author of “After the End: Representations of Post Apocalypse,” Berger focuses much of his work on apocalyptic literature and film, and examining the cultural drives that spur their creation. And, with the threat of climate change imminent and the subgenre of climate fiction (or “cli-fi”) ascending, the end of the world as we know it is a possibility he’s confronting.

James Berger
James Berger

YaleNews asked Berger about apocalyptic media, the “existential threat” of climate change, and what hope — if any — fiction can offer in the face of real-life catastrophe.

Apocalyptic stories date back at least to ancient flood myths, and have existed and evolved up to the recent boom in “zombie apocalypse” media. What is it about the end of the world that is so timelessly appealing?

In traditional apocalyptic thought, there’s a sense of some fundamental moral problem with the world, a problem or set of problems that cannot be fixed by human means. The world must be utterly transformed, brought to an end and begun again — which requires divine intervention. Apocalyptic thinking is different from prophecy. The prophet tells people to change their behaviors and warns of terrible consequences if they do not: If the people do repent and change, the disaster will be averted. But the apocalyptic messenger tells what will happen no matter what people do. The coming catastrophic punishment has been determined and will come no matter what. Human agency has been vacated.

The catastrophe itself is a revelation of a deep truth about the world that had been hidden and is now exposed. The apocalypse is a revelatory catastrophe — and apocalypse means revelation, a making apparent of what had been concealed — and that is why religious apocalypses are always preceded and accompanied by symbols and portents that must be interpreted even as they are occurring.

So, the appeal is that the world of sin, oppression, and injustice finally gets what it so richly deserves: absolute obliteration (except for the few, virtuous chosen people who are to survive and enter the new world).

Apocalyptic movements have taken political forms — peasant rebellions in the Middle Ages, for instance, that sought to overthrow the clergy and aristocracy — but they are, in another sense, anti-political in that they do not believe the current order can be reformed, but must be completely destroyed.

With scientists and politicians increasingly referring to climate change as an “existential threat” to society, there’s a growing phenomenon of so-called “climate anxiety” — a looming dread about the effects of global warming. How has this anxiety worked its way into popular culture and literature?

There’s an increasing number of science fiction novels that deal with climate disaster. Paolo Bacigalupi’s work is notable. And climate is one important element among others in Margaret Atwood’s “Maddaddam” trilogy. A bit earlier, there was T.C. Boyle’s “A Friend of the Earth.” And there have been a few films: “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Snowpiercer.” Generally, the topic has proved difficult for genre fiction to figure out. It happens too slowly; it lacks characters. The politics are too complicated. And, I suppose, it’s really too depressing. It’s a fight that’s being lost. The best work of fiction, to my mind, is Richard Powers’ “The Overstory.” It’s scientifically on point. It’s about forests. And it really is about forests. There are interesting human characters too. But in a sense, it’s actually not about us.

More broadly, if “popular culture” includes the news — which I guess it does in this age! — it’s there. News is entertainment. Fires, floods, cities enveloped by smoke, droughts, extinctions are all pretty compelling. Now we have the Australia Fire Show. That’s a pretty amazing program; even better than the Amazon is Burning Show, which we all thought would have no equal. The astonishing thing is, of course, that the political-economic-technological measures we’re taking to counter climate change are so inadequate. We see it happening and somehow think that it isn’t really happening in a way that will affect us.

What sets climate change apart from other apocalyptic scenarios?

In the wake of World War II, with the reality of nuclear weapons, we had, for the first time, apocalyptic scenarios that were entirely the product of human civilization, rather than the result of divine judgment. Not only that, we actually saw them occur in real life. We saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We saw also the Nazi death camps. With our own eyes, we saw what the end of the world would or could look like.

Luckily, we did not have a nuclear war.

The climate crisis kind of snuck up on us. Some saw it coming, but not coming as quickly as it has. And generally, the environmentalist movement was more concerned with “pollution,” with keeping air and water clean — which are admirable goals, of course; but what is now transpiring is immeasurably more serious. It seemed to approach so slowly, too slowly to deal with effectively; and now it’s not approaching, but arriving so quickly that we’re unable to deal with it.

The term “extinction” has superseded the term “apocalypse.” That seems to be what we’re looking at. If there’s any “revelation” involved in the process, that appears to be it.

Our thinking and action now must be resolutely anti-apocalyptic.

Can fiction offer any guidance to activists and policymakers about the real-world response to climate change?

Oh, I don’t know. Fiction does what it does. It registers a society’s fantasy life. It tells the truth, but tells it slant, like Emily Dickinson’s poetry. It’s not a guide; it’s a dream. And you can certainly learn from dreams. I think if policymakers would read Powers’ “Overstory” they would have to change their policy priorities. But they have to change their policy priorities whether they read it or not. I would not rely on novelists to save us.


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