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Monday, December 28, 2009

Post-modern Apocalypticism

The Copenhagen climate change conference and Christmas may seem to have little to do with each other except for their occurring in the month of December. However, they are in fact closely related, for both reflect differing types of apocalyptic. The key to Jewish and Christian apocalyptic is the idea that God controls history. Against the disparaging modernist theologians who see Daniel and Revelation as driving people to despair over the state of the world, these works are in fact rich in hope. Groups and sects that have devoted much study and attention to them are not usually passive, but urgent and energetic evangelists. As the late David Hadas of Washington University once observed during a class lecture decades ago, “there’s something energizing about the whole thing.”

There is. The announcement that the Messiah had come—the clear import of the beginning chapters of both Matthew and Luke and the burden of Revelation 12—kaunched a movement that swept much of the Old World within the space of a few centuries. Indeed, some, such as myself, continue to believe this message. Climate skeptics often liken fears about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) to a new religion. They may actually be on to something.

Apocalyptic announcements rally people in times of both real and perceived crisis. This is a phenomenon that can be observed across cultures and across periods of historic time; and is by no means limited to Abrahamic religion. In Buddhism, certain Mahayana sects proclaimed that the future would bring the age of the Maitreya, the Buddha of the future—the fat idol called Mi Le Fo by the Chinese. Belief in the imminence of the Maitreya’s coming sparked a number of revolts in Chinese history, including the one that ultimately brought down Toghan Temur, the last Mongol ruler. Part of the power of Marxism has been its claim to reveal the hidden workings of history, and its promise that the rising proletariat might seize control of these forces under the revolutionary leadership of the vanguard party. Believers in AGW hold that sufficient agitation by concerned people and concerted action by the world’s governments will “save” the planet.

However, apocalypticism runs the risks of overplaying its hand and burning itself out. Believers in AGW seem to be in little danger of the latter possibility at present. However, the first possibility was broached in Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear and has intruded into real life with evidence that the East Anglia Climate Center has tried to suppress data contrary to its expected findings and hound dissenting climatologists out of the profession. While hacking may be disreputable, those who hacked the East Anglian e-mails have uncovered the unpleasant truth that scientists and other academics are not necessarily dispassionate seekers of objective truth, but are as motivated by the possibilities of prestige, grant money, and eligibility for political power as anyone else.

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