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Americans Who Believe in Christian End-Times Theology Resist Policies That Plan for the Future

Surprise. A new study calls this the effect of "the shadows of the future."
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It makes a certain amount of logical sense: If you believe the end times are nigh, why would you support policies, like taxes, designed to prepare society for the future? Especially if they come at some small personal cost? That's precisely the attitude that many Americans possess, a team of political scientists have discovered, and it prevents them from joining other Americans in passing policies that involve planning ahead. The scientists explain the perverse phenomenon in the most apocalyptically titled paper to be published in quite some time:

In "End-Times Theology, the Shadow of the Future, and Public Resistance to Addressing Global Climate Change," David C. Barker and David H. Bearce, political scientists at the University of Colorado and the University at Pittsburgh, purport to show that those who harbor a sincere belief in the Christian end times will be much less likely to support policies that benefit future generations.


For instance, conservatives often deride environmentalists who calling for policies to address climate change, as being "apocalyptic" or "alarmist" or preaching "gloom and doom." It's somewhat ironic, then, that the most steadfast critics of policies to defend civil society against climate change are also the most steadfast believers in religious Armageddon.

Or, as the paper puts it, "believers in Christian end-times theology are less likely to support policies designed to curb global warming than are other Americans." The authors insist that this goes beyond what is attributable to typical Republican dogma—members of the party are more likely to be Christian, and the party is ideologically opposed to climate change.

As Eric W. Dolan notes, "When the effects of party affiliation, political ideology, and media distrust were removed from the analysis, the belief in the “Second Coming” increased this effect by almost 20 percent."

Even amongst conservatives, who are typically opposed to policies intended to reduce industrial pollution for a number of other reasons—perceived increases in taxation, fears of government expansion, etc—those who believe in the Second Coming are significantly less likely to want to fight climate change. Which isn't really surprising. A popular attitude of the religious right is that of E. Calvin Beisner, the leader of the Cornwall Alliance who called believing in climate change "an insult to God." As in, the big guy controls the Earth's climate, and even deigning to believe that puny humanfolk could mess with the temperature is blasphemy. A large number of conservative pundits, congressmen, and public figures follow that attitude.

But what's truly interesting about the new research is the way it frames short-term thinking about long-term problems. Humans are reluctant to address all kinds of thorny multi-generational problems—climate change just happens to be the most urgent of them at the moment. We've got to look into combating economic inequality, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and so on and so forth, none of which contains an easy quick fix.

So the authors introduce the theoretical concept of "relative sociotropic time horizons," which the paper's abstract explains as follows: "the authors provide empirical evidence to suggest that citizens possessing shorter 'shadows of the future' often resist policies trading short-term costs for hypothetical long-term benefits."

That seems like a good way to think about this problem, through those "shadows of the future." If people actively see an end approaching, it truncates the scope of the world they live in, the timeline on which their actions will have an impact. And that's a real cognitive block that those of us who want the world to be a decent place for our grandkids have to overcome. We've got to find a way to drag the apocalypse cults, whether they're mainstream or not, gently out of the shadows of the future.