In Pursuit of the Apocalypse

Christian apocalyptic literature and ecological predictions both anticipate the end of the world. Are they born of the same tradition?

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887 (Wikimedia Commons)

Does modern apocalyptic literature, announcing the imminent end times, fret about environmental problems? Are modern ecologists a reincarnation of the fanatics of the Apocalypse described by historian Norman Cohn in his classic work The Pursuit of the Millennium [1], as several climate skeptics argue?

One might expect to find ecological themes in millenarian works. According to the Bible, as the end of times approaches, the waters will turn “bitter”, ocean-dwelling creatures will die, and “on the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.”  The sun, the moon, and the stars will be obscured, and then the sun will heat up and burn mankind [2].  It is not a stretch to interpret these passages as a presage of actual environmental problems: water pollution and air pollution that obscures the atmosphere (even photopollution that impedes observation of the moon and stars), acidification of the oceans and the resultant destruction of coral reefs, global warming, rising sea levels… The passages emphasize human responsibility for environmental degradation and lay out the accompanying punishment: “The time has come… for destroying those who destroy the earth,” (Revelation 11:18).  It comes as no surprise in such a context that the author of Revelation concludes the book with the prediction of “a new heaven and a new earth”[3]. This puts some perspectives on recent declarations made by Republican Senator (and climate-skeptic) James Inhofe of Oklahoma[4].

However, ecology is a rare subject in Christian apocalyptic literature after 1945; one of the best-selling American books of the 1970s (nearly 30 million copies sold), The Late, Great Planet Earth concerns itself very little with environmental problems even if the author briefly mentions pollution and Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb.  One could make the same claim about the series Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (16 volumes published between 1995 and 2007), a set of novels inspired by the book of Revelation that sold more than 65 million copies.  In truth, this is not at all surprising: conservative evangelical communities in Britain and the United States have long been suspicious of ecologists, whom they suspect to be communist agents in disguise or converts of some wrongheaded eastern religion.  This is why those who believe in the imminence of the Apocalypse so often find themselves among the opponents of “environmentalists”; James Watt, minister of the Interior for Ronald Reagan, made several controversial statements implying that the next coming of Jesus Christ would put an end to any worries about the fate of the planet.  This attitude persists in certain evangelical communities today.

On the other hand, millenarian fears have to some degree echoed ecological concerns since the Second World War.  These fears were initially focused on the nuclear: after Hiroshima, mankind realized for the first time that it could destroy the planet.  These fears were reinforced by the realization of the risks of pollution.  The seminal work of modern political ecology, Silent Spring (1962), by Rachel Carson, begins by describing a fictional village poisoned by insecticides and other types of chemical pollution, where birds die mysteriously and people come down with strange illnesses.  This vision of a possible end of the world, brought on not by God but by mankind, science, and modern technologies gone bad, was only a prelude to other warnings in the years that followed.  In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich (wrongly) forecasted famines killing hundreds of millions of people over the course of the 1970s.  The authors of The Limits to Growth, published in 1972, concern themselves with nothing less than the “survival of human societies.”  The book opens with a quotation from the Secretary General of the United Nations predicting that humanity had less than ten years to address diverse and pressing problems such as the population explosion and environmental degradation before reaching the point of no return.  In France, René Dumont, the first ecologist to be a presidential candidate, built his campaign on the theme: “you have to choose: ecology or death.”  And since 1988-1989, climate change has become the principal concern of ecologists.  Many people today still fear that we are facing, if not a total collapse, at least a serious decline for our societies through the combined assaults of global warming, pollution, scarcity, and loss of biodiversity.

If it is true that the assertions of some ecologists have been excessively pessimistic and that such alarmism could discourage or lead to fatalism, might one then contend that “The Apocalypse is not for tomorrow” or that “The Sky is not going to fall on our heads” (titles of recent books published in France), or that we cannot change the climate as Inhofe claims?  No, because we cannot predict the future and it is a serious logical error to believe that because some have cried wolf for a long time, the wolf will never come (or, in the case of Inhofe, because the Bible does not say what he thinks it says).  No, because if the human species itself has prospered on earth until now, many societies have disappeared in the wake of ecological or climatic shocks[5]. No, because one can ignore feedback effects and thresholds.  As John R. McNeill writes, “water temperature in the tropical Atlantic can grow warmer and warmer without generating any hurricanes. But once that water passes 26° Celsius, it begins to promote hurricanes: a threshold passed, a switch thrown, simply by an incremental increase.[6]  Lester Brown, in his book The Twenty-Ninth Day, makes a similar point: he tells the story of a lily pond that contains a single leaf. Each day, the number of leaves doubles: 1, 2, 4, 8 leaves…. But if the pond is full on the thirtieth day, it will be half-full, counter-intuitively, only on the 29th day. An environmental problem can thus grow quietly for a long time without causing alarm, and then quite suddenly become a major problem. But if one points this out on the 5th day or the 10th or even the 27th, one would be seen as an alarmist.

In terms of climate change, to take one example, the risks carry heavy potential consequences.  Many authors capitalizing on the recent climate skeptic fashion, wave these questions away, mocking those who take them seriously. They encourage us to enjoy life unshackled, rid of ecological responsibility, which would only be a remix of old Christian refrains.  An attitude that resembles that of the passengers of the Titanic or Noah’s contemporaries: “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” recalls the gospels.  Yet, “no one knows the day or hour” (Matthew 24/36-38).

Jean-François Mouhot
Marie Curie Fellow
Department of History
Georgetown University
(see also : “Once, men abused slaves, now the abuse fossil fuels“, Guardian, 3 February 2012)
This article was first published in the August 2012 edition of History Today.

[1] The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (1957).

[2] Revelation 8/11-12, 16/2-4 et 8-9 ; Luc 21/26.

[3] According to some theologians, this verse should not be understood as the prediction of the advent of a new earth (in the sense of a new earth created ex nihilo), but rather as the announcement of a ‘renewed’ earth. God promised to Noah that he would not destroy the earth again (Genesis 8/21). However, we are doing a pretty good job ourselves at wreaking havoc on the planet. See Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, Basic Books,2005.

[4] Inhofe declared in March that global warming is impossible because it says in Genesis “that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.’ My point is, God’s still up there,” Inhofe said. “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

[5] Jared M. Diamond, Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, London, Allen Lane, 2005.

[6] John R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun : An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World, W.W. Norton, 2000.

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