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Climate Change As Divine Punishment

Maybe you have wondered why Al Gore in his 2006 film proposed us to repent by taking shorter showers, saving the energy from our insignificant computer LED, and compulsively switching the light off. This behavior would have, alas!, stopped the hurricanes, fenced the infinite deserts and prevented the great flood. The cultural and merely cultural translation of climate change lies in divine punishment.

There is a thick parallel between the 16th and 17th centuries’ Black Death and the climate change discourse of the early 21st century. Until the 1700s the concept of natural catastrophe did not exist – it was all circumscribed by divine punishment as a materialized effect of the individual fault of human.


On this very similarity the Swedish historian David Larsson Heidenblad bases his study named “Our Own Fault” in which he shows the striking similarities between today’s notions of anthropogenic climate change and pre-modern ideas about divine punishment.
Climate change, as cultural discourse – we must stress this obsessively for this article is by no means challenging the science behind global warming, in mid 2000s was no longer considered a green issue in the margins of high politics. It was increasingly becoming an everyday concern. From a cultural historian’s viewpoint the calls for individuals to alter their way of living in order to avoid future catastrophes is a distinctly familiar pattern. The theme was an ever-recurring feature of the pre-modern Judeo-Christian World where wars, famines, and epidemics were repeatedly depicted as God´s punishment for the sins of man.
Why do the climate alarms of the early 21st century resemble pre-modern ideas about divine punishment?, questions the researcher.

“Both late modern ideas about anthropogenic climate change and pre-modern ideas about divine punishment are based on the strongest knowledge authority of their time – the natural sciences and theology respectively. Both these fields share pretensions of universal validity for their knowledge. Hence neither threatening climate change nor ideas about divine punishment have been portrayed as a matter of individual interpretation, but instead as indisputable realities – truths. The fourth point is that every individual is seen as being a part of the problem. In the pre-modern religious worldview no man was free from sin and in the present times of climate change no man is free from carbon dioxide emissions. The individual ecological footprint can be greater or smaller, but it is nevertheless a footprint. No one, at least not in the West, is seen as free from guilt.”

Secondly, deems Heidenblad, “human is seen as having a moral responsibility to his surroundings. Some courses of actions are deemed detrimental while others are deemed beneficial. Everything man does affects his surroundings, which in turn affect man. The abstract greatness which man stands in a direct relation to – Nature and God respectively – is not the same. But structurally there is an overall similarity in that man is not deemed to be self-sufficient.”

But what are the causalities of the guilt / carbon footprint and of the final punishment?

First, there is a moral causality; we are responsible for our own misfortunes. We elude the moral imperatives of an ecological life.

Then there is a structural causality; it’s the system’s fault! The typical example, economically accurate, lies in the greedy and destructive nature of capitalism.

causalities-climate changeRandom causality is there when it is all related to chance of hazard; all volcanoes erupt or an asteroid hits the Earth.

There might be a way higher force beyond any idea of human control; this would be the fatalist causality.

Localized causality exists when a number of individuals carry the burden of being guilty for the final destruction; examples are various and revolve around “America is the greatest polluter and the utter cause of climate change” or “oil companies are responsible for global warming”.

Visions of the future of the pre-modern human were invariably grim, in expectation of the Judgement Day or the second coming. It is only in late 18th – early 19th century that we believe in progress and science became a tool for our mere existence. Moral causality declined until 1961 – the Cuban Missile Crisis – when the world was on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. Ever since, moral causality went only upwards peaking in the climate discourse in the first decade of our century.

James Lovelock, despite his scientific basis of the Gaia theory, also touches this issue in the Revenge of Gaia even though the author does not make any judgements on individuals’ morals. Nonetheless, the great punishment is there and it is similar to the book of Isaiah.

“Our planet will burn like a crisp and, along with it, civilisation. Humanity, returned to its former ape-man status, will be lucky to hang on, grunting in the odd, deep cave. ‘The world is fighting back,’ says Lovelock. ‘Like the Norns in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, we are at the end of our tether, and the rope, whose weaves define our fate, is about to break.'”

The famous French intellectual, Pascal Bruckner, also warns against environmentalists’ disaster prophecies of imminent planetary catastrophe. “The planet is sick. Man is guilty of having destroyed it. He must pay,” Bruckner sums up the message of his latest book Le fanatisme de l’Apocalypse (The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse). “Consider . . . the famous carbon footprint that we all leave behind us[…] What is it, after all, if not the gaseous equivalent of original sin, of the stain that we inflict on our Mother Gaia by the simple fact of being present and breathing?”

All in all, the French author accuses environmentalists for imposing climate change alarmism as the dominant ideology in the West, whilst he is elegantly pleading for a 1960s sort of golden age and mere hedonism.

As churches and religious denominations are assessing the climate crisis, new mixes of doomsdays are prone to spring up in the years to come.

Raul Cazan

Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death
Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death

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