Can We Imagine Ourselves Surviving Together?

"It's time to save as much life and reduce as much suffering as possible," says Dean Spade.

Can We Imagine Ourselves Surviving Together?

If you have been following my work for a while, you probably know I spend a lot of time thinking about collapse. From preparedness to what skills will matter most when things fall apart, catastrophes are always on my mind. As I wrote in Let This Radicalize You, my book with Mariame Kaba, I believe organizers are “builders in an era of collapse.” But what happens to our movements if we, as activists and organizers, cannot bring ourselves to imagine the disasters ahead? How can we strategize for possibilities we refuse to engage with? Movements, of course, are not unique in this refusal. My experience as a journalist has taught me that there are some topics that cause many people to recoil, regardless of urgency. Climate chaos is one of those subjects.

Fiction can play an important role in helping people to process crises that are beyond the bounds of their experience. The fact that so many people watched the film Contagion at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is evidence of how people turn to fiction when confronted with a crisis outside the scope of their lived realities. Fiction can help us imagine our way through the unimaginable. That’s why I was fascinated by a piece Dean Spade wrote for In These Times last month, in which Dean reflected on our inability to fully fathom the climate crisis, and the role that fiction has and could play in that grappling process. As someone who deeply appreciates Dean’s work – including his essential book, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) – I was eager to discuss how our movements are imagining, or failing to imagine, what’s ahead, and how fiction can help us contemplate our unstable future.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kelly Hayes: In your recent piece in In These Times, you wrote, “Even those of us who know that climate change is already killing and displacing tens of millions of people (let alone other species) annually are mostly missing the scale of the impending global collapse.” You also talk about the need for a rigorous acceptance and anticipation of the impacts of ecological crisis and societal collapse into all our [organizing] strategies.” Can you say more about the need for “rigorous acceptance” and what we’re up against?

Dean Spade: I think sometimes when we talk about being in denial about the ecological crisis, people think about Republicans who say it's not happening at all. And so it feels like, compared to them, we're all of course in our movements like, "Yeah, the weather is changing, people are climate refugees, real conditions are happening, the fires are happening, there is smoke, there are storms." But I think what I have been realizing in my recent inquiries in particular is that there's another level of denialism that I think is still living among even people who are like, "Yes, climate change is real."

I think that we've been told a lot of our lives in different ways, “It won't happen in your lifetime.” I think there's also a lot of siloing of the different news you get about it. So you get news about the ice sheets melting, or you get news about a wildfire, or you get news about sea levels rising, or how bad the storms are in a particular season. They're siloed into different topics and so it's hard to see the big picture. And I think what happens oftentimes is that bad news is delivered alongside some kind of good news, like, But don't worry, people are working on this tech solution or people over here are doing this consumer choice or whatever. And there's just all these things that I think are pacifying us, and obscuring what’s actually going on, how bad it is, and how, as the news unrolls in our lives, it's constantly worse.

We are constantly hearing, Oh my god, it's melting faster than we thought. The temperatures are worse than we thought. So I guess what's happening for me is I am looking at a variety of thinkers who I think are really drawing our attention to the fact that this is more advanced than we think it is. Even if there were a radical transformative change in behaviors, like putting a stop to all of the pollution that's happening and whatnot, a bunch of it has still already been put into action and those changes are happening, and the systems we live under are crumbling from it. Our lives are really going to drastically change in our lifetime. And I think there's a level of denial about that, which of course makes sense because we're all scared. So of course we're going to feel denial when we're scared.

And we should be scared. This is the loss of the way we've lived life as we know it. And so I think part of why this matters to me so much right now is because I think we make different decisions about our organizing tactics and our priorities in our personal lives and in our collective action the more we are aware of how significant these threats are and how immediate they are.

KH: I feel like there's a strong parallel to the levels of COVID denialism that we've seen. There are obviously Republicans who say things like, "This is all a scam. We don't have anything to fear." And then there are a lot of people who argued against that position, or even ridiculed it, but who ultimately wanted normalcy back so badly that they embraced practices and policies that we all knew would lead to more death and debilitation. Do you think that the way COVID has been playing out sort of mirrors how people are handling climate chaos?

DS: I think it is the same kind of feeling. I really appreciate what you're saying. The media context we live in is so extremely conservative that if you're not like, "COVID doesn't exist,” then you're not in denial. It's like the needle is in the wrong place. And I don't know if you saw that Netflix movie Don't Look Up.

KH: I really liked that movie.

DS: That movie, while I was watching it, it felt like it was absolutely about COVID and absolutely about ecological collapse. It was like, "There's a possibility for some profit to be made, so we definitely can't do anything about this," and the meteor hit the Earth. I think that movie was really surprisingly astute in its critique of the media. But I feel very concerned that even amongst us, and when I say “us” I mean the spaces where I've sought inspiration and collaboration my whole adult life, I'm having a moment where I'm like, “Wow, even the methods I've been part of in abolitionist communities and queer and trans liberation based in racial and economic justice formations, our orientations have still been overly focused on some kind of reform through the legislature or the city council or whatever, hoping that those things will kind of be what they're not.” And that’s not going to happen, especially in a moment where fascism is rising and everything is moving further to the right.

We've been oriented towards state solutions, to some degree, even if we're not dupes for solutions that build police and prisons. We have lots of great wonderful critiques of reform, but we're still oriented, I think to some degree, towards the very institutions and bodies that are designed to facilitate the extraction that has produced and will continue to produce the crisis we're moving into. And we're not oriented enough towards, I would say, either sabotaging their projects directly, and saying, "We are in material opposition to them,” or, “We need to figure out ways to produce life ourselves, as much as we possibly can.”

Because we're all completely dependent on all of their systems for our healthcare, our food, our energy – every single thing that makes me live comes through fossil fuels, comes through capitalism, comes through the way they set it up, which is unsustainable, but also the only way I've ever known to get it. And so, we have major work to do on a very short timeline to produce more ways of life, as much as we can, when those systems give out. Those systems already, of course, don't work for a lot of people in lots of ways, but they're also giving out more and more. It's going to be uneven and it's going to be distributed in different ways across the space, depending on what vulnerabilities exist where you live. We don't know exactly how it's going to play out, but it's now, and it's the time to focus on that. And I am just really noticing that there's a real denialism about that, and I think time is running out.

KH: In the same piece, you also talked about two works of fiction – Deluge (Simon & Schuster, 2023) and The Ministry of the Future (Hachette, 2020) – and how they depict the politics of climate chaos. Can you talk a bit about these books, their shortcomings, and the importance of fiction in helping us come to terms with this moment and what it demands of us?

DS: I've always loved speculative fiction of all kinds. I love trying to think about other worlds, I think it's a huge part of our radical communities. So many people I admire who help me think about transforming the world are also people who are engaged with speculative fiction. People like adrienne maree brown, Andrea Ritchie's new book has speculative fiction in it, Margaret Killjoy, I've gotten a lot out of Nalo Hopkinson's work over the years, so many people. Obviously, this is a huge thing inside our feminist and anti-racist and abolitionist communities. And so I was really excited to read both The Ministry for the Future and The Deluge because they are both books that are really heavily researched, they have no science fiction in them in the sense of there's no special technology or magic. They just imagine what's coming.

I like Deluge way more than Ministry. Ministry really centers on characters who are in pretty elite positions. This thing gets invented, The Ministry for the Future, and a lot of this is happening around UN type elite figures, and there's a lot less characters who are just ordinary people living through the different aspects of ecological crisis. But Ministry does do a really good job painting a picture of some of what's coming, like really massive, terrifying deadly heat waves and things like that. But The Deluge is a much better book, where you've got lots of more characters who are part of resistance strategies, who are part of an eco-terrorism cell, or there's a whole big nonprofit that's ecologically focused that comes to exist, and you've got characters who are inside that who are doing occupy type strategies. So you've got working class characters living through floods and austerity and whatnot. It's a better book with better character development. I found it to be a page turner even though it's a huge book. So I'd recommend The Deluge more.

What fascinated me is both of these books, at the end, make the same move, which is that even though they've both got a critique of neoliberalism and how neoliberal economic arrangements produce these crises and how the governments are basically under the control of oil companies – throughout them they show you something about what is wrong with what got us here, they show you a lot of about it and how corrupt it is, especially The Deluge, where there's a whole aspect around greenwashing and how the oil companies try to portray themselves as having a good Green New Deal to offer. It was brilliant stuff. And how they use people of color as their fronts and just how insidious and resilient these forces are. Nonetheless, both these books end by using tech and policy solutions, with Ministry being much more Pollyanna-ish, in that things much more comprehensively get better. Whereas in The Deluge, it's much more a mixed bag. But they both, in the end, act like the state and industry are going to turn around and do the right things. Whereas that movie we were talking about on Netflix, Don't Look Up, is much more real. They will literally let us all die in hopes that there might be some minerals on that meteor that's heading for Earth. So it felt really weird.

I was like, "Why would these two authors who are obviously really smart, really committed to writing these very, very densely researched beautiful books with an effort to raise our awareness and who clearly feel a great urgency about what's happening, why do they both end up depicting tech and state solutions as though they are going to work?” I actually think that failure of imagination is perpetuated, amongst even people I know and people on our movements, because people think that the only thing that can fix this is stuff is at the scale of industry and the state. And I think that's part of what makes us really immobilized about facing where we're at. Because having a realistic awareness that capitalist states and industries are not going to stop the extraction, or suddenly turn on a dime and fix all of this, it can be really scary to think, "Oh no, it's up to us.” And if you don't believe in us...

So I do think it's really worth reading fiction like that, but also, especially with Deluge, I really wished that the author, Stephen Markley, who's a journalist and who clearly knows some things about social movements – he still didn't think that the way that we're going to survive is through each other. And he didn't adequately represent the broader social movement context beyond stuff focused on the ecological crisis, like tenants movements and factory takeovers and labor and some of the militant other parts of our movements that I think come together and are where our resistance is fomenting and where any effective responses and prep for the current conditions will come from. So it was a really interesting journey that I'm reading alongside readings about collapse in general, and also I'm reading alongside a book I really liked by Peter Gelderloos called The Solutions are Already Here where Gelderloos looks at all over the world people doing really intense direct action to stop pipelines and airport projects and things like that, and looks at some of the shared values of those very anti-state direct action focused efforts, and in terms of their ungovernability and their disregard for law and their refusal of any kind of politics or respectability.

And he gives me a sense of actually where the cutting edge is that is happening even if it's not narrated, but it's happening really consistently in many, many places around the world. So anyway, I was reading those together and really thinking about, “What is this stuckness?” I don't know if you have this experience, Kelly, but a lot of people I talk to are just like, "I don't want to talk about collapse, Dean." Even though they're radicals who talk about everything else, they're like, "Oh, that freaks me out or I don't want to think about it,” or, “You're being too negative." And I'm just like, "Wait, all of our radical movements are about being really real and frank about how bad certain things are so that we can confront them in an intentional way."

We don't tell people like, "Oh, don't be so negative about prisons and police or don't be so negative about sexual assault or the US military." So I've just been thinking, "What's going on?" And I think these books help me see it because even these authors, I think, got stuck in it.

KH: I absolutely agree about folks just not wanting to have these conversations, which is really difficult. There's an ongoing joke among me and my friends that I'm a lot of fun at parties because I'm always talking about the apocalyptic conditions that we're facing, and the forces involved, and most people, even very politically engaged people, do not want to dwell on those things. And I think, in part, it goes along with something you said about, well, if you don't believe in us, if you don't believe that we can really rise to meet this moment, then you just wouldn't want to think about it. So, I totally identify with that. What would you like to see in a fictional account of what's ahead? What kind of storytelling do you think might be helpful or generative for our movements where people are just stuck and not wanting to think about all of this?

DS: I will say I haven't read all of Margaret Killjoy's work yet, but I'm working my way through her work and one book I read of hers, [The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion], it has a magical element that's different than the ones I was just talking about, but she's representing a town that was abandoned and a bunch of people took over it who are escaping from various things and are collaborating to survive together in this space. That was an interesting story about people doing the work of survival themselves, and the state is their enemy in this town. There's a whole confrontation with the police, and a lot of people are on the run from the government in various ways.

I guess one thing I'll say is it's like I think when I was in my 20’s I was like, "Yeah, we're going to win. We're bigger than our opponents. And this tiny elite is trying to govern the whole world and they're going down, and our resistance is amazing." And I'm in a different place now where I'm like, "Wow, things have advanced pretty far in terms of both our dependency on their systems and the damages that their systems have done to the world. We're not all going to make it." We're already not all making it very, very blatantly in so many different ways, and our opponents are going to ramp up militarism and violence in the face of these changes. They're already doing that. That's what they're practicing for and that's what they're doing. That's what border enforcement amounts to, is keeping refugees away.

They're going to keep going at that. They're going to mount wars like the one that's happening in Gaza right now that do extreme, extreme damage to human and animal life, and pollute. And this is what they're shaped for and they have all the money in the guns pretty much, and we're under control. And so I’m thinking about how to imagine the next phases in a way that's more humble. We're not going to topple – I don't believe in us taking over their horrible machines. What's going to happen is really unpredictable, but how can we imagine collective response?

A lot of the existing zombie apocalypse or other apocalypse literature and TV shows and video games are all these little roving bands – it's all about survival through gunfights and through hoarding. I don't want us to imagine that, because I want us to be building the kinds of skills we actually believe in, which is how do we share with each other, how do we prepare, how do we think of who's the most vulnerable, how do we get really creative about making medicines people are going to need, or stealing and commandeering the equipment that keeps our beloved people who are sick and disabled alive, or how do we carve out survival through collective community defense and community mutual aid rather than through individualized warring and hoarding? I really love Margaret Killjoy's podcast, Live Like the World is Dying because there's a lot of discussion there about how if I have really great things in my bag that I'm carrying around when the earthquake happens or when the storm comes, or whatever, it's not just for me, it's to share with other people.

And at my own house where I live, we store a lot of water, we store more water than the city of Seattle tells people to store in case of an earthquake because we know that we have neighbors who live in really tiny micro-housing and they probably don't have water stored. And it's not just for us. It's like the more you prepare, you're ideally preparing for yourself and everyone else both so that you won't be another person in need when there's a lack, that you can instead be somebody who's giving or at least maintaining some kind of stasis.

I've been thinking a lot about more organizing that's focused on prep when people do things like, on our block, let's have a how to make a go-bag picnic, and we're going to bring a few free things and everybody can bring stuff, and then let's talk together about what goes in a go-bag or let's talk about how do you make an emergency first aid kit or maybe things that are relevant for your area. How do we prepare for the next smoke season or the next hurricane season?

No one's coming to save us. So, how do we start preparing now and also know each other? So, if we find out there's somebody on the block who can't leave their house, what will we do when the thing happens, so that we know they're there, or how do we find out how to do this work more collectively, more effectively? And so I want to read fiction and see accounts of that, and I think that there are less of those, and I am always looking for them and finding those kinds of radical writers who are helping us imagine. I really enjoyed that book, The Actual Star, which Andrea Ritchie recommended.

KH: I love that book.

DS: Andrea recommended it because we were in a conversation about abolishing courts and there's a whole fascinating section about how people in that system... Because it's a post-pandemic world in which everybody's mobile, very few people live in any kind of settled way, and there's not a governance, but there is a kind of body that you can bring complaints and concerns in front of, and it rotates who's on at all the time and it can make new decisions at any time, and it was just fascinating to just read about a totally different way of living that I'd never imagined, that is a fascinating speculation about what might happen after a pandemic in which many people die in the world. There's also a lot of technology in that book that, of course, people don't have now.

I felt the same way about the book, The Walkaway by Cory Doctorow. It's an interesting anarchist take of people walking away from their societies and going and living in basically Superfund sites and living for free and giving everybody everything. But there's a lot of technology that makes it easy and abundant. So sometimes I wish there were more of these books where there isn't new technology that makes everything easier. In The Actual Star, people have this computer that helps them easily forage a meal in any weird landscape. I don't have that. And so I do want to read more speculative fiction in which we aren't saved by any special technologies, and yet we still have to collaborate to live together, make decisions together, deal with harm together, and we're doing that maybe in a landscape that's even more poisonous or we're not getting our food delivered to us through fossil fuels from three states away or whatever.

There was that book that came out, Everything for Everyone, and I really love the format of that book. It's an oral history of people living in basically the New York Commune several decades forward, but there was definitely also that technological problem where there's a new maglev train across the United States. And you can't build that without extraction and exploitation. Tech solutions are offered all the time as one of the ways out of what's going on. In Ministry and The Deluge there's a lot of let's do geo-engineering and all this stuff.

Even right now, the false tech solution of electric cars being offered to people as a consumer item, that is your way to feel okay about the environment, even though it requires all this horrible mining and plastics and everything. Cars cannot be done in a way that is good for the earth. So I really want us to be able to imagine living without adding more tech, and I think it’s really fascinating how hard that is.

KH: Circling back to the here and now, in the repression of the Stop Cop City movement, we have seen a marked increase in the demonization and criminalization of anarchist practices and ideas. I feel strongly that this kind of attack on networks of collective care and decentralized organizing is part and parcel with the rise of authoritarianism and fascism, which cannot be separated from climate collapse. Because if you look at projections from U.S. intelligence agencies, as Mariame and I discuss in our book, all of those projections are focused on how governance and order, as we know it, will shift and change in accordance with climate collapse. The powers that be know that things are going to get much worse, and that as more people feel abandoned by the system, they may become more invested in each other than they are in the system. So rather than relying on the public’s kneejerk tendency to identify with and justify the norms of capitalism, bordering, white supremacy, and other systemic norms, our government feels compelled to build cop cities and take repressive action against anarchist modes of organizing. Can you speak to these trends and how they connect with climate collapse?

DS: I wrote that piece for In These Times before the current escalation in Gaza and the current escalation in the US of protests. People are engaging in so many different kinds of protests around what's happening in Gaza, and the repression is already so thick. There are people I know who are being fired, who are being visited by law enforcement, we are going into a period I think for the rest of our lives of increased state terror and increased resistance.

I think part of what I was saying in that piece [for In These Times] is that it's actually a fantasy about the state that is slowing or preventing some of our comprehension of how advanced collapse is and what kind of action makes sense once you realize that the systems we're living under are not going to be there, and another level of understanding that they are the cause of all the harms, which I know we understand in some ways, but there are always more layers of understanding to be had.

The Stop Cop City repression, where these people are doing what's in some ways a pretty typical campaign – site fights happen all around the country all the time against new police stations, against new cop academies, against new jails and prisons. They're using a range of tactics that are pretty typical, really beautiful, love them, exciting, love that it's gotten more attention around the world than a lot of those sites fights do, but really typical stuff that we've all been working on and trying out. And then the arm of the law came down really hard with these RICO charges, these domestic terrorism charges for people doing this pretty typical range of tactics that are in the name of both abolition and defending a forest. So this is a reminder of what the state's relationship to ecological crisis is, which is not only will it produce ecological crisis, but it'll also try to kill you if you try to stop it, or kill you in the case of Tortuguita. So just remembering that there's nothing new about that, that's a long-term tactical dilemma, but that's really important for us to remember if we're having a fantasy like the one inside The Ministry for the Future and The Deluge that states are going to turn around and become our rescuers.

And so part of what I care about there is that when the indictment came out from Fulton County of these 61 people, and there's this long diatribe by the prosecutor about anarchists and mutual aid, one of the responses from some people was, "Hey, people doing Stop Cop City aren't anarchists, they're not terrorists." There's this mode that happens that's really anti-solidarity that comes from the fact that we've lived in a country that for hundreds of years has been extremely repressive toward anybody who's anti-state. It's the same move people make where they're like, "No, no, we were peaceful activists and only those people threw Molotov cocktails." It's anti-solidarity, we sell each other out, we throw each other under the bus, whatever term you want to use, and it justifies the repression of some people. And so there's something going on where the fantasy that the state will be fixable and become our savior, and the willingness to disavow anti-state ideologies and political formations, both of those I think are really going to bite us in the ass.

And I'm nervous about that. I'm really nervous when I see people who see themselves as part of our movements distancing themselves from anarchists, distancing themselves from people who use bold tactics like occupying a forest or destroying equipment that's being used to build Cop City or build up a pipeline or whatever. I think we need to really have the back of people who are making the boldest moves against ecological destruction. So that's how it came together for me in that piece in particular. I was like, "Oh, no, not only are people misunderstanding the nature of collapse because of a fantasy about the state that we're emotionally attached to, but we're then in danger of falling into the state's repressive logic that tells us that people who are anarchists are bad, or people who have a deeper critique of the state or take more direct action against the state or industry are bad.”

That's just not the direction we need to be going in right now. We need to be attacking state technologies of extraction and repression, we need to be standing with everybody facing political repression who's fighting for liberation, and not choose based on how bold their tactics were.

KH: Is there anything else you would like to share with or ask of our readers on the subject of mutual aid, climate chaos, or where we go from here?

DS: I guess I'll just say I think a lot of people get really hung up on the idea of hope around this. It's like, "Are you saying it's hopeless?" And I think it's important for us to give up our hopes of continuing to live the way we've been living. We have to acknowledge that those systems have been brutal and extractive, and it's time for them to go and they're going regardless – and that's not going to be gentle or easy. It's going to be brutally violent and there's going to be a lot of loss. And if we can have some acceptance around that reality, even though we don't want to have that loss and that violence, then we can say, "Well, what should we try to have in place for what's unfolding?"

I think about this sometimes as the difference between going to City Hall and trying to get the city of Seattle to divest from fossil fuels or something, versus trying to make a plan together how to break people out of King County Jail in general, but also during specific crises that we know are coming ecologically that endanger people in jail and where they're left behind. Where are we going to put our energy right now? I think it needs to be towards mutual aid and sabotage of our opponents’ technologies of extraction rather than trying to fix the state or get them to make morally right decisions. And I think we really have given that our best efforts, and I think even in my own life I've given that more effort than I now realize was maybe wise, and it's okay to reassess our tactics. But to me the urgency of the collapse timeline makes clear that it's time to save as much life and wellbeing and reduce as much suffering as possible given the conditions that are definitely unfolding.

KH: I think hope is always important, but I do think we need to reshape some of our hopes, and practice some of the rigorous acceptance you were talking about – that life as we know it is going to change radically in our lifetimes. If we want to have something to say about what radical change looks like, we can’t pretend that things might go on like they are, indefinitely.

Thanks so much for talking with me about this, Dean. I would love to talk more about this in the future.

DS: Thank you for wanting to talk about it. I would love to keep talking to you about this.

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