Note: this piece sat unfinished for some time, but I was triggered to finalise and publish it by reading this great article on apocalypse narratives, which shows how fictional and official imaginaries of anarchy converge to justify social control, regardless of empirical evidence of collaborative responses to disaster (see also Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful ‘Paradise built in hell’
Contemporary culture is littered with stories of the end of the world, whether arising in nuclear Armageddon, asteroid strike, climate tampering or the zombie apocalypse. Rather than speculating on why there is such a millenarian mood, here I focus on the ideas of repair that circulate in these stories.
It may seem obvious and inevitable that the need to maintain and repair artefacts (radios, tools, computers, vehicles, weapons) that are no longer being produced is important, and the actual or potential breakdown of critical devices is therefore an easy device to move along the plot. But almost as common as technological breakdown is a plot focused on relational breakdown, with stories that deal with repairing relationships between people caught up in, or separated by the catastrophe, or that foreground the recognition of the importance of caring relationships in the face of disaster.
To take just one example, the Netflix hit Love and Monsters. In this movie, chemical contamination from use of a rocket-based asteroid defence system has led to gigantic mutation of all cold-blooded creatures on earth. Efforts to beat back the ‘monsters’ with military force failed, and the remnants of humanity have retreated to underground bunkers and colonies. In his colony, Joel feels valued only for his minestrone soup, although he also repairs the colony’s radios. Survival depends on maintenance of the bunker and the jury-rigged weapons its inhabitants use to protect themselves while scavenging on the surface. In the movie, triggered by a fatal breach of the bunker, ‘a breakdown’ in which an intruding monster kills one of his colony mates, Joel decides he must reunite (and restore his relationship) with his pre-apocalypse girlfriend Aimee, who is in a colony 85 miles away across monster infested territory. He is assisted in his quest by random others – human and non-human, the latter including both a dog and a mutant snail. On reaching Aimee’s colony, however, he discovers she no longer feels the same way for him. Nonetheless they take the opportunity to re-establish a strong caring relationship.
This isn’t the end of the story. Aimee’s colony is threatened by visiting humans who have enslaved a mutant crab. Joel saves the day when he realises the crab is merely being goaded to attack them, and frees it from its electronic chains, symbolically repairing the human relationship with a nature altered by human intervention. In helping save Aimee’s colony, Joel realises the importance of his caring community in his own bunker and makes the return journey. At the end of the movie he uses his experience to encourage others to stop simply repairing their bunkers and maintaining their separated lives, but to collectively return to the surface … and presumably to reconfigure their world, in co-existence with the various mutant creatures. It left me wondering if even Netflix producers and writers are reading Bruno Latour these days, and heeding his incitement that we must ‘learn to love our monsters’.
To the average viewer I suspect that the broader narratives of repair regarding humanity’s relationship to the earth (represented by the captive crab) are probably less immediately obvious in Joel’s narrative than the personal ones (his relationship with Aimee). Yet they are revealing. In this example at least the repairs involved are not technocratic, such as gene drives or geoengineering to reassert human domination. They are fundamentally relational, in the sense of revealing and understanding what needs to change in humans, and how we behave towards the environment, not just providing some new mechanism or technological intermediary that allowing us to go on instrumentally using the earth or other species to our ends, merely in a less damaging way.
The coded lessons embodied here are not uncommon in media culture, but it appears we still consistently overlook them in real life. My previous research into repair in ‘circular economies’ (in collaboration with colleagues at Linköping University) suggests some worrying tendencies, even in an area of policy which aspires to enhance sustainability.
Rather than repair being something everyone does, in ways that maintain a web of attachments and relationships, repair in the aspirational circular economy is being commodified – for example, turned into part of a commercial package as a ‘product service system’ that grants corporations even more control over our lives and homes. Mainstream government policies to support repair – where they exist - tend to treat people not as members of a community, or as citizens, but as individual consumers. This is not helping people understand themselves as members of communities able to take collective action to protect our common home.
Rather than repair being an expression of care – for things and for people – it is being instrumentalised as a tool to extend product lifetimes – not a bad goal in itself, but reinforcing a culture of individualism and separation. The same instrumental and utilitarian approach allows repair to be coopted into ambiguous policies for corporate circularity that obscure continued extractivism, rather than challenging us to revisit our relationships with nature.
Rather than moments of breakdown being understood as opportunities for reconfiguration, for changing our relationships with the world, and transforming the broken systems that are hurtling us towards ecological and climate crisis, planetary and material repair is being depoliticised and corporatized such that the interventions we make (like those to establish carbon markets) act rather to sustain the underlying exploitative systems and relations of neoliberal capitalism. As opportunities for repair, moments of breakdown reveal a deep temporal tension – between restoration of the past, and transformative reconfigurations of our future. But the political debates that we should be having as a result are being obscured in instrumental and utilitarian discourses and policies.
In movies like Love and Monsters, the catastrophe has already arrived. Humanity – or what is left of it - is ‘all in it together’. Even then we recognize that some will seek to take short-term advantage (by enslaving a giant crab and exploiting other colonies for resources, in this case). And in the face of climate crisis, while we like to imagine that humanity will pull together, in reality, the end of the world has already come, repeatedly, for some groups of people … especially indigenous and people of colour, without such a collective response. It’s only as climate impacts are reaching Canberra, California and Canada that the rich world is even beginning to acknowledge the crisis.
In reality we already live in a broken world, one that needs repair to re-centre care, community and reconciliation. Such repair starts with good storytelling. In contrast with fictional tales, the dominant narrative about repair in the academic and policy literature about repair, which we heard echoed in our research interviews and deliberative workshops is one in which individualist and consumerist ideologies dominate, even within aspirations to sustainability. The dominant imaginaries of liberal market globalism leave us bereft of any interventions more radical than consumer rights and education.
The challenge is to tell stories in policy and research that are as liberating as those in fiction. Can we build on repair, not just as a practice that might prepare our post-apocalyptic heroes to maintain vehicles or weapons, but also as a foundation for the attachment and care between people and with our environment that is essential to a sustainable future? When it seems so clear that at the end of the world, attachment and relationships are what matter, why can’t we apply such insights to preventing the end of the world, treating breakdown as the cue to repair our relationships with each other and the planet, rather than continuing to patch up global capitalism and liberal imperialism?