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Religion and the Anthropocene

I recently returned from an academic conference that examined conceptions of and responses to the Anthropocene. Many of you have heard this term already: it was coined over ten years ago by geologist Paul Crutzen to describe the impact that human beings are having on the deep structure of the globe. In geological time the Anthropocene is a mere eye-blink, a punctual supplement of maybe two hundred years. Human beings have altered the relative balance of the Holocene – the previous geological epoch, one that lasted ten to twelve millennia – in ways that we cannot foresee. The most we might expect is a future world of radical volatility.

My question and topic for discussion is deceptively straightforward: What is the proper Christian or even Catholic response to the Anthropocene? What does (our) religion tell us about a world that is fundamentally (and maybe even totally) dominated by human beings? Those of us on the religious left have already heard calls and exhortations to act. I’m not interested in hearing another exhortation. The Anthropocene emphasizes that we’ve already changed the globe. How does religion illuminate this particular past and its potential future? How does it shed light on a world without nature, a post-natural globe? How does it orient us in that speculative space?

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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Although it is not exclusively Christian, it is part of our teaching, Psalm 24:

"The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and all that dwell therein.  For He hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods..." 

We draw our fellowship with and commitmet to all men from the Creation story: we all are made in the image and likeness of God   But that theology is part of the general theology of God's initial gift of not merely life for ourselves, but life as part of His bounteous Creation.  For us to abuse God's Creation *because we can nd fr our, not His, purposes* is exactly the sort of usurption of power that we tradtionally associate with the Fall. 

Mark L.



Mark - well said.

Professor Geroux,

Like Cruzen, I a a geologist.  All credit to his term and his argument for it.

We should be careful to be clear that not all change to Earth have been deleterious.  [I see no duty to protect and encourage viruses and bacteria that are dangerous to us and other creatures or plants.]  We have come very close to eliminating smallpox; our abiliy to feed the world's population is greater than ever in the past; we have made great progress agaist scourges like childhood diarrheal diseases and maternal death in childbirth.

Additionally, I see no point in talking about a "post-natural" world.   There is still a natural world, and there will be at least until the end of our Sun.  It is not the natural world that existed before Man or even before Modern Man   But the laws of chemistry and physics still apply; there are active tectonic forces; photosynthess will continue, and natural selection.  Once there were dinosaurs, but they are gone, and yet we have a natural worlld.   The world was not "natural" when Jesus walked the Holy Land, nor when Moses crossed the Red Sea.

Our departure point should be, What kind of natural world do we wish to live in? This is a question that can be illuminated by thinking not only scientifically, but also theogically.  What is it we wish to accomplish?  Once we can answer that, then we can think about what can be done to protect what needs protecting, in nature and in our societies.  For the failures that Crutzen warns us of in our Anthropocene, we have the Usual Suspects:  Firstly a lack of Love (for God and his Creation, including our neighbors and the bounty we have been given).  Flowng for that, Wrath, Greed, and all the rest.

So, I must advise my client on a new mining project. I could begin by trying to ask myself: How can this contribute to a calculus of Love that reflects honor on God's Creation?  I have spent a lifetime, boy and man, trying to learn answers to that. Perhaps it is not possile at every site; certainly not with every mine plan and community agreement.  But still, there are possible, positive answers.  That is how I see my answer to the Anthropocene.

Mark L.




The Amthropocene Age cannot be predicted with any specificity-- people's wills make it essentally non-predictable. If we do manage to invent some worthy goals, there will be a process of aesthetic intuitions instantiated with the help of science and whatever is to hand.
... Counter, original, spare strange

There is no doubt that the future of the climate and the ongoing mass extinction are totally dependent on human choices and lifestyle. However, some people seem to think this means "human control" of the earth. The tsunami in the Indian ocean and the 9.0 earthquake off the Japan coast shows we are far from in control. The meltdowns at Fukushima illustrate we even have only limited control of our own technologies. And how can a creature control anything that doesn't control itself? The increase in human population is no different mathematically from the exponential growth of a bacterial culture and shows no application of intelligence or awareness. Yet, I see no hope of change without religion. Science will only remain a source of problems unless augmented by religious interpretation and insight. Science, by itself, is not enough.

Perhaps we're too smart for our own good.We're not "perched lighlty on the earth" anymore.Jesus told us to look at the birds that movie the birds, [i guess i have to say its my favorite movie since i remember it so well.especially the scene where the older woman reminds everyone of that saying of Jesus's.]We don't look to heaven as the reason for our existence and hence every endeavor is weighty ,of monmantal significance. Even though we all die we think and act like this is all there is.We'll keep advancing our knowledge, our quality of life even, but the more God recedes from our scientifc minset, the more we demand of ourselves.Where that leads ,i don't know.Not sure it leads anyplace good, Once while at the zoo i was looking out at a savannah like landscape [part of the'exhibit'], it was all green grasslands and there i suddenly noticed a big cat just walking about I imagined that  the whole world was like that,all green grasslands with animals like this cat walking about,at home with humans,I longed for that earth.The big cat had presence,substance,being, walking about this earth because  it belonged here it was just  a few feet away from me,[a barrior was between us] and i felt the sad separation of partaking of and being outside the natural world.That this real animal ,walking on the peaceful green grass  was present to me and perhaps me to it, in this peaceful green earth just filled me with a sense of separation from nature.Nature before the fall,i guess.  

The readers of Commonweal DotCom get to decide to which topics they will respond, of course.   But does it strike anyone else as remarkable that Dr. Geroux's quetsion has elictited such a limited response?  It seems an exellent, even important question, not least for Lent. 

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