Prophets of the Environmental Apocalypse

By Peter Laarman, Religion Dispatches

Twilight wars in the Middle East, Japan’s nuclear catastrophe, Deepwater Horizon, worldwide crop failures, massive die-offs of long-established species: it’s all so very scary. Looming over all of it is the idea that we foolish humans have triggered some deep-level physical processes (methane gas release, ocean acidification, etc.) that now possess an ominous life of their own.

In these circumstances the word that slides naturally from the tongues of pundits is “apocalyptic.” It strikes many that we are now entering an apocalyptic scenario without precedent in recorded history. My interest here is comparing and contrasting the End Times as envisioned by certain of the faithful and the End Times as conceived by, say, James Hansen—the NASA climate change prophet. I’m interested not only in what the doomsday prophets say but also in how we receive what they say—in the part of ourselves that actually thrills to it.

But before parsing similarities and differences we might first consider the locus classicus for all things apocalyptic. That would be THE Apocalypse, a.k.a. The Revelation to St. John the Divine: the Technicolor showpiece that forms the very last book of the Christian Bible. For biblical scholars, “apocalyptic” refers to an entire genre of material generated by frightened people in trouble.

John’s Revelation grows out of the trials and tribulations of a persecuted early Christian community. The strands of apocalyptic in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., in the books of Daniel and Joel) concern the oppressions and dreams of deliverance experienced by groups of displaced Jews. What is called the Intertestamentary Period of Second Temple Judaism was marked by strong apocalyptic strains.

And for generations, scholars have argued about the extent of Jesus’ own apocalyptic consciousness. When Jesus speaks of an imminent judgment (Mt. 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 21), it’s clear that he’s referring to something his followers know about already—to a shared expectation that the End is near and that the End will be scary. Paul shares something of this same End Times consciousness; he clearly expects Christ to return in his own lifetime, although for him the expectation is less frightening than reassuring.

For Christians of a literalist persuasion, the End Times can be delayed but never denied. Thus there have been, at various intervals, moments of heightened expectation and frenzy. AD 1000 was a big one for the obvious reason that something major should be happening at the 1,000 year point—the millennium mark. In this country 1844 was a big year, thanks to the Millerite craze, while the last days of 1999 had pious folk worried about more than just computer failure. And then there are the millions and millions who could not and still cannot get enough of the Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins Left Behind potboilers. At least LaHaye and Jenkins were smart enough to honor Jesus’ warning that “no one knows the day or the hour.” It made good business sense for them to honor it: the co-authors preferred to keep people guessing—and keep their book sales flowing.

I was once hooked on apocalyptic endings myself. In my early teens I became briefly fascinated by “The World Tomorrow” radio broadcasts of crackpot preacher Garner Ted Armstrong. And really, what 12-year-old kid living on an isolated Wisconsin farm would notbe thrilled to learn that the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel later evolved into Angles and Saxons? Not to mention that the Stone of Scone used in British coronations over the centuries is the self-same stone that was used at the coronation of King David? I remember that Garner Ted’s manner regarding this malarkey was so calmly matter-of-fact. To me that authoritative tone of his was the clincher.

I mention this merely to illustrate how compelling and seductive apocalyptic thinking can be clearly a point of commonality between our religious and our non-religious apocalypticists. Both are talking about very grand and hair-raising events that are spinning out of control. Some other commonalities:

• Each version has its insiders, its lead prophets, who reveal or unveil End Time scenarios. This perfectly fits the apocalyptic genre, as the Greek root refers specifically to such uncovering.  

• Each focuses on cumulative human folly and recalcitrance as the underlying source of impending doom. They define the folly somewhat differently, but in each case it is lust, cupidity, and willful disobedience that set the doomsday machine in motion.  

• Each version features an offended deity. The biblical literalists believe that a righteous God must cleanse the earth of filth and corruption before Christ’s thousand-year reign on Earth can commence. Secular climate-change doomsayers may not use the term Gaia in their work or believe that Earth itself possesses consciousness, but they still tend to suggest that Mother Earth has been grievously wounded by the relentless abuse she has suffered—and that she will have her ways of striking back.  

• Each apocalyptic frame preaches that radical repentance may yet allow erring humans to escape the worst.

Before proceeding, I want to acknowledge how pointless and offensive this whole line of inquiry must appear to some. Readers may well say, for example, that just because the doomsday warnings of certain environmentalists happen to exhibit formal similarities to what religious wingnuts are up to means absolutely nothing—and that it is preposterous and outrageous for me to imply that passionate environmentalists might in some way be unhinged in the manner of the End Times preachers.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that our best environmental prophets—not Jim Hansen, not Bill McKibben, not Wendell Berry, not Vandana Shiva—are “out there” in a way that should give us pause. These are all sober, scientifically-grounded people. But sober and well-grounded people who have seen the future and who are terrified by what they see find it rather difficult to put up with the temporizing and tergiversation that mark the mainstream response to such an overwhelming crisis. Their sense of acute urgency can easily be mistaken for fanaticism. And of course it is precisely that slight edge of hysteria that their well-organized opponents love to seize upon in order to dismiss them as mere cranks.

There are other marked differences between environmental prophets and faith-fueled apocalypticists. One is that the enviros aren’t talking about a single catastrophic moment or event but rather a series of events—albeit rapidly evolving—that will dramatically transform conditions on the planet. Another is that the enviros don’t believe for a minute that after the very bad days there will be some kind of clearing or deliverance in the way that millenarian Christians believe. 

A third difference has to do with human agency. Most environmental prophets think it’s still possible—barely—that humans might just rise to the occasion and significantly change their destructive behavior. Most religious doomsayers do not seriously believe that any radical repentance will occur; and they rather hope that it won’t, because they so relish the thought of the wicked being consumed as the cups of divine wrath are poured out.

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