In Apocalypse Now and Then (1996), Catherine Keller traces ‘an apocalypse pattern’ throughout the history of culture dominated by Christianity, starting with the Revelation of John of Patmos. I’m interested in thinking about how recent climate activist discourse reinscribes this apocalypse pattern.
For Keller, the pattern consists of dualist good/evil binaries, as well as the linear-time-based expectation of ‘cataclysmic showdown’ in which good has the ultimate victory (1996, 11). Thus in this sense much climate doomism is not truly apocalyptic: it’s much more pessimistic than that.
Although it’s long been the case in some of the more anti-civilisation, primitivist aspects of the green movement rests on an imaginary of betters ways of living emerging from the ashes of ecological and social catastrophe, this kind of apocalyptic viewpoint wasn’t one I came across in XR.
Instead, we were focused on preventing such collapse, within the temporally-oriented frame perpetuated by the United Nations, the world’s governments, and the global economic system: that of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to a certain level by a certain date. In the case of Extinction Rebellion in the UK, to net zero by 2025: the act now which was the second of XR’s three demands.
In the first half of 2019 I had some conversation and correspondence with Alastair McIntosh about his concerns about the 2025 demand (later set out in Riders in the Storm) that such an extreme departure from the present fossil-fuel based economy could never be achieved without authoritarianism. My response at the time firstly parroted the official XR line that the third demand for citizens assemblies with legally-binding sovereignty would guard against any threat of ecofascism.
I also held—more genuinely—the conviction that the social justice principles set out in XR Scotland’s more detailed demands would be a protective buffer. The Scottish additions—‘acknowledge and reverse any policies that help drive the climate crisis, and commit to enabling a rapid and just transition to a sustainable and fair society’; ‘replacing a system based on accelerating consumption with one based on ensuring wellbeing’; and ‘creating a democracy fit for purpose and a society that cares for all’—cast us in a rather different political mould from the more deliberately vague demands of the English version, those intended to appeal to and mobilise people from across the political spectrum.
Today, having a little more understanding of the world of carbon offsetting and renewable energy technologies, I now also know that ‘net zero’ is a cynical fiction aimed to extend business as usual in the Global North with continued exploitation of the Global South.
I recall a fellow XR Scotland activist saying that for them the fact that the 2025 figure was impossible within the current system made it a demand to completely transform the system. In this sense, 2025 is more of a symbol than a literal target.
But the trouble with any symbol is that it does need to be clear that that is what it is. This can be difficult firstly because the symbol is so intimately connected with that which it symbolises, and indeed is present in it, even without fully expressing its reality.
Secondly, and has been expounded by feminist theologians, symbols and metaphors so often become literalised and then solidified, or indeed dead. In the words of Marcia Falk, reflecting the feminist prophetic task of denouncing the dead metaphors of God as Father or Lord: ‘Dead metaphors make strong idols. Dumb as stone, they stand stubbornly in the way; like boulders jutting up in the desert, they block our view of any oasis that may lie ahead’ (1989, 132).
One such idolatrous symbol relating to the sense of a deadline for limiting carbon emissions, be it XR’s 2025, the 2030 extrapolated from the IPCC report, or the UK government’s 2050, is that of the clock.
The Tyranny of the Clock
Just this month, a ‘climate clock’ has been projected onto the Tolbooth Steeple clock tower in Glasgow, my home city and host of the COP26 UN climate talks. In some ways the site is apt: a historic plaza where public proclamations were read out, in the Merchant City quarter that displays the 19th-century wealth of the ‘second city of the empire’, generated by colonialism and the slave trade, a central element of the climate crisis.
But I hate it. What I see referred to on Twitter as ‘the Glasgow Climate Doomsday clock’ has two faces—one ‘a ‘deadline’ which counts down to the date by which global temperatures must be limited to 1.5 degrees C to stop irreversible climate change’; the second a ‘lifeline’ totting up the percentage of the world’s energy generated by renewable sources.
It makes me angry not simply because of the problems from a climate justice perspective of touting renewable energy technology as an unadulterated good, when it largely depends on a neo-colonial and ecologically-harmful extractivism of mineral resources from the Global South, though that’s reason enough. What bothers me is the symbol itself: the clock.
Clocks symbolise what has been diagnosed as modernity’s unhealthy and unjust concept of time. Time has become a resource to be consumed; a limited resource that we are perpetually running out of, in a hyper-sped-up world in which time is also that which consumes us.
The western concept of linear time has been accused as the culprit, what with the Christian apocalyptic concept of history as travelling towards an inevitable end-point (see Griffiths 2000; Maier 1987). This was exacerbated by the Enlightenment and distorted by capitalist economics.
Keller draws on historical analysis which traces the invention of the mechanical clock to the Benedictine monastic call to prayer throughout the day. As Neil Postman wrote in Technopoly: ‘what the monks did not foresee was that the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. And thus, by the middle of the fourteenth century the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and the merchant. […] [W]ithout the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible’ (1993, 14, 15).
For Keller, the role of Christianity in the development of modern western bondage to the clock is less incidental and more direct, and for her the clock is symbolic of ‘the progression of the modern state’s capacity to regularize the spirits and the labour of its citizens, to keep them in place by controlling their time’(1996, 118, emphasis in original).
She notes the collusion of Christianity and capitalism in the colonial project, quoting Laguna-Pueblo-Sioux scholar Paula Gunn Allen: ‘Chronological time […] the idea that everything has a starting point and an ending point reflects accurately the process by which industry produces goods. […] There is a connection between factories and clocks, and there is a connection between colonial imperialism and factories’ (1992, 49, 151).
Keller relates the feverish pace of Greenwich Meridian Time to Christian eschatological narrative, in which the ‘universal condition’ of ‘finitude’ becomes ‘the high-pitched eschatology that our civilization canonized. In apocalypse, we must all face finitude together, at once’ (1996, 84). Crucial to Keller’s critique is how Christian obsession with the end of days fed into colonialism and industrial capitalism, which has led to the situation we are now in: facing the end of the world as we know it in ecological catastrophe.
In the famous words of Audre Lorde, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. That is why I hate the Glasgow climate clock. It is clocks that got us here, and no clock, no deadline, no technologies made in factories by people enslaved to labour for low wages, making things out of materials extracted from Indigenous people’s land, to power the lifestyles of the rich, is going to get us out of it. To quote the Indigenous and people of colour-led collective Wretched of the Earth in their speech at the London Climate Strike on September 20, 2019: ‘a climate just world cannot and will not repeat the same things that got us here in the first place’.
The Glasgow climate clock represents the cruel optimism (Berlant 2011) that, as parsed by Tommy Lynch, ‘the right combination of policy and technology will mean that we can maintain our world, just with less pollution, emissions and waste […] that confronting climate change will push humanity to reconsider its relationship with other-than-human nature and enter a new period of ecologically-responsible civilization’. But such a continuation of modernity’s grand narrative of history as progress dissolves in the face of the realities of the Anthropocene.
As Lynch argues, echoing the claims of the climate justice movement led by Indigenous and Global South activists, that such approaches ‘take climate change to be the central issue rather than a symptom of deeper problems […] as a technological issue rather than an ethical and political one’. And a key ethical-political issue is that ‘the climate crisis is a racist crisis’, as phrased by Black Lives Matter UK in 2016.
In the climate apocalypse we are not all ‘facing it together, all at once’ and ‘the world as we know it’ is the problem, a fundamentally wrong—fallen, in theological terms—world that actually it would be better to end. The meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’, as Keller explores in this year’s Facing Apocalypse, is not disaster, or catastrophe, or doom. It means ‘unveiling’, uncovering, revealing.
This theological image came into a recent statement of the COP26 UK civil society coalition of activists and NGOs: ‘The word apocalypse comes from the word for revelation. The climate crisis, much like the COVID pandemic, is revealing what many have long known: that the luxuries of the few depend on the suffering of the many’.
What the climate and ecological crisis shows, to those privileged who were not already all too aware, can be cast in different temporal frame than 12 years or 5 years or whatever the latest carbon emissions deadline. Wretched of the Earth, riffing on Greta Thunberg and XR, powerfully declared: ‘You’ve all heard that “our house is on fire”. But for many of us, our house has been on fire for over 500 years’.
In another symbolic installation on climate change at the Tolbooth Cross, also temporally framed, back in July 2019, XR Glasgow blocked the road with a 25ft purple boat. The sail bore the words ‘Act Now’, the boat the slogan ‘The Future You Fear Is Already Here’. We wanted to draw attention to what was already happening around the world, the boat symbolising climate refugees in particular. The ‘act now’ not despite of, but because of, the too late.
What Do Want? Apocalypse! When Do We Want It? Now!
The world that Tommy Lynch argues we should hope for the end of is explained thus in the Wretched of the Earth speech: ‘We were thrust here by powerful forces that drove the unequal distribution of resources and the rigged structure of our societies. The economic system that dominates us was brought about by colonial projects whose sole purpose is the pursuit of domination and profit. For centuries, racism, sexism and classism have been necessary for this system to be upheld’.
The COP26 coalition statement: ‘But all these crises we face also reveal the possibility that the world can change. It doesn’t have to be this way’.
We don’t want to ‘save the world’. We want a new one. In the oft-quoted phrase of Arundhati Roy: ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing’.
This brings me back to Keller’s ‘apocalypse pattern’, and another element of which do I feel more ambivalent about than I do timepieces and deadlines in climate discourse. An apocalypse pattern which consists of dualist good/evil binaries, as well as the expectation of ‘cataclysmic showdown’ in which good has the ultimate victory.
Keller notes that the apocalypse pattern—‘always adjacent to suffering, rests upon an either/or morality: a proclivity to […] identify with the good and purge the evil from oneself and one’s world once and for all; […] to feel that the good is getting victimized by the evil, which is diabolically overpowering’ (1996, 11)—is often enacted by even the most progressive of political movements.
This apocalypse pattern in itself, Keller argues, is ‘neither good nor evil’. Rather, it is ‘as a habit destructive, and perhaps first of all as self-destructive’ (1996, 11, emphasis in original).
Thus Keller seeks ‘healing from the habit’, through ‘[r]esistance to either/or logic’, to point towards ‘counter-apocalyptic’ ways of ‘sustain[ing] resistance to destruction without expecting to triumph’ (1996, 14). This involves ‘a spirituality that might actually compete with apocalyptic fundamentalisms on behalf of sustainable and shared life in the present’ (1996, 14-15).
I will not focus for now on the arguments for or against the apocalyptic dualism inherent in the prophetic cry for justice and anticapitalist and decolonialist struggle against global capital. (Although it’s something I continue to wrestle with, these days I am more aligned with apocalyptic revolutionaries).
Instead, in the third part of this series (here) I will consider an unhealthily self-destructive iteration of the apocalypse pattern, as identified by Keller above, in the recent climate movement, and how these come to intersect with my second main theological keyword: sacrifice.
Allen, Paula Gunn. 1992. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press.
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Falk, Marcia. 1989. ‘Notes on Composing New Blessings: Towards a Feminist Jewish Reconstruction of Prayer’ in Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ (eds.) Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Griffiths, Jay. 2000. Pip-Pip: A Sideways Look at Time. Flamingo.
Keller, Catherine. 1996. Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World. Boston: Beacon Press.
Keller, Catherine. 2021. Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Maier, Charles S. 1987. ‘The Politics of Time: Changing Paradigms of Collective Time and Private Time in the Modern Era’ in Changing Boundaries of the Political: Essays on the Evolving Balance between the State and Society, Public and Private in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McIntosh, Alasdair. 2020. Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Postman, Neil. 1993. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Random House.