Back in the 16th century there was a famous German Anabaptist prophet named Melchior Hoffman who not only predicted the end of the world, but the exact place it would happen.
Anabaptism sprang up during the Protestant Reformation as a branch of the Lutheran faith and, simply put, its adherents believed you couldn't be baptised as an infant because hadn't given your consent. As such you needed to be re-baptised, thus the word "Anabaptist" means, literally, "baptised over again".
Anabaptism's more radical (and violent) followers had a few other beliefs that didn't sit well with the Catholic church and monarchs of the time, so many thousands of them were beheaded, burned at the stake and drowned (quaintly known as the "third baptism") as heretics.
Anyway, to cut a long story short (which you can listen to in fascinating detail here), Hoffman claimed Jesus would return to earth in 1533 and the End of Times would start in the German city of Strasbourgh (nice specificity, eh?).
This obviously never happened, but the prophecy informed the teachings of his considerably more violent followers, Jan Matthias and Jan Van Leiden, who in turn preached the end of the world would happen in 1534, in the German city of Munster.
This led to the truly horrific and bizarre Munster Rebellion and the deaths of thousands and thousands of Anabaptists for whom, I suppose, the world really did end.
I started thinking about Munster and the Anabaptists recently while reading British author Ian McEwan's 2010 satirical novel Solar, which is about climate change.
The story follows a jaded Nobel-winning physicist who, at first, questions the legitimacy of global warning and the apocalyptic urgency of the warnings given by its believers.
"There was an Old Testament ring to the forewarnings, an air of plague-of-boils and deluge-of-frogs, that suggested a deep and constant inclination, enacted over the centuries, to believe that one was always living at the end of days, that one’s own demise was urgently bound up with the end of the world, and therefore made more sense, or was just a little less irrelevant.
"The end of the world was never pitched in the present, where it could be seen for the fantasy it was, but just around the corner, and when it did not happen, a new issue, a new date would soon emerge. The old world purified by incendiary violence, washed clean by the blood of the unsaved, that was how it had been for Christian millennial sects – death to the unbelievers! And for Soviet Communists – death to the kulaks! And for Nazis and their thousand-year fantasy – death to the Jews! And then the truly democratic contemporary equivalent, an all-out nuclear war – death to everyone!
"When that did not happen ... and in the absence of any other overwhelming concern beyond boring, intransigent global poverty, the apocalyptic tendency had conjured yet another beast."
The new wrinkle to the "End of the World" narrative with climate change and anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is that we instead have to "save the planet" which has always struck me as a classic case of mis-stating the problem.
We don't need to save the planet because it will be here, percolating, long after we're gone. The biosphere will remain, albeit altered to make human habitation impossible, yet strange new life forms will emerge.
As the comedian George Carlin says in one of his famous routines, "The earth will shake off human beings like fleas from a dog".
To my thinking, Anabaptist prophets such as Hoffman, Matthias and Van Leiden had a better understanding of human nature than the entire conservation movement does today - they appealed to self-interest rather than virtue, yet allowed this self-interest to masquerade as virtue.
Saving yourself from the apocalypse was only possible by following their rules.
I strongly believe we need to do something about climate change and AGW, it's just we have the pitch wrong and until we tell people they're saving themselves, instead of the earth, I can't see much traction building.
To those of you who disagree - who think virtue will somehow overcome the ancient short-term self-interest of humanity - I offer you another quote, from another German, Arthur Schopenhauer.
"The true philosophy of history lies in perceiving that, in all the endless changes and motley complexity of events, it is only the self-same unchangeable being that is before us, which today pursues the same ends as it did yesterday and ever will.
"The historical philosopher has accordingly to recognise the identical character in all events and, in spite of all the variety of special circumstances, of costumes and manners and customs, has to see everywhere the same humanity. Throughout and everywhere, the true symbol of nature is the circle."
Amen, to that.
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