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Misplacing the apocalypse

The main point of the "doomer" perspective (eg die-off.org) can be simply stated: the earth can only support around 1.5 billion people sustainably; the rest are being sustained by easy access to fossil fuels (something like ten calories of fossil fuels for each calorie consumed). Thus, when, following Peak Oil, the fossil fuels run out (soon) most people will die; more or less swiftly, more or less horribly.

It seems to me that a theological perspective has something to say about the subject. For what I think we have is a use of apocalyptic language (“the world is going to end!”) abstracted away from a context in which it makes coherent sense. In other words, the foundation of the "doomer" perspective is implicitly theological - and as such is open to theological critique.

Consider what Tom Wright says on apocalyptic language (from New Testament and the People of God)

Within the mainline Jewish writings of this period, covering a wide range of styles, genres, political persuasions and theological perspectives, there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space-time universe.

There is abundant evidence that they knew a good metaphor when they saw one, and used cosmic imagery to bring out the full theological significance of cataclysmic socio-political events. There is almost nothing to suggest that they followed the Stoics into the belief that the world itself would come to an end; and there is almost everything to suggest that they did not.

In other words the primary use of apocalyptic language is as a critique of the political and economic status quo, and to express a longing, and expectation, that God’s judgement upon that status quo was coming. Apocalypse was the genre adopted by the downtrodden, those who were most victimised in the present arrangements – for obviously, if you benefited from the present arrangements you wouldn’t want to see them destroyed – and God’s judgement would ‘cast down the mighty from their thrones… and scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts’. So apocalypse is driven by, at root, a righteous indignation and hatred of an existing political or social arrangement, and a longing and expectation that God will act to re-establish justice, ie the Kingdom of God.

It seems plausible to me that the "doomers" share a hatred of the present system, yet it also seems plausible to me that their position cannot be reconciled with Christianity. “So what!” might be their response "who cares what theology has to say about this - theology is a useless waste of space!" – but hang on.

To accept the "doomer" framework, is to assert that there is no way out from the present crisis – and that is to go beyond what the evidence as a whole supports. The evidence is clear that there is a major problem, but to assert that, eg, civilisation will come to an abrupt end is to move from the realm of demonstrable fact (imminent absence of resources on which we presently rely) to a contestable conjecture (there is nothing that we can do to mitigate the situation). At root, then, the "doomer" perspective is a denial of hope, and a denial of the possibility of redemption. It is a theological perspective, not a scientific one.

Now it may well be the truth – it’s certainly possible that human civilisation is about to press the reset button and send us back to a Hobbesian state of nature. Yet it is equally possible that what we face is, eg, a cross between the black death and the 1930s, and that, just as in those situations (bad as they were) human society negotiates the passage more or less successfully, and we continue to move forward as a species and as a civilisation.

My point is simply that we cannot know what the future holds – despite all the suggestive parallels with Easter Island – because it hasn’t happened yet. So I repeat my point – those who have a convinced "doomer" perspective are making a theological assertion, not a scientific one.

Now as a theological assertion, it is open to theological critique. The heart of the assertion is the denial of hope, and therefore of meaning, and it is therefore an embrace of nihilism, the notion that nothing matters (for if we are all going to die what is the point?). Hope is absolutely central to a Christian perspective – the insistence that God is acting within the world for our redemption, and that Christ came not to condemn the world but to save it. That there is no place to which we might fall which is beyond the reach of God’s creative Act – and therefore, no situation is as bleak as a nihilist might paint it. There is always point to what we do.

“If you knew that the world was going to end tomorrow, what would you do?”

“I would plant a tree.”
(A remark attributed to Martin Luther)

The Old Testament prophets cannot be bettered in their denunciation of a corrupt status quo. Listen to Hosea:

Hear the Word of the Lord, O people of Israel;
for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or kindness,
and no knowledge of God in the land.
There is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery;
they break all bounds and murder follows murder.
Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish,
and also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air;
and even the fish of the sea are taken away.

Or listen to Ezekiel:

Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says:

You have been more unruly than the nations around you and have not followed my decrees or kept my laws. You have not even conformed to the standards of the nations around you.

Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself am against you, Jerusalem, and I will inflict punishment on you in the sight of the nations. Because of all your detestable idols, I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again.

Therefore in your midst fathers will eat their children, and children will eat their fathers. I will inflict punishment on you and will scatter all your survivors to the winds. Therefore as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your vile images and detestable practices, I myself will withdraw my favor; I will not look on you with pity or spare you.

A third of your people will die of the plague or perish by famine inside you; a third will fall by the sword outside your walls; and a third I will scatter to the winds and pursue with drawn sword.

I trust that the resemblance between this language and the language and expectations of the 'doomers' is clear. Yet always with the OT prophets there is the promise of restoration, of a new heaven and a new earth. That is what the 'doomers' miss. As with Isaiah:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD -
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

It is a question of balance, and honesty. Balance in that the vision of apocalypse always offered a vision of hope for the faithful remnant, who would endure the tribulation and be brought back to a faithful and fulfilling life on the far side of the crisis. Honesty, more crucially, in that it requires an awareness of the limits to our knowledge, and therefore a consequent awareness of how far a more or less conscious perspective on the divine determines the interpretation of such evidence.

There is always hope; there are always things that we can do in the face of disaster; and at the heart of it all is the call to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before our God. It is the absence of those virtues that has led us to the brink of disaster; it is the restoration of those virtues that will guide our people through the coming forty years in the desert.

So I say with the prophets:

Come let us return to the Lord; for He has torn us, and He will heal us.

Editorial Notes: UPDATE: The Oil Drum has a long discussion on the article in the comments section of today's Drumbeat. The article was slightly edited from the original by the author. I think it is useful to separate the various issues of the "doomer" debate and talk about them separately. For example:
  • Objective analysis of the various trends taking place (peak oil, global warming, etc.)
  • The question of how much confidence can be placed in predictions about complex systems. "Certainty" is elusive. One of the best techniques, common in climate change, is to develop multiple scenarios, each with an estimated probability.
  • Sociological and historical analysis about apocalyptic attitudes, e.g. Hemenway.
  • Psychological discussion about how to deal with feelings of doom and despair, e.g. McMahon.
  • Moral/religious aspects, which is what Rev. Norton discusses here.
Trying to talk about all these themes at once leads to confusion and frustration. Rev. Sam Norton is the Rector of the Church of St Peter & St Paul, West Mersea, Essex, England. His blog, Elizaphanian has many posts on peak oil and related issues. He seems to have absorbed many of the ideas current in "doomer" circles, though he disagrees with the fatalism. Some posts of his that I found interesting: Pledges Prophecy and Peak Oil The great dislocation What are you optimistic about? Why? Rev. Norton also has posted Prophecy, Peak Oil and the Path For the Faithful (audio and slides for a series of talks. I had to use Internet Explorer rather than Firefox to access the audio). -BA

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