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The Sixth Extinction and the Religious Imagination

Dominic Preziosi has written an excellent post on the question of climate change and the question of potential futures, here. My post might be understood as an extended riff on issues raised there, as well as a continuation of a question I raised in an earlier blog, about religion and the anthropocene. I need to start with some initial ground clearing:
1. Humanity has altered the basic order of life on earth. Nearly every natural process is shaped in a fundamental way by processes of production and consumption. We live in the anthropocene.
2. We have known since at least 1972 – the year of the Club of Rome Report – that such dominance is unhealthy in the present, and unsustainable with regard to any conceivable future. The pursuit of material comfort (in the developed world at least) has ironically led to a future of radical climate volatility.  
3. One potential future has to be seriously considered: a globe where human life no longer exists. Here we enter the world that Scheffler’s book Death and the Afterlife examines: how do we philosophize, how do we think ethically about the present – one’s own present – when no-one, no human persons, will live on in the future? Because of the anthropocene, it is clear that the earth itself will stratigraphically mark/inscribe and “remember” the human trace. We have some future. In geological time, our legacy will be literally etched in stone. But on a human temporal scale, what happens to ethics when the expectation of a collective cultural “afterlife” disappears? We already live in what may be the sixth great extinction, the most destructive erasure of life forms in 65 million years. What happens if human life falls under its shadow? What happens if the bell tolls for us, just as it has tolled for the species that are currently going extinct all around us?

I want to raise a question before I continue to discuss these issues in a second entry. What might happen -- what could or should happen – in the temporal gap between awareness of an end and our collective experience of the end itself? Specifically, what happens to religion? Others (Jack Miles, for example) have addressed and attempted to answer this question. How might religion – or to speak more directly to the readers of Commonweal, our religious tradition – prepare us not only to change course while we still have time, but if and when our time runs out, to comprehend in a full and mature way the imperatives of that condition?

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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I wonder if the Community of Saints is relevant, the Community of the living and dead in Christ.  Aren't the future members of the Church and whether there are any important?  I can, tongue in cheek, imagine Christ coming back to an earth devoid of humans and asking "what happened?  Guess we'll have to upgrade another critter." But, there goes Teilhard's Omega Point.  Right?  My take is that we are in a similar situation to that of the Great Oxygenation Catastrophe, 2.65B years ago.  A new life form, cyanobacteria, generated free oxygen, which caused the extinction of many other species and a global climate disaster when the methane greenhouse gas was oxidized, freezing water from pole to pole.  Somehow the earth recovered (CO2 from vulcanism?), the cyanobacteria culprit survived, and a new world was born allowing for eukaryotic cells, metazoa, and us.  Now, the novel life form is us, reflexive consciousness, smart enough to be dangerous.  Either we will maintain what's left of the ecosystem and adapt our civilization, or we will continue our present path with two possible results.  Our own extinction or survival of a remnant.  Will this remnant continue in folly or survive in  a recovering world and co-evolve with the recovering ecosystem to create another new world.  I think this can be called a Noah-type scenario.

As far as the implications in terms of how we understand ourselves as "Church" in light of this reality, this is quite important. The Second Vatican Council, it seems to me, provides some foundations for precisely this kind of re-imagining.

First, we have to break out of our self-imposed ghetto obsessing around insider questions and issues. The Lutherans, as usual, are ahead of us in many respects. Bonhoeffer spoke of a religionless Christianity and by this, I think, he meant a non-institutional form in which the "Church" (i.e. us) are fully engaged in the issues of the present moment. Gaudium et Spes focussed on this as well. Our Vatican or institutional focussed ecclesiology needs to finally be laid to rest. There are still roles for bishops, priests, and of course monks but that kind of baroque mindset needs to go. I think Merton, just prior to his death, also was reflection on how monasticism might have to change and reform in different ways. Simone Weil also envisioned a broader Catholicity and as a result was never baptized and formally part of the Church although unquestionably, she was, a part of the mystical body.

Climate change, nuclear war, etc. are secular variants of the eschaton, the end of the world. We have always directed our present life according to the reality of the end. Berdyaev wrote a good work called the Beginning and the End on this theme. There are things we can do now and the end calls us to present virtue, modesty, less consumption, etc.

So, as a religion, what do we do. Well not to sound too mystical but insert ourselves even more deeply in the paschal mystery this Holy Triddum. I heard Scott Hahn one time make a good point. Our major "religious" event surrounds commoration, remembrance, and representation of an event that was actually 100% secular. 





Why is it so difficult to accept an Earth that will become like Venus or Mars?   Unfortunately, those who did the least to destroy it , will suffer the most inthe process.   

I thnk this was Teilhard's whole point. Jesus didn't come to take away some originial sin, or satisfy a vengeful God. He came to point evolution toward God. He came to teach man that in order to survive, he  must give up this doctrine of "survival of the fittest", and live in a conscousness loving relationship with each other. If the species is to survive, we must learn to share finite resources with an expanding population,. Teilhard knew that with the systems we have today we on the road to being an extinct species as we know ourselves and maybe headed to some form of transhumanism. As the Omega point goes, God lives in all creation. It's not just about us. Where rather late on the scene, but in the end all creation will reach the Omega point. 

My goodness, the Eath is not going to turn to Venus or Mars;  life is not going to end.  These sorts of extreme statements are what feed Deniers' insistence that global chage is a Chicken Little story, or worse a plot by radicals insistent on a Cult of Death, ending our way of life (that is, the way of those most powerful in virtually all spheres).  The Earth has seen CO2 levels over geologic time much higher (as well as lower) than those projected in the next few centures, and yet tectonics persisted, climates rose and fell, and life evolved.

Climate change is certainly occurring [I work often in the Arctic, where the chages are blindingly obvious), and these chaniges will have consequences, mainly associated with the rates of change.  As in almost all crcumstances where are negativeue consequences, the magnitudes of the negative consequences are greater for the poor ad powrless ('man, and bird, an beast') than they are for the rich and powerful.   Surely, this i where Christianity and the Catholic vision of a Preference for the Poor directs us toward how we can respond in meaningful ways.  Jesus (as Isaiah before Him) direted us not to build a paradise on Earth, but to feed the  hungry, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to attend to the ill.

"Feed my sheep."

Mark L.

Mark, although mankind might still become extinct once the fight over resources begins while we're armed with nukes, I agree with what you say if that is that Christians must become extremely Christian.

Although the last 3 popes have begun to talk about ecological problems, so long as they continue to preach that it is good to have many children, they are a huge part of this humongous ecological problem, not part of its solution.  It seems to me that the theologians and philosophers and, yes, the priests,  need to start talking back loudly and start to question  in particular the teaching about contraception.  There is simply no way the Earth can support more and more people without end.  Resources are finite.  End of story. 

The hierarchy has been flying in the face of the world's scientists.  If the bishops want to show that the scientists" teachings are wrong, then they (the bishops) will have to give evidence that the vast majority of the scientists are either incompetent or liars.  The bishops have not even begun to present such evidence, and, indeed, as non-scientists, they are incompetent to judge.

What happens to religion in light of the possibility that we go extinct as a species? If we are talking about going extinct and Jesus not coming back, then  that  is a renunciation of Christian theology.Humanity as the epitome of God's creation on earth is renounced as a false doctrine.What do we mean by ethics? Is ethics tangled with theology? Ethics can stand  alone regardless of belief in God. What we CAN say though, is; if we believe we will go extinct which means[equates with the belief] that  Jesus is not coming back, then all we have is our life right now. God ,at least the God of the Bible, is dead The pursuit of happiness ,in this life;and life now  is  all we have, becomes the bases for ethical considerations. If we're told that to be happy people need at a minimum 70 thousand dollars a year ,and that more wealth then that  does not increase happiness, then ethics entails  an  equtable distribution of wealth  where everyone has that level of security to pursue happiness.Giving up ones life is giving up everything and ethics is about  the ability of all to pursue  happiness in  life.


Seems a pity that it would take an existential threat to cause us to *live* as if we were Christians, but there you have it.  I am not sure what "extremely" Christian would mean: we need to follow Bonhoeffer's admonishments to avoid "cheap grace," and to learn and pay the "cost of discipleship."

Well short of human extinction, we should be prepared to answer for our stewardship, and if that includes flooding in Bangladesh and the Lower 9th Ward, or the extinction of polar bears or long-toed salamanders, then as Lincoln said in his 2nd Inaugural, ".. so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' "

I hope that I can act as a simple Christian.


Mark L.



4-11-14 dotCommonweal comment and list of recent relevant posts:

Francis effects   Grant Galllicho   3-13-14

The Sixth Extinction and the Religious Imagination    Robert Geroux   4-10-2014

Climate change & ‘the aferlife’ Dominic Preziosi   4-8-2014

This is the way the world ends: How the cosmos will meet its demise   -- Stephen Battersby

Excerpted from “Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion,” from New Scientist, edited by Jeremy Webb. Published in the U.S. by The Experiment. On sale March 25, 2014. All rights reserved.

“But it is quite possible that the universe is truly infinite. Far beyond the horizon, conditions may be very different. Even the constants of physics may be different, and perhaps some of those regions may be more durable. In some models an infinite cosmos is constantly spawning new big bangs.

None of this can affect us, or have any bearing on our future—unless, perhaps, we somehow learn to manipulate wormholes in space-time and tunnel to freedom, moving to a fresh region of the cosmos whenever the old one gets tired. But even if we can’t escape our local universe, at least it might be reassuring to think that the cosmos itself is immortal.”

Excerpted from “Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion,” from New Scientist, edited by Jeremy Webb. Published in the U.S. by The Experiment. On sale March 25, 2014. All rights reserved.

4-11-14 My comment:

This publication may change old ideas significantly. Cosmology, astronomy and related subjects will surely influence Catholic teaching (one reason among a number of reasons that we are moving into a post-axial age of religion).


Whether a devoted Catholic or not, isn’t it time to form a reading club online and check out some of the evolutionary journey of Catholicism’s influence on us both past, present and future?


Marie --

Have you any reason to think that there is at this present time a real possibility that this world, or at least some of us in it can escape through a possible worm-hole *before* we destroy the Earth as a home for man?

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