IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Frank UekötterIN THE SPOTLIGHT: Frank Uekötter

Frank Uekotter is professor of Environmental Humanities at the Department of History of the University of Birmingham.  His research focuses on environmental issues, both past and present, in a global context.


What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?

As a humanities scholar working on the rise and resilience of environmentalism, apocalyptic thinking has always been on my intellectual radar. I even edited a volume titled “Exploring Apocalyptica: Coming to Terms with Environmental Alarmism”, where I argued that we may be beyond peak apocalypse nowadays. In other words, we may be beyond the point to which apocalyptic tropes are actually helpful, but we continue to return to them for lack of something better. I also knew the Käte Hamburger program rather well because, a dozen years ago, I was one of the founding fathers of another Kolleg, the Rachel Carson Center in Munich. All that prompted me to apply in the classic manner of the fellowship business: give it a try, and if it doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world.

What does the apocalypse mean for you?

I see the apocalypse as a figment of the imagination. There are many apocalyptic tropes, but they all have a tendency to stifle debates. Apocalyptic scenarios have a remarkable ability to shock-frost debates that should be held in an open manner, with clarity about arguments, knowledge, and underlying interests. It would be great if we could overcome apocalyptic thinking, but that seems unlikely: the apocalypse has deep roots in the intellectual household of the Western mind. But maybe we can work towards a more sophisticated and critical understanding.

What is your fellowship trying to achieve?

My fellowship deals with the global history of food, where the toll of apocalyptic thinking is particularly glaring. Malthusian scenarios are a classic carte blanche for the modern food industry. Who would want to ask critical questions about agrobusiness if it is the only thing that stands between us and mass starvation? Of course, the rational response would be to ask critical questions about a crucial industry, but that is not the stance that the apocalypse commands.

How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career?

I have long been critical of apocalyptic rhetorics: they are far less useful for dealing with environmental challenges than conventional wisdom suggests. My current thinking goes in the direction of a comparative risk assessment of apocalyptic tropes: can we define criteria why some of them are more dangerous/consequential/sedative than others? In two weeks, a working group will hear my ideas about an Ultimate Apocalypse Assessment Machine (UAAM) that performs such a risk assessment in a semiautomatic way. And who knows – maybe the UAAM will turn into an online tool? If the apocalypse is as detrimental to open communication as I think, the conversation should not remain a purely intellectual one.

What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?

I am in the first year of a large ERC-funded research project on the global history of monoculture, and my fellowship is part of an effort to reflect on the conceptual essentials of the project and the work program. A research group will convene in Birmingham in September, and I want to have open-minded conversations by way of preparation. A center like CAPAS, with its focus on communication and collaboration, looks like the perfect place to think things through.

What are the aspects you are looking forward to with respect to input from other disciplines, other perspectives, and the exchange with the fellows and people at CAPAS? 

It is always rewarding to engage with other disciplines and the way they see the world. People from other academic backgrounds are also particularly fierce in their criticism, which I find helpful at the current stage of my monoculture project – though the UAAM idea may not survive their feedback. Interdisciplinary communication has its own peculiar way to instill a sense of intellectual humility.

To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world? 

Truthfulness, transparency, accountability – because these are some of the essentials for open communication on the challenges of our time. Apocalyptic tropes do not survive long in the glaring light of a critical enlightened public.

What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse — whether its films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?

It’s not a favorite in the classic sense of the word, but the Ride of the Valkyries scene in “Apocalypse Now” does a nice job bringing out the absurdity – or shall I say obscenity? – of the concept. It should have been enough to render it obsolete, but the apocalypse has survived greater guns. In fact, it can be disproven without being discredited. Like it or not, we may need to live with apocalyptic tropes for the foreseeable future. But that makes it even more important to get a grip on them, intellectually speaking.