Is climate apocalypse possible? But what does apocalypse mean? Apocalypse in Greek means revelation, pulling the cover off something. But with Christians, apocalypse took a new violent meaning. At the end of the first century of our era, the Roman imperial government exiled John, a Jesus follower, to the Greek island of Patmos where he wrote the Book of Revelation in which he unleashed a storm of harm, blasphemies, and hatred against non-Christians, and the Roman Emperor Domitian, 81 – 96. This terrible book took the name of apocalypse.
James Tabor, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, talked about the Book of Revelation. In the PBS program of Frontline, Tabor explained: “The Book of Revelation [is]… a scroll with seven wax seals. As you begin to open it, you get this unfolding scenario of events, beginning with war and famine and disease and earthquakes and heavenly signs.”
But why all these calamities? Tabor continues:
“Essentially [the Book of Revelation is] a book about the wrath of [the Christian] God being poured out upon the world. People not repenting except for the small group of faithful [Christians] followers of God, and this awful, wicked beast power ruling the whole world [the Roman Emperor Domitian], and defying God, shaking his fist at God. And finally Jesus coming, not as a Prince of Peace at all, not as a lamb, but… as a rider on a horse, a warrior with a sword, to smite the nations. In one of the quotes that comes to my mind it says, “He will rule the nations with a rod of iron, as a potter strikes a pot with iron and it just completely shatters.” So I think that would be the dominant impression someone would get, maybe a book you’d want to close and put away and not even think about.”
But why such hatred and vengeance from a god the Christians described as a god of peace and love? I will not bother to answer this question, save for saying this is simply background to our understanding why the Greek word apocalypse has been given such a nasty meaning, the end of the world.
The human footprint
So, is the real damage to the planet from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, and mining, and overfishing, and industrialized farming and huge armies so serious and deadly that, in the future, the Earth herself and all humanity can go down to extinction? I cannot answer this question either. Humans and species of animals and plants will suffer, as already human pressures have pushed millions of species over the cliff. But I doubt that the Earth is going to disappear. The Earth, Plato said, is the mother of the gods. She is already about 4.5 billion years old. If humans are suicidal, and so far they appear to be, the Earth without humans will eventually return to a living temperature in which some species will return.
But the anthropogenic evidence for global warming in the third decade of the 21st century, tiny, small, and very large, is ominous. Humans are uprooting life and are undermining the planet in ways no barbarians ever did. It’s infuriating that despite the evidence of harm, especially among those in the know and power, they allow selfish interest to override any love they have for the future of their own children and humanity in general. For example, Exxon executives failed their own consciousness, their families, their country, and the world.
Exxon, America’s goliath in fossil fuels, was certain since the 1970s that burning petroleum, in the style and quantities America had been accustomed, would be bad for the country and the planet. Exxon scientists said fossil fuels were triggering bad climatological consequences we now call climate change. A recent study tightened
what we have known for several years. It revealed that Exxon scientists “didn’t just vaguely know something about global warming decades ago, they literally knew as much as independent academic scientists did… We now have this airtight, unimpeachable evidence that Exxon accurately predicted global warming years before it turned around and publicly attacked climate science.”
Exxon and fossil fuel companies routinely don’t tell the truth. The UN Chief Antonio Guterres has been hammering them, including their partners in crime, prime ministers and presidents who continue to support and even subsidize the very companies undermining life on Earth.
The deception of Exxon is typical of what happens in societies governed by oligarchies. Billionaires rather make money than telling the truth. But the truth in this case embraces humanity and the planet. A person of even minimal ethical standing would put aside his personal benefit to reveal and act on so gigantic a truth like climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. But, no, the Exxon company executives, no different than tyrants, set aside the truth for continuing their lucrative extraction of petroleum. They must have had consciously ignored the hideous consequences of their discovery, that burning petroleum was unraveling the planet and humanity. And, in America and other capitalist countries, fossil fuel billionaires own politicians, so governments have been playing the game of the fossil fuel corporate executives. President Joe Biden prefers funding Ukraine’s war against Russia rather than fighting the CEOs of fossil fuel companies causing climate chaos.
Potential worldwide protests, revolt of young people?
Young people are figuring the deception of fossil fuel corporations and governments. On January 15, 2023, Avaaz, an international non-governmental organization, published a letter by four young girls to fossil fuel company executives, ordering them to cease and desist peddling their products:
“To Fossil Fuel CEOs:
“This Cease and Desist Notice is to demand that you immediately stop opening any new oil, gas, or coal extraction sites, and stop blocking the clean energy transition we all so urgently need.
“We know that Big Oil: KNEW for decades that fossil fuels cause catastrophic climate change. MISLED the public about climate science and risks.
DECEIVED politicians with disinformation sowing doubt and causing delay.
“You must end these activities as they are in direct violation of our human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, your duties of care, as well as the rights of Indigenous people.
“If you fail to act immediately, be advised that citizens around the world will consider taking any and all legal action to hold you accountable. And we will keep protesting in the streets in huge numbers.
“Vanessa from Uganda, Greta from Sweden, Helena from Ecuador, Luisa from Germany.”
If this admirable spirit of resistance spread to the millions of high school and college students worldwide, cease and desist might in fact become effective. Certainly, the violent wrath of climate will harm primarily young people. They need to lead the sleeping adults.
Looting the rare biodiversity of Ecuador
Adults, billionaire adults, still govern the world and institutions like the banks, which are oblivious to climate change. Funding ecocidal development projects, and collecting debt payments is their reason for being. Ecuador is a living tragedy of this crime. The country wanted to stop oil extraction in the Amazon, but debt forced it to do the exact opposite: expand drilling in the Yasumi National Park, home of indigenous people, which also has enormous amounts of petroleum under the forest.“[G]lobal financial forces continue to trap developing countries [like Ecuador] into depleting some of the most biodiverse places on the planet.” In an area of about 60 acres, where the Amazon climbs the Andes, there are some 1,000 different trees, the same number that exist in the entire United States. “The genetic diversity [of these Ecuador trees] is a vast, untapped resource that could unlock cures for diseases and open doors to technological innovations,” wrote Catrin Einhorn and Manuela Andreoni, New York Times reporters. And yet, debt has to be paid back at the expense of this biodiversity jewel. Such is the savage priority of the billionaire rulers of the world.
Harming the oceans
Another very lasting and harmful effect of our continuing reliance on fossil fuels is that we are risking much more than the Amazon. We are undermining the oceans and all their magnificent species and biological diversity. High and rising ocean heat, from the water’s absorption of the rising global temperature, keeps going deeper into the water. It is likely this heat may last for centuries even after the end of the fossil fuels era. A new study shows that in 2022, “the planet’s seas absorbed about 10 Zetta joules of heat—equivalent to 100 times the world’s total annual electricity production.”
These facts are telling of our wrongheaded, nay extremely dangerous, politics and policies of industrialized countries. I have been observing what we do or fail to do to face the climate dragon in the room – for a very long time. I read widely, talk to people, occasionally teach, and write about climate and the environment.
The god and solar panels
Not long ago, I spoke to a retired engineer who told me god wrote the Bible. I had never heard an adult say something like that before. Sure, theologiansand preachers have this in their mind. But educated engineers? I hid my astonishment and displeasure and urged him to be reasonable. I mentioned the damage from the storms in northern California. He dismissed any suggestions we are victims of anthropogenic climate crisis. I asked him to read UN or NASA reports and he said they don’t’ tell the truth, which is that, like former President Donald Trump said, climate change is a hoax.
Adding insult to injury, I see so many affluent homes without solar panels, including the roofs of giant churches, schools, colleges, parking lots, shopping malls, warehouses, banks, and buildings of all kinds. That reality is depressing. I say, what could all these people be thinking? Are not storms, fires, hurricanes, winds, drought, the destruction of property and deaths, floods, ice melting enough? What planet are they from? Are preachers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and sleeping teachers and professors putting them to deep sleep?
Even the State of California that has suffered so much destruction from climate chaos is reducing its expenditures / investments for fighting climate, especially for zero-emission vehicles.
So, after all these bad news, all is possible, including ecumenical wrath from the old gods or the newer god of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic variety. Whether we like or dislike apocalypse, climate change left unchecked might, in fact, become apocalyptic and destroy our civilization. Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen, scholars and environmentalists, picked the word apocalypse for describing their book, An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2022).
I met Wes Jackson in 2015 at a conference in Claremont, California. This is a biologist with knowledge and ethical principles. He was so angry with the ecocidal effects of big agriculture he abandoned college teaching and returned to Kansas where he founded The Land Institute to resurrect real farming for the good of the land and people. He has spent his life in that science and politics struggle to bring back perennial crops that do away with the farmers’ pesticides / herbicides dope drugs and synthetic fertilizers.
So, I like Wes Jackson. He is paradigmatic to politicians, scientists, and family farmers of what has to happen to abandon industrialized agriculture and return to people and Earth-friendly traditional and ecological ways of raising food.
Wes Jackson’s co-author, Robert Jensen, is emeritus professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Jackson and Jensen have been friends for decades. They are concerned with the life and death confrontation of humanity with the planet.
They argue that centuries ago grain surpluses gave rise to class societies and hierarchies. These political hierarchies have become today’s billionaires. They have been tapping fossil fuels and technological advances. This enables them to intensify “the assault on ecosystems.” The hierarchies, billionaires, manage a “rapacious industrial capitalist system” designed for perpetual growth and the endless production of commodities of all kinds in huge quantities “without regard for social and ecological effects.” Capitalist political and religious hierarchies also imposed civilization with barbaric and uncivilized force. So, Jackson and Jensen propose,
“[W]e have to start thinking about how to live in a world without civilization’s material abundance. In addition to struggling to distribute the wealth of the world more equitably, we have to think about that social justice project alongside the non-negotiable goal of fewer and less: fewer people consuming less energy and material resources. The high-tech party is over. The dense energy party is over. Not everyone got invited to the party, and now we’re stuck cleaning up the mess at the same time that we try to find a way to share more equitably what resources we can use responsibly.”
Jackson and Jensen are right. Eight billion people are too many people. The planet cannot support such gigantic population, but neither can it support billionaires with colossal appetites. Indeed, the development party is over. They admitted the awesomeness of the tragedy we face, the truth of the human footprint on the planet:
“Never have potential catastrophes been so global. Never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time. Never have we had so much information about the threats that we must come to terms with. If that seems overwhelming, that’s because it is overwhelming. No one living at this moment in history – including the two of us – can really bear all of the truth. But we stand a better chance of fashioning a sensible path forward if we could all adopt an apocalyptic sensibility and, collectively, try to help each other bear all of that truth.”
Jackson and Jensen are secular thinkers, so the apocalyptic sensibility they advocate is not connected to the Book of Revelation. Jackson in particular insists humans are animals. He is convinced humans have behaved badly towards each other and especially against the natural world because those making up hierarchies / billionaires are not taking seriously they are themselves animals.
An Inconvenient Apocalypse is not so much about apocalypse, Christian or other, as it is a powerful message of why humans err in mistreating the planet, our only home. In addition, the book is a scientific and philosophical reflection on why and how humans should responsibly face the wrongs they have inflicted on the natural world. Climate change is simply the apogee of human hubris, refusal of the rulers of the world, the billionaires, the hierarchies, to live within the means imposed by nature and human-animal nature.
Jackson and Jensen bid us to do our best to understand the signals coming from the ecosphere, acting with intelligence “for our own self-respect and for the sake of the planet’s creatures, human and other.” Finally, they urge us to “face our worst fears of the future and then speak of them fearlessly.” In other words, think about what is wrong with our politics and our interventions in the natural world and act and speak about them with courage.
Read this personal manifesto of wisdom and passion for our suffering planet, a very important, timely, and riveting book.