Monday, June 27, 2011

Environmentalism as Millenarian Movement?

When I was in college, one of my many majors was sociology/anthropology. It didn't last long... actually none of them did, and I ended up being a music major by default. But I digress...

Anyhow, back in my SO-AN days (as the department was called) I spent a semester studying millenarian movements. While many people relate the term millenarianism to the Christian belief in the second coming of Christ (which is technically called Millenialism), there are many examples of millenarian movements in indiginous cultures. They generally happen after one culture has been overtaken by another, and the folks on the losing side are struggling to deal with their situation. Usually they are characterized by a belief that the world has been somehow corrupted and a major societal transformation is on the horizon, which will bring the world into a new state of harmony and purification. Some classic examples are the Cargo Cults of Melanesia and the Native American Ghost Dance Movement.

Other examples include the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Shakers, The Heaven's Gate Cult and the Branch Davidians. My professor held the somewhat controversial belief that the hippie movement of the 1960's was also a millenarian movement. We spent a bunch of time analyzing the Joni Mitchell song "Woodstock" for millenarian traits (it was a fun class.) I always liked the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version better, but YouTube wouldn't let me embed it for some reason. So here's the original:

So it dawned on me the other day as I was cruising the blogosphere, that the green movement really does have a great deal in common with these other movements. Hmmmmm... I certainly believe that the world has been corrupted, and would like to think that a big change is in the works. Now I've never thought of myself as someone who would get swept up in a crazy cult, but it is an interesting thought...

What do you think?


  1. I remember a college class where the professor was always going on about how every generation in the history o' history clamored about TEOTWAWKI. And just this morning I read a tidbit about how homemaking enthusiasts have been complaining about how we have lost our grandmother's generation's skills since the early 1800s. Hell, didn't Plato even complain about the loss of a simple life?

    Pardon the cliche, but it does seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I don't really believe that change is afoot so much as more of the same is occurring. These "movements" feel more like the tide to me, ebbing and flowing in and out of our collective consciousness, yet somehow ever present. If that makes any sense.

  2. Ha! I had to go look up TEOTWAWKI. You make an excellent and somewhat comforting point. Perhaps existential angst is just an inescapable element of the human condition.

    I remember being shocked when I read "Walden" and Thoreau goes on and on about how terrible it is to be a farmer (what I always considered the quintessential "back to nature" profession) because you're locked into the system with a mortgage etc.

    Perhaps I should remember this next time I visit the CO2Now website and start to panic about atmospheric tipping points. I fear there's a little voice in the back of my head that keeps saying "but what if all of those other generations were just crying wolf..."

  3. You two are both so interesting!

    I didn't have to look up TEOTWAWKI because I saw it just the other day, used in all seriousness, on the website of an environmentalist...

    I think that where environmentalism merges into survivalism it can certainly start to look like a crazy cult. ECL, you talk about big change as something to look forward to, but the survivalist version is something catastrophic. Surely you're not twisted enough to look forward to that kind of change!

    Does environmentalism work as an idea without hope/fear of big change? The environment is so big that trying to influence it (or not, as the case may be) as an individual can seem futile, so perhaps that hope that everyone will catch on is necessary for us to "keep the faith" and not give up in despair.

  4. Not sure i totally understand the connection between "millenarian" and environmentalism. "Losing side" ??? Never thought of Shakers, Jehovah's Witnesses being labeled losers. Anyway--
    One sounds histrionic, fatalistic, unfounded mythos, while concern for the environment is founded in science. I agree the Morman, and others', belief in the writings of Revelations, etc. re "the second coming" and "end of the world", etc has devolved into institutionalized survivalism, but science is science, and we have damaged our environment. Whether that is irrevocable time will tell. Clearly if some of our practices don't change, things will get worse. A respect for the natural world and our place in it, is also not histrionic and has always been a part of cultures in tune with and dependent on their environment. What has happened to the rest of us has been a disconnect, and we are paying a price.
    This premise reminds me a bit of the bomb shelters, AND drills of the Sixties. There was great fear (well founded?) of a nuclear attack, and in retrospect seems silly. We weren't attacked (think Kennedy), but that fear not only caused a culture of fear and distrust, but also pushed Non-Proliferation Treaties. Not a bad thing.
    Catastrophe can happen, and being prepared is prudent. Cellars in Missouri, reinforced foundations in San Francisco are reasonable. So would have been constructing a Nuclear plant for worst case scenario in Japan, where earthquakes and tsunamis happen.
    Arming oneself and stockpiling for the end of the world, maybe not so reasonable. Always a judgement call; but clearly fear of catastrophe can push change, big and small.
    Its hard to tell with the predictions of environmentalists, because it IS big, and we've never been here before. The sad thing would be waiting for irrefutable proof; it could be as disastrous as waiting until a nuclear attack to negotiate a treaty.
    A great test is WHO is making the argument? In the case of environmentalism we have scientists with nothing to gain vs coal mining, plastics companies, big business.
    Indeed, who has something to lose???

  5. Jay--"Its hard to tell with the predictions of environmentalists, because it IS big, and we've never been here before."

    But that's the thing--we have been here before. 4 times over. The only thing that is different about this time is that we are in our present state (homo sapiens sapiens) as opposed to some gill-laden precursor, and we're causing most of the drama. Mass extinction ain't nothing new.

    I appreciate the love of science and am in complete agreement with the consensus on climate change. However, science is not infallible, and it's important to remember that it isn't an omnipotent diety capable of salvation. I would argue that there is no such diety; there are just really interesting questions with some really interesting potential answers. Granted, I am far more trusting of answers from scientific research than coal mining companies's profit-motivated marketing, but I'm all too aware of the heinous crap done in the name of science to award it Absolute Truth status.

    But yeah, preparation is grand. Paranoia is useless.

    ECL--I think the song is the same and the concern legitimate in each generation. Culture is not static, despite the consistencies (or at least that's my opinion!). And lawd knows the drama we are causing in this latest round could kill us off. Were past generations crying wolf? Or were they just ahead of their time? I dunno. I'm all about betting on the side of caution. Also? I love the Shaker movement. :P

  6. Yowza! Y'all have given me many things to think about and consider. BTW - I use the word y'all not as some expression of my southwestern heritage, but because I firmly believe that the English language is in desperate need of the 2nd person plural - it's a one woman movement on my part. :~)

    Rachel - Do I look forward to catastrophic change? Well... that's an interesting question. I suppose it depends on how you define catastrophic.

    I tend to agree with James Lovelock in that I think we have vastly overshot the carrying capacity of the planet. Right now our excessive population is only possible because of fossil fuels or "borrowed sunlight" if you will. So I think that one way or another our population is going to plummet. I would like to hope that people would find a way to do this in a controlled manner that didn't involve great human suffering, but I'm not sure I see that happening.

    But however we get there, I do think that a world with fewer people, and with societies that run at a slower pace on a more human scale will be a happier world, so I look forward to that eventuality.

    And I guess if I'm being totally honest, there is some part of me that gets a bit excited at the prospect of seeing the greedy bastards who have profited by plundering the planet go down in flames. But in truth, I know that the rich are not the ones who will suffer the worst consequences of environmental damage.

    Jay - You make excellent points. When I said "losing side" I was specifically referring to millenarian movements amongst conquered indigenous peoples like the Cargo Cults or Ghost Dance Movement. I also would not consider Shakers or Jehovah's Witnesses to be "losers". So I certainly did not mean that term in a pejorative sense.

    I also didn't mean to minimize the seriousness of the environmental crisis by suggesting that there might be a spiritual or millenarian component to it. I totally believe that we're headed for a cliff an 150 miles per hour. I think it's quite probable that our civilization will fall.

    So that brings me back to TEOTWAWKI. When you really think about it, while neither the world nor the human race has ended, a bunch of human societies have most definitely collapsed. So I guess when you're deciding if those fears are justified or not, you have to take into account the "as we know it" part of the equation. I mean for the Maya or the Anasazi, or the residents of Easter Island, the world "as they knew it" most certainly did come to an end.

    So maybe that's the crux of the issue. I think that a massive societal change is inevitable. I, like CF, don't necessarily think that the scientists and climate models have all of the answers (look at margarine if you need an example of how science has gotten it horribly wrong in the past), but I do believe that we have irrevocably changed our environment and there have to be consequences.

    Perhaps the "millenarian" part of it is the belief that I and many others in the green movement hold, that the post-upheaval world will end up being a better and happier one.

  7. Well said ECL!
    As I read thru your comments, it struck me that perhaps all the social weirdness (my perception) such as the reactionary nature of the "Tea Party", is the awareness of those folks of how close "they" are to TEOTWAWKI. There seems to be a hunkering down, a resistance to the end [aka, change], if you will. We are indeed, facing two different issues, a changing social AND physical world, but they clearly are pushing each other in SOME direction...
    Two other thoughts:
    I don't hold "science" in some iconic position, but usually can tell the difference between good science and bad/pseudo science. I find the latter to be incredibly despicable, and am disgusted with how it has been manipulated for personal/whatever gain. AND sad to see how gullible/ignorant some folks are.
    And -zero population growth had become a popular concept before Ronnie and the uprising of the "Silent Majority" :-)

    Maybe it's a pendulum, the farther we go in one direction, the farther it swings back in the opposite. Maybe we've gone too far... but I digress.
    Great conversation.

  8. I'm quoting Jay again--"Maybe it's a pendulum, the farther we go in one direction, the farther it swings back in the opposite."

    I think there is a great deal of truth to that statement!


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