The idea of a doomsday, apocalypse or rapture has existed throughout human history in one form or another. Although most modern forms of this millenarianism are ridiculed and dismissed outside dedicated and cultic cores, there is a new form of apocalypticism rising in our society. It is becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss, because it is much more than just supernatural bluster. These are the followers of the climate apocalypse.
From the Germanic pagan belief in Ragnarök to the Christian Rapture, we can see the persistence of such concepts throughout our history. These were widespread beliefs, and those that believed them (or still do) simply saw these ends as either pre-ordained or logical culminations of history. These were basic facts of existence to the believers, and thus engendered no particular abnormality to one’s daily life. For a modern analogy, consider how many of us really worry about the eventual heat death of the universe?
The modern concept of the apocalypse usually manifests in the mythos of cults. These revolve around a singular charismatic leader, who often takes advantage of his followers unwavering loyalty. Some of these become highly successful scams, such as that of Harold Camping, who in a period from the 1980’s to 2000’s managed to trick his followers out of well over one hundred million dollars.
Most other millenarians don’t gain as much success, financially or prediction wise. The eighteenth century preacher William Miller's failed prophecies sent him into embarrassed exile and forever left his doomsday with the apt moniker ‘The Great Disappointment’. Other groups end in tragedy - in 1997 the Heaven’s Gate cult claimed the lives of thirty-nine victims, a mass suicide ordained by their prophecy.
Then we have to ask, are these climate apocalypticism groups simply the rebirth of other cults? For one, they certainly have more basis in reality, climate change is a very real and dangerous threat. Most of those acquainted with it are deeply worried about how it will affect us, and so the premise of climate apocalypse groups isn’t as outlandish as most doomsday beliefs.
Then again, many such apocalypse movements have logical basis for their end times predictions, the Y2K panic was widely and earnestly believed, and there was indeed a (fortunately solved) coding issue that could have caused major disruptions to normal life. And yet, there is still a series of notable differences in the climate apocalypse communities that set them aside from the rest.
Their main conclusion, that humanity will soon go extinct from climate change, has an uncomfortably real possibility of occurring. There are numerous climate scientists who propose numerous tipping points where once reached, the acceleration to our climate breakdown will be both irreparable and fatal.
For example, if our planetary permafrost melted, vast natural methane stores (the most potent greenhouse gas) trapped within will enter the atmosphere simultaneously. If this happened, aside from the icecaps melting within a few years (for good), we would see a complete breakdown of climactic norms and agriculture would become near impossible in a blisteringly hot and deluged world. Those who avoided starvation would probably die struggling over what’s left in increasingly hostile landscapes. This is an extreme example to be sure, but not one without a basis in reality, and this is where the belief in mankind’s extinction stems from.
These followers of the climate apocalypse (usually using the signifier ‘Near Term Human Extinction’) don’t bang the drum and scream in the streets, and usually congregate in closed online therapy groups for those who need help coping with their conclusions about climate change. Structurally and functionally, these communities are in no way cults. There are no charismatic leaders here, and nothing to be gained from this apocalypse.
Posts asking how to deal with having children in a dying world or how to combat climate-induced depression are frequent. Many people discuss the struggle of hiding their revelations from family and friends, so they don’t have to share the same painful burdens. These are spaces for accepting the facts (as they see it) and finding what comfort you can, not gleefully broadcasting it and claiming ‘I told you so!’.
One oft cited article opens “I wish that I had never connected the dots”. One thing can be said of these groups; no one wants to be there.
Anger, pain and high passions are regularly expressed, but these are not irrational spaces. Most posts are simply links to articles that reinforce their main point, and trawling them can make for a depressing read. Just as popular though, are pieces pertaining to coping - consistent themes include finding peace, contentment, acceptance, and most jarringly, forgiveness.
It’s easy to claim these groups are merely giving up and harming the active struggle against climate change, but in a world of worsening climate disasters and damagingly regressive politics, it doesn’t take much to empathise with their points of view.
Perhaps these groups are too extreme in their conclusions, but they are awash with evidence that can easily be interpreted as chiming the bell of ‘Near Term Human Extinction’. As these dire conclusions about the environment reach more and more people, we are sure to see a rise in the number of members in such communities. How this affects the environmental movement, or our society as a whole, remains to be seen.