Periodically CSRES invites notable scholars and newsmakers in the field of Religion, Ethics, and Society to reflect on a topic and contribute a piece to our forum.

Forum Spring 2016

Anthropocene imageThe Anthropocene is the proposed name for a new geological epoch in which humans have come to dominate the planet, reshaping and transforming it as a geological force. The suffix ‘cene’ means new; Anthropos means human. Biologist Eugene Stoermer and the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen advanced the term in 2000 and, while scientists and other scholars continue to deliberate about the merits of adopting it formally, the Anthropocene has entered the popular lexicon, for better and for worse. Dislodging it will prove difficult, whatever the experts decide. For many, the growing evidence of global climate change stands as a definitive marker of the Anthropocene, for we have now altered, and will continue for some time to alter, the very make-up of our atmosphere. There is lively debate over when the Anthropocene began, if in fact it has begun. Did it start with the Industrial Revolution, when humans began spewing carbon into the atmosphere in earnest? Or was the advent of agriculture, 12,000 years ago, the beginning of an Age of Humans? According to one dark suggestion, the detonation of the first atomic bomb, on July 16, 1945--an event that left a radiological signature in the geological record--marks the beginning of this new human-dominated period. By whatever means we determine its onset, the Anthropocene signals for many a turning point in our relationship to nature, as well as our relationship to ourselves. It seems to demand, not unproblematically, that we think of ourselves as a collective entity—a species, a spatio-temporal entity—that evolved out of deep planetary and cosmic time to acquire seemingly godlike powers over the planet and its creatures. How ought we to feel about this new way of being human? Is it a fulfilment of human potential or proof of our flawed, reckless tendencies? What are the theological and ethical implications of naming a geological epoch after ourselves? Here we present four perspectives from scholars of religion and theology.  


In this issue:

"Is there a future in the age of humans? A critical eye on the narrative of the anthropocene" - Sigurd Bergmann, Professor in Religious Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim. Initiator of the European Forum for the Study of Religion and the Environment.

"Naming and Shaming the Anthropocene"  -  Celia Deane-Drummond, Department of Theology and Director of the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing, The University of Notre Dame

"Anthropocene as Perilous Gift" - Willis Jenkins, Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

"I, No You: I-I and the Interpretation of the Anthropocene" Forrest Clingerman, Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Department of Religion and Philosophy, Ohio Northern University


Is there a future in the age of humans? A critical eye on the narrative of the anthropocene

         Sigurd Bergmann - Professor in Religious Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim. Initiator of the European Forum for the Study of Religion and the Environment.

Bergmann imageAs the human footprint impacts on practically all spheres and places of the world, including the planet’s outer space, one must wonder if we should count humanity itself into the whole of nature, which would challenge us to re-interpret the whole of Earth anew – and which is a core assumption in the on-going discourse about the “Anthropocene.” The term itself was not introduced by geologists, who are at present controversially discussing its validity for naming a new geological epoch, but by scholars in earth system theory and geoengineering.

From the beginning I treated their suggestion with hopeful optimism, especially as it had grown out of a serious concern about the common future of the earth and its inhabitants. Could scholars, located both in environmental science and the environmental humanities, now at last strive for a consensus on the significance of the human, including the cultural and religious dimension of on-going dangerous environmental and climatic change? Would it become possible to break out of the fatal ideology that only technology and economy could solve the problems of a continuously accelerating environmental change with decreasing biodiversity and increasing ecological and social injustice? Might it finally become possible from now on to investigate also the religious and aesth/ethical driving forces of the crisis and to explore religious belief systems as both drivers and problem-solving forces within it?

After having followed the discussions passively for some years and co-convened the international conference on “Religion in the Anthropocene” in 2015[1] I must confess that my optimism has transmuted into an increasing ambivalence towards what now seems to function as a homogenizing concept and a problematically generalising screen for projection. The following tries to grasp this ambiguity in three “either-ors”.

Potential or hindrance?

The introduction of the concept of Anthropocene in 2002 bore similarities to a kind of religious process. The belief in the significance of humanity and its capacity to understand oneself and, in fact, also to act as an almighty ruler over all in the world could in the age of the industrial revolution be proven true by empirical science. The normative implications of such an insight remain ambivalent: they can either lead to a new humbleness towards both human and other life forms and an adequate new agenda of research questions or to a new triumphalist self-understanding of humankind and a utilitarian agenda about the human techno-economic management of using non-human (and also other human) life forms for the sake of own interests. Even if the introduction of the term, fortunately enough, has rather followed the humble path, one can trace among earth system scholars a certain degree of a self-aggrandizing and, let’s call it, socioengineering attitude to the human/cultural/social/spiritual spheres of life. For scholars in the environmental humanities in general and scholars of religion this ambiguity is painful. Even if the transdisciplinary potential of Anthropocene discourse is without a doubt there[2] and might encourage deeper cooperation of humanities and sciences on “the anthropogenic,” the term also might serve as a catalyst for hyper-anthropocentric self-understandings in science and technology, where it becomes even more difficult to focus on the deep dependence of man/woman on nature. Will the Anthropocene narrative then rather hinder or enhance reflecting on nature’s complex gifts of life to the human, or what religions compress into the language of “respect for,” “wisdom about” and “compassion and wonder within” nature? Might Anthropocene thinking at its worst catalyse a damaging view of nature as in the utilitarian hyper-anthropocentric reductionism of the so called “ecosystem services,” where all life in between heaven and earth  is reduced to a simple service provider for humans, a view that is radically contradictory to all religious worldviews and the so-far achieved fruits of environmental ethics? 

Blurring or clarifying power and faith?

In a poignant critique of the Anthropocene narrative Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg have recently questioned the limited perspective of geologists and earth system scholars with regard to their understanding of the human species ascending to power.[3] Fittingly they ask if the narrative “should really prompt us to abandon the fundamental concerns of social science, which importantly include the theorization of culture and power” (62). Rightly they accuse the narrative of neglecting the uneven distribution of wealth as a condition for the very existence of modern, fossil-fuel technology (64) and of neglecting that humans have caused global warming over the course of their long history. “Against this background,” they write (66), “‘the Anthropocene’ resembles an attempt to conceptually traverse the gap between the natural and the social – already thoroughly fused in reality – through the construction of a bridge from one side only, leading the traffic, as it were, in a direction opposite to the actual process: in climate change, social relations determine natural conditions; in Anthropocene thinking, natural scientists extend their world-views to society.”

Additionally one must criticize the monistic understanding of humanity, and its lack of contextual and historical differentiation by talking about the human mostly in general, although humans in general, in my view, do not exist; humans only act in particular. With regard to the religious dimension of human beings one might wonder if the narrative, or should one rather say trope, of the Anthropocene at all makes sense, as the history of religion shows an impressive  consciousness and practical (for example ritual) skill to deal with understandings of the universal within the local, of the Sacred within the profane and of the Divine and Spiritual with and sometimes within the material. Also other scientists in the last two hundred years have produced highly valuable notions and theories about the interaction of humanity and nature.[4] Long before the seductive trope of the Anthropocene Alexander von Humboldt coined the inspiring notion of the Earth as a Naturgemälde (painting of nature) where humans are both painters and painted and where nature is a lived force as well as a receiver.[5] In other words, religions and worldviews have in their history already developed advanced skills of reflecting the reciprocal impacts of environments and human communities on each other in the light (and shadows) of the Sacred; one can only wonder to what degree earth system analysis is able to include such knowledge and wisdom in its research processes or to what degree it might blur and marginalize the spiritual depth of human being. Does a term like “faith” at all make any sense in the narrative? And does a critique of the Anthropocene narrative not only strike at its lack of reflection on  the power in “uneven distribution” but also its failure to explore more deeply the ideational driving forces in applied late modern fetishism of money and technology, as it has been analyzed both in environmental anthropology and in ecotheology?[6]

For the further cultivation of the research fields of ethics and the study of religion and the environment, the ambiguity of the Anthropocene narrative seems to me rather to produce a problematic challenge than a new transdisciplinary option. But is it really an either-or? Or rather a both-and? As time goes by, I tend toward the former, but I still dare to hope for self-critical colleagues in earth system studies who might regard the Anthropocene simply as a useful trope and tool to accelerate research about the sociogenic in the anthropogenic and about the spiritual aesth/ethical in the natural, rather than to promote a “geology of the ruling class.”[7]

Beyond the Anthropocene – future or present?

Nevertheless my final strongest objection to the Anthropocene narrative lies in the question of what we might meet beyond the Anthropocene. Is there space to imagine a new geological era beyond the Anthropocene? Maybe the “ecocene,” where human and other life forms cohabitate at Earth in fully just and peaceful entanglements? Or rather an era of apocalypse where humans eradicate themselves from the planet, followed by an era of new genesis where evolution searches for new paths without human intervention? Or a “post-technocene” where the fetishization of money and machines has been overcome and technical spaces have turned into lived spaces?[8]

Is there any thinking at all about the future in the narrative of the Anthropocene, or rather a total absence of utopia? While religions always operate more or less strongly with images of the future and so called eschatologies, the narrative of the anthropocene, as far as it is negotiated at present in the Anthropocene Working Group, seems to lack not only self-critical skills with regard to power, history and ethics, but also the skill to imagine a future beyond the present. How could it thereby make politically evident its social and environmental relevance?

[1] “Religion in the Anthropocene: Challenges, Idolatries, Transformations,” arr. by The European Forum for the Study of Religion and Environment in association with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, 14-17 May, 2015, in Munich. Cf. C. Deane-Drummond, S. Bergmann and M. Vogt (eds.), Religion in the Anthropocene, Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock/Cascade forthcoming 2017.

[2] Cf. W. Haber, M. Held and M. Vogt in their Introduction to: Anthropozän, Ökologie, Humanität, München: Oekom Verlag forthcoming 2016.

[3] A. Malm and A. Hornborg, “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative,” The Anthropocene Review 1, 1, 2014, 62–69.

[4] F. Mauelshagen, “A Geological Era of Mankind: The History of an Idea, and Why it Matters,” in: Religion in the Anthropocene, op.cit. note 1.

[5] On A.V. Humboldt see S. Bergmann, “Religion at Work within Climatic Change: Eight Perceptions about Its Where and How,” in: Religion in the Anthropocene, op.cit. note 1.

[6] Cf. Alf Hornborg, “Technology as Fetish: Marx, Latour, and the Cultural Foundations of Capitalism,” Theory Culture Society, published online 10 June  2013,      <http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/06/09/0263276413488960>; S. Bergmann, “Fetishism Revisited: In the Animistic Lens of Eco-pneumatology,” in:Religion, Space, and the Environment, New Brunswick NJ/London: Transaction Publishers 2014, 411-428; S. Bergmann, “‘Millions of Machines are already Roaring’: Fetishised Technology Encountered by the Life-giving Spirit,” in: C. Deane-Drummond, S. Bergmann and B. Szerszynski (eds.), Technofutures, Nature and the Sacred: Transdisciplinary Perspectives, Farnham: Ashgate 2015.

[7] Daniel Cunha, “The Geology of the Ruling class?” The Anthropocene Review 2, 3, 2015, 262–266.

[8] For the notion of “technocene” see A. Hornborg, “The Political Ecology of the Technocene: Uncovering ecologically unequal exchange in the world-system,” in: C. Hamilton, Ch. Bonneuil and F. Gemenne (eds.), The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis. Rethinking modernity in a new epoch, London: Routledge 2015, 57-69. For the notion of ”technical space” see S. Bergmann and T. Sager (eds.), The Ethics of Mobilities: Rethinking Place, Exclusion, Freedom and Environment, London: Routledge 2008.

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Naming and Shaming the Anthropocene

Celia Deane-Drummond - Department of Theology and Director of the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing, The University of Notre Dame

Dean-Drummond ImageWe 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.

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.

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.

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

Religion in the Anthropocene, edited by Celia Deane-Drummond, Sigurd Bergmann and Markus Vogt (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, forthcoming 2017).

Technofutures, Nature and the Sacred: Transdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Celia Deane-Drummond, Sigurd Bergmann and Bronislaw Szerszynski (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 Epoch, London, Routledge, 145-155, http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/131-FRIENDS-FOES.pdf

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Anthropocene as Perilous Gift

Willis Jenkins – Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

JenkinsThe idea of the Anthropocene may seem like an astonishing gift to the humanities, for with it a scientist puts the human back in the center of scientific research. In a time when their usefulness is being questioned, the Anthropocene idea offers new ground for the necessity of the interpretive knowledges of the humanities. It is, however, a perilous gift because receiving it may require relinquishing basic epistemic frames and accepting new narratives.

No one has received the gift more enthusiastically than the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, who reports that the Anthropocene thought overturned basic assumptions informing his work and redirected his focus. History now finds itself, he writes, within a bigger story in which objects of the natural sciences become human products (anthropogenic climate change) and the subject of the humanities has become a geological agent. In fact, says Chakrabarty, “without such knowledge of the deep history of humanity it would be difficult to arrive at a secular understanding of why climate change constitutes a crisis for humans.”[1]

By “secular,” Chakrabarty seems to intend “non-religious,” but his thought involves a shift that looks religious in register. The cosmological reorientation required to achieve his secular understanding seems religious in depth, in the sense that it involves a big story that shapes interpretation of the human relationship and construes the context of human action. So the idea of the Anthropocene can carry a stealth religiosity—an imaginative construal of the human place and purpose with the planet that goes unrecognized as a particular moral cosmology. When presented as a natural fact about the world or “a secular understanding,” its imaginative consequences may remain concealed.

Within the Anthropocene imagination, humanity has a story as a species because it now acts as a geological agent, which it discovers through the event of climate crisis. In the context of that crisis, geoengineering seems merely prudent, responsible, and inevitable. Crutzen’s final retort to those who think we should still focus on mitigation—“looks like a pious wish”—suggests nostalgia for an outdated faith.[2]

Yet the new grand narrative of the Anthropocene should not go unquestioned. If the species is an agent in a story, then it makes sense to ask a character question: into what sort of story does this fit? That question makes possible an ironic sense about the fragility of our interpretations of ourselves and our world. For that, however, we must be explicit about the pretense to responsibility in our practices of global environmental management, and the practical ideals by which they are oriented.

Climate change, write several prestigious teams of scientists, requires rethinking humanity’s role in planetary systems.[3] Since we are cultivating the planet one way or another, they argue, science should lead efforts to actively transform ecological systems and thereby reshape the vision of human life within them. Science should shift its focus, they argue, from supplying information to manage problems in reference to historic benchmarks toward “the active shaping of trajectories of change in coupled social-ecological systems…to enhance ecosystem resilience and promote human well-being.”[4]  What nature would be without human interference no longer matters; human flourishing now normatively regulates what an ecosystem should do. The virtues of ecological care are indexed to a broader view of the virtues of being human. What ecological conditions should humanity seek? The sort “within which humanity can continue to develop in a humane and respectful fashion.”[5] So is geoengineering humane and respectful? That depends on what we make of our pretense to acting “humanely” in the Anthropocene.[6]

What sort of practices are most apt for helping cultures think through that interpretive question? At least, they cannot be practices in which it seems the pretense is secured from critical wonder. Whatever course humanity takes, we must be able to keep wondering: what would it really mean to act as steward of the planet?

Consider Eileen Crist’s trenchant criticism of Anthropocene discourse. She worries that it legitimates continued expansion of human power over earth. Making human rule of the planet seem an already accomplished fact naturalizes violence, which is then moralized by appealing to stewardship as virtuous rule. Crist protests the way that the Anthropocene storyline makes climate engineering appear inevitable and alternatives a pious wish.[7]

A different narrative would make those alternatives seem more attractive and feasible. Crist prefers a story that imagines humanity’s smallness within the community of life. Instead of leaning into “active stewardship” on an Anthropocene narrative, Crist wants a story in which it makes more sense for humanity to withdraw from vainly attempting to govern earth systems. Humans should learn that responsibility means deferring to the long evolutionary history of which we are a part.

At stake in the Anthropocene is not merely stewardship of the planet but stewardship of the idea of humanity by which acts of planetary responsibility will be interpreted. Detractors and proponents of geoengineering agree that humanity has been indifferent to the climatic consequences of its behavior and must now take responsibility. They differ in crucial ways over what it means to be responsible because they differ in how to interpret humanity and its relation to its environment. Whether and how humans engineer the planet will be a major factor in determining not only the future of life’s evolution on Earth, but the future of humanity’s understanding of itself.

This excerpt adapted by permission from a chapter in “Calming the Storm: Religious and Ethical Perspectives on Climate Engineering,” edited by Forrest Clingerman and Kevin O’Brien, forthcoming from Lexington Press.

[1] Dipesh Chakrabarty, By. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (January 1, 2009): 213.

[2] Paul Crutzen, “Albedo Enhancement By Stratospheric Sulfur Injetions: A Contribution to Resolve a Policy Dilemma?” Climatic Change vol 77 (2006); 

[3] Will Steffen et al., “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship,” Ambio 40 (2011); Carl Folke et al., “Reconnecting to the Biosphere,” Ambio 40 (2011); F. Stuart Chapin et al., “Earth Stewardship: A Strategy For Social-Ecological Transformation To Reverse Planetary Degradation,” Journal of Environmental Studies & Sciences, 1 (2011); Chapin et al., “Ecosystem Stewardship: Sustainability Strategies for a Rapidly Changing Planet,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 25.4 (2009)..

[4] Chapin et al., “Earth Stewardship,” 45.

[5] Steffen et al., “The Anthropocene,” 756.

[6] See Gisli Palsson, et al., “Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: Integrating the Social Sciences and Humanities in Global Environmental Change Research,” Environmental Science & Policy, 28 (2013).

[7] Eileen Crist, “On The Poverty Of Our Nomenclature,” Environmental Humanities, 3 (2013).

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I, No You: I-I and the Interpretation of the Anthropocene

Forrest Clingerman - Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Department of Religion and Philosophy, Ohio Northern University

clingermanIn the influential work I-Thou, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber writes that the human experience of the world is twofold, thanks to two basic “word pairs”: I-It and I-You.[1]  Buber suggests that the former pair (I-It) defines our usual experience of the world; as a subject, we see things as objects, especially in the alienating, technologically-focused modern world.  In contrast, there are unique circumstances that emerge in certain relationships, creating the presence of I-You.  In I-You engagements, the encounter of two subjects results in a mutual actualization of each another.  As human beings, we become who we are through our expressions of I-You.  Or, as Paul Ricoeur would suggest decades later, we become ourselves only through a detour through the Other.  In the midst of I-You, we discover a real presence—indeed, Buber suggests that in every uncovering of I-You there is a manifestation of the “Eternal You,” a spiritual wholeness that happens when we are fully present to another as another.

Buber’s vision of the I-You exemplifies one prominent dimension of religious thought in the West, namely the possibility of (and need for) a transcendence that emerges from our relationships.  Certainly there is meaning in all our relationships, whether with humans or non-humans.  Yet the expression of I-You highlights the ways concrete relationships with our surroundings become an encounter with transcendence, with what is beyond the self.  This is what 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher hinted at when he connected religion to the “sensibility and thirst for the infinite” as a response to the universe,[2] while other theologians talk of the Holy, the Wholly Other, the Ground of Being, or the Absolute.

Of course, theologians and ethicists interpret the natural world through a particular perspective, which is defined by disciplinary questions, methods, and concerns.  This is far from being the only framework for interpretation of the Earth’s material dimensions.  Contemporary scientific disciplines offer another way of interpreting the world around us, as evidenced by the recent surge in interest concerning the pervasive human effects on Earth systems.

One recent scientific interpretation about the human-Earth relationship coalesces in a proposal to name a new geological time period due to the effects of global human activity.  Under this proposal, the Earth has entered “the Anthropocene.”  The Anthropocene proposal is an attempt to define certain changes to the Earth system, as measured by geology and other sciences.  On the face of things, this is an attempt to explain synchronous, global environmental changes caused by human action. 

Even though we can view the Anthropocene proposal as a scientific debate, it has implications for other ways of understanding the ever-changing relationship between humans and their world.  What happens when the current geologic time period is defined in terms of human activity? When one species (our own) can become self-aware of its role as a dominant driver of global environmental change? This is a break from the past, insofar as the Anthropocene means domesticating the world with eyes wide open. Fields beyond the sciences are in the position to see how “the Anthropocene” is the name of a novel state, in which humans engage in a reflexive, self-conscious domestication of their world, mainly through the outpouring of the same forms of scientific reflection that allow us to identify the Anthropocene in the first place. In other words, it is important to appreciate how “the Anthropocene” is a hermeneutical concept: it is a framework to bring coherence (and thus understanding) to competing interpretations, scientific and non-scientific alike. As a hermeneutical concept, the Anthropocene not only quantifies and assesses changes in the Earth system.  It equally becomes a new way to interpret our changing relationship with the planet, our local environment, and each other. 

So what would Martin Buber—and religious reflection more generally—make of the Anthropocene proposal? A good starting place to connect religion and the Anthropocene is the fact that this proposal dismantles the boundaries between self and other, which challenges the long-standing frameworks of religion and ethics.  The Anthropocene does not fit with either the I-You or the I-It, because the world has been subsumed by the I, the human. Should we perhaps argue that the Anthropocene introduces another basic word pair, the “I-I,” when the otherness of nature is transformed into a conceptual reduction of the world to the human? 

A concrete illustration of what this means is found in the ways the Anthropocene confronts the value of wildness versus domestication.  When Crutzen and Stoermer first suggested the term, their intention was “…to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology…”[3] This seems to presume accepting the need “…for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management…” on a global scale.[4] It rests on a grim acceptance that there is no longer any wildness left—instead, the debate becomes one between the “good” and “bad” Anthropocenes.  But what about our need (or at least our desire) for our planet to hold at least some areas apart from human control? Calling to mind the story of the Good Samaritan: how do we love the neighbor, when we have turned the neighbor into ourselves?

Threatened with the ramifications of our overhumanized world, ethics, philosophy, and religion begin to nag at us.  Tim Caro and his colleagues argue that the promotion of nature conservation is best served by acknowledging the fact that wildness still exists, even in the face of the Anthropocene.[5]  This argument doesn’t start with science, however, but with the yearning to defend our need to conserve what is beyond our control.  Such defense is not an act of altruism, but self-preservation.  For as Paul Ricoeur suggests, the self is understood only through its relation to the other.  Indeed, the relation to the other “keeps the self from occupying the place of foundation,” safeguarding us from “exalting” or “humiliating” the self at the expense of another.[6]  

Put simply, theology and ethics is predicated on the presupposition that humans cannot fully exist in a distorted, reductive relationship of “I-I.” In this debate, the cultural and ontological importance of wildness is to serve as a counterbalance to a perspective that inadvertently masks the effects on nature and wilderness.  Eileen Crist writes, “The Anthropocene discourse veers away from environmentalism’s dark idiom of destruction, depredation, rape, loss, devastation, deterioration, and so forth of the natural world into the tame vocabulary that humans are changing, shaping, transforming, or altering the biosphere, and, in the process, creating novel ecosystems and anthropogenic biomes.”[7]  That is to say, the Anthropocene threatens us as a conceptual domestication, which effaces the possibility of wildness. 

Does any wildness remain, or have we domesticated the planet? Theology and religion might not be able to resolve that question.  But religious communities increasingly need to ask, and to acknowledge why these questions are fundamentally unique in the “age of the human.”  For theology and ethics, the response to such questions is at the heart of our need for the other, through which humans become capable of seeing the wildness of the Eternal You.

In sum, the hermeneutics of the Anthropocene reaches into the way we humans exist on the planet, and whether we still can understand ourselves when we remake the face of the Other to be merely a mirror of the self.  Buber’s I-It illuminates the way we objectify the world outside us, whereas the I-You embraces the possibility of the Other as a unique and meaningful subject in its own right.  But the Anthropocene proposes something new: the human self in relation to a world—no longer either subject or object—that is defined as an extension of humanity.  What happens when we see through a looking-glass, dimly, and no longer attempt to look further?  When our attempts at encountering the face of another results in only seeing ourselves? When the I-You is no longer possible, for the world has become populated exclusively with the I? Scientifically, we cannot ask about the other who opens the door to transcendence and meaning.  On the other hand, theological reflection requires us to do so.

Suggested Reading

Forrest Clingerman, Martin Drenthen, Brian Treanor, and David Utsler, editors. Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics. Fordham University Press, 2013.

David E. Klemm and William Schweiker.  Religion and the Human Future. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

Anne Primavesi. Gaia and Climate Change: A Theology of Gift Events New York: Routledge, 2009.



[1] Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribner’s, 1970).

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, translated by Richard Crouter, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 23.

[3] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, "The Anthropocene," IGBP Newsletter no. 41 (May 2000): 17 [17-18].

[4] Paul J. Crutzen, "Geology of Mankind," Nature 415 (3 January 2002): 23.

[5] Tim Caro, Jack Darwin, Tavis Forrester, Cynthia Ledoux-Bloom, and Caitlin Wells, "Conservation in the Anthropocene," Conservation Biology 26, no 1 (2011): 185-8.

[6] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 318.

[7] Eileen Crist, “On the Poverty of our Nomenclature,” Environmental Humanities 3 (2013), pp. 133 [129-147]. http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol3/3.7.pdf

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