A Climate of FearElijah Mvundura March/April 2020
Looking for a “hook,” an attention-grabbing story to use as an introduction for this essay, I found so many extreme weather events in 2017-2019 that I was at a loss for which one to pick. In their sheer
destructiveness, they were all devastatingly similar. And the responses of the people who went through them were terrifyingly alike—dazed, overwhelmed, traumatized with fear—fear of death.*
I got a firsthand account of the fear from relatives who were in Dominica when a category 5 hurricane—Hurricane Maria—hit that island. “It’s beyond words,” they said. “The hurricane took eight ‘eternal’ hours to pass through the island, and during that ‘eternity’ we were huddled in the bathroom.” The wind was what they spoke of most. “The screeching, howling sounds, combined with the staccato of the hard-pelting rain, was fearsome to the last degree. It’s like we were besieged by a horde of shrieking monsters,” they said. “But as we prayed and sang hymns, we were enveloped by a tranquillity that still awes us to this day.”
Listening to them, I got an inkling of the primordial pagan fear of the elements, and why they personified and deified natural forces. I can imagine those pagans imploring, hysterically beseeching, the howling winds to spare their lives. If today we don’t implore hurricanes, storms, volcanoes, as if they are gods or living beings, it’s because of science. Discovering laws that govern nature, empowering us to exploit them, radically changes our view of nature. For us moderns, as Max Weber said, “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play.” We can, “in principle, master all things [through science and technology]. . . . One need no longer have recourse to magical means.”1
When natural disasters strike, we call 9-1-1. But what will we do if faced with cataclysmic natural disasters beyond the capacity of emergency services, disasters science can’t relieve? For instance, according to a recent research cited by the New York Times, rising seas could affect three times more people by 2050, threatening major coastal cities. “Southern Vietnam could all but disappear,” we are warned. Such are the doomsday climate scenarios that climate scientists are extrapolating from the extreme weather events caused by global warming.
Although the scientific evidence of global warming is unequivocal, to extrapolate forward to doomsday climate scenarios is prophecy and not science. It’s not like weather forecasting. For there is just no way any research can factor in all the variables and contingencies and then come up with accurate future climate scenarios, even after using “artificial intelligence to determine the error rate and correct it.”2 Similarly, there is no research that can accurately predict that global warming can be reversed, all the complex climate models and high-tech computer simulation notwithstanding.
To say this is simply to point out the uncertainty that is part not only of scientific work but of human life in general. We always see through a glass darkly, just as we always know in part. Prophecy and absolute knowledge are exclusive to God. To put it forthrightly, climate scientists and activists need a modicum of humility, to see the limits of their knowledge, especially when it comes to predicting climate scenarios, and our ability to reverse global warming.
If climate activists lack humility, climate deniers lack honesty. To deny that all the air and water pollution that has been going on since the beginning of modern industry in the mid-eighteenth century has not affected climate deleteriously is disingenuous. To be sure, the ad hominem attacks of climate deniers reveals the vacuity of their arguments and disingenuousness. They bring to mind the tobacco industry’s denial, for decades, that smoking was dangerous to health or the pesticides industry’s denial, in the 1950s, of the effect that the pesticide DDT had on bird reproduction. In light of these and other cases of blatant denials of scientific evidence, it’s unsurprising that to advance their cause and change minds, climate scientists and activists resort to the FEAR FACTOR, and concoct doomsday scenarios of climate change, animated to be sure, by the omni occurrence of extreme weather events.
In using fear, they are using a time-tested mobilizing method. In normal times it can be a spur to action. But in unsettled times, such as the one Western democracies are going through, it reinforces mass anxiety. Indeed, since the 2008 financial crisis, fear has been omnipresent and contagious—fear of losing jobs, fear of losing homes, fear of losing health-care coverage, fear of terrorism, fear of losing one’s identity/culture, fear of immigrants, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change. And, perhaps above all, fear that things are falling apart, and those in authority cannot hold the system together.
If we bundle these fears, we have an ambience, “a climate of fear.” And we have much more to fear, in my view, from the “climate of fear,” than from climate change. For, as Edmund Burke insightfully noted, “no passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain.”3 The crux here is that fear makes the imagined pain or threat real. It detaches one from reality, and detached, it magnifies threats, turns them into monsters. And of course, monsters call for monster slayers, such as the Übermensch, Nietzsche’s superman.
As it is, this is precisely the dynamic shaping climate activism. This is what Astra Taylor wrote in The New Republic: “As you’ve probably heard, U.N. scientists recently warned that we have eleven years to avert climate disaster. We face a civilizational crisis that can only be solved by unprecedented action on an unprecedented scale.” This first sentence (17 words) is the only sentence in the 3,388-word article to mention climate change; the rest (3,371 words) advocate the urgent need to resurrect the “ancient ideal of solidarity,” drawn from “the legal books of the ancient Roman Empire.”
However, what makes this article truly a farce is that the “solidarity” is anything but Roman. It’s rather a prop for recycled Marxism. Indeed, Taylor nostalgically writes of how “Marx and Engels movingly envisioned a form of class solidarity extending across borders and nationalities, yoking together strangers alienated and exploited by the same economic forces.”And curiously overlooking the reduction ofcollectivism to Stalinist autocracy, she repeats the Marxist mantra of “collective action,” “changing minds/behavior” or “transformational change,” and even scapegoats the “plutocrats and politicians” for the failure of the “Marxist vision.”4
Incidentally, one of the untold stories about climate activism is how the old ecological movement, which did admirable work agitating against industrial air and water pollution and environmental degradation, was hijacked by Marxists after the collapse of Communism and turned into a smoke screen for attacking capitalism and liberal democracy. Of course, conservatives aren’t fooled. Their denial of human-induced climate change may be vacuous and disingenuous, but their skepticism of grand solutions to the climate crisis is sound and sincere. Ultimately, however, according to Pew Research, “partisanship is a stronger factor in people’s beliefs about climate change than is their level of knowledge and understanding about science.” For example, “most Democrats with more science knowledge believe climate change is due to human activity, but there is no difference by science knowledge among GOP.”5
This is a sobering fact. If the best predictor of whether we agree with evidence or science is partisanship, our political affiliation or ideology, then we have a crisis of authority of the first order. To appreciate the gravity of the crisis, we must note the crucial difference between authority and power. Authority rests on persuasion—the voluntary submission to evidence, facts, truth, and moral norms, what Weber called “inner justifications,”6 so that individuals control themselves from within; while power rests on external coercion—the threat of penalty, pain, loss or shame, so that individuals are controlled from without.
Liberal democracy is based primarily on authority, on the voluntary submission to shared outlook, moral values, ideas, and presuppositions. This is what limits external coercion, the domination from without by the state or a dictatorship. As such, a crisis of authority, like the one Western nations are going through, poses an existential threat to liberal democracy. To be precise, a crisis of authority, unresolved, invites anarchy and anarchy unresolved invites external coercion—dictatorship, a Dostoevskian Grand Inquisitor, or a Nietzschean Übermensch—to impose order.
Indeed, in the course of human affairs the point sometimes arrives when different streams of problems coalesce into one massive river, which presses for an extreme response, a total solution. We seem to be reaching that inflection point in Western democracies. We have extreme weather, extreme polarization, extreme income inequalities, extreme breakdown of traditional political parties, extreme breakdown of the social fabric, the liberal international order, extreme immigration and identity problems —you name it; extreme is the apt adjective of the myriad problems confronting us.
All these problems, as many thoughtful observers have noted, are interconnected, with climate change offering a vantage point of seeing the interconnections. And Laudato Sí, the encyclical letter of Pope Francis “on care for our common home,”7 traces the interconnections to launch a fundamental criticism of market capitalism, technology, consumerism, and the cultural liberalism underlying it. In the criticism it’s easy to detect a retro-medievalism, a romantic nostalgia for a pre-modern arcadia, in which humans are believed to have lived in harmony with nature and one another.
Indeed, the encyclical opens with a paean of Saint Francis of Assisi, the pope’s namesake: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.” But then: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” The encyclical thus calls “for global ecological conversion,” since “authentic human development has a moral character,” and “the book of nature is one and indivisible,” according to Benedict XVI, and “includes environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth.”
Let’s review this encyclical. First, the use of pagan mythology is very troubling. “Mother Earth” is a Greek goddess (Gaia), the source of all life on earth, but here it’s said that God “endowed her.” Thus, God and Gaia are joined, and Gaia is placed between humans and God. In fact, reversing the dominion God granted us over the earth, the encyclical subjects humans to Gaia: “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” This personification and reverence of nature is very unbiblical. Redolent of the primitive sacred, it can, in a full-blown “climate of fear,” easily slide into nature worship.
Second, viewed biblically, “the book of nature [is not] one and indivisible,” since humans, created “in the image of God,” were set apart from, and not subsumed, in nature. Again, God created through a process of separation, distinction, and classification; and inscribed these distinctions in the ceremonial and social rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In other words, God intends us to view all created reality as discrete entities, differentiated and disenchanted. To be sure, that’s why the Bible always speaks of the heavens and earth, the mountains and seas. The word nature doesn’t appear in the Bible at all. And not without significance. Only God sees or knows the whole, the totality, of things, all reality. For us humans, as Paul said, “we know in part, and prophesy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9).
The encyclical lacks this epistemic humility. Its premise of “one and indivisible nature,” embracing the human and the nonhuman, reflects the totalitarian ambitions of mythical-philosophical thought from which it is drawn. Again, in avowing respect “for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality,” since “no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out,” it reveals a syncretism common with mythology and alien to the Bible, which reserves the unification and reconciliation of all things to God (Ephesians 1:8-10), and at the end of the time.
Unification and reconciliation of all things is reserved for God, because only God can and will completely eradicate the root cause of all human problems—sin and its author, Satan. Although the encyclical lauds the Catholic Church’s openness to “dialogue with philosophical thought,” and this has “enabled her to produce various synthesis between faith and reason,” the existence of sin and the devil forecloses any ideological synthesis, cultural syncretism, or final solution. The pope must take heed. For Babylon, “confusion,” and the antichrist are the apocalyptic symbols and warnings for the human-desired but demonic-inspired bid for unity, before the end of time.
Indeed, as I see it, the “climate of fear” around climate activism, the populism, polarization, the yearning for strong leaders, and the escalation to the extremes now driving the politics of Western democracies is a perfect foil for the rise of the antichrist predicted in the Apocalypse, and which Dostoevsky strikingly dramatized in “The Grand Inquisitor.” Indeed, to understand the current crisis of liberalism and what it’s likely to metastasize into, read “The Grand Inquisitor,” for it uncannily foresaw the crisis, its spiritual roots and demonic valence.
In sounding this apocalyptic warning, I’m not advocating passivism in face of the pressing global political, social, economic, and environmental problems. Christians are called to be light and salt of the earth. In other words, to illumine the roots of human problems and to act as preservatives. And they’re to do so, “not by might, nor by power, but by [God’s] spirit” (Zechariah 4:6), that is, by living their faith concretely in every sphere of life, while proclaiming the gospel. This is how the early Christians, we must remember, transformed the Roman world, and effected in Nietzsche’s words, “the greatest transvaluation of values in world history.”
And it’s still the way the church or Christians are to transform the world, but without a unifying political ideology, because the gospel is the “ideology.” Proclaimed authentically, it accomplishes effortlessly what different empires, cultures, religions, and ideologies have attempted without success. As expressed in Revelation 14:6, the gospel is able to permeate barriers of otherness, and unite strangers from “every nation, tribe, language and people” (NIV)8 in solidarity, while recognizing their individuality and identity. Again, by directing us to worship the Creator-God, the gospel also heals our alienation from nature (Revelation 14:7).
Above all, the gospel is about the “new heaven” and the “new earth” (Revelation 21:1, NIV), which tells us that God, not some human-caused or natural catastrophe, will bring history to an end. And when we embrace the Creator-God, “we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and the mountains quake with their surging” (Psalm 46:2, 3, NIV).
*I am indebted to Robert Ford, Chehalis, Washington, for the “fear factor” element I used to organize this article.
1 Max Weber, in H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 139.
3 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 53.
6 Weber, p. 78.
8 Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Article Author: Elijah Mvundura
Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.