We are all apocalyptic now, or at least we should be, if we are rational.
Because “apocalyptic” is typically associated with religious fanaticism and death cults – things that rational people tend not to take literally or seriously – this claim requires some explanation.
First, a definition: The term is most commonly used in reference to the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse of John, the final book of the Christian New Testament. The two terms are synonymous in their original meaning – “revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek, both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something that had been hidden.
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Second, the formulation “we are all (fill in the blank) now” has long been a way to assert that certain ideas have become the norm: “We are all Keynesians now,” said Milton Friedman in 1965, for instance, or to express solidarity: “We are all New Yorkers now,” said many non-New Yorkers after 9/11.
Rather than claiming divine inspiration, we can come to greater clarity about the desperate state of the ecosphere and its human inhabitants through evidence and reason. It is time for a calm, measured apocalypticism that recognizes that the ecosphere sets norms, which we have ignored for too long, and that we need to develop a new sense of solidarity among humans and with the larger living world.
So, speaking apocalyptically need not leave us stuck in a corner with the folks predicting lakes of fire, rivers of blood or bodies lifted up to the heavens. Instead, it can focus our attention on ecological realities and on the unjust and unsustainable human systems that have brought us to this point.
This “revelation” is simple: We’ve built a world based on the assumption that we will have endless energy to subsidize endless economic expansion, which was supposed to magically produce justice. That world is over, both in reality and in dreams. Either we begin to build a different world, or there will be no world capable of sustaining a large-scale human presence.
If that’s not clear: When we take seriously what physics, chemistry and biology tell us about the health of the living world on which we depend, we all should be thinking apocalyptically. Look at any crucial measure of the ecosphere – groundwater depletion; topsoil loss; chemical contamination; increased toxicity in our own bodies; the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of biodiversity; and the ultimate game-changer of climate disruption – and ask a simple question: Where we are heading? Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing the planet beyond its limits.
If we look honestly at the state of the world, it is difficult not to conclude that we are in end times of sorts – not the end of the physical world, but the end of the First-World way of living and the end of the systems on which that life is based.
I know that invoking the terms “apocalypse” and “end times” triggers many people’s experiences with arrogant religious people who preach about deliverance fantasies. My message is not about a rapture that can be predicted, but about ruptures in the ecological and social fabrics that are underway and accelerating.
No matter how carefully I craft these statements – no matter how often I deny a claim to special gifts of prognostication, no matter now clearly I reject supernatural explanations or solutions – many people refuse to take this analysis seriously. Some people joke about “Mr. Doom and Gloom.” Others suggest that such talk is no different than conspiracy theorists’ ramblings about how international bankers, secret cells of communists, or crypto-fascists are using the United Nations to create a one-world government.
Even the most measured and careful talk of the coming dramatic change in the place of humans on Earth leads to accusations that one is unnecessarily alarmist, probably paranoid and certainly irrelevant in serious discussions about social and ecological issues. In the United States, people expect talk of the future to be upbeat, based on those assumptions of endless expansion and perpetual progress, or at least maintenance of our “way of life.” Even those who realize the danger of such fanciful thinking are hesitant to speak too bluntly, out of fear of seeming crazy.
A calm apocalypticism is not crazy, but rather can help us confront honestly the crises of our time and strategize constructively about possible responses. We can struggle to understand – to the best of our ability, without succumbing to magical thinking – the state of the ecosphere and the impediments to sensible action in our societies.
This struggle to understand led me to write a short polemic, We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out. The book’s message is simple: The big systems that structure our world, especially capitalism and the extractive economy, are incompatible with social justice and ecological sustainability. Those who have opportunities to write and speak out have a responsibility to articulate the radical analysis necessary to understand the problems and begin to identify solutions.
To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories – religious and secular – that we modern humans have been telling about ourselves. Our hope for a decent future – indeed, any hope for even the idea of a future – depends on our ability to tell stories not of how humans have ruled the world, but how we can live in the world.
We are all apocalyptic now, whether we like it or not.