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Apocalypse Soon: Rejecting Despair and Denial about Climate Change

 Apocalypse Soon: Rejecting Despair and Denial about Climate Change

Hannah Malcolm advocates for a renewal of our environmental responsibility in the wake of the latest IPCC report. 09/10/2018

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“The end is nigh!” Not just the message from the man with the sandwich board, but also every major news outlet. We are convinced we occupy the end of history and expressions aren’t limited to religious placard–wearers or a medieval fear of comets that we have since outgrown. Whether depicted in the eerily prescient Children of Men or debates about zombie apocalypse strategies at the pub, we spend a huge amount of our collective cultural energy imagining the End and working out how we might survive it.

Perhaps we are so stuck seeing the world through our own eyes we can’t imagine a world going on without us in it. Maybe it is only reasonable that we look out at a world brimming with potential threats and assume it can’t possibly last. We are obsessed with working out when the end might be and what it will look like, from bad theological maths to Doomsday Clocks. Standing at the beginning of every good apocalypse story is the weary prophet – or, in our case, prophets.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change report confirms we are, indeed, living at the end of the world as we know it. It is too late to retrace our steps. It’s now certain that global temperatures – and sea levels – will rise to dangerous levels. The only question left is exactly how much. From the books of Isaiah and Revelation to The Day After Tomorrow, the reality of the report is pretty much the vision apocalyptic warnings have always evoked: floods, fire, famine, war.

The IPCC has become the apocalyptic prophet, the unwelcome ghost at the feast. As recipients of the warning, we choose how we respond. Unfortunately, the loudest voices currently echo the most dangerous responses: The End isn’t coming (denial) and The End is coming, but there’s nothing you can do (despair). Every good prophet has her naysayers. But those who despair are perhaps even more dangerous.

Despair is understandable, it seems perfectly reasonable. Why would you put your trust in humans to change the selfish habits of every lifetime? Yet despairing threatens to become the hobby of the ‘rational righteous’ – we know it’s happening, and we know it’s too late, but we are also inclined to think it’s someone else’s fault. In a bizarre twist, this attitude can be found in both the kind of Christianity that says the earth (and everyone except us) will be destroyed to make way for heaven, and the kind of eco–warrior who goes round telling people that Gaia will ‘redress the balance’ by wiping out most of the ‘human virus’. ‘What we really need,’ someone told me with a straight face recently, ‘is a global flu pandemic’. I can only guess he wasn’t offering up his own children for the Greater Good, but someone else’s. Both groups labour under the assumption that the apocalypse is somehow for Other People: we will be the select few who survive/get to heaven while the rest of the world burns, all the while saying ‘I told you so!’ The rest of humanity had it coming to them, after all. Isn’t that what the prophets said?

Denial and despair have misunderstood the purpose of apocalyptic warnings. It’s time to re–learn what they are for.

In the Judeo–Christian tradition, descriptions of the apocalypse have two clear functions: they are used as a way of making room for repentance – before it is too late – and offering an unreasonable, wild hope that there is a chance for renewal – something even better than what we started with. Calls to repentance and hope are constant companions in the prophetic arsenal. They apply just as much today as they have ever done.

As we read the IPCC report, public, collective repentance is necessary. Our short–termist governments, our greedy consumerism, and our selfish, lazy choices – all of it needs to be laid bare, mourned, and rejected. We don’t have time to point the finger at other people or other countries. We need to overcome our refusal to accept blame, and we need to do it quickly. But repentance is sterile without hope. The apocalyptic prophets were not just doom–mongers. They were also visionaries. Accompanying the warnings, illustrating the reversal of repentance, are reciprocal images of a peaceful, fruitful world, built for everyone. In a culture of apocalyptic doom, this should be the voice our churches offer: the Christian tradition has always expected the world as we know it to come to an end, but it has also testified to renewal.

Our contemporary prophets have spoken. They are calling us to renew the earth. Are we listening?

Image from PublicDomainPictures available via Creative Commons. 

Hannah Malcolm

Hannah Malcolm

Hannah Malcolm is an ordinand in the Church of England and is writing a PhD on a theology of climate and ecological grief. She is on the board of Operation Noah, and regularly speaks and writes about climate justice and the church. She is the editor of Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church (SCM Press, 2020).


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Posted 9 October 2018

Environment, Ethics, Global Politics, Religion, Science


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