How do we live under the cloud of impending apocalypse without giving in to panic?
I’ve long been surrounded by people declaring that the end is near. When I was six, my grandfather came to live with my family after my grandmother died. He sat at our dining table reading the Bible and talking about the end times, the coming rapture of Christians up into heaven, and the fiery destruction of the world. It was terrifying and gave me nightmares. Still does.
As I grew older, more predictions of the world’s demise came at me steadily, in one ominous form after another. My junior high biology teacher spent more class time warning that overpopulation and pollution would make the Earth uninhabitable in the next decade than he did teaching about photosynthesis. At home I scrimped on my own resource use, my mother mystified by my one-inch baths and darkened room.
As my adult life after college began, nuclear annihilation between the United States and the Soviet Union felt imminent. I questioned whether I could bring children into such a threatened world and joined with women blocking cruise-missile deployment near Seneca Falls, New York.
The week I moved into my own home, the U.S. military bombed Baghdad, escalating an ongoing holy war in the Middle East—which prompted the owner of the local Christian-run health-food shop to remark to me, “It won’t be long now.” It triggered the same heart-pounding panic response that listening to my grandfather did.
Then, as the millennium neared, friends bought generators and stockpiled food in anticipation of Y2K computer meltdowns. Rather than partying, we stayed home and watched the new year ring in around the globe on television—uneventfully, it turned out.
None of these things came to pass on the scale and timeline that their alarmed prognosticators predicted. At least not yet.
Now, in the circles I travel, urgency over climate change has eclipsed all these fears. One friend told me she wouldn’t attend a workshop about immigrants and refugees at our Unitarian Universalist church because nothing mattered but climate change. At a party not long ago, when the topic turned to climate change, one of the people most passionate about it declaimed, “We’re all fucked!” Conversation halted for several uncomfortable moments.
These responses feel understandable. But even if everyone present agrees and supports taking action, when the message goes cataclysmic, it sucks the energy right out of us.
Just as there may be a “God gene” that compels us to look for divine experience and meaning, I wonder if something in our humanness compels us to declare we are the last generation.
I remember my Old Testament professor at Baylor University cautioning us evangelical Christian students: “Don’t be too sure you know what the Second Coming will look like. Consider that the Israelites who read the prophet Isaiah were expecting a political king who would save them from the Romans, not a poor itinerant preacher who opened his arms to lepers, prostitutes, and despised ethnic groups. They didn’t get what they expected, and likely neither will we.”
It doesn’t look good for humanity. We know there were eons without human life on this planet, and there will be again. We have surely hastened our own extinction in the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution. Any combination of the apocalyptic scenarios that have hung over me since childhood—or one not yet imagined—could wipe us out at any moment.
So how do we keep going? How do we live under the cloud of impending apocalypse without giving in to panic?
The way forward may have more to do with psychology than piling up scientific data, suggested a paper in the November 2015 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, looking at why the public is so disengaged with climate change. The problem has been framed in a way that is too abstract, too distant in time and place, and most of all too frightening and enormous, for individuals to take in, much less know how to make any difference.
We need a message that acknowledges how all sorts of our problems—food insecurity, the wealth gap, terrorism and refugees, racism, corporate power—must be solved together, not in isolation. When we talk about the future, and how we will change our behavior, hope must be a part of it.
The words of my Buddhist meditation teacher feel more real than the End Times prophecies I was raised with: “There isn’t going to be any happy ending. Today is the day we have. I’m grateful to be a part of this earth. You have your time here, and you have your opportunity to do something with it.”
Apocalyptic fears can push us to anger and urgency, but without hope, we have little chance of collective action. We don’t have to be optimistic about the future. We know we can’t keep living as we have in this energy-intensive global civilization we’ve built. But hope—the belief that our future will be better with our action than without it—is not negotiable.
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Kimberly French, a UU World contributing editor, has also written for Salon, Tikkun, Utne Reader, and other publications. She leads the Climate Justice Team at First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough, Massachusetts, and chairs her town’s Community Preservation Committee.
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