The Apocalyptic Nature of Environmentalism

Every few years a Christian preacher predicts imminent Armageddon, gains some followers and is thrust into the national headlines. Most recently, Harold Camping, the iterant Oakland preacher, announced the world would end on May 22, 2011. Camping prophesized this will be accompanied by massive earthquakes, chaos, death and destruction, just as described in the Book of Revelation. A new heaven and new earth will appear, with the righteous joining God and non-believers perishing. USA Today wrote incredulously, “some people really panicked.” Camping’s ideas were not particularly popular in Catholic and other Christian circles (Mathew 24:36 states that no one can know the precise time Jesus will return, except for God) but they were ridiculed in the media as being representative as mainstream Christian thinking.

Yet environmental scientists cause panic with similar apocalyptic visions and these are taken far more seriously, despite their apparent outrageous nature. I call these eco-apocalyptic. I want to demonstrate the similarities between the visions, then try to explain the analogous patterns of thinking. Analyzing Western history and Christianity helps us understand why two seemingly different ideologies resemble each other.

A popular Rolling Stone headline reads, “Goodbye, Miami.” The byline declares: “By century’s end, rising sea levels will turn the nation’s urban fantasyland into an American Atlantis. But long before the city is completely underwater, chaos will begin.”

The article begins with an imaginative apocalyptic vision of the future:


When the water receded after Hurricane Milo of 2030, there was a foot of sand covering the famous bow-tie floor in the lobby of the Fontaine­bleau hotel in Miami Beach. A dead manatee floated in the pool where Elvis had once swum. Most of the damage occurred not from the hurricane’s 175-mph winds, but from the 24-foot storm surge that overwhelmed the low-lying city… A 17-mile stretch of Highway A1A that ran along the famous beaches up to Fort Lauderdale disappeared into the Atlantic. The storm knocked out the wastewater-treatment plant on Virginia Key, forcing the city to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay. Tampons and condoms littered the beaches, and the stench of human excrement stoked fears of cholera. More than 800 people died, many of them swept away by the surging waters that submerged much of Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale; 13 people were killed in traffic accidents as they scrambled to escape the city after the news spread—falsely, it turned out—that one of the nuclear reactors at Turkey Point, an aging power plant 24 miles south of Miami, had been destroyed by the surge and sent a radioactive cloud over the city.

Apocalypse now, anybody?
Stanford biology professor Paul Ehrlich proclaims: “I believe and all of my colleagues believe that we are on a straightforward course to a collapse of our civilization.” I wonder if ALL of Ehrlich’s colleagues really believe this? More likely, Ehrlich exaggerates in an effort to advance fears about what he genuinely believes is an impending doom. Scientists are not just guided by facts, but by their own opinions, too. Unfortunately, sometimes like politicians, they deceive. By vividly predicting doom, they hope to gain converts in the name of saving humanity.

For Ehrlich, climate change is a serious issue, but the biggest threat comes from the spread of toxins in the environment. “If the chemicals we’re releasing give everybody bladder cancer by the time they’re four years old, we wouldn’t have the first clue what to do about it.… We’re basically sawing off the limb that we’re sitting on.” This is certainly possible, or maybe the eighty-one year old scientist is off his rocker. Time will tell. Ehrlich wrote a book in 1968 called The Population Bomb in which he predicted by the 1970s, population levels would reach unsustainable levels. Hundreds of millions of people will starve to death and it is too late to do anything about it, he lamented. These fanciful predictions have not induced modesty in Ehrlich, nor have they stopped others from spreading his ideas.

A headline at a popular scientific website reads, “Humans will be extinct in 100 years says eminent scientist.” Frank Fenner, a ninety-five year old professor of microbiology, believes humans will be wiped out in a few decades. He declares, “Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years… A lot of other animals will, too. It’s an irreversible situation. I think it’s too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off.” Fenner blames overpopulation and unbridled consumption. Accordingly, his apocalyptic vision even includes wars and violence over food.

Ehrlich and Fenner are heirs to a tradition fathered by a clergyman, Thomas Malthus. In 1798, the British cleric predicted,

The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands.

Malthus reasoned that while human population increased geometrically (1, 2, 4, 16, 32), food supply only increases exponentially (1, 2. 3, 4, 5.) At some point, population will surpass our ability to feed ourselves and humanity must die an agonizing death.

Apocalyptic visions of the future dominate the minds of environmental scientists, just like they do many Christian leaders. I wonder why? What makes the leaders of two supposedly two distinct fields like science and religion demonstrate analogous thought patterns?

First, science and religion are not as distinct as people believe because both are human ways to interpret and understand the world. Before the rise of modern science, human civilization relied on religion to explain their world, so goals of science and religion are parallel. The real fathers of science, in fact, were Babylonian priests who studied the sky. They recognized that astronomical phenomena were predictable, leading them to believe that scientific activity allowed for the predicting of human affairs. Eclipses were sometimes considered signs of imminent catastrophe, for example.

When interpreting modern scientific apocalyptic predictions from leading scientists, it must be recognized that Christianity laid the backbone for Western intellectual history for one-thousand years. We have all been shaped by our past, both at an individual and cultural level. Christian scientists and intellectuals like Malthus naturally shaped the views of their successors, just as our parents and grandparents have shaped us, whether we like to admit it or not. We have all inherited traditions from our past. The “end of times” idea is almost as old as Western civilization (it really begins with Old Testament authors) and the rise of secularism has not expunged the idea from intellectual history. Why would we think we could eliminate a pattern that has existed for two millennia in merely two centuries?

Scientific activity—defined as the study of the physical world—is roughly four thousand years old, yet scientific activity as a separate sphere from religion is only about two hundred years old. In other words, for the first 95% of its existence, science and religion were united. The relationship has weakened, but clearly has not ended. Unable to completely separate themselves from their past, eco-apocalyptics have blended a powerful tradition in our past—the “end of times” nature of Christianity—with the dominant concept of this age, science. Syncretize is the academic word for the blending of ideological concepts. Rarely, if ever, do belief systems emerge that are completely separate from preceding belief systems. It is normal for burgeoning ideologies to mix the old with the new.

Lest anyone forget, modern science (or natural philosophy it was called in the seventeenth century because science and philosophy weren’t separate fields either) was forged in the crucible of religion. It dates from the seventeenth century with figures like Galileo, Boyle and Newton. These men were deeply religious and they never intended for science to undermine religion. They did not view the two fields as separate realms of inquiry. Newton, upon learning that his scientific ideas were used by the theologian Richard Bentley to justify a providential deity exclaimed, “When I wrote my treatise about our system, I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men, for the belief of a Deity, and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose.” The greatest scientist of the modern age exalts when his science is used to support the existence of a God who oversees and regulates His creation.

Newton also practiced religious prophecy. The father of modern science was the Harold Camping of his day. A tremendous mathematician, Newton used these prodigious skills to analyze the cryptic book of Daniel, desperate to determine when Jesus would return. His answer? Not before 2160 AD. He contended, “It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner.” Modern day scientists have not only adopted their forefather’s scientific method, but his prophecy too. However, he also added, “This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.”

Newton’s sentiments could just as easily be applied to his environmental science successors. What happens if the year 2100 passes, Miami is still a thriving metropolis and human civilizations continue to flourish? How could all of this not lead to the disrepute of science? Some people love to critique those with power and prestige. And intellectuals always challenge the status-quo, showing how things we believe to be true are not as true as they seem. These predictions will provide these groups with ammunition to critique science. Science will not collapse, but rather it will be weakened as a field of study. Scientists will lose some of the prestige they have earned since the age of Newton. Its zenith will have been the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, until those arrogant, misguided prophets emerged. If this does happen, scientists will have no one to blame but themselves.

Most ideologies employ scare tactics as a way to inspire believers and convert non-believers. I suspect many environmentalists, like the editors at Rolling Stone, don’t take the above apocalyptic views too seriously, but if they help inspire faith in the cause—if they help convert others to our values—why not propagate them? Like some politicians and even some theologians, environmental scientists wildly describe how humanity will suffer, if we do not act properly. I contend that truth matters, especially if scientists want to continue to maintain the prestige they currently enjoy in Western culture. The best way to convert non-believes is not by deceiving them with half-baked prophecies.

Finally, environmentalism may be filling an innate human need for religion. As church attendance has dropped over the last century, environmentalism has waxed. The decline of Christianity among many intellectuals in the eighteenth and nineteenth century created a lacuna that different ideologies have attempted to fill, such as Liberalism (from which both Republicans and Democrats emerged), Nationalism, Marxism/Socialism and environmentalism. Each of these ideologies dates from the nineteenth century, or precisely the time many thinkers lost faith in Christianity. The word ecology dates from the nineteenth century, suggesting its advent is related to the weakening of organized religion that occurred during and after the Enlightenment Era. Environmentalists are less like adherents to traditional religious doctrine because environmentalism fills the vacuum. The greenest nations in the West are the least religious, whereas the most Christian nation in the West, the United States, is the biggest thorn in the side of environmental groups. It is no accident that eco-apocalyptic visions are most likely found in individuals and societies bereft of orthodox Christian beliefs. Religion has guided humanity since its inception and it is logical that it cannot completely disappear.

Suggesting environmentalism promotes religious tendencies and adopts Christian elements is not the same as saying all environmentalist tenets are false. Even the atheist can agree that some Christian principles are true, such as that we are all flawed sinners. Equally, the claim that environmentalism adopts religious concepts doesn’t prove it wrong. We just need to understand that some environmental ideas are not completely distinct from preceding intellectual trends.

Editor’s note: The image above depicts the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” by Albrecht Dürer (c. 1497-98).

David Byrne


David Byrne earned his doctorate in intellectual history from Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography (University of Nebraska Press, 2018). He can be found @ReaganBiography on Twitter.