Ann Mongoven is the associate director of Health Care Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
To claim climate change poses a catastrophic crisis is an understatement. All science, empirical evidence, and experiential observation underscore the severity of the crisis.
Yet some ways of talking about “crisis” can overwhelm, paralyze, and de-motivate, instead of motivating change. Crisis language poses a paradoxical crisis. How can we acknowledge the severity of the crisis while inspiring dramatic creative response, rather than fatalism?
A first start will be to think reflectively about the metaphors we use to describe dangers posed by climate change. Many calls for environmental attention go beyond describing crisis to invoking apocalypse. “Apocalypse now” summarizes the tone of much rhetoric about climate change.
Metaphorically, apocalypse refers to a destructive end-time in which the world is utterly destroyed. Its biblical referent is the Book of Revelation, which vividly describes the fiery, violent end of the world inflicted by a wrathful God pushed beyond tolerance of sinful humans. Christianity is not the only religious tradition with apocalyptic stories. In the “age of terror,” scholars of religion have noted that perpetrators of religious violence from diverse religious traditions share an apocalyptic sense of history. Religious terrorists thus conceive their assaults as participating in divine judgement.
Secular critics also highlight negative social consequences of religious apocalyptic stories. They decry the troubling integration of two elements: a linear conception of sacred history tied to an explosive vision of the end-time. That combination can result both in the normalization of violence, and in a fatalistic pessimism about human power to change history for the better.
Yet many environmentalists seem deaf to warnings about the downsides of apocalyptic rhetoric. Indeed, some secular environmentalists have become the most fanatically apocalyptic prophets of our time. They speak metaphorically of Gaia’s (the earth goddess’) revenge and Poseidon’s (the sea god’s) wrath and they foretell the heat-death of nature. They frequently describe heightened floods, storms, heatwaves, and droughts as “warnings” and “signs”—biblical rhetoric bespeaking messages from a petulant god losing patience—rather than straightforwardly as consequences of human behavior and resultant climate change. In the words of Guardian columnist Brendan O’Neil, environmentalists who unreflectively invoke images of apocalypse are now the ones who “instill in people that debilitating sense of ‘The End’ and of man's smallness in the face of Gaia's/God's judgement. [They] have taken the place of the priests in spreading fear, fatalism and resignation over man's fate.”
To address the crisis of crisis language, we must consider what makes apocalypse categorically different from crisis. First, apocalyptic visions are tied to a unidirectional vision of sacred history. The climate crisis, however, is unfolding in ecological history: a real world of patterns, cycles, and stages. Indeed, one reason resisters refuse to accept the evidence for climate change is their own apocalyptic framework. That framework precludes understanding that global warming does not cause simple consistent heat increases, but also events such as polar vortexes and severe winter storms. When environmentalists employ apocalyptic metaphors, they unintentionally reinforce the very worldview that entrenches resistance.
Second, a vengeful divinity whose power dwarfs that of humankind plays the leading role in apocalyptic stories. Too many environmentalists simply project onto nature the moral emotions of the God of Revelation. But this rhetorical move makes nature the powerful intentional actor in the story of climate change—not humans. Humans, the true powerful intentional moral actors causing climate change, can understandably feel defeated in advance when metaphorically matched against an overwhelmingly stronger moral force. To be sure, nature is a strong force—but it is not intentional—and it is the victim, not the god, in the real story.
Lastly, apocalyptic stories are pessimistic about the power of good people. The fiery destruction of the world in the apocalypse occurs because the good people remain a tiny remnant of the populace, loyal to divine command but unable to convert the masses. Even the good are powerless to influence fallen humanity, or to stop the apocalypse. Environmentalists who unthinkingly adopt apocalyptic rhetoric foster an “us-versus-them” mentality. That mentality fails to address the complexity of mass human embeddedness in environmentally-damaging socio-economic systems. It also fails to inspire “conversion,” or collective action.
Yes, we face a terrible crisis with climate change. Yes, damage is already catastrophic and will get worse even if radical mass action grips the moment constructively. Yes, we have already passed some tipping points. But we, not God or nature, are the powerful intentional actors in this story. The fiery end of the world as we know it is not a foregone conclusion. The end of the story depends on us. To author a nonapocalyptic ending, we must stop describing climate change as an apocalypse.