The End Is Nigh: Failed Stewardship of Planet Earth

Early this year Christian numerologist and astrologer David Meade proclaimed that April 23 would be the days of the second coming of Christ, the Rapture, the end of the world. It generated some media attention just prior to that date although, it must be said, not much after. Mind you, this was the second attempt of David Meade who also reported that end-times would occur on 23 September in 2017.

Some of you may remember that almost ten years ago, I an address gave at this church on the alleged prophecies of a 2012 destruction based on a destructive interpretation of the Mesoamerican long-count calendar and an associated science fiction disaster film. That address was entitled "2012 : From Ancient Brilliance to Modern Nonsense" [1], where I gave great credit to the Mesoamericans for developing a sophisticated calendar, and castigated contemporary (albeit fringe) interpretations for trying to make it something that it was not.

For this century alone there has been almost twenty-five major predictions of the end of the world that have passed, and several that are yet to come. Ronald Weinland, of the "Church of God Preparing for the Kingdom of God" has predicted the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus in 2011, in 2012, in 2013, and most recently June 9, 2019.

If we go back into the twentieth century there are of course many, many examples. The Jehovah's Witnesses made four such predictions. Herbert Armstrong, the leader of the Worldwide Church of God, also managed four. Some of these were quite tragic; on the 26th March 1997 thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide under the belief that the souls would join a UFO on the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet, escaping the "recycling" of Earth (their website is still kept in its 1997 glory [2]).

That pales into insignificance however to the over 900 followers of the Ugandan religious movement "Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God" who died in 2000 in fires, poisonings, and stabbings the result of either group suicide or, more probably, mass murder. The leaders of this cult are believed to still be alive.

On a lighter note, there was the South Korean group of 1992 Dami Mission, with their biblical-numerological approach (I still have their book) who claimed October 28 of that year would be the day when the Rapture occurred. Three hundred churches were established and the cult had 20,000 followers. Imagine, for a moment, what *good* they could have done if they were organised and directed towards something worthwhile.

Obviously the world did not end on October 28, 1992, which would have been inconvenient as I was just finishing my first degree. Better yet, at the time I was a member of the Murdoch Atheists and Sceptics Society, with the fortunate acronym, MASS. We could go to MASS once a week! The day after the world didn't end we spent the remainder of our year's club funding on a champagne breakfast in celebration. As for the cult, the leader was arrested and jailed. He had collected over $4 million from his followers (if you're going to heaven, give up all your possessions) which he had then invested; the investments did not mature until after October 28.

Indeed, I could give several addresses on various major religious figures, across numerous religions, that have through prophecy, revelation, numerology, or esoterica have predicted that the end is nigh. 'Apocalypticism', as it is called in eschatology, is obviously common in Christianity, but is also found in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and indeed even pre-monotheistic faiths, as the Norse Ragnarok makes evident.

Belief in conspiratorial speculations, metaphysical and secular, is unfortunately common. There are numerous believers in any number of evidence-free political and economic conspiracies who turn away from the real and documented conspiracies such as the Panama papers. Remember the Panama Papers? The leak in 2015 which detailed massive tax evasion, fraud, and money laundering by hundreds of the world's wealthiest people and virtually nothing happened?

Sadly, there are some good psychological reasons for such ignoring real conspiracies in favour of false ones, or engaging in absurd and unfounded destructive visions. It generates an in-group membership, a sense of access to special esoteric knowledge which outsiders do not have access to, and it invariably comes balanced with a utopian or heavenly promise that counters the destruction. The promise of heaven is so great that the threat of earthly destruction is something that is celebrated.

Perhaps it is for this reason that we do not see the same visceral excitement, or more appropriately terror, when the more secular facts and grounded predictions of the damage to life on earth are made available. How curious it seems that so many are dedicated to fantastic visions of a mythological apocalypse, yet are so indifferent to one that is so visceral and a great deal more probable.

The facts and predictions are well known; in 2007 I gave an address here, "The Future of Planet Earth" [3] which summarised the knowledge we had then. The basic problem remains the same: "the mechanisms for growth provide for a worldwide increase in production and population... these increases have two material limitations; the supply of finite resources (everything from cultivable land and mineral resources) and the capacity of the ecosystem to absorb pollutants." The opportunity is taken here to add that the wealthiest 10% of the world is responsible for almost 50% of greenhouse gas emissions; the poorest 50% is responsible for 10% [4].

The situation was bad then and has not improved since. Indeed it is worse. Annual mean temperatures, as provided by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, have continued on their upwards trajectory since the 1970s and in the last ten years are actually increasing at a faster rate. Ten years ago the IPCC reports presented a pre-industrial temperature increase by the end of this century from between 1.1 and 5.8 degrees Celsius; two months ago the IPCC reported that at current rates 1.5C would be reached by 2040 and 2.0C by 2060. The upper-end of the predictive scale, it must be emphasized, is so extreme that it would render most of our country uninhabitable. The same IPCC report says we must cut annual global emissions by half in the next 12 years and reach a net zero emissions by the middle of the century [5].

With the increase in global temperatures there are other changes as rising sea levels, increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, changes to agricultural yields, glacier retreat, species extinctions and increases in the ranges of disease vectors. Ten years ago the World Health Organization estimated that 140,000 per annum were dying due to climate change; a far cry from the big killers of vascular diseases and lower respiratory tract infections which measure in the tens of millions, but nevertheless an ever-increasing number.

It's not just climate change of course. The most comprehensive study on the effects of pollution concludes that it kills nine million a year, mostly in impoverished countries. The loss of life due to malnutrition, and usually the result of economic inequality and lack of economic development, is increasing again after many years of decline. Undernourishment now affects 815 million people or 11 percent of the population and causing the death of several millions, despite the fact that more than enough food is produced to feed everyone. Rates of adult obesity head towards 30% in North America, Europe, and Oceania (perhaps counter-intuitively, more often in the poorer households in such regions).

Scientific opinion has already noted a 50% decline in freshwater resources per capita since 1962, an ever-declining marine catch, massive loss of forest area and habitat, over-hunting, all contributing to and a collapse of global vertebrate wildlife populations to 58% of 1970 figures. This is a change so dramatic that it is being described by scientists as a "biological annihilation", the sixth mass extinction event on the planet [6].

There is no single issue that confronts us that is more important, and no greater example of the failure of our political and economic system, our leadership, and indeed, ourselves as a species. There is a particular hypocritical tragedy that results from the worst advocates of environmentally destructive practises also describe themselves as practising Christians. The Judeo-Christian Torah and Bible makes its clear that we are to "serve the garden in which we have been placed" (Genesis 2:15). We are not owners of nature, but rather its stewards; we are "strangers and sojourners" in the world, and "the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land" (Leviticus 25:23-24) - references to the address I gave here eight years ago [7].

One can find similar proposals and practises in other religions. For example, in Islam there is the concept of hima, an "inviolate zone", of lands set aside for conservation and wildlife. One will also note the principle of interconnectedness in Buddhism, the stated biocentrism in Jainism, the concepts of selfless karma and ahimsa (non-violence and respect for life) in Hinduism, the animism and compassion of Taosim, the practise of Kaitiakitanga is traditional Maori beliefs. All these things considered however, it is the principle of "stewardship" which perhaps best encapsulates the dual notion that the earth is not ours to destroy, but rather that we are responsible as the powerful conscious actors, for its survival and the flourishing of all species.

But of course religious statements have little direct validity in a modern, scientific world, even if these largely express a moral spirit rather than a directive. The problem of course, is not the science. All the science does is record what is real, in terms of statements of position and statements of causes. What is clearly wrong is our political and economic system, a system which does not erect sufficient barriers to the deadly harm that is being caused to the planet's ecosystem, and does not demand recompense for the resources used. We are not guardians, we are not stewards, we are destroyers and exploiters.

Indeed, under our current political and economic system it cannot be any other way. We suffer what economists call "negative externalities", which is an academic way of saying the actions and transactions of some people is harming and killing the lives of others. Every years efforts are made to generate multilateral agreements; just on climate change alone there has been the New York framework of 1992, the Kyoto Protocol, 1997, and most recently the Paris Agreement, 2015. Few succeed primarily because the issue is global and it only takes "rogue nations" to derail the process, and secondly, although there is a global problem, with global requirements, and we have no system of global governance or enforcement. The requirement of a world government, limited to environmental issues of global scope, should be self-evident, even if such a proposal is literally revolutionary.

This Friday thousands of school students across Australia protested against the inaction on climate change. The Prime Minister pleaded with them to stay in school, "More learning and less activism", he said, this from a politician that steadfastly refuses to act on climate change, the same person who thought it was funny to bring a lump of coal into parliament and argued "Don't be afraid, don't be scared, it won't hurt you, it's coal!". One needs only review the deaths per petawatt hour of electricity produced to see how wrong that statement is; 170,000 deaths for 1 Pwh from coal, 440, 150, and 90 from solar, wind, and nuclear respectively [8].

The students have been inspired by 15-year-old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, who has declared she will will strike from school every Friday and will protest outside the Swedish parliament in an effort to lobby politicians to act on climate change. She says quite bluntly [9]: "We are running out of time. Failure means disaster.... we must take action into our own hands, starting today."

"Protest and Survive"; it was a originally a pamphlet written by the British historian EP Thompson in 1980, and became a slogan for those who sought to end the threat of nuclear war in that following decade. We avoided the immediate prospect of nuclear annihilation because of the direct protests of millions, and some remarkable political leadership who eliminated all of the most dangerous intermediate range nuclear weapons. Today we need to revive that spirit, and it will be the young who will provide the movement strength and leadership, as they have the most to lose.

Global governance of the environment, binding multilateral agreements, civic protest and education - all of these are part of the solution to end the very real and apocalyptic vision of an uninhabitable planet for human and non-human animals. The strategy of protest in the age of potential nuclear warfare does show that rapid and necessary political change can occur within years - and we have scant few left. As a society, we know what needs to be done; zero net emissions. That means on a societal scale renewable and emission-free energy, it means electric vehicles, mass transit, it means less land-clearing and more reforestation, and it especially means radically reducing hydrocarbon coal-based production, consumption, and exports.

But unlike the issue of nuclear war, there is something that we all can do, right now, from this day forward which has immediate effect. We belong to the wealthiest ten percent of people on the planet - the same group which is responsible for almost fifty percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. As the final consumers and thus the indirect producers we can make a difference by changing our habits. So we can make a commitment to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and other environmentally destructive practises that we are personally responsible for. On the personal scale we can change to electricity companies that use renewable energy, we can reduce our private vehicle usage, and make a commitment that our next vehicle is electric. We can reduce or give up the consumption of red meats. All of these will make a difference.

Now of course this does depend on capability; Australia has a significant levels of inequality and even deprivation. It must be relative to affluence and inequality is one of the major drivers that prevents effective action on climate change [10]. As the IPCC said, we must reduce our greenhouse house gas emissions by half in the next twelve years - that's per capita worldwide - for Australia we have to reduce it to an eighth. We don't have twelve years to wait for politicians to act; we must show leadership by example, right here, right now, starting today - and become successful stewards of the planet.












Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, December 2, 2018

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