Prophets of Apocalypse

SUBHEAD: The End Is Near! But it is the end of a lifestyle that was weighted down with overconsumption in the first place. By Peter Laarman on 28 April 2011 for Religion Dispatches - ( Image above: Photo of rainbow under storm clouds on Nose Hill by marc Shandro. From ( 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.

... 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.

... Spreading fear can also prompt another unhelpful reaction: what we might call the “fear junky” response in which we actually become attached to the fear and create a whole culture around it, as with the Godzilla cult that grew up in Japan in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We see something like that today in the activities of radical environmentalists who don’t actually organize for change but prefer to wallow instead in the pornography of planetary decline and death.

... Here, too, is a clue for our environmental doomsayers: Don’t disdain all economic activity so much, but redirect it toward higher ends. If your only alternative to the Peak Oil economy is a nuts-and-berries economy, you have already lost. Try to show how the sustainability path is a joyful path, not a grim monastic path.

It may be true, as many have said, that the next revolution—the green revolution—will be the first revolution in history that cannot promise material advancement in the same way that people have traditionally construed such advancement. But that does not mean we will be living immaterial lives, or that living much more modestly upon the earth will not prove to be quite sublimely satisfying. Teach that, please! And bring your poets, not your polymaths, to the front lines of the green revolution.

Getting energy from fossil fuels has proved itself to be unsustainable in a big way. Almost everyone gets that now. Do not imagine, however, that human energy can be shut down or thwarted. Learn to view it as William Blake viewed it—as an eternal and irrepressible delight.

Yes, dear ones: The End Is Near! But it is the end of a lifestyle that was weighted down with overconsumption in the first place. No need to be so grim and (dare I say it?) so apocalyptic in our approach to changing it up.


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