I’ve noticed a trend, lately, in a lot of the circles I move in or at least brush against, and it’s something I’m starting to label, since I’m coming across it so often. Help me think through this?
I’m calling it “saviour syndrome” because I’m coming across a lot of religious language and mythos from sources I would expect to be fully secular, or atheist, or at least agnostic or pagan or heavily critical of the Christian narrative. It’s frankly pretty puzzling at first, but given more thought and what I know about the origins of settler society on Turtle Island, it comes clear after a bit of thought. At least, to me. I want to know if I’m off-base or what I haven’t thought about, since this is grounded in my own experience as a cis, white, 3rd-gen Dutch settler woman who grew up in the Christian Reformed Church ethnoreligious community. So there’s a lot I might not be seeing. But this is what I have seen.
There seems to be a lot of silver-bullet thinking when it comes to the state of the world and any attempts to make it better: the idea that there can be one solution to all the problems of the Chthulhucene, or even that there can be a solution at all and that things will either get better or return to some sort of ideal state after that One True Solution ™ has been applied.
I see this a lot in environmental discourse or discussions of climate change, especially among tech enthusiasts. Yes, we agree that everything is terrible—and I am so glad to see that because when I started my masters over six years ago in 2013 I was learning things about the Anthropocene, the 6th extinction, the insect apocalypse, and a lot of really heavy existential threats to humanity and this was not common knowledge (or at least, it was not commonly acknowledged, especially bv major media outlets). Now, however, especially with COP 27, the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act down south, and the tireless work of progressive politicians and activists both up here and in the global South, there is a real sense of urgency to tackle the climate crisis.
Unfortunately, what I am seeing is a narrative that focuses less on adaptation and more on some sort of technological saviour to come through and put in motion a series of advanced technological solutions that will rescue us from the dangerous situation we’re in. Whether that be a single person (preferably some sort of DIY genius inventor, like a Tony Stark figure) [Note 1] or whether that is a multiplicity of different technologies such as carbon capture and storage or renewable energy or battery technology or what have you. In essence, I’m picking up from news media and chat forums such as Reddit and the bird site that there is an impulse to feel like, yeah things are bad right now, but things are (and probably will continue to get) worse before they get better, but they will get better. This is a belief. [Note 2]
There’s an idea that we—humanity, the natural world, the earth system—will continue on a downward slope of climate catastrophe until we suddenly hit a nadir and then things will start going up again. Somehow, all these global weirding climate catastrophes such as the wildfires, the tsunamis, the atmospheric rivers, etc. will just… go away? In some unspoken way also, this belief implies that earthly biodiversity will be restored (somehow) (probably de-extinction, because that works, right?); the insect apocalypse will be reversed (somehow); we will nurture all the endangered species back to a point where they can thrive—but the world is fundamentally not going to change too much because life is going to be really good for humans still the way it was in, say, the ‘90s. [Note 3]
And on the non-technological side—the humanities-social-cultural-political side of things where I live and work—there is an impulse to acknowledge again that yes, things are bad. Capitalism is horrible; this system that we live under has gotten out of control and it is not being managed well—if it ever was—and is not serving the people—if it ever did. The system of capitalism is is something that came together ~500 years ago and is no longer viable in our modern day and age and does not respond to the needs of so many people who are living such different lives nowadays. Socioculturally, we’ve been backsliding. [Note 4]
In any case, there is a sentiment going around that has turned into a belief through repetition: it’s about the terribleness of capitalism and how we are longing for the revolution, and how everything will be solved if we just tear down capitalism and its structures. And it ends there, without caveat.
Perhaps the joke is on me, because I think that some of these people are serious; however, I am not sure what they are serious about because no viable alternatives are floated – at least, not in the same breath, or in a way that provokes any serious sort of thought. I understand the difficulty of creating something from nothing; these are truly (and I wince at the phrase) Unprecedented Times, and so we require some sort of unprecedented political and economic social system with which to go forward into the future. However, the idea that if we abolish capitalism suddenly everything will get better? That smacks to me very much of apocalyptic thinking and a naive, lazy apocalyptic thinking at that, which falls back on the crutch of Christian apocalyptic mythic narrative to fill in the blanks for it.
It’s understandable to me that individuals fall back on Biblical narratives of apocalypse in order to make sense of the world around them, even though they may protest their irreligiousness to the high heavens: we all – especially Europeans, Americans, and Canadians to a certain extent – are born and raised in a culture steeped in historical Christian belief. It even structures our language (most obviously in swearing, but also in our sayings – rise and shine, blood is thicker than water, etc.), and we live in a narrative structured by belief. Our history is structured by it. It does not matter whether you are religious or not. Like white supremacy, Christian religious structures are the ground in which settler North Americans’ sense of self and society is rooted.
The biblical narrative of apocalyptic belief is probably most obvious in the myth of America as culminating in the American Dream: when settlers established colonies they did so because they believed the New World was correlative to the New Heaven and New Earth promised by the book of Revelations in the Bible. (See preacher John Winthrop’s famous “City on a Hill” sermon for an ardent articulation of this). A lot of the early settler-colonialists in what is now known as America were religious and political refugees trying to get away from persecution in Europe, so a land where they could live their lives free of state oppression? Basically Heaven on earth. The tribulations come before the advent of utopia.
I’m not blaming anyone for believing the apocalyptic narrative myth that things have to get worse before they get better. That it’s always darkest before dawn. Because things look bad, and they do look to be getting worse. I do this myself. Hope is so necessary to continued existence.
I am, however, blaming otherwise educated people for a lazy, childish lack of imagination that theorizes apocalypse—whether that be a time of climate catastrophes or revolution—but stop short of any alternative or, worse, seem to take a gleeful and uncritical delight in what Rosi Braidotti calls “the pornography of our own destitution” aka desperate post–apocalyptica. The saying that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism (or the end to climate criminality and injustice resulting in catastrophic events) is cliché for a reason. These stories can be fun! As literary critic Frank Kermode observed last century, fictions and fictive narratives such as the apocalypse can actually be very helpful in that they are for finding things out, for helping us to make sense of a world that often is very alien to our human apprehension, and that “they change as the needs of sense-making change.”
However, Kermode cautioned that “fictions can degenerate into myths whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive.” I am concerned that the stories that we are telling to help us think through discrete instances are repeated so often within our histories and speculations that they’ve begun to degenerate, to corrode and coalesce and calcify into a worldview that can affect every aspect of how we interact with the world, if we’re not careful.
Kermode pointed out that while fictions are the agents of change, myths are the agents of stability; they “call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time…fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now” (39)
“If we forget that fictions are fictive we regress to myth”
Frank Kermode, Sense of an Ending p. 41
Thus, we look for a saviour, because that is the myth that structures the fabric of our society. Perhaps they are a billionaire tech guru like Elon Musk, or a billionaire philanthropist like Bill Gates, or just a billionaire like Jeff Bezos. Money imbues them with divine power: they can literally change the world, lift individuals and whole communities out of their trials and into a different way of life, “change wilderness into a pool of water / And a dry land into springs of water”, bring the power of the sun into the reach of humans, etc etc. If they want to, that is.
Or a political saviour: someone who will stand up for the rights of the oppressed, who will effect immediate, drastic change in the status quo, who will touch the lives of their believers in a personal way. It’s not hard at all to draw correlations between the myth of divinity and the myth of the political strongman; perhaps this is one of the reasons that the politicians who flirt with absolutism both north and south of the 49th parallel enjoy so much popularity among fundamentalists. Their story is the same as the story that many so-called Christians believe. That in our darkest hour, will come a saviour; will come someone who will shine a light into the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it; the truth will reign supreme over falsehood, the solar power will bend the curve of global emissions.
The overall point of my dissertation, and the overall point that I’m struggling towards in this post, is that there needs to be a shift in this particular apocalyptic narrative. Especially with regards to saviour syndrome: we need to be clear-eyed in our longing for change, and realize that there will not be anyone – earthly or divine – who will come to rescue us from this situation: we are responsible for the change that we want to effect.
My mother has a tile with a Frisian saying painted on it that always spoke to me while I was growing up, and articulated a very practical – if grace-less – approach to Christian belief: it translates to “God helps the little birds, but they have to fly for it.”
As I interpret it: help will come from your own actions: the divine comes from you just being yourself. You don’t have to do much other than what you already would do naturally in a crisis situation. You are your own saviour.
I have more thoughts about saviour syndrome, but this post is getting long, and the ideas are not quite developed. If you’ve read this far, I’d appreciate your input.
1. I highly recommend reading Glenn Scott Allen’s Master Mechanics & Wicked Wizards: Images of the American Scientist as Hero and Villain from Colonial Times to the Present, which gets at the history of why this is so deeply-rooted in the settler-American psyche, and why North Americans tend to glorify / attach themselves to the myth of the hero-inventor. Hello, Ben Franklin. How are you doing, Nikola Tesla?
2. I’m not meaning to strip people of hope: it is precious and in short supply these days. But I want your hope to be educated, not blind faith.
3. The ’90s is when I grew up and so I always think of the nostalgia for the ‘90s as a childish yearning to go back to childhood, to return to some ideal state wherein one is in the world but ignorant of its sociopolitical, environmental, cultural, and economic issues – one might say one is “in the world but not of it.”
4. I live in Ontario. I don’t want to link instances of why things particularly are bad here for progressives, because I’m reaching the point of mental fatigue on that for now. Please search the internet judiciously.