Google will tell you that the Anthropocene is “relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” I suppose that’s as good a starting point as any to do a little deconstruction work. But what does the concept really communicate? What do we see, who comes to mind, when we think of the Anthropocene?

I should begin by saying this delineation of a new/current geological age is still highly contested. Not everyone in the scientific community is convinced, yet much of the bickering has to do more with ‘when’ it begins than whether to use the term at all. Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer (2000) were among the first to use the term, and suggested an origin point of the late 18th century–right around the time Benjamin Franklin and friends declared independence from England, and Adam Smith (Scottish) wrote the Wealth of Nations. William Ruddiman (2003) counters their origin point by going back as much as 8000 years to locate the beginnings of human meddling in large scale agriculture and subsequent deforestation. Humans have been changing the environment for a very long time–building cities into hillsides, clearing land for grazing and crops, setting fire to whole villages and towns in times of war. Are we really only now realizing that what we do effects change in our surroundings? Yes, and no. coal train

To make a grand sweep and include agricultural development over entire continents dating back thousands of years helps us to recognize that humanity makes an impact wherever it goes. However, it generalizes the extent of the impact and–more importantly–the agents of environmental impact in such a way that blunts the political edge to the notion of the Anthropocene. Not every person, nor every society makes the same kind of impact on their environs. The Anthropocene, for better or worse, is a term embedded and entangled with capitalism, globalization, exploitation, and the commodification of Nature. It is also about the only concept big enough to capture our imaginations, and provide a semiotic web thick enough to divert winds of Progress.

We humans were not around when dinosaurs roamed the earth, but we can go to a natural history museum to see and hear life-sized renderings of tyrannosaurus rex locked in battle with the feisty stegosaurus, and the placid herbivore brontosaurus chewing its cud. These creatures live in our imaginations through toys, television and children’s room decor. From bones to films, the Jurassic age is alive and well. Past is present through a heightened awareness of its extinction.

Now we are in a new age of human technology where, in the U.S. especially, the realm of childhood is increasingly distant from the world our grandparents inhabited. With rapid change, we are constantly negotiating losses and gains. Additional screen time can take away from encountering what is outside our front door, and we are alienated from the ground beneath our feet. Aware of this, many folks have returned to the garden to get their hands dirty, practice a new form of meditation, and connect offline. Here in the Pacific Northwest, going into the woods is a kind of religious practice, accompanied by the daily rituals of recycling and composting. We are aware of our footprints, but still feel powerless in the face of rising tides and swirling islands of plastic, or indignant when we hear of others who do not share the same values.

Human activity has changed, is changing, and will continue to change the most basic elements of our world. We could stop every piece of machinery today and it would still take decades for the air to clear. Hell, the people of Flint, Michigan, still don’t have clean water. So, it makes sense to speak of a geological era meteorically impacted by humans. However, when we say that humans are ruining the earth, we must also keep in mind the following:

Which humans? Individuals? Societies? What parts of the earth? Who lives in those parts? Are those the people ruining their own environment? Who benefits, and for how long? What kind of destruction is taking place? Can recovery happen? What might it look like? How long will it take?

To speak of the Anthropocene is to speak of sin and salvation. We all have sinned against the rest of creation, though not all in the same ways, nor to the same extent. For some, salvation comes in the form of ecologically beneficial technologies. However, if those who develop technology for the sake of profit, then withhold it from the communities who may benefit from it the most, sin is perpetuated. True salvation can only begin through a full conversion to the earth, repenting of the ways in which we are complicit in the earth’s destruction, and lamenting in solidarity with those who bear the burden of capitalist consumption. Let us use our imaginations to take us there and beyond.

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Ferguson was supposed to be a turning point. It was the unflinching reveal of systemic violence that routinely plays out on black and brown bodies. It was supposed to be a metanoia moment for the rest of society. Instead, it became a line in the sand between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter; between those who must navigate the realities of daily dehumanization, along with some white allies, and those who wish to maintain a corrupted facade of ‘universality’ that is the mechanism of dehumanization. Ferguson revealed how little ground has been ceded by the powers that be, and how bloodied.

And now, Charlottesville.

A white life has been killed while standing in defiance of a colorless vision of the US–a vision that is wholly without merit, though not without precedent. This colorless vision is easy to refute when presented as a high contrast image, like the events in Charlottesville, but not as obvious in its grainier daily forms. Since last weekend I have seen many posts on social media decrying the hatred and provenance of the ideologies behind ‘unite the right’, and admonitions among the white community to stop racism at first sight in any form. I have also seen pushback from people of color who are sick of hearing the defensive response, ‘but I’m not like those people’. Both responses point to a critical piece that we, my fellow white folk, must contemplate. We have so swallowed and ingested the doctrine of individuality that it seems inconceivable we might be confused for one who looks like me but is not-me. We don’t like to be labeled (because no one likes to be labeled), and refuse to consider the subtleties of racism–because I am not ‘racist’. Not like them.

But here is one label that I am willing to guarantee: all humans are assholes.

This is also known as the doctrine of sin, or hamartiology, to get fancy. And right now we are having a serious Come to Jesus moment with communities of color.

Perhaps you’re right to say that you are not like those tiki torch carrying white men. Congratulations. So now, let’s take a look at that knapsack of privilege. When I open mine I see an above average K-12 education, childhood in an affluent and unpolluted community, which meant that I grew up with a sense of security outside the home. My parents divorced when I was young, so other people’s homes became my safe havens, as did school. College was expected, not an option. I’m blonde and blue-eyed, so no issues with fitting into the larger society. Somewhere along the way I learned to listen to the stories of others, and to take them seriously. James Baldwin, Sherman Alexie, bell hooks, and Japanese American internment survivors have all been my teachers. You could say my knapsack is adorned with the classic white, liberal badge of honor (or a Canadian flag). But all that is the easy part to identify.

Privilege likes to hide out in tide pools and shadow. It emerges in our gut reactions to something that impacts our daily routine, or sense of fairness. It feeds off particularities of perspective, the way ‘common sense’ is shaped. We see this when a white college student sues a university for not admitting her, blaming Affirmative Action for ruining her future. What seems straightforward–admitting the best and the brightest–takes a detour. The algorithms of society are usually in our favor. When something gets coded differently, suddenly it appears as unfair. There are moments when I see my Latinx and Black colleagues involved in grant-funded initiatives and think, wait, where is my opportunity? The job market is doubly bleak for us theologians. So, with churches dying and schools not hiring, why must my spouse and I bear more of a financial burden for graduate school? It isn’t fair. But when I take a step back, reframe the picture, some other factors emerge. What are the chances I will be able to work past age 60, or perhaps even 70? Good? Better than average? What about my colleagues who may or may not receive the same level of health care? Whose voices are more urgent for the church today? Mine, or the prophetic witness of my colleagues, many of whose lives bear the undue burdens of our society?

Privilege’s partner is exceptionality, also known as not-me. This is perhaps the most insidious manifestation of the doctrine of individuality. We are seldom aware of how we categorize, prejudge, and stereotype others, but we bristle when others do that to us. How dare he assume that I’m like that… Who does she think she is… Together, privilege and exceptionalism provide a filter for walking through the world. We fail to recognize all the visual cues, social patterns, and unspoken expectations that perpetuate white power.

Schoolgirls, Fort Spokane Indian School, n.d. Photo from the UW library archives.

As one of my conversation partners often likes to remind me, white people are not the only assholes on this planet–just look at history. The Huns, Aztecs, Pharoahs, and Hutus have all done their fair share of conquering, killing, and destruction. ‘They’re no different from us.’ True though that may appear, those are not the societies in which we currently live. And we do have a responsibility to be aware of how we, in this time and in this place, are being assholes to others.

In homage to Smokey Bear’s 73rd birthday, a reflection on water.

You have been deputized, by any and all environmental groups, to do something about resource consumption. Yes, you, the individual. Because, we are told, one multiplied by thousands and even millions becomes many. This kind of multiplication of ‘one’ is seen all around the internet. For example, Woodchuck uses the tagline, “buy one, plant one” meaning that if you buy one of their products, they’ll plant a tree. The Nature Conservancy (among others) provides a carbon footprint calculator so you can know how your household rates. And, perhaps the most ubiquitous expression is in the petition. Sign up to receive news from the Sierra Club and you are guaranteed a petition a week which, with just one more signature added to many others, is destined to communicate something important. The one flows into the many to create a swell of influence and change.

Or so we believe.

Smokey, straight talking for 73 years.

But the one and the many are simply not enough. By the time an individual receives the information needed to persuade him or her, damage is already done. As I type, the Cascade region has been enshrouded in smoke from B.C. wildfires for a full week. The particulates in the air are still dangerous to breathe beyond minimal exposure. And, while the daytime highs are coming down, we are on day 12 of 80+ degrees, day 52 with no rain. No rain, in Seattle.

Wildfires are a normal part of the season. What is disconcerting is that they start earlier in the season, last longer, and hit some unusual places. For example, in 2015 the Hoh Rainforest caught fire, in June. Those two words–rainforest and fire–are not supposed to be used in the same sentence, except once every 500 or so years. For the Pacific Northwest region, the new normal of climate change comes in a haze of smoke with less and less water to temper the flames.

You have heard it said, “Conserve water by taking shorter showers,” but that isn’t enough. In fact, according to an Orion article by Derrick Jensen, it doesn’t even really address the situation. Contrary to consumer culture belief, it is not all about you because the vast majority of our water is redirected before it hits the tap. You do not have access to 90% of the water currently consumed. It goes predominantly to agriculture and to manufacturing. Sure, the juicy tomatoes and cucumbers are a manifestation of some of that water, as is the wheat that went into the hamburger buns–and don’t forget all the water needed to raise cattle for hamburger meat. Thinking of going vegetarian? While it might eventually reduce some agricultural water consumption, your one change is but a drop of dew.

But I want to make a difference–or feel something other than helplessness. And Grist.org would love for us all to believe we can use the power of individual choice to make a difference. They have the infographic to prove it. Yet in this instance, the ‘proven’ change culminates with “Have one fewer child”. How many families would consider whether or not to have a child in the same way they think about, say, car ownership? Even the editors hinted that might not be a compelling message by highlighting the “real takeaway” that personal choice matters, and every action counts.

What we are up against requires a tectonic shift in the rhetoric. The accumulation of personal choices will begin to make a difference when they are an expression of many voicing their dissent against the primary users of water: industrialized agriculture and major manufacturers. But this is a radical message for consumer culture because we are supposed to power progress and good change through buying more, or at least buying into the myth that the best thing we can do is simply take care of ourselves.

 

Listen to the opening paragraph of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si:

“Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

Mother Earth, our common home, is the conduit of God’s care and sustenance for humanity. But we have split her open for rare minerals and to mine her veins.

He continues, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” We are plunderers, and we violate the very soil that nurtures us. This is not a new message. It is a confession of sin much like that recited with each communion. The underlying question is, does ‘we’ mean ‘me’? Read in the consumer culture of North America, we only pertains to me–it is not connected to brands, labels, box stores, and corporate entities. Forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned, is the more common confession of sin. In film, in newspapers and on Sunday mornings, we are so consumed with the sins of every-one, that we do not look upstream to see those redirecting the pipes at their source.

You have heard it said, ‘Take shorter showers, and turn out the lights’; but I say to you, follow the waters from tap to source, and find out who it is that drinks deep from our sister’s aquifers, draining her sides with unfathomable speed.