Last year I joined a cult – a frenzied sect that preaches a gospel of great calamity, confident that our Earth is animated by an omnipotent force. It laments the destabilisation of our climate’s erstwhile equanimity, and it denounces the false idols we dug from the earth to be burnt at our electrified altars. Such transgressions, it believes, have incurred our expulsion from an Edenic geological period, which we call the Holocene.
Haunted by the spectre of apocalypse, our acolytes move through an unsympathetic world; their faith preserved by a young Swedish messiah, who has become our symbol of urgency. We read flood and drought as signs of the approaching eschaton and watch vigilantly for the harbingers of the end: the ice-free arctic summer; the unleashing of the permafrost methane; the collapse of the Larsen-C ice shelf. Those who understand our esoteric scripture have warned us of the destruction that shall come to pass should we cross further consecrated thresholds, which we call ‘tipping points’.
Regrettably, the publics of our age often lack faith in those able to read the signs of the times, but we know that the days are coming when all those who dwell on the Earth shall be seized with the same great terror that afflicts us. For our prophets tell us that a generation shall not pass till many terrible things are fulfilled.
In the unlikely event that the Australian Sky News team ever stumbles upon this essay, they’ll probably book me a slot on ‘The Bolt Report’. That’s presuming they only read the introduction, which would fit perfectly alongside the climate-change op-eds Murdoch outlets have been running for years. Even before the social license for calling global warming a hoax expired, reactionary thought leaders turned to framing climate activism as an apocalyptic death cult. Donald Trump urged 2020 Davos attendees to ‘reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse’. A 2019 Wall Street Journal editorial titled ‘St. Greta Spreads the Climate Gospel’ claimed that ‘The High Church of Environmentalism has acquired many of the characteristics of its ecclesiastical predecessor. An apocalyptic eschatology warns that we will all be consumed by fire if we don’t follow the ordained rules’. While bushfires raged across Australia in December last year, devout Catholic Tony Abbot warned the world was ‘in the grip of a climate cult’. In Andrew Bolt’s columns, reliably among the most deranged of the lot, Greta Thunberg is denounced as a ‘goddess of global warming’, a ‘false prophet’, and a ‘child messiah’ of the ‘global warming faith that’s supplanting Christianity’. According to Bolt and other Murdoch faithfuls, the enraptured doomsday minions of child messiah Greta Thunberg are roaming the streets, ready to burn at the stake anyone who dares question the climate gospel. And scientists and politicians are accused of ‘child abuse’ for raising an army of militant schoolchildren with their ‘doomsday prophecies’ of climate collapse. Reactionaries absolutely love this analogy: Yale Climate Connections research found that almost half of the more than 150 conservative op-eds penned in response to An Inconvenient Truth or Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize ‘included language (prophet, priests, saviour, crusade, faith, dogma, heresy, faith, etc.) that framed concern for climate change as a religious belief.’
Nonetheless, the association between climate change and eschatology – that is, the theology of the end times – isn’t purely a figment of the ever-fruitful right-wing imagination. A fair amount of climate activism also taps into the rich vein of religious language and symbology that permeates our culture. At a 2009 climate summit, Greenpeace arranged for four horsemen to ride through the streets of Copenhagen as the carbon-powered symbols of Famine, Pestilence, War and Death. Al Gore once remarked that ‘every night on the television news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelations.’ Extinction Rebellion founder Gail Bradbrook has said that ‘you have to use biblical language to talk about what it means to be in a sixth-mass extinction event.’ XR’s entire vibe – the red-robed maidens and the propensity to repeat a familiar collection of factoids with religious zeal – doesn’t help to buck the cult associations either.
Both sides turn to the rhetorical power of eschatology because the parts of the world touched by Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – are also suffused by an obsession with history’s approaching end. Now these cultures so thoroughly woven through with apocalyptic imaginings confront a crisis of truly scriptural proportions, but the endlessly delayed end of days has forged a deep public scepticism towards catastrophic predictions. Therefore, Murdoch’s attack dogs don’t have to do much convincing when they denigrate climate activists as doomsday prophets: we are all too ready to believe that people living in the shadow of horrific future visions are a bit unhinged.
On one level this is simply because people whose lives have been unmarked by upheaval absorb gradualism and reserved optimism as default positions, taking anyone who suggests that the end of the world is nigh as seriously as they would a sandwich-board-clad street preacher. But the disingenuous equation of climate politics and eschatology also feels intuitively plausible because, on a superficial level, climate change does map onto a larger constellation of apocalyptic themes.
Signs of the Anthropocene: the earth system disrupted
Fellow Melbournites might remember that day in late November last year when the mercury rose to 41°C, the midday sky glowed a dusky orange and a blow-dryer wind scorched anyone who ventured outside. For lack of a less hackneyed, biblically-inflected term, the mood was apocalyptic. Huge swathes of the east coast, and the Australian media, were engulfed by colossal flames. The media war was fuelled by disagreement about whether this wrathful weather could be read as a sign of the times – or, in secular, scientific terms, attributable to climate change. For those that see climate change as a new ‘secular religion’, one side of the debate was simply the latest iteration in a long history of ‘politicising the weather’.
In early nineteenth-century Europe, religious significance was read into crop disturbances and an unseasonably cold summer, which, unbeknownst to their sufferers, were caused by the eruption of Mt Tambora, in the Indonesian archipelago. Some concluded that the coming of the Lord had been brought forward and that the end of the world should now be expected sometime between 1830 and 1833, as Eugene Weber writes in Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Throughout the Ages. Earliest still, the cataclysmic Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was interpreted as the sixth trumpet of Revelation, while the devastating plagues and fires that beset London in the 1660s were seen as the death throes of the Antichrist.
The scientific field of extreme event attribution has a radically different method to apocalyptic prophecy, but the shared language of both disciplines – flood, drought, crop failure, fire, famine and storms – enables that simplistic conflation of the two. Convulsions in nature have shaped the grammar of apocalyptic thought since day one, so it’s no wonder that the effects of global warming bear a striking similarity to the biblical apocalypse. Deadly heatwaves regularly ravage Europe, seemingly realising Saint Peter’s prediction that in the final days ‘the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.’ As the prophet Daniel dreamt of the ‘four winds of heaven churning up the great sea’, so does climate change disrupt global wind patterns and ocean currents.
Our atmosphere, increasingly choked with carbon dioxide, threatens to abdicate its protective function and slowly cook us, as Nostradamus predicted in the mid-1500s: ‘From the sky will come a great king of terror’. Non-Western cosmologies contain similar warnings, although often minus the same end-of-the-world finality. Two thousand years before Nostradamus, Lao Tzu foreshadowed atmospheric disruption with a warning that ‘when man interferes with the Tao, the sky becomes filthy, the earth becomes depleted, the equilibrium crumbles’.
Every natural event can be sewn into the fabric of cosmological systems, and prophets have tended to weave a tapestry of portents so ‘materially, geographically and temporally disparate, that any self-respecting journalist would insist on their complete separation,’ Marina Benjamin writes. The comparably wide range of weather events attributable to climate change provides a convenient resemblance that the bulging human bile ducts of the Australian right can reliably draw on. Tony Abbot picked up on this similarity in a recent speech: ‘Bushfires prove climate change. Floods prove climate change. Superstorm Sandy, I think that proved climate change. Whether it’s extraordinarily cold or extraordinarily hot; whether it’s extraordinarily dry or extraordinarily wet. It all proves climate change … I think that to many it has almost a religious aspect to it.’
The devout Catholic Abbot might have a stronger grasp of religious history than most of his far-right colleagues, but it’s fairly easy to find conservatives hyperventilating that ‘there is absolutely nothing that “global warming” can’t be linked to if you try hard enough.’ They aren’t far off, so long as you replace ‘try hard enough’ with ‘conduct peer-reviewed scientific research.’ Climate change has been found to be one link in the causal chain of Amazonian bushfires, seismic activity in East Asia, increased spread of vector-borne diseases and the death of giant kelp in Tasmania. When it comes to global warming’s significant role in more frequent and severe heatwaves, hurricanes, drought and downpours, ‘we are as confident as science ever allows us to be’. Not every single weather event can be ascribed to climate change, but the disruption of the earth system does truly transcend all individual ecosystems. In any single day of global temperature and moisture data, scientists can now ‘detect the fingerprint of externally driven climate change’. It is truly as if ‘the vast fabrick of the world’ has had ‘its frame quite shattered,’ as one seventeenth-century theologian put it.
Many otherwise secular writers resort to supernatural imagery to capture the mood of this vast and inhuman entity that is nonetheless animated by cumulative human excess. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh says that the world of climate change is one of ‘apparently inanimate things coming suddenly alive.’ ‘The globe is no longer the “disenchanted” Earth given to us by the scientific revolution,’ writes Clive Hamilton in Defiant Earth. ‘The Earth, having suddenly become at once exiguous and fragile, susceptible and implacable, has taken on the appearance of a threatening Power that evokes those uncaring, unpredictable, and unfathomable deities of our archaic past,’ as Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro put it.
James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis is going mainstream in the humanities. For the climate-change unconverted, however, the colossal dimensions of climate change work like a ‘perverse magic trick’. The feeling that climate change is simultaneously ‘everywhere and nowhere’ drives the ‘common sense’ impulse to label climate science a modern theology. In a certain abstract sense, though, it’s true that climate activists – despite the neo-pagan vibes of some of the more patchouli-scented variety – are zealots of a monotheism: The Earth System is a monolithic entity, and ever more of its movements are becoming omens.
Sacred arithmetic and scientific complexity: esoteric systems and their acolytes
Doomsday prophets haven’t relied solely on natural disasters to measure the proximity of the end times. For thousands of years, they have pondered the esoterica of the Bible’s apocalyptic passages, formulating serpentine mathematical systems to transmute them into an ETA of the eschaton.
A biblical imputation that ‘one day is with the Lord as a thousand years’ led to a common technique of interpreting every biblical reference to ‘days’ as ‘years’. In this spirit, nineteenth-century preacher William Miller concluded that the prophet Daniel’s prediction ‘unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed’ actually meant twenty-three hundred years from the end of the Israelites’ Babylonian captivity in 457 BCE. Thus, the final days would occur in the approaching year of 1843, conveniently within his lifetime.
Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective – 1843 had other plans. In the century before Miller, another well-known minister had concluded that Daniel’s prophecies indicated 1864 as the end of the world. 1864, too, had other plans. The famous 666 ‘Mark of the Beast’ from the Book of Revelation has also been contorted into endless numerological systems to decipher a satanic conspiracy behind universal barcodes and license plates, or to uncover a secret correspondence between the devil and figures as diverse as Nero, Napoleon and Hitler.
As the beast in Revelation is an important character of the final days, the point of this exercise has usually been to situate these incarnations of the beast within an eschatological chronology. Such is the ‘scientific’ method behind the apocalyptic madness. Using a bewildering array of numbers and formulations, the prophetic numerologist uncovers the secret order of the universe and arranges the tangle of history into a grand pattern. Of course, this pattern usually reveals the deep historical significance of the events the prophets and their followers are living through.
Despite climate science’s fundamentally different methodology, its foreboding repertoire of carbon dioxide parts per million, radiative forcing ratios and annual glacier calving differentials strikes a superficially similar tone. Climate science, like all science, strives to incrementally demystify the natural world, but the arcane, technical jargon that it deploys to achieve this end can be as impenetrable as the Book of Revelation. The abstract mechanism of the greenhouse effect is fairly easy to grasp, but the devil is lurking in the details. And because it’s the details that are argued over climate-science debates can involve vast hordes of statistics and obscure, abstract concepts being thrown against each other for audiences who – like me – don’t fully understand them and don’t have a few spare years to get a science degree, which might enable us to meaningfully draw our own conclusions. Of course, public ignorance is partly manufactured via news outlets that give their readers almost no information that would enable them to understand the complexities or likely impacts of climate change, but the subject itself is undeniably complex. Apocalyptic discourse is generally associated with passionate, sweeping rhetoric, so, if nothing else, it’s interesting to note that history of apocalyptic prophecy shares a superficial similarity with one of the most dispassionate, mathematical aspects of climate science.
Climate sceptics are quick to deploy an intimidating range of long-debunked stats, such as the furphy about temperature increases plateauing since the late 90s and recovery of polar ice levels, to give their political convictions a whiff of scientific authority. But it’s all numerology, not mathematics. Rather than making calculations based on objective analysis, taking account of new data, improved methods and critical scrutiny by knowledgeable peers, such fanatics generally accept any numbers that suit their political purposes. Of course, some people at every point on the political spectrum play fast and loose with science to get the numbers that fit their pre-existing ideology, but if we’re in the business of applying a religious analogy to climate politics, climate contrarians are often the most akin to the apocalyptic numerologists of yore.
All this is somewhat tangential, though, because when Bolt and Co. condemn the ‘climate cult’, they are more often referring to the passion of activists and writers, rather than the esoteric calculations of climate scientists. It is regularly argued that climate activism should be a rational, debate, devoid of passion and definitely not involving any minors. Given the catastrophic failure of this strategy over the last several decades, it’s not hard to see why some school kids decided to take it to the streets. The belief that rational public sphere debate is the path to proportionate and sensible action ignores the reality that we live in a society in which thought leaders who get their scientific updates from anonymous blogs are regularly rewarded with mass media pulpits. The climate contrarianism that NewsCorp reliably pushes has been discredited again and again and again, but the zombie theories refuse to die. Why agree to leave it to ‘expert debate’ if people with immense power to shape the discourse continuously refuse to respect the legitimacy of expertise?
The Vatican of climate science and its apostates
Given the esoteric codes and diverse weather phenomena through which the movements of both God and the climate system are discerned, laypeople by necessity rely on specialist authority. As a certain well-known Nazarethan prophet once warned the everyday plebs, ‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times’. We trust in the ‘high priesthood’ of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or other respected scientific bodies, because we recognise expert consensus as the best method for generating verifiable knowledge. As well-known environmentalist (and former Sunday school teacher) Bill McKibben once said: ‘I do my best to read the signs of the times, and in our day and age it often means listening hard to what scientists have to tell us.’
Those who seek to undermine climate science as an institution don’t just substitute one carefully selected scientific authority for another: they also play on a deeper and more widespread resentment toward expert opinion. Often this means exploiting the occasional disjunct between individual experience and scientific projection, eg the reliably rolled out trope that a bout of cold weather shows that the world isn’t getting warmer. In the same way that Protestants challenged the Catholic hierarchy that stood between believers and God, contrarians tell the ‘everyday punters’ that they don’t need a conduit between them and a thorough understanding of the climate system. Geologist Ian Plimer – an ever-productive vein of climate misinformation – tells readers of The Australian that the ‘average punter in the street’ is ‘sick of being treated like a fool and having scientists and some quarters of the media pontificate to them.’
His choice of the word ‘pontificate’ – which has the same root as ‘pontiff’, a synonym for the pope – is on-brand here. To effectively neutralise activist appeals to scientific consensus, the IPCC is routinely caricatured as some kind of corrupt Vatican, and the ABC, Greta Thunberg and other activists as the violent inquisition that will tolerate no dissent from its dogma. Sceptics portray themselves as lonely, persecuted heretics from their mass media pulpits. A popular denialist think-tank earnestly contends that ‘climate change alarmists have become the Roman Inquisition of the 21st Century. Our old friend Professor Bolt wrote a column last year titled: ‘No heretics allowed in ABC’s warmist cathedral’. More outer-orbit reactionaries – which given the position of people like Bolt, makes them virtually Plutonic – claim that climate scientists are merely obedient acolytes of the diabolical United Nations, or various other crypto-globalist institutions such as NASA. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology is reportedly tampering with temperature data to better fit the ‘global warming narrative’. Scientists in the United Kingdom are hiding a decline in global temperature. Our own Vatican representative Cardinal George Pell once accused climate scientists of having ‘fiddled with the evidence’, too. Add in some riffs about Catholic indulgences and carbon offsets, and you’ve got the absolutely cooked ‘climate change is a religion’ discourse the world has been stewing in for the last fifteen years or so.
Making no secret of the surrealist universe they inhabit, climate sceptics regularly compare themselves to Galileo – a scientist who was persecuted by the Catholic Inquisition for challenging the hitherto dominant paradigm that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Five years ago, Texas Senator Ted Cruz said that ‘on the global warming alarmists, anyone who actually points to the evidence that disproves their apocalyptical claims … They brand you a heretic. Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers. It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.’
Two Australian retirees frustrated by the ‘orthodoxy of settled science’ started a Galileo Movement, with the support of reactionary radio goon Alan Jones. The Galileo comparison is really, really common in this milieu. Unlike Galileo, though, climate contrarians aren’t overturning an ancient view, but rather questioning the relatively recent idea that human activity might be upsetting the Earth’s climate system . As the protectors of an empirically contradicted worldview that serves the fossil-fuelled powers that be, climate sceptics more closely resemble the Catholic Church. As Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes puts it:
Galileo was not attacked by his fellow scientists, he was attacked by the Catholic Church, the power structure of his day. Climate contrarians are on the side of, and are supported by, the power structure of our day, which is the Republican Party and the carbon-combustion complex.
It is the structures of power that reveal how historically creative right-wing reactionaries are when they denigrate the ‘climate faithful’ as both doomsday prophets and obedient acolytes of the grand church of warming. Predictions of the impending end of the world inherently threaten to destabilise power structures so, for most of Abrahamic history, people promoting them have been outside of the large establishments who guard the theological and legal norms of their time. From the Apostolic Brethren in fourteenth-century Italy to the Millerites in 1800s America, fringe Christian apocalyptic movements have consistently decreed the Pope to be the antichrist of the end times and railed against the forces of religious orthodoxy .
Christian scripture provides a clear basis for apocalyptic expectations, yet its tolerance for prophesying the imminent arrival of the end decreased dramatically as it transitioned from a persecuted, radical sect on the fringes of the Roman empire to that empire’s official religion. As Robert Leonhard puts it in his essay ‘Visions of Apocalypse’: the
simplest way to understand the various schools of thought that emerged [vis a vis eschatological questions] is to look at the degree to which individuals and institutions were invested in the establishment. If you are a member of the establishment, you do not anticipate its destruction with joy. If you are outside the establishment (or worse, a victim of it), you do.
Less than one hundred years after the ordination of Christianity to religion of empire, St Augustine’s redefinition of the end of time as an inner spiritual event, rather than a historical one, all but sealed the deal. By the early 1600s, all potentially seditious predictions related to ecclesiastical and political matters had been banned by the Vatican. It was a self-interested manoeuvre because, as Abbas Amanat writes,
… predictions could destabilize the throne, the church, and the lives of ordinary folk. Astrologers, as Rabelais quipped, were mostly disastrologers. The astral conjunctions they found in the past validated the sensational forebodings they voiced about the future. The politics of prophecy too often proved subversive.’
Such was also the case in Judaism. In The Crisis of Tradition in Jewish Messianism, Gerson Scholem writes of an almost
totally consistent rabbinic opposition to Messianic movements during the 1600 years between the destruction of the Temple and the Sabbatian movement [in the 17th Century].
It was not just that prophecy warned of a wildly deranged future in which institutional authority could have no foundation, but that the function of prophecy was to ‘challenge and relativize the power structures of the present world,’ as Stefan Skrimshire writes. Apocalyptic prophecy brings to snapping point the
tension between the corruption that is endured in the present age and the hope in the new age that is yet to come; the symbolic identification of earthly power and wealth with this corruption; the resolution of that tension with the ultimate triumph of God.
At first blush, likening ‘a thoroughly institutionalised effort’ like international climate science to the Vatican has some merit. The IPCC is the world’s most exalted climate authority, with a legion of lab coat-frocked clerics. But the actions of tenured scientists endorsing mass civil disobedience or releasing joint statements warning of potential ‘untold suffering’ to come displays the distance between them and the levers of power. Their ‘apocalyptic’ predictions, and the ‘unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society’ that the IPCC says are required to avoid catastrophe are a clear threat to the financial and political elite.
To meet the most modest international climate goals, existing coal assets cannot be allowed to remain profitable for much longer. Politicians who brought lumps of coal into parliament and mocked people who took climate change seriously will have to rip into the hip pockets of their financial backers. Given the suicidal effect such action would have on the Liberal party, conservative think tanks and their assorted supporters, the strategy has largely followed the reliable pattern of institutional authority vs threatening prediction that we see all through religious history. Just like the Vatican once suppressed apocalyptic prophecy that challenged the Church and state, the reactionary counter strategy for the last few decades has been to disparage, downplay or simply hide from view scientific projections that threaten to destabilise their power. When Trump was elected he removed a quarter of all climate language from government websites and buried government-funded studies showing dangers of climate change, as well as making significant cuts to the climate-science budgets of NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency. Australian public servants who attended recently a climate adaptation conference were instructed to stay quiet on the link between global warming and bushfires. The climate prophets are cast out into the wilderness, where it is hoped that their message will fall on deaf ears. Thus, every week we must read pushy emails from the Climate Council – formerly the government-funded Climate Commission – begging for public donations like friars of a mendicant order.
One of the most powerful victories of the right has been to convince people that these dynamics of power are otherwise. To do this, they exploit the same resentments that populist religious movements do: the schism between the ‘relative political and social liberalism, and cosmopolitan attitudes’ of urban coastal cities and the ‘poorer, more conservative and patriotic hinterlands’ . That’s why old-money, private-school boys paint themselves as salt-of-the-earth types while proselytising tax reform that only privileges Himalayan pink salt buyers, or National Party politicians inveigh against the Babylon of woke inner-city greenies and vow to restore traditional values to their sanctified place. Unlike the fire and brimstone people’s champions of the past, these are anti-prophets whose politics rests on a reassurance that the future will be more or less like the past, or at least not wildly dissimilar.
The political brands of our elected leaders cannot accommodate predictions of imminent cataclysm. Scott Morrison might be a card-carrying Pentecostal, but his political identity – perhaps epitomised by his photo-op with the Australian cricket team while bushfire smoke suffocated whole cities – inverts his faith’s core belief in the imminent and violent return of the holy catalyst. Consider his late 2019 Murdoch daily op-ed titled ‘2020 is the year of living optimistically’, all while he continued to make coded digs like ‘we have faced these disasters before’ to suggest that there was nothing unusual about the massive bushfires raging across the country. Then again, perhaps his sanguine public persona relies on a deep, private belief that a cosmic battle is drawing to close and the victory of the righteous is at hand. The Morrison government’s climate change approach – which ‘amounts to little more than prayer,’ – is fully compatible with his Pentecostal faith. Emeritus Professor in the History of Religious Thought Philip C. Almond writes: ‘If the end of the world through climate change is part of God’s providential plan, there is precious little that we need to or can do about it.’
The twisted shape of the climate apocalypse
I won’t pretend to be able to penetrate the inner machinations of our prime minister, but if that smirk constantly plastered on his face hides any theological secret, it could be the blissful messianic period that his Pentecostal faith promises is awaiting the other side of the end times. The word ‘apocalypse’ today denotes some immense, non-specific catastrophe, but its religious meaning is closer to revelation. The original Greek term could mean either the unveiling of a bride or of divine truth. Just as the bride’s veil, once removed, revealed her fully to her husband, Kelly J. Murphy and Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler write, ‘so, too, apocalypses revealed a previously obscured reality to their audiences.’
The unveiling of the apocalypse reveals the hidden order of divine justice that will overturn the corruption and obfuscation of the profane world. In Apocalypse: A History of the End of Time, John Michael Greer calls the utopian aftermath in which which Satan is bound, swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks:
throbbing heart of the apocalypse meme … the promise that life as we know it, with all its frustrations, limitations, and annoyances, will be replaced by something wholly other – something that normally just happens to correspond to whatever the fondest fantasies of its believers happens to be.
The sacred texts of all Abrahamic religions contain prophecies about this divinely ordained ‘happily ever after’, though they differ on how long this period will last (the Christian messianic age is generally one thousand years, which is why apocalyptic types are often called ‘Millenarians’). The blissful promise an imminent, immanent paradise is one reason apocalyptic desire has persisted against the will of religious authorities. If religion is the opium of the masses, apocalyptic eschatology is its 98 per cent pure heroin.
Unsurprisingly, eschatological addiction rises in difficult times. A surge beginning in the fifteenth century was entwined with the prolonged strife caused by the hundred years war, the Black Death and a series of famines and religious conflicts. As Stephen Jay Gould notes, many well-known figures from that era thought that the end was nigh:
Christopher Columbus wrote in 1500 that the end of the world would occur in the next 150 years at the very most. Nicholas of Cusa declared that the victory over the Antichrist would happen between 1700 and 1734. Luther thought that humankind had ‘reached the age of the pale horse of the Apocalypse … the world will not last another hundred years.’
However, apocalyptic belief reaches out to those struggling under the weight of their times in more personal way than opiates might. Such belief tells them that the suffering they feel or see is also a sign that they are living through the period of strife and tribulation immediately preceding the End (and thus the end of suffering). The ‘birth pains’ of the eschaton, as the holy writ warns, will be ‘famines and earthquakes’, and ‘nation rising against nation.’ But ‘just when it appears that evil has wrung every vestige of righteousness from the world,’ Marina Benjamin writes, ‘God intervenes to bring things to a sudden, violent and cataclysmic end’. In perhaps its most oft-quoted biblical description, the end is promised to come ‘as a thief in the night’, while the Book of Mathew describes humanity caught unaware like the flood caught Noah’s ill-fated contemporaries.
There are other strands of eschatology in the Christian tradition, but the sudden and violent end is the main style of fringe apocalyptic cults. Climate change mirrors this vision of the end as far as tribulation and wrath go: nearly every projection of a climate-disturbed future predicts great storms, drought, famine and wars over depleting resources. But unless you actually believe in a merciful, interventionist god or the sudden emergence of miraculous carbon drawdown technology, climate change has no decisive endpoint of extinction or salvation, just a long, slow slide into ‘extreme, horrific, long-term, widespread violence’.
Carbon dioxide already pumped into the atmosphere will continue to affect climate for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Some changes in the climate system – major melting of the ice sheets or ocean circulation disruption – are effectively irreversible. The system’s inertia means that many future generations will live out the consequences of our emissions today. And even in the event that humans are ‘cast to the winds again, gathering in small tribes, hunkered down and living on whatever patch of land might sustain them’ – as the architects of the Paris Agreement write in The Future We Choose – human extinction is still very unlikely, even in worst-case climate scenarios. As Hans Magnus Enzensberger laments:
Finality, which was formerly one of the major attributes of the apocalypse, and one of the reasons for its power of attraction, is no longer vouchsafed us.
The least righteous few
Even when it’s acknowledged that climate change is more of a grim slide than a sudden drop, it’s often presented as a globally levelling catastrophe. The commonly heard platitude ‘we’re all in it together’ is perhaps most emblematic of this.
It’s true that climate change is more of a universal problem than perhaps any other, but as much as we are all in it together, we don’t all confront it from the same position. To highlight this point, some postcolonial writers have coined the catchphrase ‘the apocalypse is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,’ a play on William Gibson’s famous line. This riff only works because our standard conception of the apocalypse is of some ‘universalizing, levelling final event of destruction’. In common parlance this is generally what it is taken to mean, but, as theologian Stefan Skrimshire contends, this conception is rarely found in apocalyptic branches of Christian theology.
Apocalyptic movements have generally imagined the resolution of the final days as the victory of the righteous, not a general armistice, and their theology was shaped around reassuring the hopeless that despite losing nearly every battle, they will win the cosmic war. As the angels gather the righteous elect from the four winds and grant them admittance to the pearly gated community, the earthly forces of evil will submit. The general consensus of rabbinical commentary in the Talmud is more or less the same: in the messianic days, those who follow the commandments of the Torah will enjoy a blessed existence, while those who disregard the law will suffer. As John Michael Greer writes:
The apocalypse meme is not really about the end of the world, or more precisely, it’s not about the kind of end that the world, or humanity, or contemporary industrial civilization, or each of our lives, will actually have. At the centre of the apocalypse meme is the insistence that those endings aren’t for us …
Climate change shares this penchant for uneven distribution of suffering, a feature that makes it apocalyptic in the strict sense of the word. Climate disruption isn’t unfolding at a uniform speed or severity across the world: Most richer countries have lower exposure to temperature thresholds, lower reliance on agriculture (therefore lower economic sensitivity to climate disruption), as well as more robust institutions, health infrastructures and sanitation systems.
Poorer countries scattered along the equator will be among the worst affected by climate change. South Asia, the Philippines and many African nations will be most vulnerable to food insecurity. Indigenous communities in Central Australia risk being forced into a mass exodus by extreme heat and depleted water reserves long before those along the East Coast are forced to migrate. In all these ways, climate change will exacerbate the inequality that humans have already inflicted upon each other through colonialism and ethnic violence. The myriad warnings of climate refugees held back by Orwellian border policies and countries adopting an ‘armed lifeboat’ mentality, perpetuate the conditions that Enzensberger described in ‘Two Notes on the End of the World’ (1978):
Corresponding to the country house with burglar alarms and electric fences, we have whole countries, on the international scale, who fence themselves in while others go to ruin.
Millionaires are buying up large tracts of land in New Zealand, where they can bunker down behind giant, razor wire fences patrolled by mercenaries. As is commonly noted, those most able to adapt to the ravages of a changing climate are often those most responsible for it – a situation that inverts the reward for the righteous awaiting in the end times. If the apocalypse is already here, just not evenly distributed, then climate change will only exacerbate the uneven distribution of apocalypses.
The end (of this essay) is nigh
The period of history we are living through doesn’t fit neatly into any familiar eschatological narrative, and the way the climate crisis will unfold in our lifetimes will be far stranger than any doomsday prophet could envision. Despite the vaguely apocalyptic themes climate change evokes, even this extremely compressed overview of eschatology shows the creativity of commentators who promote the view that climate Activism is an apocalyptic belief.
In a very abstract and limited sense, however, they are right: every movement that seeks liberation or salvation is shot through with trace elements of the religious. That is the inevitable inheritance of our past. If Andrew Bolt had been active in the 1960s, he probably would have seethed about the Civil Rights ‘crusade’: their political catechism, fervent passion, moralistic condemnations of injustice and appeals to redeem the soul of American Christian society. Not to mention the actual theological rhetoric of their beloved ‘messiah’, the minister Dr Martin Luther King Jr Most political movements have charismatic leaders and passionate followers – and climate change is no exception.
Thunberg and other popular figures do have throngs of followers enraptured by their every utterance. The leaders of most political movements do. Because climate activism is based on a trust in scientific consensus – a basis that wasn’t required to argue the moral case for civil rights – the claim that climate activists are religious fanatics is a particularly effective way to delegitimise their cause. Yet ultimately those who deploy this strategy struggle to put together a credible case for why climate change shouldn’t inspire a fanatical, even religious, passion for justice.
Image: John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-1853)