The buzz around Noach Baumbach’s latest film, “White Noise,” based on Don DeLillo’s eponymous novel, is already hailing the film as apocalyptic. Set in a Midwestern town shrouded in a toxic waste spill, “White Noise” explores how a man-made natural disaster jolts the lives of the college professor Jack (Adam Driver) and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig).
Much like Adam McKay’s catastrophe-driven “Don’t Look Up” (2021), “White Noise” comes at a time when news stories and opinion pieces that describe climate change as some sort of apocalypse seem to pop every other week. In the past month alone, the New York Times has run headlines like “Another Step Toward Climate Apocalypse” and “God and Horses and the Pre-Apocalypse.” Given its frequent appearance in pop culture and op-ed pieces, as well as its profound significance to Christian beliefs, is the term apocalypse losing its significance as a meaningful term to describe our present moment?
When activists and journalists invoke apocalypse to talk about the crisis of climate change (or, for that matter, pandemics and political violence), they take a page out of their ideological opponents’ playbook, which uses the same apocalyptic rhetoric to stoke racist fears for political gain. To be sure, for climate change activists and opinion writers, apocalypse might be a helpful shorthand to communicate the surrounding fears of disaster and human suffering and a way to broadcast an urgent call to action (and indeed, there is an ongoing debate in the climate change community about whether to use the language of catastrophe or meliorism in public messaging).
Yet apocalyptic thought is central to right-wing fear-mongering about immigration and the promotion of racist conspiracies such as the “great replacement”—the belief that a cabal of powerful Jews are flooding White America and Europe with Black and Brown migrants to politically disenfranchise White Christians forever. The “great replacement” has been a theme of former President Donald J. Trump’s speeches, from his inaugural address’ warning of “American carnage” that only he could stop to his remarks from November 2018 that “large well-organized caravans of migrants are marching towards the southern border” for an “invasion.” Only days before, the gunman that opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh complained that Jewish organizations “bring invaders to kill our people,” meaning White people.
Indeed, as my research shows, this is not a uniquely recent phenomenon. There’s a long history that links apocalyptic and racist thinking: even in Shakespeare’s time, the English regarded Spaniards as a menacing Satanic threat, not simply because Spain was a Catholic economic rival to Protestant England, but because Spaniards were viewed as having a bloodline tainted by satanic ancestry.
Such racist apocalyptic rhetoric does not emerge in isolation, but is a consistent part of right-wing ideology. When Tucker Carlson, for example, talks about how “they”—the liberal “ruling class”—care more about migrants than about the average American, he doesn’t need to mention the Apocalypse of the Bible explicitly to communicate that his audience—“us”—is waging a zero-sum battle of good against evil.
In many ways, the reason why climate change activists and racist conspiracy theorists alike invoke the apocalypse, either directly or indirectly, is that apocalypse is a notoriously broad term that evokes simultaneously the broadest human hopes and fears regarding universal justice and power.
If you ask theologians or historians what apocalypse means, they’ll point out the term’s Greek etymology of mystical unveiling, or they’ll talk about how the biblical Book of Revelation (aka Apocalypse) hearkens to Jewish beliefs about the end of life or the political prophecies that predict the future triumph of God’s righteous justice over evil.
Evangelical Christian believers, meanwhile, may tell you that the Book of Revelation reveals God’s plan for future history: the succession of earthly political power, the persecution of the faithful, and God’s ultimate establishment of an eternal, just kingdom for his chosen and the damnation to destruction of those who opposed him. The Christian faithful (the “us”) are chosen and sealed to Christ the Lamb, while the Beast, the Antichrist, and his followers (the “them”) are marked for total annihilation.
Secular pop culture’s references to the apocalypse are typically some grab bag of a catastrophic disaster that kills lots of people and reorders society (i.e. “Mad Max” franchise or the asteroid plot-driven movies of the 90s). Or, in short, something really bad is going to happen. Indeed, Hillary Rodham Clinton during the final months of the 2016 presidential race pitched her campaign to defeat Mr. Trump in apocalyptic terms, saying “I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse.”
In other words, the 2016 presidential election had no shortage of self-proclaimed saviors. Trump promised to save America from the migrants and the liberals; Clinton promised to save America from Trump.
Given these various understandings of apocalypse, when climate change activists invoke the apocalypse in its secular sense, they tend to overlook and ignore a large group of Americans— evangelical Christians—who view the apocalypse in broadly different terms, leading to this group’s potential alienation from the climate change conversation.
The key differences between climate activists’ apocalypse and the right-wing conspiracies or racial apocalypse are timing and power. For climate activists, the apocalypse is a bad thing, it should be avoided, and it is up to humankind to prevent it. For some evangelical Christians, the apocalypse is a good thing, it is inevitable, and humankind, with the direction and help from God, must prepare the world for it by countering their enemies’ quest for power.
Perhaps the language of apocalyptic fear and crisis will not exit public discourse anytime soon—it is too valuable to let go for its power to provoke. But if we are serious about addressing political polarization and stagnant policymaking in our present moment, activists and journalists may want to stop throwing around a term that is synonymous with perhaps the most polarized view of human politics—a protracted, zero-sum fight between good and evil.