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Apocalypse Now?

An answer to Guy McPherson’s predictions

You don’t have to be a fundamentalist, evangelical, Catholic Christian or an ancient Jew to wonder whether we’re in a “culture of death,” “the sixth extinction” or some kind of universal cataclysm.

Historically, in the apocalyptic literature flourishing in Judaism between 175 BCE and 135 CE, the present world age, dominated by the forces of death and evil, is distinguished from the expected future age, prior to which dramatic divine intervention defeats death and evil and establishes a radically new world order. This literature depicts the transition from the Present Age to the Age to Come as a universal cataclysm. The Christian tradition claims the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ marks the beginning of the Age to Come, but the New Age awaits complete realization. 

Teachings about the end of the Present Age and the ultimate destiny of humanity include the belief that eschatological expectations are in part already fulfilled in the life of Christ. Apocalypse comes from the Greek word for “unveiling” or “revelation,” and specifically refers to the unveiling of the secrets of the end of the Present Age and the inauguration of the Age to Come.

Emeritus natural resources professor Guy McPherson, who spoke recently in Eugene, is certainly not talking about an Age to Come. On the contrary, according to Eugene Weekly’s cover story July 16, with admirable honesty and yet an attitude of paralyzing pessimism — in spite of his vague push for simple living and action — he has some sobering things to say about human extinction. According to McPherson, it is much worse than we ever imagined.

Shortly before the unexpected death of leading UC Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah in 2013 (robertbellah.com), he sent an email to some friends reporting his response to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s 2013 book, You Must Change Your Life (the title is a phrase he took from one of Rilke’s poems):

I liked the book though remained ambivalent until the last chapter, containing 10 pages beginning at p. 442. But when I read those 10 pages they descended on me like tongues of fire. The last two pages swept me completely away and it took me nearly an hour to recover. I just sat there overcome. I see now that the whole book was leading up to those last pages, yet I didn’t expect them. Those pages express exactly what I want to do in my next book [The Modern Project in Light of Human Evolution, which Bellah was working on at his death], though giving me lots more ammunition. Sloterdijk talks about the PRACTICES we will need to meet the ecological Armageddon, about how they are impossible, but the whole of human history is about attaining the impossible. We should not dwell on doom and gloom but on the greatest challenge our species has ever met and how tremendously exciting it will be to meet it. It was like a giant explosion for me, but not a destructive one, rather a global fireworks display that suddenly shed light on everything. So definitely not a Jeremiad, not denouncing any one, but calling the best in us to rise to the critical occasion.

Bellah provides, I think, a kind of answer to McPherson.