This is a modified excerpt from the chapter “The Shapes of Apocalyptic Time: Decolonising Eco-Eschatology” published in The Environmental Apocalypse: Interdisciplinary Reflections on the Climate Crisis
In recent debates in environmental humanities, the concept of climate apocalypse has been criticised as possessing a problematic temporal structure.
The notion of eco-apocalypse, it has been argued, presupposes a linear view of time centred on a future or present climate catastrophe, which disregards “ends of the world” experienced by non-Western communities in the past. In other words, the notion of climate apocalypse operates with a model of history which is Western-centric and therefore blind to the past (eco-)catastrophes caused, for example, by European colonialism.
While I agree with the above decolonial critique, I believe that the concept of climate apocalypse – and the concomitant view of history – can be reformulated. Perhaps counter-intuitively, resources to articulate a less Western-centric model of (eco-)apocalyptic time can be found in the works of the medieval monk Joachim of Fiore.
Joachim is best known for his division of history into three stages or status: the age of the Father – corresponding to the events of the Old Testament; the age of the Son – marked by the domination of the Catholic Church; and the final age of the Holy Spirit – which Joachim envisaged as a time of monastic orders. Joachim frames the events of the apocalypse as a transition from the era of the Son to the era of the Holy Spirit.
Although the progressive movement through the three eras is undoubtedly built on a linear model of time, in Joachim’s conception of history the linearity of history is often articulated in terms of cycles. Thus, for Joachim, eschatological predictions presuppose a spiral movement of historical time, where historical meanings move forward cyclically.
Joachim, a prolific illustrator, famously pictures historical time as three intertwined circles. One reason why Joachim might have imagined the relationship of history’s three stages as interlocking circles is his view of history as structured around a repetition of meaning – or concordance – found in the parallels between people and events of the Old and the New Testaments. For Joachim, history moves forward in a cyclical movement which repeats the significance of particular characters and events across the past and the present status.
Importantly, for Joachim, the concordance between characters and events of the present and past status, offers a possibility of anticipating the shape of the future era. Concordance does not reduce the differences between given characters or events, merging them into one, single entity. If it did, history would be purely circular – constituted by the repetition of the same event or character – and consequently could not be moving towards the next, qualitatively distinct status.
Concordance finds identities across history; however, what the parallels reveal are specific historical developments between repeated meanings, significant from the point of view of the era to come, because it is these developments (say, between Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Zacharias, John the Baptist and Christ), which allow us to anticipate the next status.
But how do Joachim’s ideas on time allow us to address the Western-centric structure of eco-apocalyptic history?
While the content of Joachim eschatology can undoubtedly be accused of Eurocentrism, he nonetheless develops a formal model of time compatible, at least in part, with the demands of decoloniality.
In contrast to a purely linear time with its exclusive interest in the present or future ends, the spiral shape of history enables us to account for past “ends of the worlds” in its concordance with ends-to-come. In other words, present and future climate disasters should be understood as related to, and oriented by apocalypses of the past.
For example, as Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro point out, on the one hand, the end of “the great Mesoamerican civilization… [a] pre-Columbian end of the world… can serve us as example and warning regarding contemporary processes in which economy and ecology are entering collapse-inducing feedback loops” (106). On the other hand, any discussion of the current climate catastrophe cannot be separated from its relation to the end of the world brought about by European colonialism, “when the New World was hit by the Old one as if by a giant celestial body” (104-105).
Furthermore, the parallels between the worlds’ ends can help us to identify historical developments, and thus anticipate a qualitatively distinct status demanded by the present situation. For example, past extinction events can be seen as offering insights into the character and the conditions of possible future extinction events; but in so doing, they also point towards changes necessary for a habitable earth for communities most affected by the destruction of their ecosystems.
In short, the spiral model of history views past apocalypses as necessary both for understanding present and future environmental catastrophes, and for putting forward transformative political solutions.
However, we can object – while it may be possible to reconcile Joachim’s eschatological understanding of time with a decolonial project, it is not clear if eschatology adds anything new to decolonial theory. Why should we painfully re-interpret largely compromised eschatological tradition, if we can construct new notions more immediately grounded in decoloniality? Similarly, why should we struggle to map old apocalyptic ideas onto the climate catastrophe, if modern decolonial philosophies equip us with a plethora of categories suited to address the contemporary environmental crisis?
Two possible uses for Joachim’s eschatology help respond to the above objection.
First, some decolonial thinkers employ categories and theoretical models which possess an undoubtable eschatological inflection. For example, in The Politics of Decolonial Investigations, Walter D. Mignolo argues – in a manner which recalls the Joachimite concept of the transition between the three status – that we are experiencing a change of epochs: a movement from an era marked by the dominance of Western modernity (what Mignolo calls the “second nomos”), to another era of “de-Westernization and decoloniality” – the “third nomos” (484-485).
Here, Joachim’s model of spiral time can help us to theorise the specific character of the epochal change suggested by Mignolo, by offering the tools to, on the one hand, identify the parallels between the elements constitutive of the different eras, and, on the other hand, anticipate future epochal developments.
Second, an apocalyptic view of history attentive to multiple ends of the worlds can provide a useful temporal supplement for decolonial philosophies which operate with a notion of the “pluriverse.” The spiral view of time can articulate the historical relation between various (un-)making of worlds without, however, obscuring the distinctiveness of individual worlds and their ends.
Of course, possible limitations exist due to Joachim’s particular geo-historical (European and Christian) context, and turning to a Western thinker in order to address a problem with Western-centrism may seem like a performative contradiction.
Nonetheless, it is my claim that eco-eschatology – that is to say, environmentalism attentive to the ends of the worlds – does not necessarily reproduce the Western-centric standpoint. In fact, the eschatological focus on the end of the world can effectively lend itself to a decolonial project.
The rhetoric of climate apocalypse, therefore, doesn’t have to be abandoned altogether, although the understanding of time operative in the eco-apocalyptic discourse must be re-thought through times of transition towards a pluriversal future that we cannot know.