Millenarianism has a venerable history in the West traced back to early Christians who anxiously anticipated an imminent Last Judgment and the advent of a "new heaven and a new earth" (Rev. 21:1).
This Western predisposition to millenarianism spawned various sects including the Anabaptists and the Hussites in Central Europe, the Rappites and the Millerites in 19th century America, and more recently the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Millerites of upstate New York were one fairly typical millenarian sect. In 1818, William Miller, the group's founder, calculated that Christ's Second Coming would take place during the next 25 years. Spectacular meteor showers and a huge comet were taken as unmistakable portents of impending disaster. After several missed dates, Miller finally predicted that the end would definitely come on October 22, 1844. One the appointed day many believers, dressed in white robes, climbed nearby hilltops to await the apocalypse. "The Great Disappointment" is how the Seventh Day Adventists, the modern successors of the Millerites, characterize Miller's prophetic failure.
In the 19th century, millenarian aspirations, originally spiritual and religious in character, became secularized and were incorporated into the doctrines of radical and utopian politics. The greatest millenarian political faith is Marxism. Like the religious millenarians who preceded him, Marx believed that a corrupt society–in his case, capitalism–would collapse in a massive crisis ushering in a golden age of egalitarian harmony. But instead of sin, according orthodox Marxist eschatology, the internal class contradictions of capitalist production doom that hateful (sinful?) form of society to inevitable destruction.
That hasn't happened, but the millenarian impulse did not die out in the West. For many modern leftists the "global environmental crisis" became the new agent of history that will eventually destroy capitalism. In the reinterpreted radical vision, capitalism, instead of strangling itself to death on its class contradictions, will choke to death on its own wastes.
Just a couple of examples–In his 1990 book, Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future, self-described social ecologist Murray Bookchin argued that we must change our repressive industrial capitalist society into "an ecological society based on non-hierarchial relationships, decentralized democratic communities, and eco-technologies like solar power, organic gardening and humanly scaled industries." Earth First! founder David Foreman asserted in the 1991 book, Defending the Earth, that Western society is "rotten to the core" and said that he planned to build "an egalitarian, decentralized, ecologically sound" society that would "emerge out of the ashes of the old industrialized empire" after the ecological apocalypse.
I am NOT saying that these people were orthodox Marxists, but that they (and many others) were the intellectual heirs to that form of secular millenarianism's deep antipathy to capitalism and industrial society. As the Institute for Social Ecology notes of Bookchin:
"During the 1950s and '60s, Bookchin built upon the legacies of utopian social philosophy and critical theory, challenging the primacy of Marxism on the left and linking contemporary ecological and urban crises to problems of capital and social hierarchy in general."
So why am I going on about this? Intellectual tendencies bleed over unconsciously into the popular culture. Prius-driving Hollyward star Leonardo DiCaprio will release his feature length documentary, The 11th Hour, this weekend. The 11th Hour is a popularization of early 21st century ecological millenarianism. From the press release:
The 11th Hour documents the grave problems facing the planet's life systems. Global warming, deforestation, mass species extinction, and depletion of the oceans' habitats are all addressed, and their causes rooted in human activity. The combination of these crises call into question the very future not of the planet, but of humanity.
And like most millenarian visions, DiCaprio's offers a way out for the faithful. In this case, by calling "for restorative action through a reshaping of human activity." But what I find fascinating about millenarian thinking is that the end always going to arrive for this crucial generation. Consider these soundbites from The 11th Hour's trailer:
Will our pivotal generation create a sustainable world in time?
Five hundred years out, people look back at this time: This was our finest hour.
What a great time to be born! what a great time to be alive! Because this generation gets to completely change the world.
This kind of generational moral self-flattering has always been thus.
For example, environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote in his 1989 book, The End of Nature:
"We just happen to be living at the moment of when carbon dioxide has increased to an intolerable level. We just happen to be alive at the moment when if nothing is done before we die the world's tropical rain forests will become a brown girdle that will last for millennia."
Canadian uber-environmentalist David Suzuki in 1992, declared,
"We are the last generation on Earth that can save the planet."
So why do so many people in the developed world believe in apocalyptic environmentalism? The attraction of apocalyptic thinking is strong. One self-described survivor of millenarian environmentalism, novelist Eric Zencey, recalled in his 1988 essay, "Apocalypse and Ecology":
"There is seduction in apocalyptic thinking. If one lives in the Last Days, one's actions, one's very life, take on historical meaning and no small measure of poignance … Apocalypticism fulfills a desire to escape the flow of real and ordinary time, to fix the flow of history into a single moment of overwhelming importance."
Daniel Cohen, author of the 1973 Waiting for the Apocalypse, believes that every generation grows up convinced that it is the last generation in history. However, the method by which the end brought about changes. For Cohen's generation nuclear war was the agent of the apocalypse.
"We believed passionately that there would be such a war, and like the early Christians we were sure that this Judgment Day would come within our lifetimes."
Interestingly, unlike the Millerites, when prophesies of environmental doom fail, ecological millenarians do not experience a "Great Disappointment." As Daniel Cohen noted,
"One clearly wrong prophecy, or even a whole string of them, rarely discredits the prophet in the eyes of those who believe in prophecy."
As DiCaprio's new film shows, a lot people still want to think of themselves as living at the hinge of history in which their lives will make all the heroic difference for all the time to come.
But the truth is that our ancestors bequeathed to our generation a world that is immeasurably richer, cleaner and healthier than the one they lived in. I haven't seen The 11th Hour yet, but I suspect that it is not going to recommend those policies that have in fact improved the state of humanity for the last two centuries. Of course, it must be admitted that along the way there were some mostly unavoidable side effects on the natural world that arose as hundreds of millions of people clawed their way out of poverty. That being said, I will be happily surprised if The 11th Hour comes out in favor of strengthened property rights, expanding globalization, increasing urbanization, and spreading modern farming techniques. It is exactly those trends abetted by democratic capitalism that are improving humanity's estate and will help preserve nature.
So finally, I, too, may be something of a millenarian. Why? Because I believe that the future of humanity and the natural world is very bright. The 21st century will be the century in which the Great Ecological Restoration begins as the technological progress fostered by capitalism enables humanity to increasingly dematerialize our economy, allowing us to restore and withdraw from nature.