On March 7, 2009, Prince Charles warned that humanity had just 100 months to save the planet from irreversible damage caused by climate change. By my count, Charles’ deadline expired on March 7, 2017. Undeterred by his previous wayward prediction, HRH declared yesterday that we have 18 months “to solve climate change and restore the balance of nature, ensuring the survival of the human race”.
Armageddon, it seems, is postponed until January 11, 2021. That will be nine days before the Donald Trump, if re-elected, is sworn in for another chaotic four years in the Oval Office. Perhaps that is the catastrophe that HRH has in mind.
Jokes aside, Charles is a serious man and he cares deeply about the state of the environment. But his scaremongering is deeply unserious. It harks back to a pre-scientific age dominated by religious dogma.
Most civilizations have separately conjured up some form of eschatology or that part of theology, which is concerned with “death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind”.
Consider Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions, which goes back to the second millennium BC. By 500 BC, the Zoroastrian belief system included a notion of social and environmental degeneration predicting that “at the end of the tenth hundredth winter, the sun is more unseen and more spotted; the year, month, and day are shorter; and the earth is more barren; and the crop will not yield the seed. And men become more deceitful and more given to vile practices. They will have no gratitude. Honorable wealth will proceed to those of perverted faith. And a dark cloud makes the whole sky night, and it will rain more noxious things than water.”
In addition to the concept of a temporal decline, Zoroastrianism came to encompass the idea of the final judgement – a day of reckoning, when the wicked are punished (and later forgiven), evil is defeated, humans gain immortality and enjoy harmonious coexistence with the creator of the universe, Ahura Mazda, and to-the-virgin-born messiah, Saoshyant. The parallels with later monotheistic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam are striking.
A somewhat different pattern of apocalyptic denouement emerged in polytheistic religions. The ancient Greeks, for example, conceptualised the flow of human affairs as a cyclical affair. Around 700 BC, Hesiod averred that humanity’s best days fell within a golden age in which Gods lived among men. According to the Greek poet, people “lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them.”
The ages of men decayed from gold to silver, from silver to bronze and from bronze to iron. Hesiod believed that he was living in the “iron age,” which he characterized as a wretched era of misery and strife. He wrote that “for now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.”
Two centuries later, Plato argued that Hesiod’s ages corresponded to the rotation of the Earth – first in one direction, then another. In the first rotation, the gods oversee humans and tend to their needs — for Plato, the golden age occurred in that period. When the Earth’s rotation changes, gods leave humans to manage their own affairs – with predictably chaotic results.
Similarly, Hinduism and Buddhism see human history as a never-ending cycle of destruction that’s marked by corruption and violence, and rebirth that’s marked by virtue and peace.
Considering the centrality of eschatological thinking to most of the world’s dominant belief systems, which continue to guide the moral sentiments of the vast majority of human beings, it is worthwhile to pause and consider what, if any, utility do people derive from entertaining apocalyptic thoughts and expectations.
A 2016 paper authored by three psychologists at North Dakota State University suggests the roots of eschatology lie in our search for meaning and transcendence. Religion, they note, is one of the defining features of humanity. It has existed for thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of years, and even in our modern and increasingly secular world, it continues to grow.
Religion’s astounding endurance is due to one universal aspect of human psyche – the fear of death. By affirming the immortality of the soul, religion promises life after death, whether in the form of a blissful afterlife or some form of reincarnation.
Religion is also attractive to humans, because it gives meaning to life. It interprets natural and random phenomena as though they have been created for a purpose. From the religious perspective, accidental events can be perceived as being a part of a larger design. Rather than face an infinite and impersonal cosmos, religion allows humans to sleep soundly – “knowing” that a strong hand is guiding the universe.
Interestingly, prophecies predicting widespread death and destruction can be a source of comfort to the religious. According to the North Dakota State University researchers, highly religious people are more likely to believe that the an increase in natural disasters is a sign of a coming apocalypse. Furthermore, when asked to consider their own deaths, highly religious people become even more likely to report apocalyptic beliefs.
But the apocalypse is also attractive to some secularists. As Daniel Wojcik from University of Oregon notes in his 1997 book The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America, popular apocalyptic narratives usually include a small group of survivors destined to rebuild civilization as a utopia.
This fantasy leads people to believe that if they survive, they may have a more meaningful life after the corrupt world of yore has been destroyed. Wojcik also argues there is an inherent romance to the apocalypse, which gives the disillusioned something to look forward to – even if they do expect to die.
The extent of Charles’ religiosity is anyone’s guess. His commitment to a healthy planet is not. To that noble end, and given his poor record of prognostication, he should eschew apocalyptic pronouncements. The fate of the planet is too important to be left to the prophets of doom.
This first appeared in CapX.