Resisting Apocalypse

As I approached this service and read the appointed readings I was struck by the sense of end times captured there. In our present era it feels as if we are in the end times. It gives me more sympathy for the writers of these apocalyptic pieces and helped me decide not to jettison them in favour of Maya Anjelou or Richard Wagamese as I might otherwise be tempted to do.

Of apocalytic texts in general, the theologian Ched Myers, who has preached here on a few occasions has this to say:

“Apocalyptic discourse in the Bible is not about predicting God’s cataclysmic destruction of the world, as so often assumed in popular culture.  Rather it expresses the fierce imagination of those who long for the end of destructive oppression by the imperial state.  After all, for the poor, the “end of the world” is already and forever being visited upon their communities by soldiers and fortune hunters and police.

“The Greek word apocalypsis means “unmasking or unveiling.”  It has to do with a kind of vision that is able to see through the dominant stories of empire—the grand fictions of entitlement and sovereignty…”

— Ched Myers; excerpt from Nature against Empire: Exodus Plagues, Climate Crisis and Hardheartedness1

This is a helpful frame in seeing the biblical texts as something other than a specific prediction of coming disaster. However, the popular definition of apocalypse is relevant as well. As the OED says of common usage:

“a disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human society or the environment, esp. on a global scale;”

Even in spite of common usage, the former meaning remains powerful, because apocalyptic language is still used to reveal. The recent words of Autumn Peltier and Greta Thunberg do that eloquently—warning of impending catastrophe, while revealing the truth of how we got here and who is responsible.

“People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

— Greta Thunberg; excerpt from her speech to the UN, Sep 2019 2

“I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: we can’t eat money or drink oil,”

Autumn Peltier; excerpt from her speech to the UN, Sep 2019 3

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day, which, for those not caught up in nationalism and ideas of heroism disconnected from the real costs to soldiers and others, is a chance to reflect on earlier moments of violence and apocalypse, an exhortation to remember the horror of war and those who died in it: soldiers and civilians, adults and children.

It is hard not think that we sit at the brink of a similar disaster as the nearly global conflict that was WW2. A disaster that involves civilians in many places in death and in hardship. A disaster that will come even to the wealthy parts of the world.

World War 2 was an entirely avoidable conflict right up until it wasn’t. Historians have documented a long list of “ifs”, running back to WW1, that could have prevented it. However, there came a point where there was no remaining alternative than to directly resist and physically fight the forces of fascism. Of course, most wars are more morally ambiguous and I’m not here to campaign for just war theory. Nor do I wish to annoy Len or the ghost of Don Heap.

War exacts a high price, whether in lives lost or in damaged hearts and souls. I am not imagining that the battle for climate will be won with literal battles and violence, but I look around and see that the failure to win this battle already is fuelling violence in many places.

It seems clear that a significant factor in current conflicts and the resulting refugee crises is both local environmental destruction and local expressions of global climate crisis.

The economic models that drive our current economies of corporate feudalism treat the natural world as an externality with a limitless pool of resources. To the extent that economics recognizes that this is not true, the assumption is that reduced supply will lead to market correction through the imbalance between supply and demand. While there will almost certainly be a change in market price, it does not bring back the decimated resource or population on its own—that takes collective action outside our current understanding of economics.

And often it doesn’t happen, we ate all the passenger pigeons, we ate and wore nearly all the Bison, we ate nearly all the Atlantic cod.

All three of those examples are “resources” that seemed limitless at one time. Of course guilt should not be equally shared. The Beothuk and Migma’a didn’t eat all the cod. For that matter, neither did the onshore fishers who came later.

The Cree did not shoot all the bison. None of the indigenous peoples here on Turtle Island made a dent in the passenger pigeon population. It took the greedy efficiency of the colonial machine to do that. And what a machine of consumption and empire it is.

These battles were and are taking place in Europe too. Our gradual song “The World Turned Upside Down”4 recalls “The Enclosures”, a series of laws that let English lords partition and enclose lands that were traditionally open and used in various ways by local peoples. The newly enclosed lands were for the exclusive use of the Lord’s sheep.

As feudalism gradually transformed itself into modern capitalism as an economic model, and arguably a political one, there were and are many casualties in Europe and in colonized lands far from Europe.

Today, and in this room, are many people who want to make amends and restore relationship. Unfortunately, a significant and powerful group does not, and others don’t know what to think. And so there is a conflict.

Millions of people joined the Climate Strikes around the world in September, but real action is still meagre.

We had record lake levels here on Lake Ontario in 2017, higher still this summer, and next year could be the worst yet. Compared to the rampant wildfires of the west coast of this continent and of Australia, the flooding seems almost a blessing. It’s easy to see the signs of our own Apocalypse. It reads like a chapter in revelation.

We have a battle on our hands. We see a need for major economic, political, and technological change to enable us to save ourselves from climate catastrophe, but it’s hard to see how to get there.

Like the lead up to World War 2, there were many moments where it could have been prevented, but we passed them up.

In metaphorical terms, Franco is already running Spain5.

We’ve had our Neville Chamberlain6 moments with a series of unrealized climate accords: Paris, Copenhagen, Kyoto.

Sadly, we must mobilize and voluntarily disrupt our lives to avoid the impending climate catastrophe.

It will take years to win. It will likely feel like we’re losing even if we’re winning because, at this point, the first changes in our climate are unstoppable. What we can do is try to prevent them from becoming a complete catastrophe for ourselves and all our relations.

How do we do this? How do we harness the revealing nature of apocalypse as a force for change and resist the destructive potential of the prophesy coming true?

How do we stave off despair in the face of impending disaster?

I find hope in the fact that we are small. Like the mustard seed or the swallow, we are small. We are important, but we are still small. Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier have emerged as important leaders, but they are still small and vulnerable like the rest of us—maybe more so because of their age. We need to protect them and to protect ourselves from despair and from the attacks of those whose entrenched interests are threatened. Our power comes from looking out for each other, from gathering together with intention.

We support each other in small actions that add up to change—both personal and political. World War 2 was not simply won by soldiers, but by civilians who resisted and stood up to fascism and did with less to focus their national resources on their mutual defence. I don’t know exactly what the battle for climate will look like, but there is certainly going to be a lot of doing with less.

We support each other in being human and becoming emotionally resilient. We support each other in becoming a resilient community with hope and intention for a better world. Sometimes we will be prickly, but I hope not too much with each other.

I’d like to leave you with a new poem by Shane Koyczan that I found helpful this week as I pondered where the hope was. Shane is a Penticton poet whose work has been shared here before. He wrote this piece in response to the attacks in social media on Greta Thunberg and other climate leaders.

The Problem with Roses.


References

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