Many ancient civilizations in their declining days were swept into hysteria and superstition as famine, war, drought and disease engulfed their societies. In some, sacrifices of both animals and human beings exploded in efforts to appease their angry gods. In others, minority ethnic or religious groups were persecuted for heresy or violations of sexual mores. One might think that in a time when human beings have reached the moon, and mapped the human genome, such antiquated notions would cease to persist. But according to a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2014, 49% of Americans attribute climate change to Biblical “end times.” And this belief is reflected in an astonishing number of political leaders. Earlier this month, for example, California Assembly Member Shannon Grove said publicly regarding the drought in her state: “Texas was in a long period of drought until Governor Perry signed the fetal pain bill. It rained that night. Now God has His hold on California.”
Sadly, with climate change accelerating, the apocalyptic narrative these Americans foresee is becoming inevitable. What is additionally troubling is that many, as in past civilizations, see this as God’s punishment for what they perceive to be sexual immorality or apostasy. With history as a guide, this suggests that some could be easily swayed by a fanatical zealot to scapegoat and persecute LGBTQ people, immigrants, Muslims, feminists, socialists and any minority or marginalized group in this country, for the expected ramifications (drought, extreme weather, etc.) of a warming planet.
Because so much of the population has been purposely mis-educated when it comes to science, how nature works and the dire impact we are having on it through our mindless consumption and reckless industrial growth, religious fundamentalism has flourished in numerous parts of the country. The recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality has demonstrated this through comments made in its wake by conservative politicians, preachers and pundits. Add into the mix rising income disparities, infrastructure failure, water scarcity, militarization of the police and nuclear proliferation, and you have the perfect recipe for dystopia.
By all indications, the weather is becoming angrier and more unpredictable by the day. Drought is expanding, wildfires are rapidly growing, heatwaves are killing thousands, and ecosystems are being systematically decimated. And in the coming days we can expect to see more of this fanaticism grip the American psyche. Some will undoubtedly welcome the end in order to fulfill their religious interpretations of the afterlife.
To be sure, not everyone in United States subscribes to these extreme beliefs. And to most, spirituality and faith can be powerful forces of compassion and altruism in times of calamity. But American pop culture has insulated the majority of us in a bubble of illusion, filled with plastic products, new devices, reality shows, celebrity worship and other vapid distractions. And the corporate media has continued to foster an irrational fear of the other, dehumanizing the poor, the foreigner and those who differ from societal norms. A preponderance of the population are completely unaware of just how close humanity is to societal collapse and even extinction; and this ignorance provides fertile ground for zealots to spread bigotry and terror as very real, existential threats begin to emerge with intensity.
For those of us on the sidelines, observing all of this can be paralyzing. But believing we have any control over these unfolding events is a myth that does no one any good. Creative, moral imagination is born in the acceptance of impermanence and the unknowable future. Inhabiting the moment, with all of its uncertainty, joy and terror, is a sacred space for the devout and secular alike. And the agency that we do possess is to stand outside of the madness and fear. In this way we are able to meet the suffering of humanity, other species, and ourselves with simple compassion. And perhaps then we may be able to offer a passage to sanctuary and a bright light in the very dark days that lie ahead.