Living in the end: Apocalypse and environmental imagination in the contemporary American West
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Cataclysmic ecological changes and the cultural and social changes that accompany them have been intrinsic to the American West and its myths through the 19th and 20th centuries. These environmental apocalypses are poignant moments that mark not only turning points in history, but challenges to the ways that those who live in the American West conceive of their place in the world. As a result of these occurrences and the stories told about them, many in the contemporary American West have formed our environmental imagination out of the collective and individual experience of apocalypse. Yet not all apocalypses are equally acknowledged. Indigenous genocide and large-scale ecological devastation, for example, are often left out of colonial narratives of conquest or Manifest Destiny. For these reasons, our treatment of the nonhuman in the material sense has largely remained reactive and limited in its scope. The tendency of the Euroamerican environmental imagination to focus on working to undo error has often resulted in our neglecting the exigence of speculative thinking—– attending to the work of imagining alternative ways of knowing and dwelling in place—especially in ecocriticism and cultural studies. As ecological crises become an everyday feature of life in the American West, overcoming these imaginative limitations becomes more vital. This project explores the ecological epistemology of the American West through apocalypse as both lived experience and metaphor. I argue that speculative thinking as it occurs in literature and literary nonfiction has the potential to affect real world changes in environmental disposition. Since the American West exists in dominant settler-colonial narratives as a crucible of American identity, apocalypse is in some ways intrinsic to our national ecological imaginary. Changing that imaginary must therefore begin in story. This study approaches apocalypse and its role in cultural imaginary through ecocriticism and indigenous theory to reconcile the gap between the contemporary and the imagined future. In four chapters, I examine contemporary multicultural literary fiction, nonfiction, and film through a mixed methodology employing narrative scholarship, decolonial, ecocritical, and indigenous critical theory. By juxtaposing artifacts of broad stylistic character and genre, I work to expose ways in which environmental imagination has and continues to develop on the margins of mainstream cultural discourse. In each chapter, I read character performance and the epistemological claims of fictional and literary characters as a reflection of real-world environmental challenges and orientations. I argue that such imagined performance acts as a means of witnessing and reflection, helping to situate readers in a process of speculative production that may ultimately invoke changes in environmental attitudes discernable in the real world. Throughout this process, I work to situate my own privilege and voice amidst a broader and more culturally inclusive discourse through reflective introductions and the use of first person. I suggest that the literature examined in this study may, alongside criticism and social activist literatures, help facilitate changes in environmental attitudes and practices necessary to survival and thriving in the Anthropocene American West.