Clive Hamilton’s latest book, Defiant Earth, the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, is a real challenge. He goes beyond science’s shocking revelation that we humans have set in motion irreversible change to planet earth; to ask what does it mean to be human in this profoundly changed situation. He even ventures into biblical reflection in saying, “Future historians of the cosmos will identify the century after World WarII and particularly the decades from 1990s when we knew what we were doing as the time of the Fall”. (p 126)
The Anthropocene is the term popularised in the year 2000 by the Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen to describe the end of the Holocene, the last 100,000+ years of climate stability in which humans have flourished, and the commencement of a period of great volatility caused by the activity of one species – humans. Clive graphically describes the situation by saying “human history and geological history have collided”. There is a rupture. It is no longer appropriate to speak of ‘mother earth’ gently enfolding its human children, but rather to speak of earth systems fighting back. The more powerful humans become the more powerful the forces of nature become in response.
Clive is as critical of bland superficial responses as he is of those who deny the situation – the deniers. If policy and budgeting is any guide, the Australian government and of course the Queensland government must be in this category. While one can understand the raw politics of trying to shore up some seats in central Queensland, to do so by supporting the proposed Adani mine with so much at stake and even to consider ‘giving the coal away’ with a holiday from royalty revenue is as reprehensible as it is incomprehensible.
So what of a theological response? First, I agree with Clive in his preference for Irenaeus over Augustine in understanding “the Fall” as an ongoing, evolutionary understanding of the human predicament rather than a moment in pre-history when perfection turned sour. The first 11 chapters of the Bible do not describe moments of early time but illuminate our understanding of all time. Clive argues that while it might be fashionable to see humans as one amongst many species with a strikingly large percentage of shared DNA, the reality is that we humans are very different; we are the only species to wilfully and ubiquitously choose behaviour we know to be destructive.
To be human in this situation therefore demands informed lament, not about what is happening to us beyond our control, but about what we have done and wilfully continue to do, despite knowing the consequences of our actions. Lament is not wallowing in self pity but a first step in reorientation. Even if we have set earths systems on a new and unpredictable path that does not mean stoic resignation, it does mean rising to a different standard, a standard which takes us beyond our consumer driven identity to a more intelligent and knowing place in this vast universe. It takes us, as Clive says, into a new ethic.
I believe Clive is right to identify ‘freedom’ as an appropriate place to begin an ethical and theological exploration of the human condition in this post Holocene, post Enlightenment period we have now entered. The Enlightenment and outcomes flowing from the Industrial Revolution have cemented into western consciousness the idea that freedom resides with the individual and protecting individual rights is sacrosanct. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur railed against this proposition when he said: “if freedom means the right of the individual to do whatever they like, then I have to conclude that freedom is the root of all evil”.
Clive suggests that rather than residing with the individual, freedom resides in what we might call the natural order. He does not say what he means by this, but let me have a shot at it. Rather than being frustrated or even embarrassed by the primeval stories of creation in the light of modern science, I am continually drawn back to them. The first creation story is the narrative of space creation. Light and darkness are separated. Land and water are separated. The water that is above (blessing and order) is separated from the water that is below (chaos). The three living spaces then team with life: the greater the space, the greater the freedom, the greater the freedom the greater the fecundity. On the other hand accumulation of rubbish, inappropriate human expansion, species extinction, violence, covetousness, greed and the like are all denials of space; in turn they are denials of life. Life requires freedom; space is the real custodian of freedom. En masse we humans have developed the capacity to reverse creation’s order.
The post modern world denies us the option of a meta narrative. Everyone has the right to state their own truth, to carve their own destiny. But is the post-modern world a confidence trick? The Anthropocene draws us back to a period before the Enlightenment, back to a meta story for while what we do as individuals remains important it is what we have done and do on mass that has brought us to this place. The Anthropocene demands a meta narrative to undergird an ethic for this age. While we insist on the right of the individual or its logical progression, the rights of the individual nation, we will never be able to respond to our current predicament, for our predicament stretches beyond the individual and beyond the individual nation..
I want to suggest that the human vocation, the knowing, cognitive vocation, the ethical vocation, indeed the theological vocation, is to understand ourselves as keepers of the space in which freedom resides. This is a very different concept to the prevailing metaphor of steward. This vocation will require characteristics which are not commonly lauded. Primarily we must understand we live within limits, boundaries; for without this understanding we will continue to fill all available space until freedom which undergirds life will be completely lost. It is right that we should be aspirational beings, but if we are to live in a world where freedom abounds, less must often be more. The great irony is that submitting to boundaries is not slavery but its opposite, the embracing of freedom, for freedom, which boundaries protect, resides beyond ourselves. This century, more than any other, humans have to learn the appropriateness of place and not live beyond it. To illustrate the situation from another perspective, there are many definitions for beauty, but one that I like best is that beauty resides in the appropriate. We are in danger of living in an age of increasing ugliness.
The Noah narrative is a continuation of the creation narrative. It speaks of human activity becoming so influential that it effects a change to earths patterns, creation is put into reverse, the waters cease to be separated, indeed there is no distinction between land and water, space is gone, freedom is gone, life is locked in an ark (coffin). It is hard to conceive a story more appropriate for our age.
At the conclusion of the 40 days creation normalises and the spaces return. The passage concludes with the covenant between God and all living, signed with the bow in the sky. Into these spaces life tentatively steps out in freedom. In the anthropocene predicament, this covenant might sound too optimistic, for is God really going to intervene to prevent the consequences of our actions which are becoming so disturbingly apparent? If the passage were to have a literal interpretation the 40 days might be more like 400,000 years or much longer, when earth systems return to a life giving balance and earth continues without the human.
This is perhaps where the struggle to do theology in the age of the anthropocene hits the wall. Is grace too optimistic? Is a Christian commitment to life that overcomes death, of light that banishes darkness far too hopeful? Is the Christian doctrine of Salvation literally consigned to pie in the sky when we die? I would like to write much more about this and especially write a biblical eschatology that makes sense of the anthropocene. . My immediate answer is no, certainly not. The Giver of space, the bestower of freedom will always call humans, those creatures uniquely dignified with the ‘knowledge of good and evil’, to be keepers of it, and in the keeping of it discover it for themselves – ‘thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven’.