Catastrophic thinking distorts scientific debate about climate change and makes it harder to deal with the problem
May 20, 2008
It was only to be expected that former US vice-president Al Gore would give this month's Burmese cyclone an apocalyptic twist. "Last year," he said, "a catastrophic storm hit Bangladesh. The year before, the strongest cyclone in more than 50 years hit China ... We're seeing the consequences that scientists have long predicted might be associated with continual global warming."
Surprisingly, Gore did not include the Asian tsunami of 2004, which claimed 225,000 lives. His not so subliminal message was that these natural catastrophes foreshadow the end of the world.
Apocalyptic beliefs have always been part of the Christian tradition. They express the yearning for heaven on earth, when evil is destroyed and the good are saved.
In their classical religious form, such beliefs rely on signs and omens, like earthquakes and sunspots, which can be interpreted, by reference to biblical passages, as portending a great cataclysm and cleansing. Thus, apocalyptic moments are products of a sense of crisis: they can be triggered by wars and natural disasters.
Classical apocalyptic thinking is certainly alive and well, especially in America, where it feeds on Protestant fundamentalism, and is mass-marketed with all the resources of modern media. Circles close to the Bush administration, it is rumoured, take current distempers like terrorism as confirmation of biblical prophecies.
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