02.122 The Day After Tomorrow: Environmental Apocalypse and Political Mobilization

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Blockbuster movies like 2012, Elysium, Mad Max, and 28 Days Later imagine either an end of days brought about through human action, or the post-apocalyptic nightmare that humans will be forced to live through in the wake of such total collapse. This fixation on understanding ecological disasters such as climate change or global pandemics as an apocalypse does not, however, reside only on the big screen; it animates literature and journalism as well. This type of storytelling represents a specific kind of metaphor, what is known as a narrative frame. Any time a person takes facts or events and makes them into a story, she is framing. For instance, a person might view a set back at work as a punishment, an injustice, or an opportunity for growth. Frames, like all discourse, are more or less shared, and some frames are so powerful that they gain a sort of hegemony over the way we understand an issue. A good example of this is the “war on terror.” Due to the potency of the frame, it can be difficult to imagine this set of global conflicts in another way. This can be problematic for various reasons. For instance, terror, unlike a traditional adversary, is nebulous and hard to pin down. How can we be said to ever have defeated terror and won the war? Environmental apocalypse is another such frame. Apocalypse–understood as a cataclysmic disaster that destroys the world as we know it as a punishment for human sin–tends to dominate (consciously or unconsciously) political, cultural, scientific, and economic discussions of environmental issues. On one hand, people are drawn to apocalypse, both in terms of its extreme transformation of the world and its reference to human guilt. This explains why apocalyptic movies and literature are so popular. However, these representations can also be insidious. While most people do not see a movie like Mad Max in order to reflect on an issue like climate change, popular culture, through the mobilization of metaphor, structures our possibilities for thought. If we are continually exposed to a certain metaphorical understanding of ecological fragility, it can be difficult to see it in another way, even if that way might be more productive. Such framing has real consequences for both practice and policy.

Thus, this course looks at the metaphor of apocalypse as it is used to depict environmental crisis and then asks whether such a metaphor motivates humans to change their behaviors or to resign themselves to impending doom. In the first half of the course, students will learn to identify narrative frames and operational metaphors in the world around them through in-depth analysis of popular culture, both fictional and non-fictional. This will be the moment in which what is implicit in culture becomes explicit in analysis. Many students will be surprised to find that popular culture shapes their perspectives on contemporary environmental issues. In the second half of the course, they will be called on to assess how these metaphors affect personal and political action, by interacting with theory surrounding the effect of apocalyptic rhetoric on practice and policy. The course culminates in an independent research project, in which students will mobilize skills in discourse analysis and critical thinking to examine the narrative framing of a contemporary environmental movement. In addition to cultivating an understanding of how metaphors affect real world outcomes, this class cultivates crucial skills in assessing arguments, understanding intertextuality and the cross-pollinization of discourse, and research and writing.

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Tara Dankel