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The climate apocalypse is also a religious crisis

Extrapolations’ Dorothy Fortenberry on God, Laudato si’, and the climate crisis.

A Black Jewish rabbi appears to be talking.
Daveed Diggs in Extrapolations.
Apple TV+
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Climate change presents us with an unusual apocalyptic moment — and not just because various natural catastrophes and cataclysms are part of its effects. “Apocalypse” means a moment of revealing, when the curtain blows aside and we see the world as it really is. We see ourselves as we really are.

That’s what the Apple TV+ show Extrapolations aims to be: a mirror, held up to its viewers — many of them well-off and comfortable, the kind of people who might assume climate change won’t touch them all that much — to show them who they really are. The answers can be tough to face. Coming to terms with the reality of what could happen due to climate change can raise huge questions and emotions — about guilt, fear, depression, selflessness, and the meaning of life.

Having watched the show, I wanted to talk to someone about it — and I could think of nobody better than Dorothy Fortenberry. She’s a writer and producer, and co-showrunner of Extrapolations. Created by Scott Z. Burns, the guy who wrote the 2011 pandemic film Contagion, Extrapolations takes a hard look at the human experience ahead. The eight episodes tell a series of stories spread out over 30 years, starting in 2037.

Fortenberry and I spoke for Vox’s podcast The Gray Area about a wide range of topics — choices the show’s writers made about technology, fossil fuels, and more; the complex relationship between individual action and corporate responsibility; and why climate change robs us of not just our future but also our past.

But the most interesting part, for me, was when we got into religion — both how religious communities are going to have to confront the effects of climate change and why this apocalypse is, in some ways, an inherently religious one. We discussed Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’, his first major letter to Catholics as pope, a document less about persuasion and more, as Fortenberry argues, about contextualizing climate activism in terms of human dignity. You can hear our full conversation on the podcast, and read the part about these topics below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

There is something inherently religious about the climate crisis, and not just because flooding brings to mind the very first apocalypse on record in many religions: a big flood. The climate shift is sort of biblical in proportion. And it raises questions that religion has historically attempted to answer.

Religion is one of the areas in which we consider the entire world — the whole planet. You’re thinking about every animal, every plant, all the creepy crawly things, all of the people. That kind of mindset is pretty unusual in most aspects of our life; we don’t often walk around thinking about the entire globe and every live thing upon it.

But it’s also important when you think about climate change to contemplate every live thing on the planet. If there is a God, then that is the perspective of God, right? God is capable of understanding and imagining and holding in mind this notion of all living things. And that’s the perspective that we try to, I think, aim for when we think about climate change.

So I think that for anyone who has ever spent any time thinking about the notion of a higher power — certainly a deity that created the universe — it maps very neatly onto climate change, because you’re considering such big stakes.

And then exactly as you said, so many religious texts, including the Old Testament, are full of stories where people screw up and then there’s a huge natural disaster.

Like a flood, or an earthquake, or a fire.

People just sin, and they’re told not to and they’re like, we’ll stop sinning tomorrow. And then eventually, the only consequence of their tremendous quantity of sin is a huge natural disaster, which destroys almost all of them.

The few that survive are like, we are definitely not gonna sin again. And then of course they do, and there’s another natural disaster — all of which also maps very neatly onto climate change. The repeated warnings, the reluctance to give up sinning. So I think for somebody who thinks about religion, it’s not a big stretch to put those two on top of each other.

A Black Jewish rabbi crouches near a machine in a flooded synagogue.
A flood, in Extrapolations.
Apple TV+

I had come into the project as a person who was already considering climate change and religion quite a bit. It was something that was very important to me that I was grappling with, and I was really grateful to be able to join [Extrapolations] at a time when they knew that they wanted to have an episode about a rabbi and about religion, but there was a lot that still had to be figured out. I felt really grateful that I got to kind of raise my hand and be like, hang on, let me jump in here. I’ve got something to say.

Religion and religious spaces provide a physical location for people to come together and have feelings collectively. Which is another thing I think that climate change evokes, and that people really often struggle with [finding] a way to process. People often feel their climate feelings alone, looking at their phone, seeing a sad tweet, feeling kind of doomed, and there’s not anywhere that you can go. And I think one of the things about religious buildings is that they are the place where you go for the wedding, they’re the place you go for the funeral, they’re the place you go when there’s a baby, they’re the place that you go after the disaster. There’s one place where you go for all the different kinds of feelings.

And climate change creates so many different kinds of feelings.

Climate change brings up a lot of feelings for us. You know, I was thinking about the feeling I have on an unseasonably warm day in the winter.

It’s spooky!

It’s spooky, it’s confusing, and I feel happy to be in the sunshine and also full of dread.

The show really digs into the depression that climate change can bring on — a slow-rolling depression that really settles over people when it starts to feel like, well, what’s even the point here? If I’m a teenager and I can see this coming, and I know I can get involved with activism, but it also really feels like nobody cares who should, then I’m gonna have these feelings of depression. Other people have feelings of guilt to deal with — sadness and guilt and fear of mortality.

This is something religious leaders often have to deal with and help people through. How much of this went into writing the show?

We were thinking about how religious leaders can help people through these feelings of overwhelm. One of the things that [religious communities are] supposed to be there for is to deal with someone when they’re in grief, when they’re going through a period of depression or anger or any difficult feeling, and shepherd them through that.

As a Catholic, I come from a perspective of going to confession. It’s a place you go when you feel bad. There’s a physical place you go, and then you say all the things that you did wrong. And you’re not just let off the hook. You’re given the task of improving your behavior in the hopes that you will not be quite as bad as you were the last time — but you also know that you’re gonna be back at confession a year from now. It’s a duality that acknowledges that you’re never going to reach a place where you don’t have to show up and say what you did wrong, but also that you are capable, perhaps, of improving upon your past behavior and having slightly different superior sentences to confess to next time.

I think those feelings have to have somewhere to go or they ought to have somewhere to go. It’s very difficult to be sitting with those feelings alone. It’s really hard to understand yourself as a carbon-emitting entity on the planet. The whole notion of a carbon footprint can make us feel like the most efficient way of reducing our input would be to stop existing, which I think is horribly bleak. It’s helpful to have somebody else, who’s maybe a professional, guide you through a way of understanding yourself as someone who is, through every action, contributing to this problem, while also finding reasons to keep going, keep the faith, keep hope alive, keep working toward something better.

I guess that explains why it feels like Laudato si is such an influence on this show.

I am very fond of Laudato si’. It’s Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, on care for our common home. It is a long essay — a short book — about climate change, its causes, its effects, possible solutions. It’s my personal favorite piece of climate writing. I do go around handing it out, which is perhaps somewhat demented, but I think it is underdiscussed, especially by people who are very interested in climate change and not at all interested in the pope — which is a lot of people who are very interested in climate change, fair enough.

But I think people who think all day about climate change often notice an absence of a humane approach. I think there can be a tip in the climate discourse toward despair. There can be a temptation to view all of humanity as the bad guy. Laudato si’, coming as it does from the pope, views people as gifts of God, that every single person on the planet is supposed to be here and they’re all made in the image of God and we’re so lucky to have them.

I think that kind of generosity toward all of humanity is something that the climate movement as a whole could really benefit from embracing, and [Pope Francis is] able to do that while not sparing the fact that there are absolutely people who are responsible. He’s very happy to call out oil companies, gas companies, wealthy people, people who like having nice little organic gardens but don’t like having anybody who’s not rich living next to them. He’s really good at naming all of the people who are responsible while also holding this deep love for all humanity.

He also has a particular relationship to technology, which I think we also tried to capture in the show — that technology can’t be good or bad. Technology is just something that we make, and then we use it in ways that either make things better or worse. But a technological fix is impossible unless it is deployed by humans collectively with their eyes on the collective good.

Laudato si’ is very much about privileging short-term gains over long-term effects, and how that creates a throwaway culture, right? Where it’s not just poor people, but elderly people, or people with different mental capacities, who are pushed to the margins in a culture that privileges the short term over the long term.

When you look at the climate movement and you look at the environmental movement, there are definitely strains and people within it who act like some people are disposable, or like it’d be great if some people didn’t exist, or didn’t have so many kids, or stopped being so gross.

I think that is a bad strain in the climate movement. I think it is correcting for that now and is not as bad as it used to be. But I think there’s certainly still room to have as capacious as possible an understanding of all the people.

It goes back to that, like, God perspective. Can we really hold every single person, including severely disabled people, including very old people, including very young people — can we hold all of them in our head as deserving a planet to live on?

Extrapolations is currently streaming on Apple TV+. New episodes drop weekly on Fridays.

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