It was only to be expected that former US vice president Al Gore would give this month’s cyclone in Myanmar an apocalyptic twist.
“Last year,” he said, “a catastrophic storm hit Bangladesh. The year before, the strongest cyclone in more than 50 years hit China ...We’re seeing the consequences that scientists have long predicted might be associated with continual global warming.”
Surprisingly, Gore did not include the Asian tsunami of 2004, which claimed 225,000 lives. His not so subliminal message was that these natural catastrophes foreshadow the end of the world.
Apocalyptic beliefs have always been part of the Christian tradition. They express the yearning for heaven on earth, when evil is destroyed and the good are saved.
In their classical religious form, such beliefs rely on signs and omens, like earthquakes and sunspots, which can be interpreted — by reference to biblical passages — as portending a great cataclysm and cleansing. Thus, apocalyptic moments are products of a sense of crisis; they can be triggered by wars and natural disasters.
Classical apocalyptic thinking is certainly alive and well, especially in the US, where it feeds on Protestant fundamentalism, and is mass marketed with all the resources of modern media. Circles close to the Bush administration, it is rumored, take current distempers like terrorism as confirmation of biblical prophecies.
In secularized, pseudo-scientific form, apocalyptic thinking has also been at the core of revolutionary politics. In his latest book, Black Mass, philosopher John Gray discusses how political doctrines like Marxism colonized the apocalyptic vision in prophesying the destruction of capitalism as the prelude to the socialist utopia. But political messianism was an offshoot of 19th century optimism. With the collapse of optimism, contemporary apocalyptic belief lays more stress on catastrophe and less on utopia.
For example, in his book Flat Earth News, the investigative journalist Nick Davies reminds us of the millennium bug panic. Newspapers everywhere carried stories predicting that computer systems would crash on Jan. 1, 2000, causing much of the world to shut down.
The subtext was familiar: Those who live by technology will die by it.
Misreporting of science is so routine now that we hardly notice it. Much more serious is when science itself becomes infected by the apocalyptic spirit. Faith-based science seems a contradiction in terms, because the scientific worldview emerged as a challenge to religious superstition. But important scientific beliefs can now be said to be held religiously, rather than scientifically.
This brings us back to Gore and climate change.
There is no doubt that the Earth became warmer over the 20th century (by about 0.7°C), which most climate scientists largely attribute to human carbon dioxide emissions. If nothing is done to restrict such emissions, global temperatures will rise by between 1.8°C and 4°C over the next century. At some “tipping point,” the world will be subject to floods and pestilence in classic apocalyptic fashion.
This is the second doomsday scenario of recent decades, the first being the Club of Rome’s prediction in 1972 that the world would soon run out of natural resources. Both are “scientific,” but their structure is the same as that of the biblical story of the Flood: Human wickedness (or, in today’s case, unbridled materialism) triggers the disastrous sequence, which it may already be too late to avert. Like Biblical prophecy, scientific doomsday stories seem impervious to refutation and are constantly repackaged to feed the hunger for catastrophe.