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The end of the world is coming – just not this Saturday

According to some largely evangelical Christians in the US and UK, an alignment of stars and planets foretold in Revelation 12 indicates the world is going to end this Saturday, September 23, 2017.

It’s not clear how many people actually believe this prophecy, but it has garnered plenty of attention. It even warranted a reasonably well-produced TV documentary, The Sign, which was spawned by an exegetical video narrated by Dr David Jeremiah, pastor of a San Diego megachurch.

As with John Hagee’s 2014 Blood Moon Prophecy, astronomy and astrology have long been associated with prophecy. But this particular prediction isn’t ultimately about planets and stars: at its root, it comes down to geopolitics, and specifically Israel.

The group who subscribe to this prognostication call themselves Christian Zionists. They believe that Christ will return to Jerusalem, where he will lead an army of Jews and Christians to defeat an army of Arabs and Russians. Any geopolitical conflict in the region can be taken as a sign of the coming apocalypse, and this summer’s especially tense crisis over Temple Mount in Jerusalem made for just the right “evidence”.

Michael Barkun, professor of politics at Syracuse University, calls this mix of biblical literalism, geopolitics, and astrology “improvisational millennialism” – an attempt to reduce the cacophony of world events into a single comprehensive narrative of higher meaning. Moreover, the social media sphere has presented an amalgam of alternative and partial scientific truths (or full-blown untruths) to validate knowledge.

Our real apocalypse will likely not be a single catastrophic event, but will likely be a slow (in human terms) concatenation of events that feedback with each other to remake a planet no longer liveable to the majority of life. And as such, these eventual apocalypses are cognitive escapism.

The singularity and psychological impact of a specific date makes a prophecy all the more compelling and liberating for groups who believe they are special and will be saved – and fatalism offers an easy way to avoid making the difficult sacrifices to change our way of life to prevent a much more probable global apocalypse.

Beneath the veil

Given the intensities of climate change, and especially in light of a devastating Caribbean hurricane season, plenty of commentators are calling for an end to apocalyptic thinking, worrying that doom-and-gloom narratives are fatalistic and paralyse us when we should be taking action.

This may be true of (particularly American) Christian evangelical ideas about a pre-scripted apocalypse, where climate change is a sign of imminent Armageddon, or the more secular idea of apocalypse as calamity by human or otherworldly intervention. But fatalism and apocalypse do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.

Here it comes. EPA/US Navy

The word “apocalypse”, in fact, originally meant “to unveil” (coming from the Greek “apo” meaning “un-” and “kaluptein” meaning “to veil”). It describes an enlightening catastrophe that reveals new ways of knowing, a moment of disjunction and disruption that opens up space for rethinking the status quo. And even the anticipation of such moments can be extremely politically powerful.

As Norman Cohn detailed in his classic 1957 book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, millennial movements can profoundly disrupt oppression, persecution, and the status quo. It is precisely this revolutionary spectrum that gives apocalypse its socio-political potential to challenge fatalistic thinking about existential threats, and in particular climate change.

Moment of clarity

Slovenian social theorist Slavoj Žižek writes that we live in apocalyptic times in which several different apocalyptic trends, including “ecological breakdown”, are quickly “approaching their zero point”. As Žižek sees it, this is a critical moment, an opportunity to dismantle the imperative to preserve capitalist society in the name of the universal (an authentic democratic rupture of the parameters of global capitalism).

Some of the testimonies coming from Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma offer a glimpse of this socially disruptive potential. People who have lost everything were outraged at being asked to pay rent on uninhabitable homes, and at the inevitable small print clauses home insurers will use to weasel out of paying out to their customers.

For an all-too-brief moment, it seemed the ethical implications of this economic order had been fully revealed. Some assumed the hurricanes and their human ramifications might lead to radical changes to climate change policy and the capitalism that underpins it; as George Monbiot put it, this environmental crisis “demands a new ethics, politics and economics”.

But capitalism cannot abide the possibility of upending itself to cope with climate change, despite calming voices that assure us the status quo will protect us from environmental disaster. Indeed, as the water receded in Texas and Florida, the discussion quickly turned to resorting to the usual economic order. The discussion was no longer about the ethics of what had happened to people per se – it was about consumers, savers, retailers and investors. And so this apocalyptic “unveiling” ended with the veil back in place.

In the last 500m years, the world has “ended” in the sense of mass extinction five times. It is of course possible that it’ll end again this Saturday, though according to my own statistical calculations, the odds of that happening are roughly one in 36.5 trillion. But whether it does or not, we’re already experiencing an existential catastrophe, albeit in slow motion. It’s not happening for astrological reasons, but because of our own very earthbound politics and economics.

And if it’s only unveiled for the apocalypse it truly is, we might be able to disrupt our toxic status quo before it’s too late.

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