Apocalypse Soon?

October 19, 2011 at 8:19 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Last spring, I took part in a seminar on the environment at Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. A decade earlier I became involved in the environmental movement because my reading had convinced me that very little time remains before we destroy life on this planet. Another participant in the Columbia seminar, Irene Diamond, was utterly scornful of environmental apocalypticism, however, and of the (mostly male) environmental leaders who become famous, in her opinion, by pushing such apocalyptiism.

Since then I have done a lot of thinking about the ethics (and tactical value) of environmental apocalypticism, especially for those of us who are Christians. I plan to do some writing about this topic in the coming months. I begin with a review of a recent book on the subject, Paul Collins’s Judgment Day: The Struggle for Life on Earth (Orbis Books, 2011. Paperback. 291pp. $22.00).


With Judgment Day, Paul Collins, an Australian Catholic religion writer and historian, nudges Christian environmentalism in the tougher, no-holds-barred direction favored by some secular environmentalists. The book’s title signals such a shift. And Collins’s eight galvanizing chapters—the first one entitled “Cursed”—lay out the specifics of the judgment human beings are bringing on themselves. “It is no use kidding ourselves, “ he tells us, “…that (we) will somehow find a technological fix for the damage we have wrought …we are presiding over an unnatural apocalyptic extinction that results directly from our activities and decisions.”

While indicting modern consumerism and narcissism in general, Collins is particularly critical of the ecologically oblivious anthropocentrism of many of the world’s religions, and the failure of religious leaders to intervene forcefully in the crisis. The Catholic unwillingness, especially under Pope John Paul II, to confront the pivotal problem of overpopulation comes in for denunciation. Similarly, Collins maintains that “Little or nothing of significance has been heard from the US (Catholic) bishops on environmentalism.”

One of the strengths of Collins’s book is its comprehensiveness. Early chapters on global warming and population lay out the parameters of the crisis. His chapter on the environmental dimensions of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures would make an excellent resource for a congregational study group. A chapter on Catholic and Protestant “geologians,” from Francis of Assisi through Teilhard and Thomas Berry, is likewise useful. And the conclusion, in which Collins turns to deep, “trans-religious” ecumenism and a new “poeticizing” imagination as a way beyond the environmental crisis, is provocative and inspiring.

And yet I have some concerns about this book. Collins shares one of my deepest fears about the crisis bearing down on us, that participative democracies are ill-suited to deal with its extremely tight time frame. Yet Collins’s book in some respects displays the very tendencies toward crisis- induced, hierarchical domination that he also worries about. His use of the phrase “environmental thugs” to characterize Christians and others who are destroying the environment may be justified, but also conjures up the very people I fear will be enforcing environmentalism before long. His tendency throughout the book to write in the first person plural reminds me of a classmate at the black seminary I attended who confronted a lecturer with the question, “Who ‘we,” white girl?” And is there really not even one female geologian or environmentalist whose work Collins could have drawn upon? Or can we no longer afford such trivial matters in this age of environmental crisis?

My greatest concern about Judgment Day, however, is that Collins’s chapter on “geologians” culminates in the environmental thinking of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, and Collins returns to Heidegger in his concluding argument. Now Heidegger was one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, and he influenced a large number of other leading thinkers. But he was also a Nazi, and a significant number of scholars argue that his Nazism and his philosophy are, in fact, linked.

In particular, Collins’s use of Heidegger’s condemnation of technology is troubling, because it is reminiscent, in some respects, of the Nazi ideological invocation of the romantic naturalness of the German people, the Aryan volk. Perhaps Collins’s reading of Heidegger manages to avoid Heidegger’s Nazism, but the fact that Collins doesn’t so much as refer to it is troubling in itself. If we are left with a choice between environmental destruction and even moderate forms of fascism, we are truly between a rock and a hard place. As Collins concludes his book, “Despite the overwhelming odds we face, we have to hang on to hope.”

(This review first appeared in the August 2011 issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.  The US Grail is a branch of the International Grail, a movement of women in seventeen countries around the world.)

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