Last summer, I opened my front door on the third day of an extreme heat wave and stepped into a 110 degree furnace. A heat dome had settled over the Pacific Northwest, and everything was baking. Researchers believe that those three days were responsible for more than 1,000 human deaths, the scorching of millions of trees, and the death of over one billion shellfish. Scientists also believe that such an intense heat wave would have been virtually impossible without the influence of human-caused climate change.
These "once-in-a-lifetime" events are occurring with startling frequency - just a few examples from this summer include record-breaking heat waves in Europe and flash floods in Death Valley. Climate change is upon us, and we have only dialed up the temperature about 1 degree Celsius. Predictions about what will happen when we hit 2 degrees Celsius are alarming to say the least.
These developments have given rise to what is often referred to as "doomerism" - a broad term that describes a variety of extremely pessimistic or fatalistic beliefs about the health of the planet and the future of the human species. Some "doomers" believe we are headed for societal collapse, and even human extinction. Others do not go that far, but foresee centuries of loss and struggle as we figure out how to live in a less hospitable world.
Doomers' descriptions of the future can sound a lot like apocalyptic passages from the Bible, like this from the prophet Jeremiah.
I looked at the earth,
and it was formless and empty;
and at the heavens,
and their light was gone.
I looked at the mountains,
and they were quaking;
all the hills were swaying.
I looked, and there were no people;
every bird in the sky had flown away.
I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert;
all its towns lay in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
Are we seeing Jeremiah's vision come to pass in real time? Have we gone too far down the path of planetary destruction? What are we to make of all this doom and gloom? Here are three suggestions.
#1) Take it Seriously
It is tempting to turn to some form of denial, whether that be pseudo-science that "debunks" climate change or simplistic theology that lets us off the hook. Christians, in particular, may be tempted to cling to heavenly escapism ("This world is not my home!"), which goes against the entire thrust of Scripture, or a kind of naive gamble that God would never let something that bad happen to us (this is what Israel's leaders said when warned that the Babylonian and Assyrian armies were coming).
A recent book by Timothy Beal, Professor of Religion at Case Western University, dares to wonder what it means if it is already too late to save ourselves from the climate crisis. Beal is not a "doomer" - his goal in When Time is Short: Finding Our Way In the Anthropocene is to take what is happening seriously so that we can reframe our relationship with the Earth and live our finite human future in a more humble, mindful, and meaningful way. It's a good read, and if you want to hear Beal talk more about it, check out our recent interview with him on the Earthkeepers podcast.
No one really knows exactly what the future holds, but we must allow the growing cascade of warnings to catch and maintain our attention. This is not so we can sink into nihilistic despair; it is so we can consider the kind of repentance that might shape the future in a more life-giving direction.
#2) Remember the Good News
This second suggestion is meant to be taken in two ways. First, we need to remember that there is good news happening all around us. Despite several massive bleaching events over the past few years, two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef has the highest coral cover in 36 years. After many in the United States had lost hope for any climate-conscious legislation from our polarized political leaders, the Senate has managed to pass a bill with significant (some say game-changing) climate provisions. The political winds shifted in large part because young activists refused to give in to despair or cynicism and let their leaders know that it was their future that was being decided.
Secondly, we need to remember that the gospel is good news for creation. God is making all things new, even if we may not be able to see it now (or even in our lifetimes). The prophets who encouraged the exiled people of Israel with beautiful visions of divine restoration rarely saw those vision come to pass. The powerful apocalypse of John (typically called "Revelation"), which reveals the ultimate triumph of God over evil, was written when the Roman empire held almost all the power. Believing that a good God is committed to a good future is the animating force for living well in the present. We might call this "activated hope" - which leads to my third suggestion.
#3) Stay Hopeful
It can be hard to be optimistic about the future; so many signs point to difficulty ahead. Hope is different. It is not dependent on external outcomes because it comes from somewhere deeper, a place within us that understands the world, despite its current trajectory, to be a gift. Hope is nurtured when we seek to love and care for this gift, not in grand or abstract ways ("You can solve climate change!"), but in the small and particular ways that we connect to - and bless - the places where we live. Hope is found in morning stillness, in human laughter, in the goodness of food, in the practice of prayer, and in the moments we remember how good it is to be alive. Wendell Berry, a prophet for our time, offers this in "A Poem on Hope":
Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot.
The world is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
When the doom and gloom threaten to swallow your hope, remember to keep the light within you going.
With you on the Way,
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