Lars von Trier claimed that the inspiration for Melancholia (2011) – in which a wedding party is rudely disrupted by news that the earth is about to collide with a rogue planet – came during treatment for depression. Those who have lost all hope, von Trier was told by his therapist, respond more calmly than others in situations of crisis.1 It isn’t hard to see how this revelation pervades the ﬁlm. The anti-hero is the bride Justine who ﬁnds, within a state of profound melancholy, a lucid acceptance of the imminent end of the world. What unfolds is the juxtaposition of this acceptance against the clamour of trivial human desires, plans (including her own wedding) and petty disputes of those who surround her. Like the character interplay in Melancholia, Christian eschatological parables and
instructions revolve frequently around the juxtaposition of mundane human concerns alongside the expectation of the eschaton. Eschatology is concerned not only with reasoning about the end, but also the psychological-phenomenological experience and ethical orientation of believers towards it. Which imperatives (or prohibitions) of human action are generated by eschatological pronouncements? What does one do when the end is pronounced? It is a familiar literary and cinematic trope (one thinks of Don McKellar’s 1998 ﬁlm Last Night), but also well known to the audience of the New Testament. Believers in a newly cruciﬁed and resurrected messiah knew exactly what it was to hold anticipation of the messianic age in tension with the sober reality of living in the world in the time that remains.
St. Paul’s discourses on the inter-personal and social responsibilities of the interim period thus hold special importance for us: ‘the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none … for the present form of this world is passing away’ (1 Corinthians 7. 29-32). So much for abandoned weddings and encroaching apocalypses. What has this to
do with ethical thought in general, and for climate ethics in particular? Eschatology concerns that in which a believer may legitimately place their hope, from purely personal destiny (life after death) to the fate of the cosmos and the ‘end of all things’. It is also the doctrine that is most likely to have direct impact upon the direction of political action, generating attitudes that range from resignation and apathy to triumphalism in the face of future crises.2 A more speciﬁc problem facing climate activism is, however, that of radical uncertainty. Not over the reality of anthropogenic global warming, but rather uncertainty with regard to temporal thresholds (those of ‘tipping elements’, for instance) and their impact upon what is achievable and desirable through activism. If carbon emissions will commit the earth system to irreversible warming, is authoritarian governmental intervention or disruptive (and potentially violent) direct action ethically warranted? What measure of likelihood would be enough to validate such claims? And what sort of actions and behaviours are warranted when we are believed to have passed a critical threshold? Can we know what we ought to do when there is no way of knowing for certain how much time is left to do it? There is a quite broad concern here about the purpose and function of political action. But it invites a further consideration that relates us back to that dilemma facing St. Paul’s audience: how much information about future scenarios do we require to make sense of our time on earth, in the ‘time that remains’? To what extent does a vision of a diﬀerent future turn ethical life into a form of mere waiting as opposed to that of transforming the present? In the following I attend to these questions of temporal uncertainty, faith and
action. I do this ﬁrst by outlining what I see as the new pressures generated for both ethical and theological thought by anthropogenic global warming, speciﬁcally with regard to the meaning of political action given worst case scenarios. Then I look critically at the themes and thinkers in eschatology (with particular attention on Jürgen Moltmann) that have dealt most directly with these pressures: the tension between faith in personal and universal redemption; the tension between an ‘incoming’ future and that of a transformed present; and, ﬁnally, the importance and implications of a discourse of loss and mourning.