As Europeans started to make landfall in America, the apocalypse would soon begin. A disease killing upwards of 90% of the Indigenous population (estimated to be anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions) would soon cause cities to crumble and empires to fall. According to one study published in the Quaternary Science Reviews:
“From 119 published regional population estimates we calculate a pre-1492 CE population of 60.5 million [across the Americas, and 2.8 million to 5.7 for North America specifically]….European epidemics removed 90% (IQR 87–92%) of the indigenous population over the next century.”
These plagues would themselves be a vanguard of a brutal invasion that would take and take until most pre-colonial cultures became shadows of their former selves. There would be over a thousand documented attacks against Native tribes in the intervening years. By the close of the American Indian Wars (i.e. the 1630s to the 1920s), the indigenous population would sit in only the low hundreds of thousands. Forced to live amongst ravenous new empires feasting on the life of the Americas, native people had to watch as colonizers set their eyes on everything they could see.
If we look at America from the perspective of the Native cultures still battling an oppressor-state, then for centuries, the apocalypse has been here. This is a helpful primer for any conversations on climate change. The apocalypse never affects everyone all at once, and often, those left to live in its wake most suffer at the hands of those who refuse even to acknowledge its existence.
Apocalypses are common
Most Americans are ignorant of the history that happened to this continent's earliest inhabitants, in part because there has been a concerted effort to prevent people from learning it. The recent conservative efforts to curtail Critical Race and Queer Theory are one such example, but the suppression of history, particularly the history of Indigenous people, has been going on for a long time. We are not very far removed from the legacy of Indian Boarding Schools (see “The Civilization Fund Act of 1819”), where white missionaries and others were paid to set up schools in tribal territories with the explicit purpose of killing Indigenous cultural practices under the pretext of "civilizing the natives” (i.e. "cultural genocide").
There is too much to go over for a short article, but in essence, Indian-American relations have concerned European and colonial powers (and later the United States) making promises to various tribes, in some cases pitting tribes against one another in military conflicts and then breaking said promises months or years later. In reneging on these promises, many indigenous people have often killed in the process, all for white settlers to gain even more of a foothold here (see Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous People's History of the United States for an excellent primer). As this author argued at the Organization of American Historians 2015 Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, this expansion has been quite genocidal:
“The form of colonialism that the Indigenous peoples of North America have experienced was modern from the beginning: the expansion of European corporations, backed by government armies, into foreign areas, with subsequent expropriation of lands and resources. Settler colonialism requires a genocidal policy….The objective of US authorities was to terminate [indigenous people’s] existence as peoples — not as random individuals. This is the very definition of modern genocide.”
Unsurprisingly Indigenous scholars have been making the comparison to the apocalypse for a long time. You can read references to the apocalypse everywhere, from this New York Times piece to this academic Journal, and many more. As Nick Estes notes in an interview with Dissent Magazine:
“Indigenous people are post-apocalyptic. In some cases, we have undergone several apocalypses. For my community alone, it was the destruction of the buffalo herds, the destruction of our animal relatives on the land, the destruction of our animal nations in the nineteenth century, of our river homelands in the twentieth century. I don’t want to universalize that experience; it was very unique to us as nations. But if there is something you can learn from Indigenous people, it’s what it’s like to live in a post-apocalyptic society.”
Many Black Scholars have likewise made this connection. If one's people were violently taken from their homeland, forced to work that new land (often to death), stripped of their identity, and then even after being given some semblance of emancipation, permanently resigned to second-class status, it makes sense to perceive things in somewhat apocalyptic terms. As Gerald Horne argued in the book The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism:
“What is euphemistically referred to as “modernity” is marked with the indelible stain of what might be termed the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism, with the bloody process of human bondage being the driving and animating force of this abject horror.”
In the current era, many people are now using the concept of the apocalypse in regard to the collapse of our ecosystem. The most notable example is the group Extinction Rebellion, which frames climate change in these apocalyptic terms. "We declare it our duty to act on behalf of the security and well-being of our children, our communities, and the future of the planet itself," asserts the organization in its manifesto.
However, this framing ignores how apocalypses are largely a contextual phenomenon. The founding of America was apocalyptic for the tribes that lived here first, but it was not an apocalypse for United States citizens. In this case, one people's downfall was another's violent and brutal ascendancy.
Extinction Rebellion and other environmental groups are correct that many people are dying because of our capitalist system's inability to address climate change, and many more will continue to die. I am reminded of a recent fishing trawler carrying refugees that sunk off the coast of Greece in June of 2023, killing hundreds in the process. Many of those refugees were fleeing resource wars and famine (situations that will be worsened by climate change). The Greecian government was aware of the boat off its waters and ignored it, allowing over an estimated 700 people to die.
This is not a new reaction. Western governments often ignore refugees, even though the West, particularly the US, is one of the more prominent contributors to the instability these people are often fleeing from. As things stand right now with climate change, many refugees will die because of the West's neglect and cruelty, both at home and abroad, and people are right to be both concerned and horrified by that reality.
Yet even as climate change claims the lives of millions, many will survive — they always do. And unless things change, like has often happened throughout our cruel history, people will be sorted into two broad camps: those who try to take everything; and those forced to live in the wastelands.
The wastelands are coming— The wastelands are here
It was the wastelands my fellow white people consigned many indigenous people to, particularly the Great Plains, east of the Rocky Mountains. This area was referred to as "The Great American Desert," a myth first perpetuated by Edwin James, chronicler of Zebulon Pike and Stephen H. Long's 1820 expedition. James called this region: "uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence."
During the height of the "removal era" (from roughly 1820 to 1850), which is a polite way of saying genocide, nearly 100,000 Indigenous peoples were expelled from east of the Mississippi River to this new "wasteland": an Indian territory thought to be valueless by white people. The most famous is probably the Cherokee Trail of Tears, where people from that tribe were violently forced to relocate from Georgia to what is now modern-day Oklahoma, but there were officially five of these violent "relocations" (see also the Choctaw, Muscogee, Seminole, and Chickasaw "removals").
Then, when this "desert" was deemed valuable, that land was also seized bit by bit. Indian territory would be abolished, and most of this new land would eventually be ceded to white settlers and become territories and later states. That final act of statehood led to the dissolution of tribal governments and communal lands (see “The Curtis Act of 1898”), which would further incentivize white settlers to ignore tribal laws and illegally claim land.
And we are still taking. As one example, these last few decades have been one of massive oil and natural gas projects that often go through or directly impact indigenous lands (see the Dakota Access pipeline, Keystone X, Line 3, Line 5, etc.). Under the pretext of energy independence, we have willfully violated the sovereignty of many indigenous tribes — not in the distant past, but right now.
Furthermore, this trend does not only apply to indigenous people. How many times has a Browner or Blacker neighborhood been deemed valueless in America, only for the land there to be seized for redevelopment and turned into a highway system or luxury condos (see the racist history of the US highway system)? How many times have cultural touchstones such as African-American Vernacular English or AAVE been otherized, only for them to be recontextualized as "cool" and become part of the "mainstream" (see “cultural appropriation”)?
This has been the pattern given to those living in the American wastelands. Almost everything is demanded of the oppressed, and next to nothing is given in return. And then, when those who are forced to live there nurture that wasteland and turn it into something beautiful, or it's learned that there was something of "value" there all along, colonizers change the rules and take that too. Treaties are broken. Land is seized. Culture "changes."
In the shuffle, my fellow colonizers never bother to acknowledge the harm done both before and after the taking until well after the fact. Rarely are reparations paid, and certainly, the system of racist capitalism that upholds that taking is never dismantled. The conversation is always about individuals having a “conversation” and “unlearning practices” and never about stopping the capitalist system from continuing to do harm.
And as we ignore the causes of the "wasteland" (i.e., white supremacist capitalism), we let it expand as new people come to call it home. With climate change getting worse, which is to say, with the Colorado River drying up, black ash falling over the coasts, the ocean toxifying, animals dying in record numbers, food costs rising, and forests large and small ceasing to exist, there are those looking at the future with sobering resignation. People who were promised a "good life" are terrified that that future will disappear. That if they are lucky, they too will be left to roam the apocalyptic wastelands alongside everyone else.
The wastelands are coming. The wastelands are here. Maybe you'll be wandering in one of them in the future. Maybe you are already there. And if that sounds like your fate, you might be seeing this grim future on the horizon or this grim present you already endure, and asking yourself: "What the f@ck are we going to do about it?"
Well, what the f@ck are we going to do?
There is a portion of people who revel in the coming collapse and think that it will open the door for some profound change (see “accelerationism”), but from what I understand from history, there is nothing to guarantee that the formation of a new wasteland will cause the overarching system to break. As I wrote in the article Forget Collapse: Things May Be Like This Until You Die:
“A terrifying thought is not that everything will end but that things will go on like this forever. We will continue to have a terrible healthcare system, a terrible police state, and terrible parasitic corporations draining all of our wealth, cut by cut. Some places will suddenly lose services after decades of neglect, while others will blissfully remain plugged in, referring to the forgotten places as “bad neighborhoods” and “trashy zip codes.”
It is the privilege of the oppressor to forget history, to unsee the margins and the wastelands they both create and rediscover. We are going to have more people slipping through the cracks in the years to come (over a billion refugees if some studies are to be believed), and that horror in and of itself will not cause change.
As a person who knows my people, I can tell you several choices in the face of this sobering reality: a false one and a true one. The false one is to cling to the teet of those in power, making yourself so incredibly useful and indispensable that when lines are redrawn, as they tend to do, you will find yourself on the right side. The more comfortable side. The one with AC and a nice view.
There is no guarantee you will achieve this feat. You can do truly heinous things for those in power and still be discarded. And if you fail, everyone left around you will hate your guts. But there is always a slim chance that you will make it, living in an insulated compound, filing reports for the people that took everything.
The other option is to fight. It is to reject the White Supremacist, capitalist system eating away at our planet. To join other activists and community members battling against that system and to engage in work that will chip away at it until we are ready to replace it entirely (so easy, I know).
I don't know if this path will succeed either. Colonizers lie, and we lie often. There will be plenty of sweet promises made to weaken people's resolve in the next couple of years (see “greenwashing”). Every last one of them will be broken. We didn't honor the treaties with Indigenous people. Capitalism hasn't uplifted Black America. Green, intersectional capitalism won't save us either, but by the time people realize that things will become more complex: the wasteland will widen.
Yet even if we do fail, the connections made in this struggle will be the ones that also help us in the wastelands because we will have to fight there, too: many are already fighting there. The history of Black, Indigenous, and Brown America has been one of resilience. It's been one of the marches, civil disobedience, and righteous violence.
People have always had to deal with the fallout of being "losers of history" because the apocalypse, the ending of things, isn't the result of the 21st century. It's been around for a while — for some.
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.
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