By Rael Jean Isaac
Beginning in 1856, the Xhosa tribe in today’s South Africa destroyed its own economy. They killed an estimated half-million of their own cattle (which they ordinarily treated with great care and respect), ceased planting crops, and destroyed their grain stores. By the end of 1857, between thirty and fifty thousand Xhosa had starved to death — a third to a half of the population. The British herded survivors of the once-powerful tribe into labor camps, and white settlers took much of their land, as reported by Richard Landes in Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience.
The Xhosa had acted on the prophecy of a fifteen-year-old girl who promised that if they destroyed all they had and purified themselves of “witchcraft” (including evil inclinations and selfishness), the world before the white invaders came would be restored. The British oppressors would flee, and the Xhosa ancestors would return, bringing with them an even greater abundance of cattle and grain.
Do you feel a mixture of pity and contempt for these strange people who ruined themselves on the basis of an outlandish vision? If so, the feeling is misplaced. Just as the basis for the Xhosa economy was cattle, the lifeblood of our economy is energy. And we are strangling our own energy supply on the basis of an apocalyptic prophecy that has no more validity than the one that sent the Xhosa into self-immolation.
The apocalyptic vision to which we subscribe has a superficial scientific gloss — “climate change” — but at bottom, both visions prescribe economic suicide, and both promise that self-sacrifice will bring about a golden age. In the case of the Xhosa, that golden age was the time before the British invaded. In our own, to quote famed environmentalist David Brower (director of the Sierra Club and then of Friends of the Earth), it’s “back there about a century when, at the start of the Industrial Revolution we began applying energy in vast amounts to tools with which we began tearing the environment apart.”
Landes describes those who initiate and build support for these movements as roosters, for they crow an exciting new message, and their opponents as owls, those counseling caution and skepticism. To drown out the warning owls, roosters must rally elites to their cause. That is how the global warming movement made its inroads: with governments and a small cadre of activists taking the lead. Once the authorities pronounce themselves in favor of the prophecy and it “pays” to believe, many more ordinary people will join in. In the case of the Xhosa, the initial rooster was a simple orphan girl. The key to the triumph of her vision was her uncle, a well-known preacher and diviner who preached her message and convinced the chiefs — including the chief of chiefs, named Sarhili.
Apocalyptic movements are urgent. It’s now or never. If action is not taken quickly, it will be too late. Xhosa believers set about destroying their cattle and grain immediately. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (the global warming apocalypse owes more to the U.N. than to any other single institution) told the Global Environmental Forum in 2009, “We have just four months. Four months to secure the future of our planet.” More generously, Prince Charles in March 2009 gave us “100 months to alter our behavior before we risk catastrophic climate change and the unimaginable horror that this would bring.”
However, as Landes points out, just because the apocalypse is wrong does not mean that its effects are not profound. In the case of the Xhosa, the beneficiaries of the false apocalypse were the British — the very people the Xhosa thought they were expelling through their sacrifice took over the lands the Xhosa could no longer cultivate. China, which is heavily investing in the energy we spurn, is the most probable beneficiary of our folly.
How ironic it will be if, despite our pride in bringing down the Soviet Union without a shot, the twenty-first century, thanks to our self-destructive pursuit of an apocalyptic fantasy, belongs to a Communist dictatorship.
Rael Jean Isaac is a sociologist who has written extensively about social movements in the United States. Her latest book is Roosters of the Apocalypse, from which this article is excerpted.