“Is this the end of the world?”
“It usually is.”

That zinger appears near the conclusion of the kooky and wonderful Post-Rapture Radio, Russell Rathbun’s 2008 novel, which inventively satirizes American Evangelicalism for its shallowness and materialism. Toward the end of the novel, an eccentric, quasi-prophetic figure called Idiot John—a stand-in for John of Patmos—responds to another character’s plaintive query with that sardonic quip. I’ve recited that bit of dialogue fairly often, because it’s true: from a certain point of view, the world is always ending.

At the moment, though, apocalypse seems to press especially heavily upon us. Yesterday afternoon, I sat in a lecture hall at Calvin with a hundred or more undergraduates and professors, listening to Prof. Allen Webb of Western Michigan University offer a recitation of the bad news about earth’s climate. It was a familiar litany: the climate is warming ten times faster than ever in earth’s history; half the greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere arrived there since 1970; we are already at a 1.2 degrees Celsius increase in average temperature when our limit is 1.5 or 2.0 at the very most; we are already at 415 ppm CO2 when our limit is 350 ppm; feedback loops turn dire conditions into exponentially more dire conditions. And so on.

(I’m not here to argue the facts. See the IPCC report, the NOAA report, Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, etc.)

What struck me yesterday was the weight of this dreadful reality on the young people in the room. They will live in a different world than the one I was born into in 1965. Even in a best-case scenario, if everything goes splendidly well in the next twenty years, college students today will live through a rapid transition to an entirely different economy. They will have fewer luxuries, travel less, eat more simply. Drought, flooding, and enormous storms will continue to increase in frequency and severity. Climate disruptions will continue to force migrations, putting enormous stress on political systems, threatening or exacerbating international and regional conflicts. Middle-class college students in rich countries will struggle enough; poor people in poor countries will suffer desperately; in fact, they already are. That’s a best-case scenario.

My colleague Dave Koetje is now teaching a biology course at Calvin called Global Health, Environment, and Sustainability. He surveyed his students to see how they were feeling about the state of the earth. He used some of the same questions from a survey done by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. The results? Of his 25 students, 15 were alarmed and 7 were concerned about climate change. That total of 78 percent compares to 52 percent in the general American public. It makes sense that young people are more afraid than older people. They have to live in this world longer than we do.

I look around me at all the lovely undergraduates on my campus, finding their way, majoring in speech pathology or nursing, trying to make friends, missing their hometowns and families, looking forward to weekend activities like rock climbing and baking cheesecake brownies (and doing their homework, of course)—and I think: what will become of you? What have we done to you, most of us unknowingly and unintentionally? What will we do for you, now that we know, now that every choice we make or do not make is, by definition, knowing and intentional? How will you carry the burden of living in this disrupted world? What can we do to prepare you?

At lunch before the lecture, a small group of professors and students chatted with Dr. Webb. At one point, one of my younger colleagues, a philosophy professor, explained that she was engaged to be married, and she and her fiancé are wondering, in light of the climate crisis, whether to have children. A senior pre-med student, also engaged, confessed the same worry.

We discussed the carbon footprint of a child in the U.S. compared to a child in the developing world, relative population demographics in richer and poorer countries, whether population control was feasible or advisable. We discussed whether it was fair to bring a child into the world in the flagrant hope that this person might become a heroically gifted chemist or something who would solve the CO2 problem and usher in a golden age.

When my husband and I had our three children in the 1990s, we did not grapple with such weighty matters. I suppose I wondered vaguely about whether to bring a child into a world of pain. But young people these days are asking, perhaps in whispers so quiet they hear them only in their own hearts: am I willing to bring a child into the end of the world?

I realize that probably every generation before us has wondered whether the world was about to end. The signs of the end that Jesus cites in Matthew 24 are pretty much always recognizable. Still, the mechanisms of destruction today are global and already in motion. Survival will require much more than a few global leaders not pushing nuclear buttons. It will require massive, long-term, cooperative effort, the very best of human ingenuity and the human spirit.

Are we up to it, we humans, so infinite in faculties and yet the quintessence of dust? Or is it time to conclude with the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, “All is hevel”? Hevel is the Hebrew word for that which is evanescent, weightless, meaningless. Or, as Hamlet might say, apropos of climate change, “a pestilent congregation of vapors.” Would even our best efforts amount to hevel?

The author Jonathan Franzen published an article last week in The New Yorker in which he called for an end to pretending that we can “solve” the climate crisis. It’s not that we shouldn’t do anything, but rather that we should admit the truth that we’re never going back to the way things were, climate-wise. We’re not going to “win” this.

Franzen’s position is based not only on the most reliable predictions and models but also on his rather pessimistic view of human nature. So the question now, he writes, is where to put our hope and how to shape our actions. What ethical imperatives apply beyond simple, consequential questions of what works? What must we do even if it won’t, in the end, “work”? His answer is that we must do what is right. Set our sights, one might say, on virtue ethics. Act to reconcile and repair, build community, create as many ecological and human spaces of life and shelter as we can. To translate into a term I’ve been exploring lately, we must create refugia.

Much of this work, like it or not, will fall onto young people. I lament the burdens they must bear, the work they must do while fighting a battle against despair. If we want to believe that all is not hevel, if we want them to believe that, then we must all help bear the weight of this time with them.

I worry about my children, the three precious, unique young adults God brought into the world through my husband and me. All the days ordained for them were written in God’s book before one of them came to be. Did we bring them into the end of the world? I don’t know. I pray not.

For their sake, I’m trying to do the next right thing. For their sake, I’m making the arrangements to put solar panels on my roof. For their sake, I’m participating in the climate strike next week. Working and praying, ora et labora—that’s the only way I know to wait on God and hope for miracles.

Thanks to Prof. Webb for the idea to use the image above. Photo credit: Kristi McCluer. Thanks to Dave Koetje for sharing the results of his class survey with me. Thanks to the people at the lunch table for tipping me off to the Franzen essay and for their honest and thoughtful conversation.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. I am also the mother of three children old enough now that I can’t tell you exactly where all of them are at the moment. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin College, where I have been on the faculty for twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over a hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers.

11 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Unfortunately, this one is particularly good. Thanks, Debra. I read it after my morning daily office, and the collect for Saturday is about rest. I’m thinking also about our need to rest, to practice Sabbath, and its active countering of “hevel”, its relation to refugia, how it’s like a weekly strike, etc. etc.

  • Dale Hulst says:

    Thank you for writing, and for ora et labora.
    One step at a time (and trying to avoid being the people in the picture…and repenting when we are!)

  • Tom says:

    This is NOT to argue that climate change is not real and not something to be concerned about, but there’s a reason why older folks are less alarmed than younger folks. It’s not because we don’t care enough, it’s because we’ve lived a while. Personally, I remember back in about 4th or 5th grade, reading in the old “Weekly Reader” (anybody else remember that?) about how the earth was cooling and there was concern about a coming Ice Age. I have no idea if that was a credible prediction or where it came from, but as a ten year old, it had me worried!

    In college, I recall lots of discussion of Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, which began with this confident statement: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Ironically, although the population did increase roughly as predicted, the food supply increased even faster, such that severe famine today only exists due to disastrous political situations, not a shortage of food. (Also ironically, Paul Ehrlich still stands by the book).

    I could go on with example after example of doomsday predictions, but I won’t. Maybe the end of the world IS upon us – Aesop’s boy was eventually right about the wolf, I suppose. But forgive some of us for being concerned but not alarmed. In the end, I expect that at the turn of the next century, humanity will have faced some challenges due to climate change and will have dealt with them mostly successfully. Perhaps climate change will even have been the most significant challenge faced, although I suspect other concerns will raise their ugly heads in the meantime. It is primarily a technical problem and humanity has proven itself remarkably adept at solving technical problems.

    I also expect that we’ll still be lying and stealing and killing just like we’ve been doing since Adam and Eve ate that apple, and that’s the real problem with life here on earth.

    I am pasting below links to a podcast and an essay that take more measured views of our climate future, if you’re interested.

    https://www.podbean.com/ew/pb-bqu32-a91c53

    https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/how-to-worry-about-climate-change

    • Kevin Caspersen says:

      https://www.apnews.com/bd45c372caf118ec99964ea547880cd0

      Here’s another resource referencing that we’ve heard all of this story before.

      • Mero says:

        Thank you Tom. So refreshing.
        A few years ago Lake Michigan was going to dry up.
        Also aids were supposed to kill us all.
        The end is going to come but it will be in God’s time, thankfully.
        Oh I did read the Weekly Reader.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      I hear this, Tom. I really do. And I do hope that the most dire predictions turn out to be beyond what we actually experience. However, we do have to be careful about the fallacy of false analogies. Is the current situation enough like previous situations to allow complacency, or is it different enough to be more alarmed? We have to keep in mind the pervasive effects of warming throughout vast global systems and the feedback loops that accelerate the effects. Moreover, I would disagree that this is primarily a technical problem. It is most deeply a moral and spiritual problem. Even now, the fact that climate change (coastal flooding, droughts and agricultural stresses) is affecting the poorest people the most–that in itself places moral demands on those of us who are wealthier and more secure. The spiritual aspect goes right down to our relationship as humans to the rest of creation. We have moral and spiritual work to do as well as technological problem solving.

      • Tom says:

        Debra,
        I’m with you for the most part and I hope the first sentence of my comment made clear that I don’t argue that climate change is not a problem. I do believe there’s a lot of fear-mongering going on that overplays the “crisis” while at the same time ignoring other issues that are at least as worrisome. From what I see flying around in the news, social media and the democratic presidential debates, it seems there’s a large part of our population under the impression that eliminating carbon-based fuels and AR-15’s would solve most of our problems. This strikes me a wrong-headed and rather foolish way to think about the world. Along with climate change, there are a multitude of things with the potential to cause equal or greater suffering and misery – (from the link posted in my original comment):
        + Overuse of antibiotics around the world could render them useless in the face of rapidly evolving bacteria.
        + The rising sophistication, ubiquity, and interconnectivity of financial systems threaten a global economic meltdown of the type only narrowly averted in 2008.
        + Nuclear weapons, particularly when some world leaders see potentially willing to use them.
        + Continued advancements in nanotechnology — especially if weaponized- seriously frightening possibilities here!
        + the sustainability of the Western welfare state, given the tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded entitlement liabilities and a debt that seems out of control.

        And, lest anyone conclude I’m a right-wing kook (I’m a little right-wing; I don’t think I’m a kook), this quote comes from the IPCC’s report: “for most economic sectors, the impacts of drivers such as changes in population, age structure, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, and governance are projected to be large relative to the impacts of climate change.” Basically, this is saying that while climate change is a problem, it’s likely not our most significant problem. In other words, we may be indeed be near “the end of the world”, but we might be surprised by what does us in.

        My main point, I guess, is that I think we need to talk about the issue in realistic terms. While speaking in extreme terms such as “crisis” and “end of the world” might seem affective in bringing attention to the issue and galvanizing action, in reality it damages the chance of actually making meaningful change. Proposing that the world will end if we don’t retrofit every building in America to be carbon-neutral by 2030 (as in the Green New Deal) is hopelessly unrealistic and immediately drives the vast majority of Americans to the opposite side of the debate.

        Also – to push back on the main thrust of your comment: as a Reformed Christian working in a technical field, I’d rather not separate ‘moral and spiritual work’ from ‘technological problem solving’. Obviously, our faith places moral demands on us to alleviate the suffering of the poor. But resources are not infinite and trade-offs are a fact of life. What’s more impactful, fighting climate change or reducing poverty in desperately poor countries? What if reducing poverty means building some coal-fired power plants to provide reliable electricity and all the benefits that come with it? I tend to think on way to help the poor is to help them not be poor. Climate change DOES disproportionately affect the poor (frankly, most everything bad disproportionately affects the poor) because they live in tin shacks that blow away in hurricanes and a host of other reasons, all related to the fact that they are poor.

        Last! The difference I do see between ‘moral and spiritual’ and ‘technological’ problems (as opposed to ‘work’) is that technological problems ARE solvable. Given the fall and total depravity, moral problems are not fundamentally solvable. The best we can (and must!) do is work to alleviate suffering and check injustice as best we can. I’m afraid it’s a fact of our life on earth that we’re doomed to be disappointed in the result of our efforts.

        (that was much longer than intended when I started. I know you’re an English prof – while I did have Steve VanderWeele for English 351 back in the day, this was quickly written before starting my workday, so please forgive any grammatical and syntactical violations).

  • DAVID E TIMMER says:

    We will all have a lot of repenting to do when we are forced to acknowledge what we have done to our grandchildren. But when the sorry tale of culpable ignorance and ideological insanity is written, I hope a special chapter is devoted to E. Calvin Beissner and the Cornwall Institute, who did so much to destroy the movement toward climate responsibility among American Evangelicals, and who helped re-fashion the Republican Party into a mighty engine of denialism for a crucial decade.

    • John vanStaalduinen says:

      Ideological insanity is not only a Republican party platform as you suggest, one of the Democratic presidential candidates made “climate change” his only agenda. He has since dropped out of the race because he never polled above 1%. “Climate change” apparently has no traction in the Democrat party.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    “(Earth’s survival) will require a massive, long-term, cooperative effort, the very best of human ingenuity and the human spirit.”

    Sounds like free-market capitalism.

    Nuclear power and low-emission natural gas power plants would cut Co2 emissions drastically. Who’s with me?

    Once this is solved, can we start making babies again?

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Fortunately, so far, though we have heard it all before, enough fell on non-deaf ears to make a difference and perhaps defer doomsday(s)—the Green Revolution, reductions in air pollution and acid rain, clean-ups of rivers and lakes, restoration/preservation of greenspace and wetlands, etc. But if we don’t stay vigilant, we lose ground.

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