John Shimkus, The Republican Congressman who hoped to chair the House Energy Committee told reporters this Autumn that we didn’t need to take action on the climate because he knows the planet won’t be destroyed. How does he know? God told Noah that it wouldn’t happen again after the Great Flood. Obviously. Shimkus went on to clarify that “The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over.” And its not just Shimkus – the November election saw a wave of new Republican leadership hell-bent on scriptural justifications for inaction on global warming.
In his excellent article Apocalyptic beliefs hasten the end of the world, Jason Mark discusses the depth of biblical explanations used to explain the recent Mississippi river flooding and tornado in Alabama. He cites “two surveys by the Pew Center [that] reveal what climate campaigners are up against. According to a 2010 Pew poll, 41 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return by 2050. A roughly similar number — 36 percent — disagree that human activity is causing global temperatures to rise.” Jason points out that while causality between these two stats is dubious, worldview clearly plays a significant role in the public’s response to climate science.
Climate organizers should take this seriously. I’m not an eco-doomsday monger, but its clear that as the impacts of climate chaos deepen in North America, most reasoned predictions make it look increasingly like the End Of Days – poison raining from the sky, acidifying oceans, swarms of locusts (or invasive insects), boils (or other rampant disease), increased seismic activity – it’s all foretold. Indeed, droughts, famines, floods, hurricanes, resource scarcity, world wars over water, millions of climate migrants and refugees, all paint a vivid picture.
Of course, real-life ecological collapse isn’t as neat and tidy as the Bible depicts. It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t go from birds singing one day, to ECOPOCALYPSE the next. The transition is already here. But as weather patterns become more severe, so does our challenge. The battle over which story the U.S. public uses to interpret our changing planet may determine the future of human life on Earth.
Just as they have a narrative, we have one too. Organizers often put it as: you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. We got in this crisis by corporations acting in their own self interest at the expense of the rest of us, and that we can navigate this crisis by embracing a saner economy.
Which narrative is more resonant and powerful in capturing the public imagination? Which one is activating (requiring some form of collective organized response), and which one is pacifying (requiring you to do what you are told)? We have an uphill battle.
As Jason points out, “close to half of Americans are immune to the warnings about climate chaos because, in their worldview, it’s a prelude to heaven.” Indeed, there may be a large constituency in our country eagerly anticipating catastrophic weather change. There are many ways for climate campaigners to think about this challenge. Do we appeal to them? Do we ignore them and appeal to other audiences to push policy? How do we do enough groundwork so that as the changes become more and more difficult for U.S. politicians to ignore, our narrative gains traction? One way to think about the challenge is to embrace the real meaning of the word Apocalypse.
Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning from SmartMeme’s strategy manual Re:Imagining Change has a small section entitled the Slow Motion Apocalypse which I’d like to quote in full:
Our lifetimes are witness to a slow motion apocalypse—the gradual unraveling of the routines, expectations, and institutions that comfort the privileged and define the status quo.
But the word apocalypse does not mean the end of the world. The Greek word apokalypsis combines the verb “kalypto” meaning to “cover or to hide,” with the prefix “apo” meaning “away.” Apocalypse literally means to “take the cover away,” or to “lift the veil” and reveal something that has not been seen.
And thus these are indeed apocalyptic times. A 2008 poll reveals that 62% of Americans already agree with the statement “The earth is headed for an environmental catastrophe unless we change.” As the veil lifts, the assumptions and narratives that rationalize the status quo are shifting. What has been made invisible (by propaganda and privilege alike) has become a glaring truth: global corporate capitalism is on a collision course with the planet’s ecological limits.
As activists, we often dare not speak this whole truth for fear of self-marginalizing, terrifying people, or worse—dousing the essential fires of hope with a paralyzing despair.
Indeed, to face the scale and implications of the ecological crisis requires a degree of psychological courage. The lifting of the veil can release an emotional rollercoaster of anxiety, anger, grief, and despair. When we take it all in—all of the suffering, all of the destruction, all that is at risk—added onto our ongoing daily struggles, it is difficult not to be over- whelmed. Denial is a common response and an effective poultice, however temporary.
A narrative power analysis helps us understand denial as a dynamic that shapes the terms of the debate around the ecological crisis. The assumption that the United States can ‘go green’ on its current path, rather than fundamentally change our systems to operate within ecological limits, is one such manifestation. Denial is one of the key psychological undercurrents in the dominant culture that is preventing widespread acknowledgement of the scope of the ecological crisis, and keeping the apocalypse suspended in surreal slow motion. Denial is a more comfortable alternative to despair, but its impact on the collective political imagination is equally corrosive.
We also see this dynamic inside of progressive movements. Among many dedicated activist groups, there is an unstated culture of self-preserving denial. We see it expressed in various ways: rigid boundaries around an issue or constituency, an exclusive focus on short-term “wins,” and a suspension of disbelief about the limits of current strategies to face the crisis. The underlying assumption is that if we just keep doing what we’ve been doing, and just work harder at it, it will be enough.
Stagnation is the prevailing creative tendency in too many of our organizations. While some tactics are improved, innovation of strategies is perennially postponed. The undertow of denial can keep our movements trapped in a crisis of imagination. The consequences are a policy paradigm incapable of dealing with the scope of the overlapping problems. The sector plods on while an increasingly unnerved public is left vulnerable to fear-mongering, corporate greenwashing and phony quick-fix techno solutions.
The crisis of imagination that smartMeme refers to can also be thought of as a crisis of Vision. It’s often pointed out in activist circles that it’s easier for most people to imagine the End Of The World than it is to envision a meaningful revolution in the way our global economy functions. Think about how many movies depict the apocalypse (in whatever form), and how many movies depict a socially-just ecologically-balanced future. Human beings are able to organize and manifest visions that they can actually see. That’s one of the reasons why religion is such a powerful organizing tool – it shapes perceptions the past (through canonical scripture) in order to lend credibility to a moral or political vision of a society that can be built. Our society is filled with visions of The End (religious or not). Let’s fill it with visions of life and balance and interdependence and justice and sustainability, instead.
This shifting landscape unveils a lot of opportunity for us to tell it like it is. While some may find comfort in a passive wait for Jesus to return and wipe away the evil in the world, I’m willing to bet that there are a lot more people willing to fight like hell for a livable future. That’s the story I want to build. The solace is that we’re living amidst the most rapid transition in human history. It’s all up for grabs. And if King Jesus doesn’t judge us for our actions, Mother Nature certainly will.