Environmental Millennialism

In the 21st century, new forms of millenarianism emerge from science rather than religion. At first this may seem surprising since scientists are not given to eschatological speculation.

However, the use of mathematical models and precise predictions is important in millenarianism. The day and the hour of the end can be calculated. When estimating what will happen in the near and distant future, scientific prediction is a form of prophecy. Scientific predictions concerning what will happen in hundreds and thousands of years into the future has established “scientific millenarianism” in which “millenarianism now possesses bona fide scientific components” (Weinberg 1999: 936).

Of all the scientific predictions of the end of the world, the most urgent is anthropogenic climate change. The burning of fossil fuels has been the basis of the industrial economy since the invention of the steam engine in the 18th century. The combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas produces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which are released into the atmosphere, trapping heat and warming the planet. Global temperatures have already risen 0.56 ℃ in the past hundred years and they are forecast to rise a further 4-6 ℃ above pre-industrial levels by 2100 (Romm 2016: xv).

Rising temperatures, deforestation, and human activity are also leading to a catastrophic loss of biodiversity that some scientists are calling the “sixth mass extinction event” (Kolbert 2014). The well-documented disintegration of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is contributing to a sea-level rise of between 80ft and 260ft. This has occurred a hundred years sooner than initial scientific estimates. It is close to an irreversible tipping point after which total collapse would be inevitable (Romm 2016: xv). This in turn causes an increase in extreme weather events such as storm surges, forest fires, and heat waves. Since the majority of greenhouse gases are absorbed into the oceans rather than the atmosphere, there is also the ongoing problem of ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater to create carbonic acid, killing marine life and contributing to the bleaching of coral reefs (Romm 2016: 17-18). Another ‘feedback loop’ occurring is the melting of the Arctic permafrost, which could release 1.8 trillion tonnes of methane into the atmosphere rapidly and irreversibly increasing the rate of global warming (ibid: 80-84).

These alarming predictions outline an apocalyptic scenario unfolding right now. The end of the world is no longer near, it is here. It was brought on by human, not divine, intervention. The human impact on the Earth’s systems has led academics to label the current geological age the Anthropocene. In some models, the Anthropocene is also the apocalypse. This has brought a range of questions such as have humans doomed themselves? Who will save the world? Should the world be saved?