Apocalyptic Narratives & Climate Change

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Apocalyptic Narratives & Climate Change

About the project

Apocalyptic narratives have become a staple of climate change communication. In scientific publications, government reports, popular entertainment, and the media, climate change is often framed in terms of impending global environmental cataclysm and social collapse. The primary cultural impediment to positive action on climate change is usually presumed to be denial—hence the need to cast the stakes of climate change in the dire imagery of imminent apocalypse.

Yet the very pervasiveness of apocalyptic thinking in the American grain may in fact make apocalyptic narratives less alarming rather than more. From infectious disease to war, a broad swath of the public has long interpreted social and environmental crisis through the prism of apocalypse, casting potential catastrophes and their causes in religious and moral terms. These apocalyptic visions are often narrated from the point of view of the survivors (the “elect”), thus reinforcing a sense that the end times need to be survived by remaining among the elect, rather than prevented through pragmatic action. More challenging still, several strands of American religion see apocalyptic cleansing as vital to genuine moral and social renewal. While religious in origin, these apocalyptic sensibilities have entered into everything from climate reports to novels, non-fiction books and movies, with tremendous consequences for public understanding and responses to climate change.

At the same time, we observe that apocalyptic framings may, in fact, be the most empirically appropriate way of narrating the radical threats to habitability presented by climate change. From rising sea levels and climate migration, to the collapse of insect populations and food supplies, to the potential extinction of over 1 million species, the language of apocalypse is arguably the most accurate way to talk about the world-historical, life-or-death urgency of climate change. Yet in the United States and beyond, whether and how that narrative style is compelling at the level of social action is far from settled. Apocalyptic framings of climate change may lead many to feel overwhelmed by the cataclysmic scale of the threats and so to avoid consideration or action.

In response, the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, the Narrative Storytelling Initiative and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory have partnered to develop an initiative that combines a study of apocalyptic thinking in the United States, and its global impact, with training in the literature and journalism of social change as a means for rethinking the ways that climate change stories are told. The initiative grew out of a seed grant funded by the Center and Global Futures, and is assisted by a grant from the Luce/ACLS Program in Religion, Journalism and International Affairs.

The project brings the expertise of journalists, climate scientists, and scholars of religious studies and the broader humanities to the task of telling better stories about the stakes of inaction on climate change. In addition to a series of workshops, writing projects, and public events, a centerpiece of the initiative is a new, interdisciplinary, combined upper division and graduate class, “Climate Narratives, Apocalypse and Social Change,” that will be taught for the first time in fall 2021. The class will culminate in the awarding of a prize for the best published narrative exploring the state of our planet and society—past, present, or future.