Climate Change Fiction Is Rethinking The Ecoterrorist

We don't need to be on board with the extreme actions of characters in First Reformed and The Overstory to feel some empathy for the desperation that drives them.

Toward the end of Paul Schrader’s most recent film, First Reformed, the main character straps on an explosive vest with the intention of blowing himself up — along with a church full of other people — driven by an inarticulate but intense desire to strike a blow on behalf of the environment.

The character’s name is Ernst Toller, he's played by a dyspeptic Ethan Hawke, and he isn't an ecological radical when the film starts. He's a minister at a small church in upstate New York that's more of a historical tourist attraction than a functional place of worship, and when we first meet him, he seems to think about climate change the way a lot of us do, or used to — as inexorably dire but also still distant enough a concept to not cast a shadow over our day-to-day lives.

That changes after he pays a visit to a troubled parishioner named Michael (Philip Ettinger), an activist for whom the effects of global warming are not abstract at all, and who's in the grip of an existential crisis prompted by his wife Mary's (Amanda Seyfried) pregnancy. How can it be justifiable, he demands of Ernst, to bring a child into a world you believe is going to crumble within their lifetime? He's not being dramatic or alarmist. It's a real question, one he shores up with all the data he's accrued about sea levels rising and land mass shrinking, which he follows to logical conclusions about catastrophic change and civilization being shaken at its foundations. "The bad times will begin," as he puts it. "This isn’t some distant future. You will live to see this."

Ernst is the preacher, but Michael is delivering his own fire-and-brimstone sermon. Their conversation echoes the first chapter of journalist David Wallace-Wells' best-selling climate change opus The Uninhabitable Earth, which opens with the assurance that our situation "is worse, much worse, than you think," before pondering the question of children and whether having them signifies optimism or just "willful blindness."

While Ernst goes into the meeting intending to talk Michael down from his hopelessness, he emerges, instead, infected with dread himself. And that dread begins blossoming, compounded by guilt, when he discovers Michael dead in the woods from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. By the time Ernst puts on that explosive vest, which he took from a box hidden in Michael's garage, we understand his intentions as both extremist and an attempt at a logical response to an impossible problem: How are we supposed to behave in the face of the possibility that there is no future for us, because of our own choices as a species?

Radical environmentalists and ecoterrorists — a loaded term that's been used as a pejorative against activists before, but that's specifically referring here to those who inflict intentional or accidental violence — have made for occasional, useful villains in fiction. As Sonny Bunch put it in a (somewhat trolly) piece for the Washington Post, they are "well-intended enough to often seem somewhat reasonable, but meddlesome busybodies whose hopes and dreams are to radically reduce standards of living in order to effect some utopian scheme or another that will return the world — or worlds — to an unsullied Eden." We're used to seeing ecoterrorist characters, like the comic book supervillain Orm in last year’s Aquaman, portrayed as being right in spirit (tossing humanity's aquatic garbage back onto its shores) while being clearly wrong in implementation (going to war with humanity on the back of a dinosaur). As villains, ecoterrorists encourage us to pause for a little self-reflection (maybe Thanos has a few good points?) before they're defeated in favor of a middle ground in which their messages can be acknowledged without the whole system having to be torn down.

But that's not the role that environmental radicals play in First Reformed, or in Richard Powers' recent Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Overstory. The novel stretches over an array of characters, many of whom will eventually converge as activists fighting to save ancient forests in California in the 1990s — and engage in strategic acts of arson against a logging company, one of which results in a death. They are students and artists, veterans and engineers, pried out of regular society by loss, and set loose to make their way high up into the branches of a threatened redwood. In these stories, it's the ecoterrorists who are at the center, and if it doesn't feel quite right to describe them as the heroes, they're certainly not the antagonists.

They are people grappling with the conviction that they are standing in the middle of a room, screaming about how the building is on fire, while everyone else goes about their business.

They are, instead, people grappling with the conviction that they are standing in the middle of a room, screaming about how the building is on fire, while everyone else goes about their business by weaving around the flames. These are not narratives for the world we used to live in, in which a crisis will be narrowly averted and the day saved. They're narratives for a reality in which climate change has already started to disrupt the way we live, and in which acceptance of and anxiety about climate change has reached record highs. They're narratives for a reality in which we may have already gone past the point of no return.

They're also pieces of work that suggest that living as though nothing is going to change is its own form of delusion, or at least its own act of unquestioning faith that things will sort themselves out. That's explicit in First Reformed, in which the crisis of belief Ernst is already experiencing entwines with his crisis of environmental despair. "Can God forgive us? For what we have done to this world?" Michael asks him. While Ernst responds that all we can do is have courage and choose to live a righteous life, it's not an answer he knows how to embrace himself.

That feeling is there in the branching paths of The Overstory as well. The book's characters are frequently dumbstruck with wonder at the natural world, giddy with appreciation and a sense of connection to it; Patricia, a forestry scientist, travels to a rainforest so lush that she observes that "the biomass is mad." At the same time, there's a running awareness of how this renders them goofy or freakish in the eyes of society. Patricia publishes a paper on how trees are capable of their own form of chemical communication, and becomes a figure of derision in her field for years due to research that will later be accepted as widespread truth.

When another character, a psychology doctoral student named Adam, is asked by activists whether he thinks that we're using natural resources faster than they can be replaced, he's briefly embarrassed, calling it "a question for undergrad dorms." But then he answers truthfully: yes. And the feeling he experiences in that moment is described as "an unblinding" — the scales falling from his eyes, the urgency of what they're talking about clear. Powers told the Guardian that a similarly intense epiphany — an encounter with a redwood he described as a “religious conversion” — led to him to start paying closer attention to trees, realizing that he’s “been blind to these amazing creatures all the time.”

The Overstory is expansive where First Reformed is intentionally claustrophobic, sprawling from the near extinction of the American chestnut tree, due to imported blight at the turn of the 20th century, through to the creation of an MMORPG by an Indian American computer prodigy. But in all of the novel’s storylines is the sense that maybe it's human nature itself that's incompatible with the rest of the natural world. The characters are all in some way outcasts and oddballs; one briefly dies after an accidental electrocution and comes back to life a mystic who sees visions and hears messages. And you begin to get the sense that it takes being on the outside of mainstream society to be able to see humanity as part of a larger ecosystem, and to eventually feel compelled to make drastic, frustrated war on its industrial trappings.

That’s true for Ernst as well, who lives a solitary life that he probably considers ascetic, but that looks from the outside more like depression. He starts disappearing down internet rabbit holes of panicked reporting on a laptop at night, indulging in the very contemporary form of self-flagellation that is mainlining bad news. He argues with Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), the pastor of the megachurch that owns and operates his smaller church, over their reliance on the donations of a local industrialist, and about whether caring for the earth is a Christian responsibility. Joel, who describes himself as, unlike Ernst, living "in the real world," counters by asking how they can know the will of God: "And what if this is His plan? What if we can’t see it?"

In First Reformed, the urge toward ecoterrorism is not born out of an ecstatic connection to nature, but out of suicidal anguish — as Ernst tells Michael, "If humankind can't overcome its immediate interest enough to ensure its own survival, then you're right, the only rational response is despair." The bottom line is the same: It goes against our grain as humans to look at the world in a way that does not feature us at the center, and so to prioritize the planet over fellow humans requires a profound personal destabilization.

Ernst is an isolated, moody alcoholic who feels responsible for the death of his son in Iraq, and who's been avoiding dealing with increasingly serious health issues. His is a long spiral downward, and there's nothing but horror in the moment when we understand the violence he's considering inflicting on a gathering of people. But there's no need to make heroes out of ecoterrorists, on screen or on the page, in order to feel a twinge of empathy for their desire to do something that might change our seemingly inalterable course toward apparent apocalypse.

To prioritize the planet over fellow humans requires a profound personal destabilization.

It's hard to imagine these works reverberating the way they do now even a few years back. They're both finely made, Schader's film deeply austere where Powers' novel is vibrantly mournful, but they're also both dependent on their audience relating, on some level, to the feelings of impending doom that drive their characters. Both feel like they were born from a recent shift, a gradual yielding amongst even some of the most reluctant to acknowledge that the environment is changing (even if some holdouts still question whether humans are the ones responsible).

It's interesting to look back at Kelly Reichardt's 2013 movie Night Moves in comparison, and to see the way its trio of would-be ecoterrorists (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) are portrayed. The tense idealism that unites them in their desire to bomb a damn evaporates like mist in the sunlight when things go wrong. In Reichardt's movie, radicalism is the dream the characters awake from, whereas in The Overstory, it's the other way around.

It's interesting too to think of the young fandom that the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, has accrued, as profiled in New York magazine back in December. They're kids who found themselves nodding along to his manifesto about how we need "a revolution against the industrial system," creating "anti-civ" reading lists, and participating in open-air survivalist workshops in preparation for the end of civilization. The subjects of the article prefer the term "ecoextremism" and act cagey about their commitment to violence, but they do feel like real-world relations to all these fictional characters. The same feelings of quiet, constant panic in the face of an inevitable future that come through in this fiction are also bubbling up in our lives, and in these subcultures whose affiliations and actions may be beyond the pale, but whose desperation feels very familiar. ●

This essay is part of a series about climate change.

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