“Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances” by Catherine Keller

Let us first recall why Keller has chosen to “dreamread” John of Patmos’ Book of Revelation. As a process theologian, it is no surprise that she would be interested in a Biblical text. But her purpose is not merely to read John’s missive back into its 1st century CE historical context. Nor is her intent to read it as a literal prediction of a divinely determined future. Her aim, rather, is to unveil the eternal patterns of history that reverberate through John’s day into our own. Keller is dreamreading the “ancient future” of humanity, imperiled by imperial excesses and injustices then as now. She turns to Revelation as a polysemic source of dis-closure, that is, as a reminder that the future remains open-ended, its promise or peril awaiting our response to the signs of the times. Keller reads the book’s many internal contradictions as a call to liberate ourselves, through the work of shared mourning and collective uplift, from any sense of scripts already written so that we may arrive fully in the potent present, capable of facing what MLK, Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now.” The book she dreamreads remains relevant to our situation today because, with both oppressive and progressive effects, it has inspired martyrs, emperors, and enslaved alike to shape and reshape the course of civilization for millennia. 

In Chapter 5, Keller interprets John’s misogynistic vision of the luxuriously adorned “Whore of Babylon” astride a seven-headed, ten-horned scarlet beast as a metaphor (or “metaforce”) expressive of the unholy matrimony of imperial power and global economy. The beast is said to turn on the “Mother of Whores,” just as imperial superpowers have been known to contradict themselves by “devouring the very flesh, resources, [and] labor, [they] live from” (111). John details the commodities that the “merchants of the earth” of his day buy and sell along their Mediterranean sea routes. These include not only wine, pearls, silk, and spices, but “human bodies and souls” (Rev. 18:11-13). Keller reminds us that “Rome two thousand years ago operated the largest market in chattel slaves on the planet,” adding the disturbing facts that “civilization as we know it is based upon the labor of unthinkable numbers of slaves,” and, even today, long after the institution has been outlawed in most nations, tens of millions of mostly women and children remain in chains, with billions more stuck in what amounts to wage slavery (114). 

Keller then turns to a critique, informed by Revelation, of our insatiable neoliberal/neo-imperial capitalist political economy. In our day, as in John’s, the power of unchecked consumerism does not simply fulfill desires, it produces them—or in terms of John’s pornographic metaforce, it “seduces”: “the graphic of the great whore signifies a commodification of self, body and soul, on the part of imperial subjectsnot just their objects” (117). In other words, the power of capitalism is not simply “out there,” imposed upon us as the will of an imperial army may be. The truly insidious thing about an economy of greed is how it infects our very selves, our sense of self-worth and well-being. The engine of our economy depends upon knowing no limits, on the feeling of lack, the constant need of more income, more land, more labor, more stuff. The political representatives elected to protect our democratic rights and assure social stability by checking the power of transnational corporations have failed to fulfill their duties. Under the neoliberal order which has held sway since the 1970s (when declining growth, growing inequality, and rising debt put an end to the post-war alliance between capital and democracy), the role of the state has been coopted, so that it now “[offers] political support, tax benefits, police and military backing for the economy, which in return rewards the politicians it rides” (121). Capital cannot help itself, it commodifies everything: land, labor, politicians, and like John’s Porn Queen, even itself, undermining its own conditions of continuance. 

Building on the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streek, Keller introduces the situation in present day Western democracies as a struggle between two constituencies, the “nation state people” and the “international market people” (122). Tensions are rising as inequality reaches levels not seen since ancient Rome (Keller cites studies showing that, within the US, the ratio between the richest 100 households and the bottom 90% is about 108,000 to 1, roughly equivalent to that between a senator and a slave at the height of the Roman empire). The rise of Trump and other demagogues around the world is symptomatic of income inequality and a growing rift between “nationalists” (who are mostly white and often rural) and “globalists” (often urban and somewhat more diverse). Rather than demonize the supporters of Trump (many of whom are evangelical Christians inspired by their own, albeit more spurious readings of Revelation), Keller acknowledges the ambiguities and contradictions of our times. Trump’s presidency was itself an outcome, and perhaps signals also the ending, of American neoliberalism (126). The anger that helped lift him into office stemmed from racist animosity but also the complete lack of concern shown by (neo)liberals for many working class people as the post-war industrial economy was dismantled and its jobs sent over seas. Keller admits that John’s visions are indeed suggestive of a great battle against the global elites who profit from such outsourcing. But the contradictions intensify, as Republicans blame wildfires in the Western US on environmentalists instead of climate change, while Democrats blame Trump’s election on Russian memes instead of acknowledging the impact of global trade on the lives of those Hillary Clinton dismissed as “deplorables.” Keller also warns against conflating jet-setting cosmopolitan neoliberalism with the radically intersectional cosmopolitics that resists with equal vigor both the “aspirational fascism” of nationalists and the insatiable extractivism of globalists (124). 

In the end, Keller returns to the beginning, to the “dominion” clause in the Genesis creation narrative that has stirred so much debate among environmentalists and religious scholars. It is becoming increasingly clear to anyone paying attention that “the matter of the earth will not neatly reduce to the stuff of dollar signs…Matter Strikes Back” (130). In other words, all of humanity is beginning to experience the blowback from centuries of unchecked extraction and pollution. Witness “Gaia’s Revenge,” as James Lovelock put it. All of humanity suffers from this blowback, the conspicuously consuming and technologically insulated wealthy Western peoples as well as the Global South, where billions of people are eager for justice to be restored despite being first in line to face rising sea levels and changing climates.

The drive to dominate the Earth among the Biblical peoples has deep roots in a perhaps partial reading of the story of creation: “What a beastly irony: somehow human-godlikeness got taken as ‘go for it, godly world masters: use up the earth, waste its creatures” (131). Keller closes chapter five by offering a re-reading of the first book, reminding that Elohim creates not from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) but from “the deep” (creatio ex profundis). Further, God says that every creature, and creation itself, is good, indicating to Keller that we who are made in God’s image “are called to emulate that love of the material universe” (131). (For more on Keller’s theopoetic reading of Genesis, be sure to check out her book Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming). 

In Chapter 6, Keller explores the “poetics of Hebrew hope” that shaped John’s 1st century religious context and that have continued to reverberate through the millennia. The earliest Christian communities suffered disappointment after their messiah was crucified by the empire they so despised. They waited for a second coming, but Keller points out that no such “coming again” is mentioned in the Bible. Rather, despite the persistence of imperial rule and the increasingly violent persecution of his followers, Christ is signaled as “present” (parousia) rather than still to come (135). Keller goes on to chronicle the uses and abuses of Revelation. In the 2nd century CE, the African theologian Tertullian, emboldened by John’s text, attempted to create some breathing room between politics and religion by calling upon Rome to protect religious freedom (144). Eventually, Emperor Constantine would answer this call, but only at the cost of the imperialization of Christianity. The anti-imperialist egalitarian community Jesus had inspired thus transformed into the official religion of Rome. Still, Tertullian’s call would ring true thousands of years later, inspiring the liberation of slaves in the Americas. In the 11th century CE, Pope Urban II’s holy crusades, inspired by the bloody battles of John’s visions, unified a war torn Europe against a common Muslim enemy. A century later, European Christendom would face internal dissensions again, as heterodox communities perceived the growing wealth of the Vatican through the lens of John’s Great Whore (149). The monk Joachim of Fiore declared the coming “Age of Spirit” when the Church hierarchy would be dissolved, all property would be held in common, and everyone would have direct access to the divine. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, thus initiating the Protestant revolt against the excesses of the Catholic Church. Luther memed scenes from John’s Revelation by portraying the Pope as the Whore of Babylon. Included in his German translation of the Bible was a drawing of the Mother of Whores wearing the papal tiara (151). The Thirty Years War to follow was the bloodiest in European history. 

Colored version of the Whore of Babylon illustration from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible

Keller chronicles these events to make clear that “the history of collective resistance to oppression is no less an effect of the Apocalypse than is the oppression itself” (155). Indeed, Jewish messianism leaves its traces in all modern progressive movements on behalf of justice. Keller says that the progressive left must grieve the “totalitarian traumatisms” and “messianic disappointment” of 20th century state communism, turning elsewhere for its (more intersectional, more cosmopolitical and multispecies) political projects (158). While the right appears more unified, and thus more poised to take power, it is “precisely because of its pluralist and planetary proclivities [that] the progressive spectrum is more vulnerable than the right to contradictions between its ever-apocalyptic priorities” (161). She councils our “cosmically entangled, dangerously gifted, achingly diverse” species to take time for griefwork, to mourn all that has been and is being lost. And she warns us to remain ever vigilant against the temptation to allow the rage that arises in us to forego its righteousness by collapsing into a vengeful “we-good, you-bad” dichotomy. The split between good and evil people only fuels more cycles of revenge. If God is love (as the other John said in his gospel), and if justice is what love looks like in public (as Cornel West puts it), then only our love of each other (enemies included) and of all creation can hold open the possibility of a future worth living in. What kind of future will that be? In the final chapters of her book, Keller offers some possibilities… 

“Another End of the World is Possible” by Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle

“How could we call ‘rational’ an ideal of civilization guilty of a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving a habitable world to their children?”
—Bruno Latour

“The system is collapsing all around us just at the time when most people have lost the ability to imagine that anything else could exist.” 
—David Graeber

Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle’s book focuses on the importance of imagining new stories, enacting more earthly spiritualities, and transforming industrial mentality into a more mature—and wiser—form of human consciousness, all in the midst of an accelerating collapse of civilization. The authors quote Roy Scranton, who affirms Socrates’ original statement (see Phaedo 67e) that “philosophy is learning to die,” adding that this means “we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age—for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene,” i.e., to learn to die not only as individuals, but as a civilization (193). Collapsophy is one way of framing and engaging with these literally epochal challenges.

The nature of the still dominant industrial mentality makes these needed re-imaginations especially difficult, since it has fostered both amnesia and anesthesia, that is, it has made us increasingly forgetful of our past and incapable of feeling or emotionally processing the present (201). Modern mechanistic ontology (with its attendant myth of progress, culture of consumerism, and technocratic solutionism) has structured the “invisible architecture” (113) of our social imaginary so as to prevent us from forging much needed mutual aid networks with other members of our own species, and especially with non-humans. Relentless repetition of the old story of human separation is leading many to double-down on attempts to take technological control of the Earth System/Gaia. Transhumanists, for example, forget that their immortality project is “irreversibly dependent on a socio-politico-technical system [that is] addicted to oil and rare earth [minerals]” (116). They know of no other possibilities than such “power-over” approaches, since the idea of “power-with” would not only imply a softening of the human/nature division, it would require a total reorganization of the hierarchical pyramid structure of our societies. 

We are used to sharply distinguishing between fact and fiction, but an increasing number of authors are turning to the sci-fi genre in an urgent attempt to sensitize us to the consequences of our actions in the present, and to the narrowing possibilities of the future. The authors draw upon the work of Starhawk to warn of the risks of allowing the world-making potency of imagination to become depoliticized (116). She calls upon artists to interrupt the zombie-like repetition of the dominant narrative by mobilizing the subversive force of alternative stories. Ursula La Guin is also cited for her emphasis on the way living imaginaries ripe for collective adoption can only emerge from works of deep personal significance: “The further [the artist] goes into himself, the closer he comes to the other” (117).

The authors then turn to the emerging fields of ecopsychology and ecofeminism. They draw upon various scholars, including Carolyn Merchant and Sylvia Federici, to show how the degradation of nature and of women’s status in society has the same origin (133). Patriarchy, they argue, emerged with the Neolithic Revolution as men discovered their potential as farmers and as fathers (168). It was intensified with the Scientific Revolution, which arose contemporaneously with witch hunts across Europe and colonized North America. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 witches were executed. The analogies between the Baconian method of natural science and the violent interrogation of witches is hard to miss. Merchant (The Death of Nature, 1980) is famous for her argument that “Nature” was equated with a public woman that science must subdue and strip naked so as to unveil her secrets (169). Federici expands the links between the social and natural consequences of patriarchy by tracking the connections between colonial expansion and the rise of capitalism. To assert its world domination, capitalism first needed to disenchant nature (which included the extermination of witchcraft and peasant healing traditions), destroy the autonomy of village communities, and privatize the commons via enclosure (170).  

The authors credit ecofeminism with highlighting the political importance of embodiment, aesthetics, emotion, imagination, and magic. They also point out the ways that men, too, suffer under patriarchy. They discuss the role of masculine and feminine archetypal polarities within each of us, calling for us all to cultivate gender identities in a more balanced way, both collectively and within ourselves (171-173). Rituals of reconciliation are recommended to further the healing process (176).

Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” is put forward as an avenue toward world view renewal (125). Macy offers several mythic images of our moment, which is both a “Great Unravelling” and a “Great Turning.” The authors celebrate her efforts to shift our social imaginary from its obsession with short-term economism by sensitizing us to the deep time of cosmogenesis. By transposing the history of life on Earth onto a calendar year, our place in the multibillion year process of evolution is made more apparent: If the planet is said to have formed on January 1st, then life appears in late February; in early April, photosynthesis is invented, which remains the primary process by which energy from the Sun is welcomed into the biosphere; metazoa do not emerge until late September; plants begin to inhabit land in late November; early December witnesses the rise of the reptiles, with mammals following a few weeks later; primates appear on Christmas Day; Homo sapiens do not show up until 1 minute before midnight on New Years Eve, with the Industrial Revolution occurring only within the final second of the cosmic year (154). Re-living our evolutionary journey in this way helps put the “little second of thermo-industrial civilization, this tiny period of disconnection and forgetfulness of who we are” into perspective (155). It also aids in our remembrance of how much gratitude we owe our ancestors, without whose struggles to survive and rituals of celebratory renewal we would not be here. 

The authors lament the way “science, technology, and capitalism have taken the sacred out of everything” (138), but in another sense, modern techno-industrial civilization has given rise to surrogate “pseudo-sacreds”—that is, to various forms of “misenchantment” (link is to a dialogue between myself and Rick Tarnas on this issue). Whether its the latest iPhone update, juicy celebrity gossip, or Super Bowl Sunday, the religion of consumerism provides plenty of faux enchantments to distract us from the psychological, sociological, and ecological catastrophes transpiring just behind our screens. We are in dire need of genuine forms of communion with the sacred, as the authors make clear that it is not possible to approach the end of the world without spirituality (160). But what is the sacred? In addition to the gratitude for our ancestors already mentioned, the authors emphasize the importance of rituals and initiations that afford opportunities for communion with one another, and with that mysterious power which grants us our lives, and which reminds us of the meaning of our deaths. They quote the spiritual teacher Martín Prechtel: “True initiations will be impossible until the modern world surrenders to the grief of its origins” (196). Truly comprehending the sacred, according to Prechtel, requires accepting the darkness along with the light. The authors contrast this point of view to the insistent positivity of New Age spiritualities, which typically refuse to look at the shadow, and thus fall victim to what Buddhist teacher John Welwood has called “spiritual bypassing.”

Collapsophy is the cultivation of the wisdom needed to live with collapse. It is also the wisdom of learning to die. It includes reason and science, which are vital to ongoingness in any form, but also makes ample room for aesthetics, emotions, ethics, and spiritual intuitions. The authors bring their book to a close with the call for an “interspecies diplomacy” that would foster the development of a common language shared by as many as possible of the beings of our living planet (195). 

“How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times” by Servigne and Stevens

Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens cover a lot of territory in this book. It is clear enough to anyone open to even consider reading it that climate change and other ecological catastrophes are already occurring and will only intensify. This book was published in French in 2015, well before the Covid-19 pandemic. While the origins of this virus are not yet known, it is widely understood that the effects of climate change and attendant habitat loss make “spillover events” more likely. So pandemics may be the new normal, with Covid-19 serving as a deadly but relatively merciful dress rehearsal (relatively merciful because the next novel virus that spills over into human circulation may have a much higher infection fatality rate). We have also learned from the explosion of conspiratorial thinking during the pandemic just how right Servigne and Stevens are to warn that collapse will not come with any homogenous vision of what is happening (153): “almost everything will be played out on the ground of the imaginary, of our representations of the world” (154). We are in the midst of a total information war with as many fronts as there are screens. Such a situation finds us in desperate need of shared understandings, of a common (even if multiply culturally inflected) story, since “stories give birth to collective identities,” and thus, foster awareness of our shared planetary destiny. 

In addition to the threat of pandemics which we have all grown familiar with, Servigne and Stevens list other catastrophes that are likely to intensify: biodiversity loss, chemical spills, resource wars, droughts, wildfires, migrations, terror attacks, financial crises, and social unrest, to name a few. They raise the question of how we are to maintain belief in the urgency of our situation given that disasters are becoming so common. Jerry Brown, former governor of California, remarked back in 2018 that mega-wildfires are “the new abnormal.” The authors discuss the difficulties and moral hazards of assessing risk in the context of ever-evolving hypercomplex systems, like Gaia or the global economy. Often, an “inverse temporality” only allows catastrophes to be recognized as possible in retrospect. Also, complex systems are understood to be resilient only up to certain unknown thresholds, at which point they can suddenly collapse. In light of the uncertainties, they recommend that we switch from an “observe, analyze, command and control” approach to risk assessment to a “probe, act, sense, adjust” mode. The latter is a better alternative to just waiting for catastrophe to strike before taking action. 

Despite the uncertainties, Servigne and Stevens discuss a few attempts to mathematically model collapse, including the “HANDY” (human and nature dynamics) model and the “World3” model. The HANDY model is unique in including economic inequality among its parameters. It factors in not only accumulated wealth but also its distribution through society. The model shows that societies with inequalities in wealth distribution will collapse even with low levels of overall consumption (112). Part of the reason is that “wealth buffers” in such societies allow elites to continue business as usual, thus locking in the very sociotechnical routines that eventually deplete the resource base, triggering collapse. The World3 model, originally developed by a group of systems scientists at MIT, has been around longer than HANDY. Based on the modeling of parameters including population, industrial production, agriculture, pollution, and resource use, it predicts the collapse of thermo-industrial civilization at some point in the 21st century. One of the designers of the model, Dennis Meadows, remarked in 2012 that “It is too late for sustainable development, you have to prepare for shocks and urgently build small resilient systems” (122). 

At this point, the question of how to define collapse may have arisen. How would we recognize it if and when it actually occurred? Yves Cochet’s definition is cited, which states that collapse is “the process at the end of which basic needs can no longer be provided at reasonable cost to a majority of the population by services under legal supervision” (126). The authors also cite Dmitry Orlov, who studied the collapse of the Soviet Union. He lists five stages of collapse (133), including 1) financial collapse (future investments become impossible because faith in business as usual is lost), 2) commercial collapse (money itself becomes devalued or scarce, supply shortages, rationing, etc.), 3) political collapse (faith in functioning and legitimacy of government is lost, municipal services like water and trash collection begin to shut down, etc.), 4) social collapse (loss of faith in existing institutions and organizations, leading people to regress to clan and gang allegiances), and 5) cultural collapse (faith in the goodness of humanity is lost). As Cochet’s and Orlov’s accounts make clear, in many parts of the US and around the world, collapse is very much already upon us. 

Despite the possibility of social and cultural collapse, Servigne and Stevens try to check the Hollywood movie driven fear that human beings become savage killers whenever catastrophes occur. The evidence suggests quite the opposite: “after catastrophe…most human beings behave in extraordinarily altruistic, calm, and composed ways” (150). Such behaviors challenge the founding myth of our liberal societies, that prior to the “social contract” that gave rise to states, humans existed as autonomous, greedy individuals ruthlessly competing in a “state of nature.” The truth is we are profoundly relational creatures, with the ability to fluidly shift identities between “I” and “We” as the moral circumstances require. Nonetheless, emergent networks of mutual aid rest upon a “fragile alchemy,” and without the restoration of basic needs like food and water, cooperative altruism may quickly shift into violent competition and selfish hoarding. There is an urgent need to rebuild vibrant local social fabrics and to create collective practices and aptitudes for living together (all things that modern consumer culture and individualism have methodically destroyed) (155).