‘The end’ as a weapon

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA TODAY (December 15, 2008)

There is, in progressive circles, a certain fascination with those apocalyptic prophecies that seem to hold so many religious conservatives in thrall. From the sensation over the megaselling Left Behind book series to more recent media flare-ups around figures such as John Hagee (the television pastor of countdown-to-Armageddon fame), the end times seem to be looming at all times.

Turn your attention to a strain of thought ascendant in secular, environmentalist America and you might be surprised to find a similar apocalypse fixation, minus the Book of Revelation and anti-Christ parts. Call it the secular theology of environmental collapse — the fearful conviction that the hopelessly corrupt world as we know it has entered its death throes, with massive destruction stalking ever nearer.

Given the huge challenges facing this country and the constant barrage of “be afraid!” messages from politics and pulpits, it’s understandable that many of us have a close relationship with dread.

Yet we should remain wary of doomsday fantasizing, in either its religious or secular form. For history shows that such thinking, whether it revolves around the wrath of God or the rage of nature, has a way of embarrassing the doomsayers — and, more important, hampering much needed progress along the way.

Like many Americans, I’ve always been fascinated by the scary prophecies. (I do mean “many”; according to a 2004 Newsweek poll, 55%of Americans believe in the rapture, in which true Christian believers are swept up by God, with everyone else “left behind” to endure civilization’s trial, tribulation and destruction before Jesus returns to usher in a new and godly age.) I read Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth in my teens, Nostradamus’ spooky visions in college and ecological meltdown scenarios in adulthood. “Let’s wipe it all out and start again!” holds a certain appeal when the present state of affairs is looking irredeemably bad. Especially to the beholders who believe they’ll be among the “saved,” whether through divine intervention or, at least, by being on the right side of the argument.

More and more, I’m seeing the error of these ways, thanks mainly to my exposure to some of the new-wave thinkers in environmentalism and the related sustainability movement.

Two such people are Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, whose widely circulated “death of environmentalism“arguments have shaken up the green establishment. They call for an end to the old disaster-is-coming talk in favor of a positive, solutions-oriented approach to the climate challenge.

Another is Jim Proctor, head of environmental studies at Lewis & Clark (the college where I work in Portland, Ore.). Proctor is also a teacher and researcher with academic training in religion as well as environmental studies. Through many intense conversations with Proctor, I’ve begun to suspect that secular liberals who joke about right-wing Christians’ doomsday scenarios fall for some of the same unproductive thinking and believing.

The ecopocalypse
Waiting for the rapture has its secular analog in a phenomenon you might term “dystopian dread”: a growing sense of imminent ecological collapse — the ecopocalypse, if you will. Particularly ascendant here in the lush green and relatively unchurched Pacific Northwest, the narrative offers a form of secular theology that resembles aspects of the Left Behind scenarios. Instead of God, nature unleashes its wrath on “sinful” humanity; instead of the savior’s second coming, ecotheology awaits a green utopia in which electric cars, locally grown organic food and post-consumer-culture sustainability rise in the ashes of disaster.

Proctor and a research team are exploring the phenomenon through interviews with members of utopian communities in Oregon and surveys of the general population. The preliminary polling results point in an intriguing direction. Secular Americans who regard nature as inherently sacred (a cohort that could include 20% of the population or more) identify strongly with concepts of an environmentalist utopia. And those who yearn for green perfection often struggle with expectations of its dark-side twin: “dystopian” doom.

“You find that people working for a utopian future have tremendous fear about things turning out differently,” Proctor explains. “Utopias are often framed against a dystopian nightmare,” he adds, producing a kind of all-or-nothing fixation on perfection and its perfect opposite.

Reality, in truth, is usually grayer and messier. Wind turbines, for instance, can certainly mar pristine views and wildlife habitat, and concerns of precisely that sort have been raised against wind-power farms in the Mojave Desert and elsewhere. Is the regrettable blemish a worthwhile price to pay to advance green energy?

As the dilemma suggests, maybe we should spend less time and angst on utopias and doomsdays and focus on the less dramatic question: Short of perfect, how do we make things simply better?

In certain conservative Christian circles, the rapture is viewed with something approaching gleeful excitement. As one devotee told CBS in a 2004 report on evangelical America, “I think (the rapture) would be really cool.”

I suppose — if you find something “cool” about untold millions stranded on a doomed earth and left to endure hellish suffering and death on an unprecedented scale.

Those sounding the alarm about ecological end times might not share the happy anticipation of the above-mentioned rapture diviner, but they might have more in common with his lot than they realize: the conviction, in particular, that civilization is hopelessly fallen and deserves whatever doom might be coming our way.

What this moment requires, instead, is acknowledgment of the inevitable uncertainty about where all this is heading, and clear thinking about what’s going to be effective in dealing with it.

Damaging the cause
If history has taught us anything, Jim Proctor notes, it’s the prevalence, and folly, of end-of-the-world predictions. “How many times,” Proctor asks, “have religious figures and others prophesized the end — and then had to revise their predictions when it didn’t happen? And how much less did people listen to them and believe them after that?”

Though fear might seem a good rally-the-masses motivator, it can actually operate in the opposite way, by making the general public cynical and disengaged on one hand, or overwhelmed by fear and fatalism on the other.

Yes, there is plenty to fear these days, and stoking that fear in the quest for supporters, donations and votes is the popular politics of our time.

As he assumes the presidency, Barack Obama would do well to reprise the line of a transformative president from the past century who urged calm and confidence through tough times. As Franklin D. Roosevelt wisely declared, fear itself is what we ought to fear the most. As Roosevelt evidently knew, fear has an uncanny ability to stymie progress.

And, worse yet, to turn its dark visions into self-fulfilling prophecies.

Tom Krattenmaker, who lives in Portland, Ore., specializes in religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. His book on Christianity in professional sports will be published in the spring.