How different is the Anthropocene from previous ways of thinking apocalyptically?

This essay compares millenarian, apocalyptically-minded religious groups in the United States, with the ways in which the Anthropocene has been conceptualised in terms of its apocalyptic implications. The definition of the Anthropocene varies, as there is still debate within the scientific community as to its starting date.[1] However, the implications of ‘apocalyptically’ within the question suggest that here, the ‘Anthropocene’ refers specifically to the effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gas effect, and other catastrophic, human created impacts on the environment. Briefly, evangelical millenarianism can be defined as the belief that a utopian millennium of peace and harmony will materialise in end times. Premillennialist belief was dominant among evangelical groups in the United States after World War Two. This states that before the utopian millennium, humanity will face a period called ‘the tribulation’, which will immediately be followed by the battle of Armageddon, resulting in the return of Christ to earth.[2] This belief system has been particularly prominent in the United States, and should not be viewed as exclusively held by marginal, extremist religious factions.[3] This is perhaps a result of American national experiences during the latter half of the twentieth century, such as the Cold War and fear of nuclear annihilation.[4] Therefore, whilst apocalyptic thinking about the Anthropocene is a global phenomenon, it is not entirely dissimilar in scale to millenarian ideology. It may therefore be possible to identify universal similarities and differences between the two. 

Perhaps the central point is determinism, the role of human agency, and how this is understood within both millenarianism and the Anthropocene. Types of responses to the Anthropocene and its apocalyptic implications can be divided into three categories. These are: the scientific community and their essentially empirically based conceptualisations, the general public, and intermediary bodies between the two, such as governments, activist groups, the media, and non-science-based academics. The categorisations have parallels within evangelical millenarian groups, which can be seen in the framework of three categories: doctrine, in the form of religious text, followers, and religious leaders.[5] Human agency is central to apocalyptic thinking towards the Anthropocene. Responses to it vary drastically, but nearly all feature human action as necessary. For example, high profile figures like Jeff Bezos have pledged billions of dollars to tackle the crisis.[6] Activist groups such as Greenpeace have made direct interventions to prevent oil extraction, in a bid to prevent continued fossil fuel usage.[7] These events symbolise the extent to which there is a widely held view that the apocalypse of the Anthropocene is not inevitable, measures can be taken to prevent its most destructive effects. This is not entirely dissimilar from the role of human intervention in millenarianism. The most essential feature of millenarian thinking is that of divine intervention.[8] However, some evangelical leaders have been viewed as having a level of agency in determining the materialisation of millenarian prophecy. Evangelical leader Billy Graham for example, was invited to stay at the White House on the eve of the Gulf War in 1991.[9] Whilst this does not suggest Graham had any direct impact on US foreign policy, it does show a connection between evangelicalism and politics. This links to the idea that events such as conflicts in the Middle East were viewed as evidence in support of millenarian dispensationalist theory. Political activism amongst evangelical millenarian groups has been characterised as hawkish.[10] This suggests a level of human interventionism in the progression towards the tribulation period, and that this form of apocalyptic thinking is not wholly predicated on divine determinism. 

Apocalyptic thought surrounding the Anthropocene is arguably at odds with previous ways of thinking apocalyptically at a psychological level. For example, religious belief has a variety of psychological and societal functions. Fear of death can be a promoter of belief in the afterlife, as this belief functions to lessen the anxiety associated with death.[11] Within the framework of evolutionary psychology, Terror Management Theory posits that human beings’ are strongly motivated by self-preservation, and so fear of death produces very high levels of anxiety. In order to regulate this, people are drawn to reassuring beliefs such as the existence of an afterlife.[12] Whilst beliefs in a near apocalypse may seem counterintuitive within this framework, the relief of agency and belief in salvation which accompanies evangelical millenarianism fits comfortably within Terror Management Theory. In contrast, conceptualisations of the Anthropocene often seem to aggravate levels of anxiety about the future of the planet and the species. For example, some of the most recent and high-profile rhetoric regarding the climate crisis has seen the promotion of panic as a response to the Anthropocene. In a speech given at the World Economic Forum in 2019, climate activist Greta Thunberg said, ‘I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic’.[13] There was also the controversial publication of an academic paper titled, ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’ by Professor Jem Bendell.[14] The paper failed to gain approval for publication in the peer review process, but was downloaded more than 350,000 times as it received viral attention. It was even suggested to have resulted in readers seeking therapy over its claims that the collapse of industrial society was at this point inevitable and that attempts to undo the effects of climate change were essentially futile.[15] That Bendell’s paper did not receive approval for publication speaks to the divisions within academic circles regarding how the Anthropocene and its apocalyptic implications should be understood. The public response to, and interest in, the article are perhaps more revealing than the paper itself. That individuals internalised the apocalypticism of the Anthropocene to such an extent that it affected their mental state, highlights just how different the two forms of apocalyptic thinking are. 

The penetration of millenarian beliefs into mainstream American psyche is illustrated by the fact that by 1996, more than half of the American public, and 79 per cent of American Christians, believed that Christ would return to earth, with 44 per cent believing this would occur within the next 50 years.[16] This belief in the return of Christ holds the implication that by the end of the twentieth century a significant sector of the American population subscribed to an apocalyptic, religiously based belief system, even if they did not explicitly belong to a fundamentalist millenarian evangelical church. This is arguably reflective of the nature of American national culture in general, which has been characterised as morally absolutist, with for example the need for moral, as opposed to merely practical, justification to accompany foreign policy.[17] This perhaps reflects how national identities and cultures play important roles in shaping the psychology of the individuals within them. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the development of different conceptualisations of the Anthropocene. For example, in 2008, Ecuador gave nature a personified form and legal rights within its constitution, and Bolivia and Uganda have since done the same. In the case of Ecuador, nature was personified in the form of a goddess, stemming from indigenous belief systems.[18] This suggests that in both forms of apocalyptic thinking, cultural and national contexts hold a level of influence. Even in the case of the Anthropocene, a planetary event, the confines of the nation state play a key role in determining the psychological attitudes of individuals. 

One of the earliest proposals of the idea of the Anthropocene came in 1922 from within the Soviet Union, with geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky bringing widespread attention to the idea that humanity had become a geological force.[19] Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin argue this idea was readily adopted within the Soviet Union at least partially because it complemented Marxist theory: if human beings could act collectively to create political and economic global transformation, they could also be drivers of environmental.[20] This arguably exemplifies how the ways different societies and groups perceive events like the Anthropocene are heavily influenced by their pre-existing worldviews, and how conversely, the Anthropocene may even provide them with supporting evidence of these views. This can also be seen within evangelical millenarian ideology. For example, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and later conflicts within the Middle East have been viewed as supporting evidence of dispensationalist theory of the second coming of Christ, with 59 per cent of white American evangelicals believing the creation of Israel to be the fulfilment of biblical prophecy in 2007.[21] This again links back to the framework of Terror Management Theory within evolutionary psychology. According to this, the cultural worldview which individuals develop serve as buffers against various anxieties, such as those surrounding death. This in turn leads to individuals to defend their worldview, and seek evidence supporting it from the world around them.[22] In terms of thinking apocalyptically then, evangelical millenarian thinking has conceived of events which suggest the nearness of the apocalypse positively, partially because they are in-keeping with the particular worldview. 

A key similarity between evangelical millenarianism and conceptions of the apocalyptic Anthropocene is that both envisage the future of humanity to be that of discontinuity, not steady progression. Within conceptions of the Anthropocene, there is often talk of there being a ‘tipping point’ reached, with recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that if average temperatures increase by between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius, there will be catastrophic implications for the climate, such as ice sheet collapses and oceanic heatwaves.[23] Within evangelical millenarian theology, there is the belief that humanity will face a series of violent transformations, such as the ‘tribulation’, which will in turn be followed by the battle of Armageddon, only after which will Christ return and a utopian existence follow.[24] However, this conceptualisation of the Anthropocene is perhaps more widely accepted among the scientific community than in the general public, or at least the media and intermediary bodies between the two. For example, despite the emphasis placed on these catastrophic tipping points by the IPCC, there has arguably been a tendency by politicians to regard them as improbable.[25] Bruno Latour has argued that events such as the decision by the United States government to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, are reflective of the level of denialism which exists towards the apocalyptic Anthropocene.[26] This illustrates perhaps the most fundamental difference between evangelical millenarianism, and conceptualisations of the apocalyptic Anthropocene. An apocalyptic future is welcomed by adherents to the theology. It fits into a moral and cultural worldview. The Anthropocene in contrast, is filled with uncertainty, resulting in many disengaging from its realities. 

Apocalyptic ways of thinking about the Anthropocene have in some cases lead to calls for entire political and legal systems to be restructured. For example, a lawyer from the indigenous group Anishinaabe in US and Canada designed legislation which granted wild rice its own rights under tribal law in a bid to block an oil pipeline through the Great Lakes ecosystem.[27] Mari Margil of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has argued that conventional Western environmental laws reflect a different kind of relationship to those of indigenous communities throughout the world. In the West, Margil suggests, such laws are about how humans use nature, whereas in indigenous communities, nature is essentially personified and afforded rights and agency under the law, resulting in a more equal relationship between nature and humanity.[28] This suggests that in some conceptualisations of the Anthropocene humanity acts predatorily towards nature. That there are attempts being made to recalibrate fundamental societal structures, illustrates how different the Anthropocene is to other forms of apocalyptic thinking. Whilst evangelical millenarian thought may involve some elements of human intervention, as has been shown, these efforts essentially just attempt to accelerate an already decided path. In the Anthropocene however, fundamental reforms are being explored in order to divert humanity away from an apocalyptic future. 

Apocalyptic conceptualisations of the Anthropocene differ from previous ways of thinking apocalyptically in regard to the role of human agency. Human activity lies at the heart of the issue. Simultaneously however, there are many divergences in attitudes towards how the apocalyptic implications can be mitigated, or whether they can be at all. By contrast, whilst there is some room for human agency within evangelical millenarianism, its basis in prescribed doctrine means this is limited. This arguably results in the psychological phenomena which occur within the two different frameworks diverging greatly. Millenarianism provides a reassuring, morally affirming worldview for its believers. The apocalyptic Anthropocene however, provokes feelings of uncertainty and dread, perhaps resulting in people turning towards dramatic reconfigurations of society as responses to it.


[1] Simon L. Lewis, Mark A. Maslin, ‘Defining the Anthropocene’, Nature, Vol. 519, (11/3/2015), 171.

[2] Angela M. Lahr, Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares: The Cold War Origins of Political Evangelicalism, (Oxford, 2007), 6. 

[3] Ibid. 4.

[4] Ibid. 3.

[5] Ibid. 5. 

[6] Karen Weise, ‘Jeff Bezos Commits $10 Billion to Address Climate Change’, The New York Times, (17/2/2020) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/17/technology/jeff-bezos-climate-change-earth-fund.html

[7] Jamie Woolley, ‘On trial for challenging BP’s lust for oil in an age of climate change’, Greenpeace (30/1/2020), https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/bp-oil-court-trial-climate-change/?fbclid=IwAR3_V-aueD41YgjEUpy9gCdSCI0dOcVu0cn0AsUMLynwyDaj6sG6t-aydPs

[8] Christopher Partridge, ‘The End is Nigh: Failed Prophecy, Apocalypticism, and The Rationalization of Violence in New Religious Eschatologies’, in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, edited by Jerry l. Walls, (Oxford, 2007), 191.

[9] Leo Ribuffo, ‘Religion and American Foreign Policy’, in The National Interest, (Summer, 1998), 47.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Robb Willer, ‘No Atheists in Foxholes: Motivated Reasoning and Religious Belief’, in Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification, edited by John T. Jost, Aaron C. Kay, and Hulda Thorisdottir, (Oxford, 2009), 244.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Greta Thunberg, ‘”Our house is on fire”: Greta Thunberg, 16, urges leaders to act on climate’, (speech) The Guardian, (25/1/2019), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate

[14] Jem Bendell, ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’, (26/7/2018), https://jembendell.com/2018/07/26/the-study-on-collapse-they-thought-you-should-not-read-yet/

[15] Zing Tsjeng, ‘The Climate Change Paper So Depressing It’s Sending People to Therapy’, Vice, (27/2/2029) https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/vbwpdb/the-climate-change-paper-so-depressing-its-sending-people-to-therapy

[16] Eric Luis Uhlmann, T. Andrew Poehlman, John A. Bargh, ‘American Moral Exceptionalism’, in Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification, edited by John T. Jost, (Oxford, 2009), 31. 

[17] Ibid. 39.

[18] Ruby Russell, ‘Rights of Nature: Can Indigenous Traditions Shape Environmental Law?’, Deutsche Welle (5/2/2020), https://www.dw.com/en/environment-nature-rights-indigenous-activism-legal-personhood/a-52186866

[19] Simon L. Lewis, Mark A. Maslin, ‘Defining the Anthropocene’, Nature, Vol. 519 (11/3/2015), 173. 

[20] Ibid.

[21] Mohd Afandi Salleh, Mohd Fauzi Abu-Hussin, ‘The American Christians and the State of Israel’ in Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Vol. 12, Iss. 34, (Spring, 2013), 154.

[22] Robb Willer, ‘Atheists in Foxholes: Motivated Reasoning and Religious Belief’, in Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification, edited by John T. Jost, Aaron C. Kay, and Hulda Thorisdottir (Oxford, 2009), 244. 

[23] Timothy M. Lenton, et al, ‘Climate Tipping Points- Too Risky To Bet Against’, in Nature, Vol. 575. (27/11/2019), 592.

[24] Angela M. Lahr, Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares; The Cold War origins of Political Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2007), 6. 

[25] Timothy M. Lenton, et al, ‘Climate Tipping Points- Too Risky To Bet Against’, in Nature, Vol. 575. (27/11/2019), 592. 

[26] Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, (Cambridge, 2018), 2.

[27] Ruby Russell, ‘Rights of Nature: Can Indigenous Traditions Shape Environmental Law?’, Deutsche Welle (5/2/2020), https://www.dw.com/en/environment-nature-rights-indigenous-activism-legal-personhood/a-52186866

[28] Ibid.

Published by amyandkatherine

We are two friends of 12 years, trying to start careers in journalism.

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