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?

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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