Naming and Shaming the Anthropocene

This post originally appeared in an online forum hosted by the Indiana University Consortium for the Study of Religion, Ethics, and Society. Thank you to CSRES for allowing us to republish here.

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We live in the age of the Anthropocene; or do we? Even though the Holocene is, on the scale of geological epochs, relatively small scale compared with the other epochs so named by geologists, the power of naming the Anthropocene as Anthropocene carries its own existential freight that humans collectively are not really prepared to bear. Ethically this makes a difference.

For the first time in human history humans in toto are being held morally responsible for a change in the earth’s crust. At least this is what the grand narrative of the Anthropocene seems to imply. My own view is that the term Anthropocene is ambiguous both from a theological and ethical perspective. I speak from a particular theological tradition, the Christian one, but such concerns could equally come from other religious faiths.

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On the positive side, the Anthropocene could be viewed as a wake up call to the extent and depth of human manipulation of the planet as a whole. If human activities are changing the earth’s crust, then even those with a modicum of imagination will be able to reckon that what humans are doing to earth systems as a whole is extremely serious; that is, serious for anyone who cares about the long-term history of the earth and its inhabitants, including humans. The loss of biodiversity, the changes in climate, the disruption in geological cycles of nitrogen, sulfur, carbon and so on all seem to be summated in the term of material deposit represented by the new human-named dusty epoch. There seems to be no going back once such linguistic changes are introduced; there cannot be another epochal layer other than the final layer that speaks of silence and elimination once humans are no longer capable of sustaining themselves. It is as if all the natural sciences have spoken in turn about what humans are doing to planet earth, and geology is now having the last word.

Unlike the Gaia hypothesis which speaks of the earth system as a dynamic living organism, where biota help to regulate the physiological conditions existing on the earth, the Anthropocene refers to the earth as a material deposit, a mechanism that shows its face by material traces that touch a raw nerve for those humans currently surviving.  It implies a remnant trace of forms of life that have ceased to exist, foreshadowed in a lunar or Martian landscape. In this respect I disagree with Bruno Latour who has seemingly aligned the Anthropocene to the more animistic and even religiously resonant imagery of Gaia. The Anthropocene has its roots in geology, which is fundamentally about rocks and their persistence over long epochs, rather than about systems, which do not survive in the long term. Yes, there are traces of the disruptions to those systems left behind in that epoch, but a better term for the system itself is not the Anthropocene, but Gaia. Confusing the two makes the Anthropocene into something that it is not and stretches the term outside geology, which is more commonly defined as the dynamics and physical history of the earth and its rocks, rather than the interrelationship with life forms, or geo-physiology. A systems approach is, of course, more appealing, but it seems to me that the Anthropocene represents a reversion to a more mechanistic understanding of the earth, even if that mechanism includes awareness of a system. Latour’s alignment of the Anthropocene with animism seems, in this respect, a rather odd reading of Gaia into this term.

How might humans collectively respond to such provocative imagery of the fate of planet earth? Fatalism is that which is inevitably going to happen in history. So, while some might react to that thought with panic, others will react with a hopeless shrug and return to new forms of Epicureanism. In this sense the language of the Anthropocene tells a particular story about how humans perceive themselves. And as a collective story it disguises the uncomfortable truth that it is not everyone who is responsible for such changes, but those who relentlessly consume, pollute, and manipulate the earth and its creatures.

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Yet Christianity also bears a burden of guilt, as Lynn White notoriously claimed nearly fifty years ago in 1967. The seeds of an anthropocentric tradition go back further to the Greeks, but arguably the ways Christian theology has been preached from the pulpits reinforce rather than allay fears about human supremacy and superiority. Fears of pantheism – the belief that God is equivalent to the natural world – have stymied attempts to stress the immanence of God in the created world. Instead, a stress on transcendence when combined with human supremacy negates even modest attempts to find an ethical place for subjects and objects other than the human.

Yet, just as a secularized Christian theology could be viewed as at least partly responsible for the emergence of the term Anthropocene, so perhaps a deeper consideration of that theology may help to find alternatives. The power that humankind was given to name the animals is significant here. In the biblical Genesis account the naming of the animals was intended to provide humans a way of classifying the animal and creaturely world according to their choice and in order to ‘rule over’ those creatures. That authority was intended to be benign rather than exploitative after the pattern of loving, divine authority. But humans were never given the power to name themselves into or out of existence. Adam, derived in Hebrew from the generic term human, and Eve, another generic term meaning daughter of life, were placed in the Garden of Eden by God, but were then tempted by the serpent to turn away from God’s commands and take on roles that were rightfully divine.  This familiar story has influenced all the Abrahamic faiths, even though versions of it were around in much earlier creation myths.

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This distinctive capacity of humans to name others is not found in other social species- only humans possess the power of language. While some form of symbolic sense was likely to be earlier than any specified linguistic capacity as such, naming has a way of defining and at least partially framing the problem at hand. Yet a discipline with the anthro term included in it, anthropology, also brings rich resources to aid both ethics and theology. Evolutionary anthropology, in particular, has shown the wide range of human-like beings living in the Pleistocene, some of whom were around for many thousands of years. As scientists bent on classification, these human-like beings have been named Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo sapiens, and so on.  Yet, what is remarkable is that the morphological transitions between these sub-species and others being ‘discovered’ today is relatively small, so it becomes much harder to tell when recognizably distinct human capacities emerged and in what form. Whatever the final conclusions arising from these accounts, it is clear that humans have been manipulating their environment – or niche – from the earliest dawn of pre-history.  The making of objects, tools, for human use, and understanding them as extensions of human capabilities, gradually became more and more sophisticated in human history. What is fascinating about the ‘Anthropocene’, if such a term is adopted, is that the earth itself becomes a tool in the hands of billions of humans.

Anthropology remains a descriptive, rather than an evaluative science in that it resists normative claims about what should or should not be done. Theology is rather less reserved, though its evaluation, through different styles of ethics, varies enormously even within the Christian tradition and tends to align with different philosophical frameworks. For theologians who have worked in environmental ethics for the last half-century, strong dualistic notions of the human are no longer acceptable. The Anthropocene captures the imagination because it can be interpreted as not only reinforcing a traditional dualism, but also, ironically, reducing humanity again to the dust from which it came.


Further Reading
Celia Deane-Drummond, Sigurd Bergmann and Markus Vogt (eds.), Religion in the Anthropocene (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2017).
Celia Deane-Drummond, Sigurd Bergmann and Bronislaw Szerszynski (eds.), Technofutures, Nature and the Sacred: Transdisciplinary Perspectives (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).
Bruno Latour,  “Telling Friends from Foes in the Time of the Anthropocene”. In Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil & François Gemenne (eds.), The Anthropocene and the Global Environment Crisis – Rethinking Modernity in a New Epochm (London: Routledge), 145-155.