Archives for category: Creation

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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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.

Today was my day to present in our seminar on Augustine’s Confessions; somewhat nerve-wracking, since everyone else had already taken their turn. Presentations this late in the semester are always problematic. On the one hand, you’ve had all this time to work on the material. On the other hand, you’ve had all this time filled with myriad other assignments and responsibilities. It isn’t like I would have been able to do this earlier, though, seeing as I presented on Book XI, Augustine’s musings and theorizations on time and eternity. Fitting.

I chose the topic of time because, as a procrastinator, it is not my friend. In recent years I have become more wary (and weary) of passing days, weeks, months. Studying time is a little like engaging in the art of war with a much larger and dispassionate foe. I know I won’t win, but I sure as hell won’t go down without fighting.

What I found refreshing in studying time with Augustine is that he asks me to get out of my own contemporaneity. It is impossible to understand him through the digital clock. Instead, I have to put the phone down, close the computer, and simply watch the sun pass overhead, the shadows change on the building, note the difference in air temperature as the day progresses. For him, too, music becomes a teacher of time and measuring time.

Long before treble clefs and 4/4 time signatures, Augustine reflected on measuring time by recounting hymns and songs of the church. Here he had Ambrose’s liturgical renovations in mind with imported tunes and chanted psalms. By inhabiting the song to God, Creator of all things (Deus Creator omnium), Augustine notes, we can know that one syllable is shorter than the next, we can perceive that this phrase is half the length of the one that follows. In this way, we measure time. The breath in our lungs as it pours over the larynx and resonates through the cords is running in time.

Our class discussion picked up on the challenges of defining time over and against its effects. Time is not defined through its measurements because it exists ever only in the present outside of measurement. Once a song slips through our teeth, it becomes past. We can repeat the verse, the line, the song–but to repeat is not to delete and redo.

This got us thinking about the periodization of time. Scores of music are broken into bars of time. Syllables denote length and frequency, forming patterns and periods. Waves of sound have cycles. None of this is purely linear, even when we graph along a straight line. Of course, this prompted our professor (also my advisor) to recount the experience of pregnancy and labor, when pain comes in waves.

I wish that I had thought then of infertility’s counterpart, where pain comes in monthly tides as, yet again, the blood flows. But I am in the habit of letting references to pregnancy wash past me.

The experience of time changes with waiting and non-expectancy.

I learned yesterday (Thursday) that this is National Infertility Awareness Week. I had seen penguins for World Penguin Day, and (daily, multiple) invitations to protest at the People’s Climate March, but infertility is one of those things that is simply difficult, if not impossible, to celebrate. I myself feel conflicted about speaking up. What are we inviting people into with Infertility Awareness? What would come if I were to say in class, ‘Well, actually, I will never know what it’s like to be pregnant. And I am in this class at this time because I could not get pregnant.’ Personally, I am not interested in pity. However, I recognize that the experience of barrenness, the fact that I cannot conform to normalized womanly identity, does in fact drive certain lines of theological inquiry for me. But, how do I insert such snippets into conversation so that others might understand, when I myself am still wandering in the wilderness of non-expectancy?

There was a time when I cried, How long, O Lord? That time is gone.

Near the end of Book XI, Augustine states, “without the creation no time can exist.” I know that time and creation are interlocking concepts, yet my bodily response is ‘yes, but, How?’ Apart from any signs of life within my organs, my follicles are sputtering toward death. So, what is the creation that will bring music to my soul, and help me measure the seasons with joy? For now I must lean on my old friend, Augustine, and pray with him:

You are unchangeably eternal, that is the truly eternal Creator of minds. Just as you knew heaven and earth in the beginning without that bringing any variation into your knowing, so you made heaven and earth in the beginning without that meaning a tension between past and future in your activity. Let the person who understands this make confession to you. Let the person who fails to understand it make confession to you. How exalted you are, and the humble in heart are your house. You lift up those who are cast down, and those whom you raise to that summit which is yourself do not fall. (Confessions, 11.31.41)