‘Apocalypse’ (ἀποκάλυψις in Ancient Greek) means disclosure, removing the veil; revelation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, apocalypse involves the revelation of the ultimate divine truth directly before the end of the earthly world. The best known prophecy of this kind is the Apocalypse of John, which concludes the Christian Gospels. John describes the subsequent stages of the world’s end: separation of good from evil and of the faithful from the sinners. All who failed to take the righteous path would be destroyed, with the prophet declaring: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! […] For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries” (Revelation 18; New International Version). This is how human history concludes according to Christian mythology.
A lucid ending that entails the disclosure of the final meaning of humanity’s sub-lunar struggles and the administration of justice is a vision that captures our cultural imagination. Western civilization is fond of fantasies about its own ending, which is embedded in our understanding of time and the deeply-rooted notion of life as a story – naturally, one that carries a message. In the end, the good are rewarded, while the bad are punished. All ambiguity thus ceases and the meaning of history finally becomes clear. This is decided by an entity no-one can challenge: the Great Other. This has one crucial advantage, namely that we are relieved of all responsibility, because the apocalypse must come if God wills it. Earth must be destroyed if the chosen ones are to enter a better place – the final, indestructible home that is not subject to laws of nature and time.
Taking into account the quickly-advancing climate catastrophe, it is little wonder that both popular culture and ecology eagerly employ the topos of apocalypse in order to express the ‘ultimate’ nature of our time. In recent weeks, we have seen dramatic footage showing fires in Greece, Italy, Turkey and California. Smoke rising from the burning Siberia reached the North Pole for the first time in history. The recently published report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a scientific advisory body formed in 1988 out of an initiative of the United Nations for the purpose of monitoring climate change – contains clear conclusions: anthropogenic climate change is real and irreversible. The latest weather anomalies are the product of human activity, specifically the emission of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane, the latter being the by-product of industrial livestock production). If emissions continue at the current level, in the next 10 or 20 years the rise of average temperatures on Earth will likely exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius. It is assumed that below this threshold the situation could be somehow brought under control. Above it, however, within several decades large parts of the Earth will become uninhabitable, causing immense suffering and indeed ending the world as we know it. The vision of a burning planet makes it easy to imagine that this punishment is well-deserved. Babylon is burning. Earth is meting out justice because we have ‘sinned’ by excessively exploiting it. Humanity has ultimately proven evil.
Despite the visual and symbolic appeal of the biblical myth, I consider apocalyptic imagery to be a dead end in the context of climate catastrophe. First, apocalypse is inevitable since we are thoroughly helpless in the face of God’s wrath. Apocalypse must arrive because it is a logical conclusion of humanity’s earthly history, understood in theological terms. However, the course of climate catastrophe still depends on human decisions and actions. It is possible to reverse the worst-case scenario, but our efforts would have to start now, since there is no time to lose. We need deep, structural changes in our ways of inhabiting the Earth. Introducing them would be difficult, but nevertheless possible. The future is in human hands, not divine ones. Earth is a dynamic planet, where life has evolved, and it has a huge influence on all human matters, but it does not inflict punishment or inventory our sins. Excessive emission of greenhouse gases causes overheating due to the laws of physics and the whims of a passionate, vengeful authority.
However dramatic, apocalyptic visions bring relief by offering us meaning, simultaneously relieving us of responsibility and allowing us to imagine an end that arrives quickly, bringing immediate resolution because someone – the Great Other – has decided so. Nevertheless, the end that awaits us, if we do not fight for change now, will not be a singular explosion, after which all that will be left is a landscape straight out of Mad Max. It will be, would be, or may be a long and painful process.
If not apocalypse, then what?
In catastrophic films that employ apocalyptic imagery, happy endings involve remedying the final explosion. This is usually made possible by the intervention of some outstanding individual: a superhero. Still, this scenario does not match our current situation, because the catastrophe is already under way. We live during the Sixth Great Extinction, but it is the first time in the Earth’s history that this is being caused by a single species. The Earth is already burning and people are dying. And yet there is a fight we need to fight – one that will not be taken care of by Bruce Willis or Superwoman. It is about limiting the scope of catastrophe and minimizing suffering. About every day of life, its fullness and joy, which will now always be accompanied by mourning, at least among more sensitive individuals. It is about human and inter-species solidarity. Survival is a collective project based on cooperation.
Our world has to change, as science unequivocally informs us. We have no other reliable source of knowledge. However, this necessity also offers an opportunity. It carries the seeds of a new beginning. This may be difficult, but it is also exciting.
We shall not give up.
Translated from the Polish by Grzegorz Czemiel
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