The Chronicle Review

The Doom Boom

Religious roots of environmental Armageddon

Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

November 28, 2010

Apocalyptic thinking has a long, if at times dodgy, history in the Christian religion. The two main sources are the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. In both, mystical visions forecast future events, especially those surrounding the end of days and the role that Jesus Christ will play when he returns, "like a thief in the night." The implication is that the end is not far off, and if you're not ready, you'll be sorry.

Perhaps expectedly, periods of great social stress have tended to be times when apocalyptic thinking goes into overdrive. The English civil wars, in the middle of the 17th century, for instance, helped give rise to nutty ideas and screwball sects. (The Diggers were given to planting vegetables on other people's lands; Quakers—for centuries now the epitome of staid and respectable—got into the practice of tearing off all their clothes and doing a lot of groaning and sighing and shaking.) More recently, America during the cold war provided fertile ground for apocalyptic speculation. The text that sparked the modern creationist movement, Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications, by the biblical scholar John C. Whitcomb Jr. and the hydraulic engineer Henry M. Morris, was published in 1961, the point at which nuclear fears were at their height.

Why did Whitcomb and Morris concentrate on the Flood rather than the Creation and Adam and Eve and Eden? Because it echoed and put in theological context all the secular fears. The Second Epistle of Peter tells us that the Flood is the catastrophe marking the end of the first dispensation (when God relates in a specific way to humankind) and that we should expect the end of the final dispensation any time now. Then starts the final drama. The re-establishment of Israel is a major feature in the story, and that is why so many American evangelicals, even more than the Jews, are fanatical supporters of that troubled Mideast piece of real estate.

What is fascinating is the extent to which, since the Enlightenment, even the most secular of folk can be found echoing apocalyptic sentiments and visions. The British Labour Party, for instance, sings William Blake's famous hymn at its annual meetings.

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land

Secular apocalyptic thinking continues; indeed, it thrives. The cold war may be over, but the world is not right. America is caught in a seemingly endless foreign conflict; we are in an economic downturn of a kind not seen since the 1930s; and above all hangs—or perhaps more accurately, chokes—the threat of global warming. This last topic has triggered a tsunami of books, almost all of which are linked by an apocalyptic theology of foreboding and warning. The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps; The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won't Tell You About Global Warming; The Rising Sea; The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It; Coming Climate Crisis? Consider the Past, Beware the Big Fix; Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.

The contents aren't much cheerier than the titles. Those of us living in the north of Florida are not overly fond of Miami, believing that it hogs too much of the state's resources. Its predicted fate, however, makes one want to start fixing care packages right now. The airport will be "long gone," although the runways will remain visible 10 feet below clear water; "warm afternoons" will be "filled with the stench of thousands of gallons of untreated human waste." The police force will be corrupted by the unimpeded flow of drugs from South America. Agriculture will be destroyed by salt water. And the rich will either barricade themselves in fancy mansions on the few remaining hilltops or flee to the higher ground of Colorado.

The proposed solutions aren't cause for eager anticipation either. Even if all does not collapse, get ready for some strenuously healthy living. There is a lot of bicycling in our future. And homegrown vegetables. Not much meat, I'm afraid. And you should forget about the restaurant experience; it's far too energy consuming. We will work less so as to have more time to fix food at home. How about raw spinach covered in cottage cheese and topped with applesauce? With that kind of diet, I'm not surprised about the thousands of gallons of untreated human waste. The pong inside our yurts will be overwhelming.

If you don't laugh, you're going to cry. With so many books so obviously written to catch your eye on Amazon or at Borders, it's hard to know where to start. But one book is truly outstanding: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century, by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter. This book lays out the facts carefully and thoroughly without trivializing or condescending. Here's Richter's bottom line: There is global warming, and we humans are responsible for it. Even if you take into account random fluctuations—one swallow does not a summer make, and one hot July doesn't make a crisis—the globe is getting hotter.

Why? Mainly because the atmosphere is bunged up with carbon and other elements—brought on by human consumption of fossil fuels—that trigger a "greenhouse effect." Richter presents a staggering graph that shows how carbon-dioxide levels are at least a third higher than they were only half a century ago. The warming of the seas and lakes, moreover, means more water vapor in the air. Gases like these prevent the sun's energy from returning to space. Hence we're caught in an ever-warming trap.

Moreover, as other authors of this crop of books point out in detail, global warming isn't just a matter of hot sidewalks. Consider food production. The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It, by the journalist Julian Cribb, makes clear just how intertwined global warming is with food security. Think about oil, which factors prominently in agriculture: Carbon-based fuels are changing the atmosphere and therefore the viability of farmland. Can agriculture help solve the problem? Perhaps we should reduce the number of animals—especially sheep and cows—because they are a significant source of methane emissions. If we did, however, we'd face a lack of manure, particularly in poorer countries. Should we turn instead to oil-based fertilizers? But if we're going to substitute biofuels for natural fuels, does that mean that there will be less food for humans because there is more food for automobiles?

Houston, we have a problem. So where do we go from here? There are sharp divisions among apocalyptic thinkers. The disputes center on a thousand-year period (the millennium) that we are told will occur at the end of time. Roman Catholics tend to follow St. Augustine and to be "amillennialists." Any talk about thousand-year periods is at best metaphorical; because of the first coming of Jesus we are already living in the millennium. Hence, no need to get worked up about the visions of Daniel or the author of Revelation. Protestants tend to be either "postmillennialists" or "premillennialists." The former (who divide between those who accept a literal thousand-year span and those who follow Augustine in being more relaxed about the literal length) believe that Jesus will arrive after the millennium and that it is our duty to prepare the planet for this event. We must work to make things better and show the Lord that we are using our talents properly. Premillennialists (who tend to be fairly literalist about the thousand years) think that is hubris. We can do nothing on our own and to think otherwise is further evidence of the vale of sin within which we have been trapped since Adam took that fateful bite of the apple. Jesus is on his way. There is little or nothing you can do besides recognize your sinful nature and spread the news to as many as will hear it. As the late 19th-century evangelist Dwight Moody used to say: "I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, 'Moody, save all you can.'"

Secular apocalyptic thinkers tend to be postmillennialists. They may not believe in a literal coming of Jesus, but they do believe that eventually a perfect state will be achieved down here on earth. We must therefore work to make things better. We need to roll up our sleeves and build that happy Jerusalem. By and large, this is the sensibility that pervades this crop of books on global warming, and most of the suggestions on offer are sober and sensible. They can be divided into what you might call the preventative—what can we do to make things better, or at least not worse, in the face of global warming?—and proactive—what new and innovative things can we do to break our wretched addiction to fossil fuels?

Representative of the preventative books is The Rising Sea, by the environmental scientists Orrin H. Pilkey and Rob Young. Well written and informative, this book lays out what global warming will entail both for those living along the coast and (in the long run) for the rest of us. They make some sensible points about how daft it is to keep building right on the seafront, especially in places that already show the effects of sea-level change.

Richter's Beyond Smoke and Mirrors is representative of the proactive works. Richter covers a huge amount of territory looking at conventional fuels, alternatives, and much more. How much oil is there? Gas? Coal? What about turning to wind, or the sun, or the oceans (tides) as substitute resources? Richter is blunt: Even under the best-case scenarios, we are not going to be able to sustain anything like the lifestyle to which we have grown accustomed.

James Lovelock, the father of the Gaia hypothesis—the idea that the earth itself is an organism and as such has needs and rights of its own—has argued on behalf of nuclear energy. So too has Richter. But even sober and sensible solutions are hardly unproblematic. In The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won't Tell You About Global Warming, Roger Pielke Jr. puts the number of functioning nuclear power stations in the world at about 500, with roughly an equal number under construction. If by 2050 we are to reduce the use of carbon-linked energy sources by 50 percent, then we need another 12,000 nuclear power stations! And that's quite apart from concerns about waste disposal, not to mention the thorny politics of nuclear power. Can you imagine Afghanistan dotted with nuclear power stations?

That's the trouble with sober and sensible solutions; very quickly they start to appear as neither. In Coming Climate Crisis? Consider the Past, Beware the Big Fix, the NASA climatologist Claire L. Parkinson brings a welcome skepticism. She shows the inadequacy of many of the models on which climate forecasts are based. She warns against large-scale, simplistic solutions. For instance, if carbon dioxide is a major factor contributing to the greenhouse effect (which it is), then a simple solution might be to plant more trees to soak it up. But as Parkinson points out, trees also soak up solar radiation, so the overall effect could be more heat, not less.

I don't think that Parkinson would have a lot of time for The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps by Peter D. Ward, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Washington. Balancing (if that's the right word) the near relish that he shows for scary, science-fiction scenes of our impending doom—it is he who gives us the portrait of a future Miami under water—is a willingness to entertain barmy ameliorative possibilities that would not be out of place in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. How about mirrors in space, orbiting the earth, reflecting back the sunlight? Or if not mirrors, any takers on a mesh screen positioned between the sun and the earth? Frankly, I would rather take my chances with global warming than live in a world shrouded in a mosquito net.

In any case, as we learn in the enjoyable Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, by the historian of science James Rodger Fleming, there is a long tradition of crazy ideas about how to control the skies. The most dedicated of hypochondriacs would be envious on reading through the list of substances that happy inventors have proposed blasting up into the atmosphere to cure the ills of Planet Earth. Nothing thus far made and used has worked properly, or is likely to work at all. Even Ward is skeptical about some of the proposed solutions. Marine plants suck up carbon dioxide in the oceans, and these plants need lots of iron for growth. So why not try seeding the waters with iron compounds? Experiments have shown that you do indeed get plant growth, but you also get more (respiring) animals eating the plants and ultimately more carbon dioxide back in the atmosphere.

Amillennialists don't get much representation in the climate-change debate, although one might put Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future, by Matthew E. Kahn, into this category. While everyone else is moaning about what's going wrong, Kahn is the St. Augustine of this business. Things have gone wrong; things will go wrong. Calm down. Or maybe he's the Alfred E. Neuman of climate change: "What? Me worry?" Never fear! We will adapt! Miami may go out with the tide, but Detroit will be a lot more pleasant in the winter. I leave to the judgment of others the prospect of a future America where half the population lives in North Dakota and the other half lives on houseboats.

Secular premillennialists are practically a contradiction in terms, although one should note that there are those who are not so secular who are adding global warming to the list of sins for which we should repent. Prince Charles, the future king of England, can be numbered here. In a speech this past summer, he admonished us that "a big part of the solution to all of our worldwide 'crises' does not lie simply in more and better technology, but in the recovery of the soul to the mainstream of our thinking." Given his lifestyle, I would be surprised if Prince Charles is given to hair shirts, but his thinking suggests that there is one aspect of traditional premillennial thinking present in the global-warming debate: a sense of sin, of guilt at what we have done, and a feeling that we are going to make things right only if we repent and do a good bit of suffering for the cause. "Look, Jesus, I'm miserable down here. I'm not living on the fatted calf or milk and honey. Save me."

Anyone who takes global warming seriously agrees that conservation will be a big part of the solution. We have to think in terms of buses and streetcars, not single-person automobiles. We have to ask if we need meat (and red meat at that) three times a day. We have to think more persistently and consistently about the insulation of our houses. This doesn't mean hair shirts and nonstop suffering. None of my relatives in England have a dryer. They hang washed clothes up on a line, outside or in the kitchen where it is warm. And they do not think of themselves as put upon or unduly burdened.

However, when I crack the pages of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, by Juliet B. Schor, I feel that I am entering a different world—a world I don't want to be in. Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College, wants us to slow down, work less, and return to nature. Some of what she suggests makes good sense, for instance using less energy. And bicycles are a good idea. But I loathe cottage cheese; I'm not about to take up quilting; and I had enough of secondhand furniture and Salvation Army stores when I was a graduate student. And yurts all around? Give me a break. There is a theological agenda driving this kind of utopian thinking that is not entirely dissimilar to a Billy Graham sermon: Emotion beats out reason; fear of the future is used to coerce you into action now—and there is a good tinge of Puritanism about the whole thing. You have been living thoughtlessly and too comfortably. Repent! Repent!

My concern is that people will get so turned off by this sort of secular preaching that they will overreact and not adopt any of Schor's ideas. It is like being told to lose 50 pounds, quit drinking, and go to the gym for two hours each day. Even if it is good advice, it is too much, too soon. And I'm not convinced that her advice to stop doing everything that we love doing is such good advice. My suspicion is that we are being presented with a false dichotomy: Do we have a better chance of improving things using Richter's nuclear power plants or Schor's vegetable gardens? The truth is that we need both.

Finally, no apocalyptic vision would be complete without villains—the Antichrist or the Whore of Babylon. There is a great deal of flexibility on these issues; even the most ardent biblical literalist is apparently free to plug in his or her own favorite baddie. For generations good Protestants have fingered the Pope specifically, and the Roman Catholic Church generally. The more enterprising have looked further east. Saladin was once popular. More recently: Saddam Hussein.

A similar flexibility characterizes villains in the global-warming debate. For a long while, thanks to a much-quoted lecture given in the 1960s by the University of California at Los Angeles historian Lynn White Jr., many people fingered Christianity itself. White's ideas set off an extended debate about the role of religion in creating and sustaining the West's destructive attitude toward the exploitation of the natural world. Following White, people thought that Christianity made humans too central to the story of creation. God gave us the natural world entirely for our own use, and as a consequence we were led not to think or worry about the dangers of excessive consumption or production of harmful byproducts. Now the thinking has broadened. Prince Charles thinks that religion is the solution. His baddie is science as a whole, and Galileo specifically. The Italian mechanist turned us from the love of wisdom to the search for profit. Perhaps Pope Urban VIII was onto something when he had the aged scientist placed under house arrest.

Let me make a forecast. The gloom and doom of the current crop of books will pale in comparison with those now under contract. After the troubles this summer down in the Gulf, look for BP and its leaders to do a turn as Antichrist. There will be little for which that beleaguered company will not be found responsible. The greed in the past; the troubles in the present; the dangers in the future. But as we await this inevitable reaction, let me end on a note of caution. Everything that is said about BP will probably be true. I have no desire to defend the company. I live in a state whose beaches have been befouled. (The rest of the nation may be fast forgetting, but here in Florida, where we are faced with another dismal tourist season, the blame game is just getting started.) But do not rush too quickly to judgment. As today's books on global warming show, there is more to a story than brute facts. There is the pattern into which you want to put them. The line that you want to follow, even if you are not quite conscious of what line precisely it is that you want to follow. And that line, while it guides, can also distort. Richter, for instance, is too deeply committed to a postmillennial belief that a solution can be found if we work long enough and hard enough. I am sure that Schor, too, is deeply committed to a premil­lennial sensibility: Doom is upon us, and to expiate our sins we must welcome discomfort and suffering.

I am not saying that we shouldn't think about these things. Global warming is as significant a problem as we now face. To plunge into the literature is not an option, it's an obligation. We need to try to make sense of it all and offer prescriptions, even if it means engaging in a little apocalyptic thinking. The strategies are not always stupid.

But be aware of what you are doing and what is driving you. Recognize that thinking, especially about complex problems, is never a formal-logic driven, disinterested reflection of objective reality. Rather, it is shaped by deep patterns in our culture. Bringing those to the surface can be as useful as an empirical inquiry. Failure to do so may mean that we are indeed doomed.

Books Discussed in This Essay

Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century (Cambridge University Press, 2010), by Burton Richter

The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming (Basic Books, 2010), by Roger Pielke Jr.

Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future (Basic Books, 2010), by Matthew E. Kahn

Coming Climate Crisis? Consider the Past, Beware the Big Fix (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), by Claire L. Parkinson

The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It (University of California Press, 2010), by Julian Cribb

Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (Columbia University Press, 2010), by James Rodger Fleming

The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps (Basic Books, 2010), by Peter D. Ward

Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (Penguin Press, 2010), by Juliet B. Schor

The Rising Sea (Island Press, 2009), by Orrin H. Pilkey and Rob Young

Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (Bloomsbury, 2009), by James E. Hansen

Michael Ruse directs the program in the history and philosophy of science at Florida State University and is a blogger for Brainstorm.