Hayom Harat Olam – “Today is the birthday of the world.” It’s one of the signature lines of Rosh Hashanah, and it might be the best, most basic definition of the holiday. Every new year, we celebrate the renewal of yet another cycle. Every Rosh Hashanah we anticipate a new round of possibilities for our lives and our world.
Judaism is deeply rooted in multiple cycles, actually: daily, weekly and yearly rhythms that revolve around each other simultaneously. We observe them as a way of maintaining our own personal balance and equilibrium – but also as an expression of our empowered faith. As Jewish tradition would have it, when we live according to these sacred cycles, it is said, we help maintain the equilibrium of the world itself.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow described this phenomenon beautifully in his classic book “Seasons of our Joy:”
Long ago our people believed that if we celebrated the cycle, the cycle was more likely to continue. The rains would come when they were due, the sun would shine more warmly in its season, the crops would grow – and die, and grow again.
And if we celebrated the cycle, we believed, our deliverance from slavery would come again. The spiral of history would keep on circling upward if we lived through the spirals of our past… And the cycle would also help us as individuals. It is intended to help us feel more deeply, more intensely, the cycle of feelings that make us fully human.
While I’ve always connected with this spiritual approach, I’ll confess it hasn’t come so easily to me in recent years. Over the past few Rosh Hashanahs, I’ve wondered: what does it mean to affirm a cyclical worldview in the era of global climate change? With each passing year, we render our planet that much less livable. Every Rosh Hashanah, we seem to inch ever closer to a deadline that represents the earth’s point of no return. How do we celebrate the birthday of the world when the world itself is literally unraveling before us?
It isn’t just an academic question. There’s a strong case to be made that the disruption of our planet’s rhythm is affecting the natural rhythm of our lives as well. In a sense, it’s flattening out our cyclical view of the world and making it more linear. We’re experiencing the world less in terms of cycles and more as “beginning, middle and end.”
There’s a time-honored word for this ominous concept, and I’ll put it plainly: it’s called apocalyptic thinking.
Now I know this is a religious term, but when I use it, I’m not just talking about theology. I’m interested in something deeper. I’m interested in the ways we ourselves engage in apocalyptic thinking – those of us who aren’t religious extremists, or even religious for that matter. I want to explore how end-of-days thinking has become culturally normalized in this 21st century moment to become part of the very oxygen we breathe.
Statistics seem to bear this claim out. It’s been reported that over the past two decades, there’s been a marked increase in the stockpiling of food, provisions and weapons in preparation for an upcoming cataclysm. According to one study, nearly three in 10 adults in the US think it’s likely that there will be an apocalyptic disaster in their lifetime. There’s also been increasing enrollment in survivalist courses; schools that train people in the practical skills they need to live in the wake of catastrophe. The owner of one such course recently commented on this phenomenon in the press: “I feel like people sense an impending doom … they feel like something’s about to happen, a shift in our society, a shift in our way of life – and they want to be prepared for whatever, be able to forage off the land, be able to do whatever it takes to get by.”
On a less quantifiable level, I believe that apocalyptic thinking is harbored even by those of us who aren’t hoarding food and drafting survival plans. I’m willing to wager that a growing number of folks are fantasizing about leaving it all behind to live off the grid – if not in anticipation of an upcoming disaster, then at least to move to higher ground. To escape to a place where they can keep the perils of 21st century life at bay.
It’s been observed that this attitude has become an indelible part of our cultural zeitgeist, reflected, among other things, in the explosion of post-apocalyptic movies, TV shows and video games. It’s certainly not difficult to understand the appeal of these dystopian fantasies. They function as a kind of cathartic outlet of our innermost fears, yet at the same time, they reassure us. They simplify the complex, overwhelming truth of our world. They give us the chance to start over again. After the apocalypse, life might be hard, but it would be simpler and more understandable. The good guys and bad guys would be clear and obvious. We’d have a straightforward sense of what we needed to do to survive.
While I enjoy a good zombie movie as much as anyone, I do think these entertainments are a reflection of something very deep in our collective subconscious. And that’s what scares me – even more than the zombies. Indeed, there’s something deeply conservative and reactionary at the core of these dystopian fantasies. They almost always look to a strong hero or a messiah to save the day. By definition, there is always an in-group and an out-group: those who will be included in the future world and those who must be annihilated. They always focus on the journey to a better, safer future for the survivors. At their core, these stories reflect a deeper desire to wipe the slate clean and recreate a kind of mythic idyllic past that never actually was.
More than anything, I think, these dystopian narratives reflect the fears of a privileged group that feels its power slipping away. Bear this in mind the next time you watch the armies of the undead coming to eat the flesh of the brave survivors. Just remember the rhetoric of many white Evangelicals and QAnon followers: how they utterly dehumanize and demonize those who don’t fit into their view of the world. As we indulge in our post-apocalyptic fantasies, we shouldn’t forget that there are increasing numbers of religious extremists in the US who are actively laying the political groundwork for the apocalypse in order to remake the world in their image.
On another level, when we engage in apocalyptic thinking, whether we realize it or not, we’re engaging in a form of surrender. We’re essentially admitting that it’s over – that we’ve lost. Apart from the abject defeatism of this attitude, I can’t help but think that it’s a profoundly privileged way of thinking. Because, quite frankly, there are millions of disenfranchised people in our own communities and around the world who are already living through the apocalypse and have been for some time. Perhaps we need to stop fearing the future and pay closer attention to the cataclysm that’s going on right now.
This is, for me, the most insidious thing about apocalyptic thinking: it focuses on the future at the expense of the present. Even as there’s every indication that the climate-related apocalypse that so many fear has actually been well underway. As I speak these words to you, Puerto Rico is reeling from the devastation of yet another hurricane – one that left the entire island without power and most of its residents without running water. In Pakistan, heavy monsoons have washed away whole villages, displacing more than 33 million people. Last year, over 59 million people became involuntary migrants – most of them displaced by climate related disasters. Yes, there are millions in our own backyard and around the world who are already experiencing the apocalypse in a real way right now, in real time.
One of the most impactful books I read this past year was “The Next Apocalypse: The Art and Science of Survival.” It was written by Chris Begley, an anthropologist, archaeologist and wilderness survival instructor who has studied the collapse of ancient civilizations throughout history. Begley convincingly argues that everything we assume about the coming apocalypse is wrong. He points out that most civilizational collapses were not the product of abrupt cataclysms. Rather, they were the result of extensive, multiple crises that had various causes that took place over a long period of time. In general, collapses of societies tend to be characterized less by sudden catastrophe than by change and transformation.
Begley also makes it clear that when it comes to global climate-change we need to accept that this process of change is, in fact, already underway. He writes,
From our data about the past, I imagine that the process of collapse has already started, with environmental problems as one cause and political and social issues – particularly inequities in wealth and power exacerbated by neoliberal policies over the last half century – as the other. How quickly the unraveling will proceed, and how long until we realize that the process is going on, are harder to devine. Some processes, like climate change, are understood sufficiently well that, while unknowns exist, evidence suggests it will create profound and negative changes on a global scale.
As a survival course teacher himself, Begley definitely advocates being prepared for emergencies – and he writes extensively about the skills that will likely be needed to survive the cataclysms that are most likely to occur in our lifetimes. But he also points out that survival skills are short term solutions, designed for the self-preservation of individuals. In the long term, he writes,
Adaptability and flexibility will be key to survival. Surviving and thriving after the next apocalypse will be all about community. None of us will be able to go it alone…If we are tempted to exclude people, we must find another route through the disaster. We must include everybody, or we are not in a sustainable pattern.
“Surviving and thriving after the next apocalypse will be all about community.” I can’t think of a better antidote to apocalyptic thinking. So often this mindset starts and ends with “how will I make it through?” “How will I protect myself and my loved ones?” But if or when a cataclysm occurs, our sustainability will ultimately depend upon our ability to cooperate for the long haul. We will have to accept that in the end, it must be all of us or none.
What does this mean in practical terms? One example comes immediately to mind: in the face of unprecedented climate migration, I strongly believe we must become unabashed advocates for a world beyond borders. On this particular subject, I’d like to quote to from another must-read book for Rosh Hashanah: “Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval,” by Gaia Vince:
Migration, whether from disaster to safety, or for a new land of opportunity, is deeply interwoven with cooperation – it is only through our extensive collaborations that we are able to migrate, and it’s our migrations that forged today’s global society. Migration made us. It is our national identities and borders that are the anomaly…
I’ve visited people in refugee camps in different countries across four continents, where millions of people live in limbo, sometimes for generations…As our environment changes, millions more risk ending up in these nowhere places. Globally, this system of sealed borders and hostile migration policy is dysfunctional. It doesn’t work for anyone’s benefit.
Here’s another practical example: those of us who live in the Global North, who are responsible for around half of all emissions since the Industrial Revolution, who produce a carbon footprint 100 times greater than that of the world’s poor nations combined, must continue the fight to reduce the carbon emissions that are endangering life on our planet. And locally, we must keep fighting for emergency funding, for stronger infrastructure, for rapid response capacities, most particularly for our most vulnerable communities. According to Jewish tradition, pikuach nefesh – saving a life is sacrosanct. And even as we pass various doomsday deadlines, yes, even in the midst of an apocalypse, these kinds of policies and measures still have the very real power to save lives.
Finally, we would do well to remind ourselves that the most committed and inspired climate activists are those who are most directly affected by climate change. Indigenous peoples in particular have long been on the front lines of this struggle. We would do well to learn about their efforts, support them, and most important, to follow their lead. Because if they have not succumbed to despair, then neither can we. In the words of the great Cherokee leader and activist, Wilma Mankiller, z”l: “The secret of our success is that we never, never, give up.”
When we engage in apocalyptic thinking, we reduce the climate crisis to a singular future cataclysm, while holding tight to the illusion that everything is still somehow “normal.” But if we resist the impulse to project our dread into the future, we can better recognize and respond to the transformative changes that are occurring even as we speak. Particularly those of us who have the luxury to live in parts of the world that are relatively safe from the disastrous impact already being experienced by so many.
Accepting that it is already happening frees us up to discern more clearly what we can do right now. It allows us to live in the world and to respond to its changes with knowledge, creativity and compassion. When we admit that this transformation is already underway, we can stand down the fear and dread that is so prevalent in our culture. It gives us permission to move with these changes. It reminds us there is still a great deal we can – and must – do.
After all, as our liturgy will remind us, even in the midst of the most devastating of changes, our actions “ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’gezeirah” – “avert the severity of the decree.” Or as Chris Begley puts it, “there are no natural disasters, only natural phenomena that we convert into disasters via our responses.” When you think about it, the essential message of the High Holidays is the polar opposite of apocalyptic thinking. On Rosh Hashanah, we are asked to look deep into the latest turn of the cycle and face the all of our world. Then, and only then, can we go forth and greet the new year.
So, this Rosh Hashanah, let us continue to dance to the rhythms of the cycle even when it becomes increasingly painful to do so. After all, it has ever been thus. Every new year, we pray these prayers that are filled with trepidation. We will say out loud that in the coming year there will be no guarantees – that some of us will live and some of us will die. But at the same time, we will affirm that this world is worth fighting for, no matter what may happen in the coming year and beyond. And most important we will affirm this all together. Because we know that however much time we have left, it must be all of us or none.
Shanah Tovah – may it be a healthy and liberating New Year for all. And may we commit together to making it so.