This post is part of a multi-year project, Being Human in the Age of Humans: Perspectives from Religion and Ethics led by Lisa Sideris (Indiana University), Celia Deane-Drummond (Notre Dame), Sarah Fredericks (University of Chicago), and Kyle Powys Whyte (Michigan State University). To read the introductory post for the blog series, click here.
The dangers of the Anthropocene are many. There is growing awareness around issues such as climate change, sea level rise and acidification, pollution, and mass extinction. Whether this rising awareness is keeping up with the pace at which such issues progress is beside my contribution here, which is instead about the dangers of ‘the Anthropocene,’ the concept. As a host of scholars (no one perhaps as wryly and poignantly as Crist) have argued, the idea of a planetary human impact may reinvigorate human hubris rather than urge “humanity” to scale down. Confronted with bigger problems (than the ones of modernity as we knew it), the suggestion is that humans should think harder and devise more astute technologies that could clean up their mess. I have encountered this unshakable habit of thought among students in my class on the Anthropocene, no matter the course’s attempts at a multiple, nuanced, cautious, and critical approach to the concept. If speculations about engineering the climate, food, and life on earth may titillate science (fiction) enthusiasts, what can be the contribution of scholars in the humanities and social sciences to and against this discussion? A partial, polyvocal, and essential one.
The sign reads: Galapagos: an ecological paradise, let's protect it with pride.
On the Galapagos Islands, I have spent time with creationists concerned about the future of the islands. The Galapagos archipelago is a province of Ecuador. Today, 30,000 people live there, and over 220,000 tourists visit the islands each year. Worldwide known as “the last natural laboratory of evolution” (Larson 2002), the Galapagos are home to many Ecuadorians who believe in the creation, and fixity, of species. Yet they are attentive witnesses of the islands’ ecosystems and their rapid changes. And changes there have been. In 2007, UNESCO declared the Galapagos a World Heritage In Crisis, due to seemingly untreatable problems such as the influx of tourists, residents, invasive species, and corrupted politics. During my two years there, I talked to and followed Celia, a Jehovah’s Witnesses, as she salvaged endangered, endemic species about to be obliterated during the construction of a new urban lot. I talked to her about why she does it.
Celia arranges endemic gardens in town. The conservation message is everywhere on the islands, and residents increasingly recognize the value of endemic species over foreign ones. Her job is unique on the islands, and she is immensely proud of it. Private owners and government building directors who request her services have done so largely to rebrand their image as “green,” that is, to indicate their support of conservation-minded projects aimed at protecting the islands’ fragile ecosystems. Through her business, Celia cares for those plants beyond their worth in the Galapagos’ tourist economy. Learning about plants gave her an appreciation of local ecosystems and a motivation to respond directly, without depending on conservation projects, to counter the profound changes. Above all, in her job Celia makes sure to be a good Witness.
For Celia, the cleared land in the urban lot was a sign of the accelerating degeneration of the human and natural fabric of the Earth—the end of the world. Aware that she could not do anything about it, she was nevertheless busy picking up the endemic plants that construction work had temporarily spared. By uprooting them, she was determined to give these plants a second chance: a new home elsewhere. The Galapagos National Park protects “nature” by cordoning it off from local residents. Celia, instead, was bringing elements of it – the biodiverse nature – among people. But her expectations were set on something else, something beyond.
Searching for Endemic Nature in New Urban Lots
“When the paradise comes, these plants will be already there.” “I’m planting the seed of the future,” she told me, smiling.
Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, my work examines how the local Jehovah’s Witnesses response to current ecological unraveling on the Galapagos, as well as to its future course, has produced a distinct form of religious environmentalism. Specifically, I argue that the JW’s vision of the ultimate future, or eschatology, informs action. This finding stands in contrast to the theory that millenarian beliefs—in the imminent end of the world and in the need to secure salvation—lead to pessimism and detachment from the Earth (Maier 2010; Johns 2016). Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the paradise will be on Earth. Celia had in mind, and was acting towards, that form of terrestrial restoration that her religion promises. Her vision of a terrestrial paradise colors her hopeful anticipation of the future and governs her actions in the present.
Due to biodiversity loss and increasing social inequalities, the Galapagos stand as a microcosm of the current human-driven planetary era, the Anthropocene. My research on the emerging ecological assemblages, and people’s strategies to survive in them, intervenes in discussions taking place across disciplines and beyond academia about strategies to live in and protect an increasingly fragile earth.
As a whole, my scholarship examines forms of multispecies entanglements that provoke new thinking about life in the time of the Anthropocene’s ecological crisis. Torn between the casting of dystopian future scenarios and an obsessive search of its origin, inquiries about the Anthropocene too often overlook the tentative emergence of present possibilities for human life and beyond. There is no denying that the Anthropocene may usher in a paradigm shift, urging social and natural scientists to consider earth’s ecology and the human enterprise as indissolubly connected. However, despite its global reach, the changes of the Anthropocene take place incrementally, and they are situated. Anthropologists’ commitment to a locale can inform discussions about the planetary crisis with new substance.
Paolo Bocci Ph.D. is a cultural anthropologist interested in novel ways to re-imagine, cope with, and address socio-ecological challenges in the time of the Anthropocene. He is a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University.
Crist, Eileen. “On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature.” Environmental Humanities, November 2013.
Johns, Loren. “The Apocalypse of John and Theological Ecosystems of Destruction and Escape.” In Rooted and Grounded: Essays on Land and Christian Discipleship. Pickwick, 2016.
Larson, Edward J. Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands. Basic Books, 2002.
Maier, Harry. “Green Millennialism: American Evangelicals, Environmentalism and the Book of Revelation.” In Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives. Bloomsbury, 2010.