May 28, 2019

MILLENARIAN THINKING LEADS TO HELL, NOT TO HEAVEN: Every once in a while, people start believing that the end of days is near and that if we don’t all repent immediately that end will be very bad. Almost always they are wrong.

It’s hard not to notice that we’re in a bit of a millenarian moment right now.   That’s true even if climate change is a genuine problem that will need, in one form or another, to be addressed. The way Members of Congress flocked to AOC’s “The world is going to end in 12 years” Green New Deal was truly astonishing. Who would have thought that anyone would jump to support a policy that reads like it was cooked up by a college sophomore on a binge weekend?

And don’t get me started about Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who is leading the children’s crusade against global warming in Europe (and being treated like a sage by European leaders).

If it looks and sounds like millenarianism, it is millenarianism.

Not every society has managed to pull itself back from the brink. Consider the fate of the mid-19th century Xhosa people of Southeastern Africa. Their “prophetess” was Nongqawuse–a teenage girl who was the Greta Thunberg of her day. She led her people to ruin.

One day in April or May of 1856, she went down to the river to do her chores.  When she returned, she said that she had encountered the spirits of several of her ancestors who told her that her people must destroy their crops and kill their cattle.  In return, the sun would rise red on February 18, 1857, and the Xhosa ancestors would sweep the British settlers from the land and bring the Xhosa fresh, healthier cattle.  (Some of their cattle had been suffering from a lung ailment, which may or may not have been brought by the British settlers’ cattle. Millenarianism is often arises in response to a real problem.)

Nongqawuse’s story struck a chord with some.  It started gaining momentum.

Stunningly, Sarhili, the Xhosa chieftain, agreed to do exactly as she urged.  Over the next year, a frenzy occurred in which it is estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 cattle were killed and crops destroyed.  Historians sometimes call it the “Great Cattle Killing.”

But on February 18, 1857, the sun rose as usual.  It was not red.  And the Xhosa ancestors did not show.  But the Xhosa people had destroyed their livelihood.  In the resulting famine, the population of the area dropped from 105,000 to less than 27,000.  Cannibalism was reported.  Following Nongqawuse’s advice was a calamity of staggering proportions for the Xhosa people.

Like Nongqawuse, climate millenarians tell us that the sun will soon rise red over the land.  Well, maybe.  But already the models that gung-ho climateers have relied upon have been proven wrong.  The intense period of warming that Al Gore predicted would arrive soon never came to pass.  Yet we are repeatedly told that it’s still coming.  In the meantime we are urged put the brakes on our use of energy–the very thing that makes the modern world possible–to avoid antagonizing the spirits of our ancestors … I mean in order to avoid climate disaster.

There are two more parallels to the Great Cattle Killing that are worth pointing out.  First, Nongqawuse’s urgings did not come out of nowhere.  Some of the cattle were indeed sick. The problem is that her proposed course of action was utterly disproportionate to the problem, just as the Green New Deal and other “the end is near” proposals are disproportionate given the state of our knowledge about climate.  Second, some historians believe that the Great Cattle Killing was in part motivated by class animosity.  The Xhosa people had been losing ground to white settlers for years, and some members of the tribe blamed their more prosperous members.  Cattle were a status symbols, and initially at least, the burden of their destruction seemed to be something that would fall disproportionately upon elites. The cattle were, in effect, the big carbon footprint of their time.

We don’t need Sarhilis in Congress.  For the record, I should point out that he perished in the famine.


(This is a re-working of an essay I wrote 10 years ago. The evidence of a coming climate apocalypse decreased during that decade, while millenarian fervor increased.)

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