It is notable, that for much of human history, people have thought that they faced an apocalyptical challenge.40% of Americans currently say that they believe the world will end in their lifetime. The early Christians thought the world would soon end and Christ would come again to judge the living and the dead and that the just would go on to live in a paradise on earth. There have been all sorts of apocalyptical movements in most world religions. Often they became dominant at a time of suffering and despair. They frequently contain an idea that God is punishing us for our misdeeds, that we should return to our true faith and that God will then rescue us and usher in a long period of justice and peace for all true believers.

It was Augustine who got Christianity off the hook of the early Church’s belief in the imminent end of the world which it had inherited from early Jewish thinking. Many Christians had seen Rome as the beast that dominated the world and persecuted Christians. But when Constantine became a Christian and Rome became the Church’s friend, this idea had to change. After that, when Rome was defeated and destroyed, the old ideas needed updating. Augustine saw the Church as being the representative of Christ on earth for a thousand years and justice and peace coming to us in heaven rather than on this earth.

Since the enlightenment, we have tended to sneer at such ideas. We believe instead in rationality, democracy, science and progress. But the old millenarian thinking still lingers and has seen an upsurge in recent years. Thus we have Christian fundamentalists in the US who are yearning for the “rapture” which will transport all true believers to meet Jesus and signify the end of the world. This movement sells millions of books and was a significant part of the coalition that brought George Bush to power. And it is stunning to realise that 40 per cent of Americans currently say that they believe the world will end in their lifetime.

Such millenarian thinking has a long history in Jewish and Christian tradition and emerged in Islamic tradition in the seventh century. In this period, it was predicted that the Mahdi would arise in the east, raise an army march to Iraq and establish his messianic kingdom there after purifying the Muslim world of evil. Interestingly, Jesus was seen to be part of this. It was believed that Jesus would appear prior to the messianic kingdom and would slay the anti-Christ, sent to test the Muslims and then pray behind the Mahdi. It is perhaps not surprising that some of the modern Islamist movements have reached back to this tradition.

ButApocalyptical pictures of the possible end of the world resulting from global warming and other environmental strains, belong to a very old tradition. They reflect pessimism about the current state of the world. They warn of great destruction unless we build a more sustainable and just world order. this deep tradition that history has meaning and purpose and that after suffering and struggle we will build a world of peace and justice is not confined to religious thinking. Marxist analysis follows the same tradition and it is probably significant that Marx’s father was a Jewish rabbi. And now, we have a new secular apocalypse, the end of planet earth.

What I want to argue today is that apocalyptical pictures of the possible end of the world resulting from global warming and other environmental strains, belong to a very old tradition. They reflect pessimism about the current state of the world. They warn of great destruction unless we build a more sustainable and just world order. I also believe that our present way of life has become decadent, destructive and unhappy. The challenge is to build a new, more moral, sustainable and generous civilisation. But we should remember that the idea of apocalypse was not originally all gloom and doom. It was a warning of terrible destruction and contained a promise of peace and justice on earth. I believe we need to embrace the risk of apocalypse to recapture hope and energy in order to create that world of justice and peace.

I am myself a child of the 1960s, a baby boomer and therefore am part of the luckiest generation who have ever grown up in this country. We were born when the suffering of the Second World War was over. We were given free orange juice, the NHS, expanding educational opportunities, full employment and a massive change in the life opportunities of women compared to our mothers and grandmothers. I have always been a deep optimist. I have believed, until recently, that if we work hard enough and stand up for what is right, then everyone in the world can be given the chances that were given to my generation. But in recent years, I have come to believe that if we go on as we are, we are facing a series of tipping points that will lead to mayhem, terrible conflict and suffering and a possible end to human civilisation. It is shocking to say this out loud. But it is my sincere conclusion. We know of course that the world will end in 3 billion years when our sun burns out, but that feels a comfortably long distance away. We know that we – homo sapiens – are only 160,000 years old and that until 10,000 years ago, we were hunter gatherers living in bands of 25-50 people. We know that other species have ended, from the dinosaurs to Neanderthal man. We also know that other civilisations have crumbled – Sumeria, Ancient Greece, Rome and many others. It is quite possible that we will end within a few hundred years. Some, much diminished members of human beings may remain, but our civilisation could be destroyed. It is not planet earth that is at risk, but homo sapiens. We are changing the earth, but it will remain. We may not.

What is the evidence? Everyone is aware that developments in  China, with India following on behind is shifting the balance of power in the world. Globalisation is spreading modern technology across the world and in China we have seen more people lifted out of extreme poverty in a shorter time that humanity has ever previously experienced. But, these developments are also testing our way of life to destruction. According to Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC, who is one of the leading US environmental analysts, if growth in China continues at 8 per cent a year, by 2031 China’s income per head for its 1.45 billion people will be equal to that of the US today. He said:

China’s grain consumption will then be two thirds of the current grain consumption of the entire world. If it consumes oil at the same rate as the US today, the Chinese will be consuming 99 billion barrels a day – and the whole world is currently producing 84 billion barrels a day, and will probably not produce much more. If it consumes paper at the same rate that we do, it will consume twice as much paper as the world is now producing. There go the world’s forests. If the Chinese then have three cars for every four people – as the US does today – they would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars compared to the current world fleet of 800 million. They would have to pave over an area equivalent to the area they have planted with rice today, just to drive and park them.

Mr Brown, who has been tracking and documenting the world’s major environmental trends for 30 years concluded:

The point of these conclusions is simply to demonstrate that the western economic model is not going to work for China. All they’re doing is what we’ve already done, so you can’t criticise them for that. But what you can say is it’s not going to work. And if it does not work for China, by 2031 it won’t work for India, which by then will have an even larger population, or for the other three billion people in the developing countries. And in some way it will not work for the industrialised countries either, because in the incredibly integrated world economy, we all depend on the same oil and the same grain. The bottom line of this analysis is that we’re going to have to develop a new economic model. Instead of fossil-fuel based, automobile centred, throwaway economy, we will have to have a renewable-energy based, diversified transport system, and comprehensive reuse and recycle economies. If we want civilisation to survive, we will have to do that. Otherwise civilisation will collapse.

You are all aware that despite our high tech civilisation we are dependent for our existence on the earth’s ecosystems; we are dependent on the climate system for our agriculture and the hydrological cycle for fresh water. We are dependent on pollination, carbon sequestration, soil conservation etc. Given this, we should be concerned that a recent study by 1,360 scientists, entitled ‘The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment” reported that 15 of 24 primary ecosystem services are being degraded or pushed beyond their limits. For example, three quarters of oceanic fisheries are being fished beyond their ability to sustain themselves and are in danger of collapse. 20 per cent of rainforests have been cleared either for cattle ranching or soybean farming, another 22 per cent have been weakened by logging. The pumping of underground water now exceeds natural recharge in countries containing half the world’s people, leaving many without adequate water as wells go dry. And during late summer of 2007, we received news of accelerating ice melting.

Mark Serreze, a veteran Arctic specialist, said that a couple of years ago asked when Arctic would lose all its ice, he would have said 2100 or 2070. He now estimates that it will be 2030 – just 22 years away. It is also now clear that the Greenland ice cap is melting much faster than was previously estimated. The same is true of the West Antarctic ice sheet. And the best scientists tell us that if both melt, sea levels will rise by 39 feet. It was previously projected that such melting would take centuries, giving us plenty of time to reach agreement on reducing carbon dioxide emissions and develop new technologies. But the danger is now accelerating alarmingly and we have much less time to take action. The same is true of the glacier that feeds the Ganges river in India and Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China. The threat to agricultural production in both of these massive countries is obvious.

These threats would lead to the displacement of hundreds of millions of people and damage very seriously the agricultural productivity of the world. Darfur is already an example of the conflict that is likely to follow the growth of population, shortage of water and degradation of the land. If action is not taken to avert these dangers, the future looks very bleak indeed. But, like all apocalyptical visions, painting this picture, which is a real threat, underlines the need to create a different future.

There are new technologies that help to make a different future possible. Denmark already gets 20 per cent of its electricity from wind and plans to raise this to 50 per cent. 60 million Europeans get their residential electricity from wind farms. By the end of 2007, 40 million Chinese homes will get hot water from rooftop solar heaters.

In Iceland, 90 per cent of homes depend on geothermal energy. Fish farming is growing in China, which is the country whose farmed output exceeds its oceanic catch.

South Korea was once a barren, almost treeless country. It has reforested, checking flooding and soil erosion.

Curitiba in Brazil restructured its transport system in 1974. Since then, the population tripled and car traffic declined by 30 percent.

In Amsterdam, 40 per cent of all trips are made by bicycle.

The conclusion is that there is much that we can do, but it means we have to create a new world order that is more just and equitable and a new kind of society that is less materialistic and more sustainable. The question is whether we can change fast enough to prevent disaster.

It is clear I have come to believe that if we go on as we are, we [we will face] a series of tipping points that will lead to mayhem, terrible conflict and suffering and a possible end to human civilisation. It is shocking to say this out loud. But it is my sincere conclusion. that people are becoming increasingly concerned about these threats and change is happening, but it is nowhere near fast enough. It is also increasingly clear that the way of life we share in the richer countries and to which the rest of humanity aspires, does not make people happy. We have increasing problems of loneliness, mental illness, obesity, drink and drug addiction, and the degradation of sexual love amidst our stupendous material wealth that would completely astonish our grandparents. The world is increasingly unequal and divided. The moral authority of the United Nations and international law is being gravely undermined by the behaviour of the wealthy countries and a new kind of warfare is spreading across the world. There is also a real danger of further nuclear proliferation. Our society and the world are increasingly unequal. Between now and 2040/50 world population will rise to 9 billion people and 90 per cent of the new people will be born in the poorest countries. Africa faces the worst threats as a result of climate change and has contributed least to its causes.

We have to change the way we live to, in Lester Brown’s words “from a fossil-fuel based, automobile centred, throwaway economy, we will have to have a renewable – energy based, diversified transport system, and comprehensive reuse and recycle economies. If we want civilisation to survive, we will have to do that.” These issues are increasingly on the political agenda worldwide. But in this age of sound-bite, focus group led politics; the politicians pick up on public concern and therefore feed back the promise of action. But that action is grossly inadequate and the promise is much less than the reality. We need to transform the way we live and this change will only come from the bottom up. I think the Transition Towns movement which began in Totnes and is spreading fast, which seeks to build localisation and increase local resilience against the coming threats is deeply valuable. But the change we need cannot be achieved only by local action. It requires a revolution in the way we live and the way the world is organised. Massive change has happened before. Lester Brown cites the example of how, after the attack on Pearl Harbour, the US economy was rapidly turned around to produce the instruments of war. In the UK, to fight against Hitler, we introduced conscription, rationing, women working with skills they had never previously been allowed to acquire, nurseries opened throughout the country and because of shortage and fair sharing, we produced the healthiest generation of babies the country had every known. The question is can we make the changes fast enough? I am afraid it will take more catastrophes before there is an adequate sense of urgency. But catastrophe can create an ugly response. There is a real danger that the response will be fascistic. Think of the reaction to 20 million refugees world wide and imagine how we would response to hundreds of millions. I have no doubt that change is coming, but will it be fast enough or ambitions enough? The only way we can survive will be in a more equal, more localised, more just and less greedy world order.

Like all apocalyptical visions, this prospect is a warning of what will happen if we don’t change. The point of facing up to this is to create the energy to make the change to create more justice and peace at home and abroad and to ensure that we all have the basic material things that wee need, and the access to education and healthcare and then we can seek life’s happiness in nature, poetry, spirituality, love and community rather than the constant acquisition of more and more material goods.

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  2. This vision is fascinating in multiple respects. It is simultaneously dystopian and utopian, presenting a narrative that combines an apocalyptic warning with the possibility of a type of secular renewal achieved through a process of personal and (especially) collective transformation. Like Pinchot and the WCED, this vision emphasizes the need to conserve natural resources and ecosystems as the foundation of a sustainable future, combined with the need to redistribute wealth to achieve equity in an ecologically limited world. Unlike the WCED, however, Meadows et al. present the seemingly straightforward argument that, because economic growth is the perceived driver behind resource depletion and environmental degradation, the cessation of economic growth should be embraced an operational objective in the attainment of sustainability.
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