When we die, we want to believe our time here on this earth was worth something, that we had a purpose and made a difference. In Apocalypse Never, Michael Shellenberger notes, “…secular people are attracted to apocalyptic environmentalism because it meets the same psychological and spiritual needs as Judeo-Christianity and other religions. Apocalyptic environmentalism gives people a purpose: to save the world from climate change, or some other environmental disaster. It provides people with a story that casts them as heroes, which some scholars…believe we need in order to find meaning in our lives.”
Throughout the book, Shellenberger, a “Time magazine ‘Hero of the Environment’, Green Book Award winner, and founder and president of Environmental Progress,” tackles commonly held beliefs regarding climate change. He explores everything from plastic contamination to animal extinctions. A common conclusion in his analysis of each situation is that 1) data regarding catastrophic environmental status was presented either incorrectly or incomplete, and 2) most climate change challenges can be remedied by more capitalist development rather than less, meaning the more prosperous a nation is, the better it is able to weather climate change disasters and fluctuations.
While I appreciate his in-depth analysis, it seems that the position he is taking isn’t much different than that of apocalyptic environmentalists (AE). Similar to AEs, he wants to make his mark in the world, and is pursuing this by compiling copious amounts of scientific data to debunk claims made by AEs and push forward his agenda through various political and economic channels.
While reading his words, I was reminded of the reality that researchers can make science say anything they want. During my undergraduate studies, I worked in a research laboratory at my university’s medical school. The lead researcher in the laboratory in which I worked was trying to find ways to help people with Type 1 Diabetes. My senior project included conducting experiments to discover DNA sequences associated with proteins that initiate insulin production. Research is grueling process. Experiments work and then they don’t. Along the way, you have to decide what data is valuable and what’s not; what results are highlighted and what isn’t. It takes a long time to discover possible solutions, and when deadlines loom, you want that possible solution to be the solution, or at least, a step closer to the solution. It is easy to make that happen based on how you choose to present the data. Scientific data is a moving target. Whether accurate or inaccurate, others build upon it and it continues to change and develop. The spectrum of knowing is always incomplete.
Biblical and theological studies are comparable in some ways to scientific research endeavors. As pastors and ministry leaders, we evaluate, pick, and choose what parts of scripture serve us and others best. Many motives fuel which passages we choose to highlight or potentially to discount. Often those motives are self-serving. They are the ones that favor our positions of power and platform or try to move us or others into a position of power and platform. As with science, the spectrum of scriptural knowing is incomplete, and filled with truths, half-truths, and sometimes straight up lies.
Shellenberger continues his thoughts of environmental religion by saying, “…it has become increasingly apocalyptic, destructive, and self-defeating. It leads its adherents to demonize their opponents, often hypocritically. It drives them to seek to restrict power and prosperity at home and abroad. And it spreads anxiety and depression without meeting the deeper psychological, existential, and spiritual needs its ostensibly secular devotees seek.”
As I read these words I wondered, “Is the American church any different? Have we not moved toward the extremes in ways that are also destructive and self-defeating? Do we not work to restrict power from marginalized groups? Are those in our congregations also left empty, depressed, and anxious because their deeper needs are not being met?”
As leaders, it is important to understand there is a spectrum of knowing in all things. In between the extremes, there is nuance. In order to understand nuance, we must be measured, curious, and humble. We must do our due diligence to explore various perspectives, working to comprehend the larger picture. When perspectives are passionately being flung to and from, we must be non-anxious, knowing there is always more to the story than is being presented. Such attentive leaders are able to discern fact from fiction, or at least be willing to examine what is presented as fact or fiction in a way that moves people toward wholeness through restoration in relationships and with creation.
In our current culture, being a levelheaded leader doesn’t garner much admiration. It is the extremists and the apocalyptics who are seen and heard most. So how do the quiet, measured, and thoughtful leaders make their mark on this world? How do they make a difference? How do they become the hero of the meaningful story?
I argue that they lean forward and steady on. In fact, it is the steady leaders throughout millennia that have brought us to this place and time, that have helped villages, cities, and nations grow and rebuild. They have quietly and persistently encouraged the masses of humanity to work in concert with one another, rather than against each other, thus moving humanity forward. Doing this work takes a steady presence, diligent spirit, and determined will to assume the best in others, and work for the best for others and this world. Doing this work requires us to release our desire to be the hero, and instead emulate our ultimate Hero, Jesus, who invites us to follow him. As we do, we discover meaning in life, hope in darkness, comfort in sorrow, and grace in all things, regardless of what “-ism” we are tackling.
 Michael Shellenberger. Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2020) 264.
 Shellenberger, 265.