Or, “the Avalanche Has Begun and We Are the Stones”
People talk a lot about the unprecedented nature of the current environmental crisis, or as Gro Harlem Brundtland termed it in her world-changing Our Common Future in 1987, “interlocking crises.” But this assumes that the main way we are experiencing declining biodiversity, increasing environmental toxicity, a changing atmosphere, rising radioactivity and the other major ecological problems of our day is through a direct, physical relationship to those events.
The reality is that we, and other species whose primary activity is hanging out with each other, experience almost all events, even the most significant in our lives, in a socially-mediated fashion. Our main experience of the declining capacity of planetary life support systems is the collective responses, reactions and understandings of the people around us.
That’s one of the many reasons human beings, and especially those situated in Christian and post-Christian societies, are having a lot of trouble dealing with the actual ecological crisis that is unfolding. The year it was written and nearly every year since, the Book of Revelation has appeared to describe the events unfolding on the day it is being read. War? Check. Strife? Check. Hunger (actually better translated as wage and price manipulations by elites)? Check. Death? Must be just around the corner. And it’s not just the horsemen; there’s the succession of empires leading to some kind of crescendo of global imperialism.
The genius of Revelation and, I think, the reason for its persistent resistance to highly rational arguments for its de-canonization in the fourth century, and in every major review of the Bible’s contents since, is that it just seems so up-to-the-minute relevant even to non-Christians. While both Martin Luther and Jean Calvin originally argued for its removal from the Bible along with the rest of the Apocrypha, its irresistible power in the present ultimately scuttled those plans. It was simply too expedient to go along with the throngs of Protestant revolutionary volunteers who were already convinced of the Reformers’ ultimate position: that the Pope, himself, was the Antichrist, the main character introduced in Revelation.
For nearly two millennia, Christians have been expecting a world-ending cataclysm that includes, among other things, destabilization of the climate, befouling of the land and seas, accompanied by big explosions any day now. The problem isn’t so much that the human race is taking the most important exam of its career and it hasn’t studied; it’s that we have been studying for this exam every day but based on a really out-of-date copy of Cole’s Notes.
Before I get to the implications of being over- not under-prepared for climate change, ozone depletion, nuclear containment breaches, oil spills and the like, I need to square away some messy terminology. People often refer to the events in Revelation as the “apocalypse.” Actually, “apocalypse” is a literary genre from ancient and medieval times; it refers to a piece of writing in which the narrator is lifted up above the world and shown the whole structure of space-time by a god or other powerful entity. The “apocalypse” or revelation of Saint John the Divine refers not to the events narrated but to the way in which they are narrated. The events themselves would have been understood at the time as the eschaton, a Greek work meaning an end-times reckoning, of which only the adjectival form has survived in English (eschatological).
Unfortunately, nearly two thousand years of preparation of the Christian eschaton has caused us to entertain a number of ideas about the interlocking crises we currently face that actually serve us worse even than uncomprehending shock and confusion.
1. The elect will be spared: Today, there is a popular illusion that if one makes the correct consumer choices within the matrix of present-day First World capitalism, one can live sustainably. This is, of course, nonsense. We live in such an energy-intensive society that any participation in the systems that transport people, goods and information guarantees a high impact on the biosphere. Furthermore, the extent to which one alters consumer choices to reduce one’s environmental impact typically produces a proportional reduction in one’s efficacy as an activist for systemic change. The more “sustainably” one lives, the more time and money go into food and household maintenance, the harder it is to move both oneself and cargo from one location to another, etc.
Why, then, is a slight, meaningless reduction in one’s ecological footprint within a massively over-consuming, over-polluting society so important to environmentalists, given the terrible cost to the movement’s efficacy incurred by making these sacrifices? I would like to suggest that much of this is bound up in our vision of the eschaton. In the reckoning at the end of the world, those who are spared will be those who have lived their lives according to the ethical precepts of the virtuous minority. For when the time comes to enter into the New Jerusalem, “people will bring into it the glory and honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:26-27)
Furthermore, “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 22:3-5) In other words, virtuous conduct in the present is what will determine who governs the society to which the eschaton will give rise. Those who lived in an ecologically moral way shall be the new rulers. In other words, the act of witnessing and the act of opting out are understood to confer on those engaged therein an exemption from the coming reckoning; they are the 144,000 who will march into the Kingdom of Heaven intact.
On the other hand, bad people who use their mainstream political connections and wealth to fly around the world in gas-guzzling planes and rely on rare earth technologies to communicate are hypocrites by virtue of choosing efficacy over irrelevance.
2. The eschaton will be physically fair: Related to the previous idea, and brilliantly dramatized in the climate change disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, the physically destructive forces of climate change punish people based on a hierarchy of virtue, like the monsters in teen slasher movies who take out victims based on their relative promiscuity.
The back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s and its descendants today are best situated in the venerable tradition of Saint Antony, considered by some to be the founder of Christian monasticism. While the rhetoric of physical distance and self-sufficiency often power this very fossil fuel-intensive lifestyle, I would suggest that the reason not just the geography of Antony’s movement but its aesthetic of coarse, modest garments and long beards continue into the present day is because what members are attempting to do through isolation and distinctive appearance is to mark themselves as exempt from the scourging of the eschaton.
Like the Israelites who marked their doors with the blood of slaughtered sheep or the Millerites in the white robes on the day of the Great Disappointment (see my strategic voting article), today’s elect engage in practices of geographic and social isolation that seem far more interested in marking themselves as exempt from the terrible consequences of ecological collapse but are dressed-up as practices of self-sufficiency.
And this is why there is often a hard-to-disguise glee on the faces of people warning of the ecological eschaton; they are experiencing a strange internal sense of security, of invulnerability. Although they know better, because they are often highly educated in the physical and social sciences, when they warn you of the impending calamity, they experience an irrational reassurance that the very act of warning will protect them from the coming scourge that will exalt the elect and punish the wicked. That’s why my activist friend Ira can never stop himself from smiling when he announces the next timetable for the total social and environmental collapse of our civilization. He knows that the scourging forces of nature will be focused on the most iniquitous and not on himself and, furthermore, that they will, independent of human action, be agents of the changes he favours.
It is for this reason that peak oil has had such a seductive conceptual hold over environmentalists. If we can rely on the eschaton, itself, to reward to elect and punish the iniquitous, to establish the social order of the future, we can expect that fossil fuels will run out, that uranium-235 will run out, while the water collected by microhydro systems will remain intact and the sun absorbed by solar collectors will remain just as abundant. It would simply be unfair for there to be ever-increasing fossil fuel and fissionable material availability, while destabilizing weather systems wreak havoc with microhydro and solar energy systems. Indeed, it will be those who have profited most from our current regime of ecological destruction who will be best-resourced to survive any disaster coming our way.
3. The New Jerusalem will be eternal: The peoples of the Ancient Mediterranean, Near East and Mesoamerica are sometimes thought to have had an eschatological theory of time. But Hesiod and the author of the Annals of Cuauhtitlan saw a succession of ages stretching forward through time, each ending in disaster. The Golden Age might end in a world-destroying disaster but it was to be followed by the Silver Age; the fourth sun might set but the fifth sun would rise. What makes Christian history so distinctive is that this is the last round of musical chairs, that however we the elect are socially organized at the eschaton will become the ultimate social order of the human race.
This means, effectively, that the way in which the elect currently live or aspire to live will be the eternal social order that will be installed by the eschaton and never fall. When we look at the bizarre and highly inefficient social and organizational forms of movements like Occupy or the intentional communities that still dot rural British Columbia take on, these are not forms that arise out of a plan to efficiently organize projects of witnessing or dissent. They are forms that arise out of an attempt to imagine the terminal human social order. The fascistic substratum of what appear to be innocuous social experiments is a function of their participants imagining that how they are living is how all people should and will be made to live for the rest of time.
Correctly rejecting “sustainable development” as proposed by the Brundtland Commission for its plan to save the planet by increasing human impact on the biosphere more than tenfold, environmentalists hit upon a term that expresses this theory perfectly, “sustainability.” A policy or practice is sustainable if it can be started now and continue until the earth ceases to support life .While the idea of not making resources in the present unavailable to future generations is a compelling one, trying to simultaneously answer the questions, “how should we live now?” and “how shall people live for all eternity?” produces crazy answers. Alloyed with Gandhian, “we must become the change we seek” rhetoric, this way of thinking becomes not merely absurdly totalitarian, in that people acting are understood to be deciding how all people shall live for the rest of time, it makes environmentalists intrinsically hostile to transition strategies.
One of the most penetrating ecological thinkers of the early 1990s, David Lewis (no relation to the NDP dynasts) labeled this kind of thinking as “embrymoronic.” His political opponents in the Green Party were fond of stating that the party itself was not so much a tool for bringing about systemic change as an embryo of future society itself. Instead of its organizational features being evaluated based on their conventional efficacy, they were based on their aesthetic resemblance to the terminal social order of the human race that will be practiced in the New Jerusalem.
4. We know all about the New Jerusalem: “It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb …The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, one hundred and forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth cornelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.” (Revelation 21:12-21)
Related to the eternity of the New Jerusalem is its specific knowability. If we know the precise geometry of the New Jerusalem, the position of God’s throne, the materials of which it will be fashioned, its duration and population, there is little left to discover about it. Furthermore, one of its properties is that it is specifically measurable and describable in the terms of the society of the present day.
Russian Marxists, also steeped in a secularized reading of the Christian eschaton, struggled with this question in the early days of the Soviet Union. Fortunately, Eastern Orthodoxy was much more strongly infused with doctrines of the unknowability of God, descending from the influential theology of the Pseudodionysus, at least permitting people to consider that the New Jerusalem might be so different from the sinful world of the present that those of us implicated therein would be unable to fully envision it. So it was that prior to Stalin’s seizure of power, Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat did not claim to be able to fully know what communism would be. For Stalin, on the other hand, and for the Christian West, the terminal dispensation of human history was knowable down to the last detail.
The doctrine of the knowability of the New Jerusalem further reinforces the idea that a local Occupy camp is not so much a witness against capitalism as the socio-economic order that will replace it. Worse yet, it spawns absurd utopian social theories like bioregionalism which design and purport to tell us what a sustainable/eternal society will look like, not just with respect to human geography and infrastructure but in terms of culture and religion.
The desire to refute liberal technocratic dismissals of radical social change feeds into this kind of false omniscience too. The absurd claim that one cannot witness against a thing unless one has designed its replacement is bait to which environmentalists rise all too often.
With the notable exception of Lewis, most environmental thinkers are cowed by this nonsense into one of two equally unrealistic camps: (a) a sustainable society isn’t that different from ours: everyone will ride their bike to solar-powered bullet trains where they video-conference on their IPhones on their way to work or (b) a sustainable society is radically different: we’ll spend our days making art, raising crops and going to interminable unanimity-driven meetings where everybody’s input will be valued and respected.
This kind of thinking doesn’t just produce bad political tactics; it minimizes how hostile to the created world capitalism is and how deeply implicated we are in the system of relationships it entails. Why should people this deeply enmeshed in the society of the present possess the capacity to imagine a society sufficiently different to offer hope for arresting human-caused omnicide?
5. The eschaton be sudden and total: Despite the eloquence of Paul Ehrlich’s metaphor of the boiling frog, the environmental crisis remains, in most people’s thinking, something that has not yet started or, even if it has started, something that will build to a crescendo of massive dislocation and chaos.
But let us consider the much more frightening possibility, that the systems by which global capitalism perpetuates itself are strong enough not just to continue functioning but to create the perception of a stable social order. Often, the most radical reformulations of an ideology or way of life are presented either as continuity with the past or as the restoration of a prior social order, cloaking their unprecedented character. It is in this way that the Roman Catholic Church could transform itself in less than two centuries from the elite gay dating scene of the West and the world’s largest abortion provider into not just an intractable foe of homosexuality and abortion but into an organization that has always been so.
In this way, we may be continuing to anticipate the imminent eschaton even when there are only a few thousand of us living in subterranean caverns, eating vat-grown meat. Habituated, as we are, to biodiversity declining every year, carbon levels and radioactivity rising, we assume that we are situated in the lead-up to the eschaton and not already in the thing itself. This is why witnessing against the interlocking crises is conflated with warning of an impending future disaster when, to paraphrase Babylon 5, the avalanche has already begun – and we are the stones.
6. The eschaton will happen to us: In Revelation, the eschaton is punishment for human iniquity. Thus, while human actions cause the poisoning of the seas, they do so at a remove. It is not us poisoning the seas but rather us behaving so badly that the seas are poisoned as a consequence of the universe’s abhorrence for misbehaviour.
Like stones falling down a mountainside, announcing that an avalanche is coming, we are unable to understand that we, ourselves, are the avalanche. The ecological catastrophe is not some future reaction, avenging, justifying by the biosphere to the damage we are doing to it. We, ourselves, are the catastrophe. Ecological collapse is not a future event in which we will get our comeuppance for our bad behaviour; it is the bad behaviour itself.
Belief in a half-personified avenging Mother Earth who will chastise and scourge us when we have gone too far is a fairy tale the human race, the world’s first self-conscious natural disaster, tells itself. Desperate to be punished for our own misbehaviour, we keep acting out in the irrational hope that dad, or God, will come home and finally sort things out.
In this way, the eschaton is mistakenly understood by environmentalists as the brutal force that will arrest human iniquity. Somehow, things will get so polluted, so toxic, so lethal, so lifeless that the very processes by which we are destroying the world will be arrested. But this is a fairy tale. The worse things get, as material desperation re-enters the equation, the more temptation there will be to double-down on cheap, polluting energy, dangerous or untested chemicals and ecologically destructive military technologies. Unlike the Christian eschaton, we are not bit players in the battle between God and Satan to be judged and scourged. Like it or not, we are both Christ and Antichrist, the scourge of the world.
Of course, the biggest problem with the heritage of the Christian eschaton is not its pernicious impact on the environmental movement but on those who hear its warnings. Over the past four score generations, we have learned how to react to the madmen on the street corner or behind the pulpit who proclaim, “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Despite their penetrating social criticism and moral indignation at the evils and hypocrisies of their age, we have learned to take this sort of thing with a grain of salt not because the prophets are wrong but because they are a constant.
The fact that the befouling of the seas and skies is now backed by peer reviewed science is merely incidental, just another of the myriad absurdities of our age. The fact that today’s doomsday cults’ claims about the environment of the near future have finally met the evidentiary standards of the Age of Reason is unexceptional when we remember that such claims, made by other heralds of the eschaton in ages past, were also validated by the epistemologies of their day. The Franciscan mendicants who believed they lived in the end times were among the world’s great scholars in their day and also had the ear of the princes and emperors. And they were just another movement in more than a thousand years of social movements explaining that human iniquity was going to cause a civilization-ending disaster.
Were it not for centuries of habit, we might take seriously the physically unprecedented events of our day and the dire warnings associated with them. But after claiming that Justinian’s corruption and marital infidelity and Arthur’s philandering produced the Darkening of the Sun in 538 and the associated wasteland and making similar claims in every major climate episode since, it seems to our ears, as though the prophets of doom are crying wolf. We didn’t cause the Darkening of the Sun; we didn’t cause the Medieval Warm Period; we didn’t cause the Little Ice Age; why would we have caused the current climate episode? Over the centuries, we have built up an incredible arsenal of emotional equipment to reassure ourselves that what is happening is not caused by us and will stop on its own, and these reactions have been right more often than not.
The David Suzukis of the world fit into the well-established role in the Christian West: the prophet of doom, preaching repentance. They are, at once, honoured as speakers of truth and recognized as part of the background noise of a stable society, utterly domesticated into the social order of their day. Suzuki’s journey from doomsday prophet to lightbulb selling mascot situates him in the grand tradition of Saint Francis of Assisi. And sadly, it situates his message there too, a stern warning to be honoured and heeded, but not too seriously. After all, the eschaton has been impending for two thousand years.