November 8, 2022 - 3:46pm

A few weeks ago, I was standing in the cobbled lane that runs between Norwich Cathedral and its exquisite 14th century gatehouse when I heard a man yelling. I assumed initially that he was one of the people who had come to protest a talk that I had just given as part of Norwich’s Hostry Arts Festival, but it soon became clear that it was not trans activism that was exercising him. 

No, this bearded, dishevelled man was prophesying the end of the world. “You won’t be smiling when your children are starving to death,” he shouted at me as I was hurried away, “climate collapse is coming for us all.” 

The security hired to escort me past the other set of protestors explained that this kind of wandering doomsayer has become a fixture in Norwich, a city that contains an unusually large number of political activists. Like most people, their attitude towards Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain and other radical environmentalist organisations was one of weary annoyance.

I suspect that, historically, this has been the typical view taken by ordinary people when met with millenarians of all kinds. The mediaeval setting made the sight of this figure in brown rags seem particularly archaic, but he has likely imbibed his vision of coming collapse from a much more conventionally dressed activist who is nevertheless drawing from our Christian past with equal fervour. Roger Hallam is one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion and, in a clip widely shared this week, has spoken of the future in apocalyptic tones:

The other thing about social collapse is the complete collapse of material security…What will happen is there will be episodes when… a gang of young men come into your house, they take your girlfriend, they take your mother, they put her onto the table, and they gang rape her in front of you. Then after that, they take a hot stick and they poke out your eyes and blind you.
- Roger Hallam

These kinds of visions — complete with a pornographic level of detail — are the emotional driving force behind the radical environmentalist movement, which is growing more extreme. In recent months, followers have escalated from the damage of property to the mortification of their own flesh. In April, an American activist died through self-immolation in the plaza of the United States Supreme Court Building. In September, another activist set himself on fire in London’s O2 Arena during a tennis match, although the flames were quickly extinguished. 

To describe this movement as religious — more specifically, Christian — should not be to dismiss it. It’s possible that these activists are right about the seriousness of climate change, and they are certainly motivated by a sincere belief in the justness of their cause. 

But then millenarians have always been sincere. It’s possible that the young woman who yesterday filmed herself standing on a motorway gangway and sobbing, “I don’t have a future” could, in other circumstances, have been a contented member of her local Anglican congregation, with her fears of apocalypse soothed by moderate Christian teachings. 

But it’s far more likely that people with this temperament have always been drawn more to the Book of Revelation than to the Gospels. Even if they express themselves in ostensibly secular terms, these modern millenarians are calling on radical, apocalyptic elements in Christianity that have been with us for two thousand years. This will not have been the first time that a self-styled prophet stood outside Norwich Cathedral shouting that the end is nigh.

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.