[excerpt from Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, taking on Swamp Thing, scarcity, and "green politics"]
One of the other strengths of Life After People, beyond the genuine pleasure of its recurrent apocalyptic money shots, is its awareness that the processes which unmake the world after people are already taking place. If it refuses to ask how we disappear or how our disappearance would necessarily shape the world left behind, the series makes clear that it takes a constant work to prevent life after people from commencing while we’re still around. Cities may be “third nature,” but that doesn’t stop “first nature” from waging constant war. The battle for the post-human history of the earth has been going on all along from the moment that human history started.
If not the best known, then certainly one of the most compelling (and internally inconsistent) articulations of this is the long running DC comic book series, Swamp Thing.
The sheer breadth of histories and trajectories involved in its story arc are obviously beyond my reach. Of immediate relevance here are two particular moments within Alan Moore’s run as author of the series, set against the general backdrop of Swamp Thing’s “evolution.” The story of Swamp Thing, at least in Moore’s version, is the story of a transition from singularity to universality. It is the transition from a swamp monster (dead scientist recomposed by the nutrient force of the bog) to the fecund Thingliness of all plant life (green elemental force itself, not bound to any particular configuration of matter but rather the abstract Geist of flora). Hence the multiple revelations of the series. He realizes that he isn’t Alec Holland with a plant body, or even the Swamp itself with the injection of a consciousness defused into it. He isn’t even the Swamp Thing: he is one among a recurrent series. He is the idea of the Green, the collective chlorophyllic intelligence of what lives but is not Meat.
He’s also a total hippie hero, Platonic vegan ideal incarnate, complete with mournful eyes for the blighted earth and psychedelic tuber-tumors for inner light exploding acid-trip sex. His consummation of “relations” with his girlfriend Abigail starts with her eating one such tuber and then spreads over multiple pages of pastel light, chakra symmetry, suddenly understanding time itself, and becoming-Oneness. It well may be the world’s most concentrated distillation of New Age ideology. However, just as the end of the ‘60s brought out the seedy and sadistic undercurrent of hippie-dom there from the start, it is this consequences of this trippy bedding-down – free love and ecstasy beyond the need for fucking itself! – which brings his verdant fury to its full antagonistic flowering. It is the moment when care for the earth becomes notably decoupled from care for the human, when protectors of the Green reveal that they are no better at understanding the dialectics of society and nature than the arch-defenders of capitalism.
After a snooping reporter catches their boggy tryst, Abigail is jailed for “unnatural relations” and eventually winds up in the jail of Gotham City, beneath the watchful eye of none other than Batman. Swamp Thing, off dealing with other more literally infernal threats to the earth, learns of this, goes insane, and, manifested in a strip of green cutting across the enclosures and divides of pastures, roads, and buildings, makes a bee-line towards her. The eventual narrative outcome of this – he gets her back, he is “killed” and his consciousness escapes across the universe, and he works his way back – is not particularly relevant here. The point is what happens before: his revenge is the total halting of capitalism and previous modes of daily life in Gotham. It becomes a veritable Garden of Eden, and the hippie population of Gotham, surprisingly not previously eradicated by the rather straitlaced Batman, sheds their clothes and enclosures and goes back to nature in the heart of the metropolis.
Like so much of apocalyptic fiction, the structural is only approached through the personal, and so while Swamp Thing himself folds in plenty of claims about how humans act like they own the earth they mistreat and how he won’t take it anymore, the fact remains that this elemental force has known about this general mistreatment for quite some time now. A protector of Gaia, perhaps, but in this case, the rage and puissance boils over because of the mistreatment of a far more particular woman.
This is no accident of bad writing. Moore’s subtlety, or at least what saves him from total devolution into the mediocrity of animist post-’60s thought, is in the recognition of the persistent intersection of the concerns for the personal and the planetary. If anything, the baldness of Swamp Thing’s motivation is refreshing: it makes exceedingly literal and epic the ways in which worries about sustainability and protection of Mother Earth are not infrequently worries about the future possibility of getting laid. Less refreshing and more simply disturbing, in its implications for a type of thinking we recognize far beyond the DC universe, is the concluding gesture at the end of Moore’s run.
Having returned to earth, dealt necessary revenge to those who booted his consciousness off the planet, and reunited with Abigail, it’s time for general reflection on his realized position as elemental force. He has discovered, both in his shaping/pseudo-impregnation of entire planets elsewhere and in his Edenic punishment of Gotham, that he has the full capacity to radically alter the material conditions of a landscape. Hence he wonders, given this power, if he should make the world bloom in full, make it a green, lush environment, to end hunger and strife by eliminating scarcity itself? More than that, to reverse the damage of pollution and to “heal the earth”?
He decides otherwise. On one hand, this is entirely understandable, even for a green elemental power (supposedly) concerned with the defense of the planet. If the ravages of capitalism were not a necessary solution of scarce resource management but a contingent situation made into global order of mismanagement, it indeed follows that unbound plenitude will not necessarily result in things getting better. The infinitely adaptable forms of consumer identity prove, if anything, that the distance from our “natural” species-being to “second nature” knows no bounds. As such, from a historical and materialist perspective, it not only makes perfect sense to grasp that while plenitude and equal distribution is a goal of all egalitarian politics, it does not produce such a politics.
However, Swamp Thing’s reasoning is entirely opposed to this, arguing essentially that because humans have always dominated the earth and “taken it for granted,” simply providing the end of scarcity will not cause them to learn their lessons. They will profligately squander the new fruits of excess, reject all sustainable modes, and continue to wound an earth that now can bounce back from anything (like the sadist fantasy of a body that endlessly self-heals). His solution instead? Humans need to learn to take care of the earth themselves. He will not intervene – they will have to see how they are destroying their precious resources in order for them to change their ways.The cynical ugliness of such a position is unmistakable and would be laughable if it didn’t capture so much of the tone of green movements at their worst.
In short, this God-like defender of the earth is dooming it to catastrophic destruction. To sketch it quickly: humans “mistreat” the earth either because they are “just like that” (i.e. transhistorical human nature), or because their historical situation has conditioned such behavior (i.e. historical second nature). Obviously, the flimsier versions of contemporary ecological discourse fall back on the former conception of “civilized man” as the raping and pillaging animal. Even a cursory glance at prior historical modes of the reproduction of life make evident the uselessness, analytically and especially politically, of such an argument.
Taking on the second notion, then, Swamp Thing is caught, thorny brows knotted, between two models of how we learn to act a certain way. Do we act badly because we face fundamental scarcity and have to do whatever it takes to survive in the immediate, sustainability be damned? Or do we act badly because there hasn’t been enough scarcity, hardship, or antagonism? Outside of the Swamp Thing world, our answer would be: both/and. Those responsible for the worst treatment of the world and its human occupants continue to do so because we don’t make things hard enough for them: a little hardship and directed antagonism toward the rich is long, long overdue. At the same time, though, we know very well why such a mass uprising and tidal shift remains difficult. Those who most feel the brunt of scarcity and immiseration are so busy struggling to survive that the historical capacity to act otherwise – either in terms of directing antagonism toward those most responsible or in terms of living more “sustainably” and not participating in the mistreatment of resources – remains a dream primarily for those with the leisure time to imagine it.
In terms of the comic’s narrative, Swamp Thing refuses to recognize either position. Given his peculiar talents, we could easily imagine a mediated form, directing edible flora to areas of the world facing total starvation. But no. He essentially commits to perpetuating a contemporary order in which the problem isn’t just that we face ecological catastrophe. The problem is who it will affect first. (Hint: those already living below the poverty line, those packed into cramped and disease-ridden slums, those in areas barely surviving on monocrop production dependent on particular weather conditions, those in shanties that won’t stand up to tsunamis, those in zones of the world so ignored that no number of liberal guilt donation boxes in Starbucks will change a thing.)
Again, to draw out a now expected point, Swamp Thing’s refusal to be the apocalyptic force that he has been all along is the total commitment to total catastrophe. If he’s worried that making the earth full of food and lush green bedding will allow the thoughtless to litter and chemical plant capitalists to dump their waste in rivers, then punish them. His vegetal powers are not just regenerative but directed: why not be the proper growing eschaton, giving the righteous fruit to eat while lashing the wicked to tree trunks?
The only answer can be found in his deep anti-historicism and a fundamental hatred of the human animal – conceived as bad, across time. This rears its head continuously in the degradation of “Meat,” of all things red as opposed to green, of anything that consumes something else, not just humans. (See here his entirely unnecessary torturing of an alligator in the final pages, immediately after his meditation on treating the earth better.)
Folded into all this is a valorization of laboring itself, assuming that man will become wicked if he does not have to toil. And in line with this, how exactly does he propose that the human species will deal adequately with its already dire ecological situation? The only situation we see endorsed is Abigail’s participation in a tiny environmental group, i.e. her transition from literal lover of this defender of the earth to a somewhat hesitant love of earth defense causes. The scope of this group, whose numbers are slim to none, seems closer to letter-writing and pamphleteering. Furthermore, after his decision that the urgent situation of the polluted earth is to be dealt with by this second rate Sierra Club, of which Abigail is one of the only members, he whisks her away via lily pad to their flowering love nest built in the swamp for a couple months of gazing into each other’s eyes and hippie sex.
I’m no great analyst of what should be done with what is indeed a dire situation. But it’s no great task to recognize that putting the future of the earth in the hands of a couple activists before stealing one of them away for a secession-from-the-world honeymoon is more than just a failure. It’s atrocious bad faith in a leafy mask. It’s what follows from forging an eternal divide of the green and the red. It’s a damnation of us all. And frankly, we’re screwed.