Betsy Hartmann, The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness, 2017.
I don't often find books that impress me this much or challenge my understanding of multiple topics as thoroughly as this one did. It was something I stumbled across and thought might go in an entirely different direction. For some time, actually for most of my life, I've been cognizant that apocalyptic thinking has a big impact on how we live our lives and conduct our politics. In the last year or two, I've been trying to understand what that means in both breadth and depth. The sub-title naturally attracted me.
Hartmann is an emerita professor of development and a long-time advocate of more diverse and humane approaches to problems development, population, and climate. She eschews simplistic explanations and takes in a broad swath of related ideas and realities, as well as her personal experiences, in framing her narrative.
I assumed that the book would mostly be about how Puritan and later Protestant speculation on the end of the world had come to pervade American society and hijack our politics. She does do that, but in ways I had never considered.
From the beginning, she shows how American apocalyptic fever dreams got entangled with racism, sexism, militarism, and capitalism. Among other things Hartmann spends time on how the Jeremiad entered American politics, and how it's style, coupled with the urgency induced by belief that the end is near (both in religious and later in scientific circles) controls much of our understanding of the world and limits our political options to dualities.
The second chapter walks us through how all of this entered and destroyed the communal utopian movements of the last two centuries. Through social history and memoir, she sets up the main themes of the rest of the rest of the book and makes the transition from the Second Great Awakening to the Cold War era.
The meat of the book, the most thought provoking parts for me are contained in the last three chapters (there are five chapters plus a solid introduction). These deal with nuclear threats, population and relate environmental issues, and climate change.
The nuclear chapter, "Boom and Doom," began as I expected it to, but drove down some byways of the government's manipulation of the public in the nuclear era and of the psychology of nuclear fear that were both familiar (this is the way I felt as kid and the kinds of things I heard) and disturbing. She also spends a bit of time considering how we misrepresent the early Cold War era. As I said, much of this felt familiar, but it was fascinating to me to see it though the eyes of someone exactly a decade older, and of the opposite sex. I know much of the Cold War rhetoric was heavily gendered, and that the nuclear experience of children in the 50s was different from the 60s, but some of the smaller details were eye-opening to me.
The two chapters that really startled me were, "The Church of Malthus" and "Climate Change: Tip of the Melting." The former documents the basic problems that entered the debate over overpopulation and the environment from the very beginning through the apocalyptic thought of Malthus and his followers, how easily it tipped over into racism and sexism (by imposing forced contraception, sterilization, and family planning on women, particularly of color), eugenics, and even led to what she calls "the greening of hate." By the latter, she means the adoption of environmental agendas by white supremacist and anti-immigrant groups to bolster their arguments, draw in new supporters, and make themselves appear more mainstream and respectable. Throughout she argues for a less dualistic approach, one more diverse and humane, and one divorced from apocalyptic rhetoric.
Her climate change chapter picks up the threads of dualistic explanations and solutions, racism, and the manipulation of apocalyptic fears for our own security of the two previous chapters. Two of the best points Hartmann drives home are how apocalyptic thought shuts down discussion (and even hope), always canalizing into extreme forms, and how easily the industrial-security complex can exploit that. She devotes a good amount of space to how the military paints the direst scenarios of wars and terrorism driven by climate change, how and why those are mostly not supported by facts, but how they are picked up by journalist and politicians, and how they have driven the securitization (the assumption of normally civilian roles by the military and security apparatus) and privatization of international aid, and the been used to feed the needs and appetites of the Pentagon and its contractors.
If the book is lacking anything, I suppose that more consideration of the period between 1850 and 1950 would have been in order. To me that is a critical period in the development of our problems, and one which saw the birth of both religious fundamentalism but also the development and flowering of a lot of apocalyptic ideas derived from science. It would also have been nice to have an epilogue to tie everything together, though perhaps it is better to let readers draw together the different strands and form their own judgments. That, after all, accords well with Hartmann's desire to get us all thinking outside the box.