Eschatological ethics for the Anthropocene? Reflections on Clive Hamilton's Defiant Earth

David Horrell responds to Clive Hamilton's new book "Defiant Earth: the fate of humans in the Anthropocene"

By David Horrell

August 16 2017Clive Hamilton’s latest book, Defiant Earth (read TMA's review here), is a powerful and provocative read. It begins by summarising the scientific case that we have in the last sixty years initiated a new geological episode: the Anthropocene. Human activity, unprecedented in both scale and speed, has caused a rupture in the earth’s climatic system such that it is becoming much more volatile, and unlike that in which humans have flourished throughout the entire past of our history. The impact of what we have done, whatever action we take to mitigate it, is massive and will last for many thousands of years.

In light of this, Hamilton argues that we need a new anthropocentrism. This is emphatically not about humans as the centre of the world in terms of value or worth, but about the fact that humans wield unique and massive power – and unique ability to reflect on our decisions and actions. The arrival of the Anthropocene reveals the extent of our impact on the earth and forces us to accept a responsibility we should not attempt to deny. This new insight means that we need a radical reorientation of all our intellectual and ethical traditions. Even our academic disciplines need to be reinvented to take account of the integration of the human-earth story that the latest science has revealed.

Given the urgency of the challenge, it is a shame that Hamilton does so little to offer anything by way of a new ethic, a new vision for human action, that might begin to address the situation he so powerfully presents. It is here, perhaps, that the relevance of biblical and theological reflection might come in. Hamilton is overly dismissive of the potential of established religious traditions, accepting the secularisation thesis too enthusiastically. To dismiss Pope Francis’s appeal, for example, as “anchored in an era long-gone” and resting “on an authority most do not recognize” (p. 155) greatly underestimates the significance of the Pope’s declarations for the approximately 1.2 billion Catholics in the world.

I agree that existing traditions can hardly be adequate to the challenge that now faces us – almost by definition, since they derive from a world so vastly different from our own and in which our recent impact on the planet was unimaginable. Yet our established ethical and religious traditions may have more to offer than Hamilton allows. Indeed, the encouragement to think further on this is provided in some of Hamilton’s own comments, particularly on the need for humans “who are willing to think eschatologically” (p. 156).

Valuing non-humans

One problem with a certain kind of anthropocentrism – emphatically not the anthropocentrism Hamilton argues for – is that it gives supreme value to human beings. The weight placed on Gen 1.26-27 – humanity made in God’s image – has a lot to answer for here; but eschatological hopes have also fed into belief that God is primarily concerned with saving some elect humans, and the wider Earth community is little more than the stage on which this drama happens.

An ecological engagement with the Bible can, however, help generate grounds for granting value and worth to all forms of life, for their own sake and not merely because of their value to humans. Despite the weighty influence of Gen 1.26-27, there are other parts of the Bible – perhaps most forcefully Job 38–41 – that could puncture our inflated sense of self-worth.

Other biblical traditions might help reinforce the idea that the moral community extends beyond humans to include the whole earth – such as the cosmos language that Paul uses: “God was in Christ reconciling the cosmos to himself” (2 Cor 5.19). Similarly, the writer to the Colossians sees God’s work in Christ as reconciling “all things” (Col 1.20). We cannot kid ourselves that Paul was an early ecotheologian – his focus is very largely on human beings, and on his assemblies of believers in particular. But his ideas can be fruitfully rethought, reappropriated, in a time of new challenge and new scientific understanding.

Eschatology and ethics: acting on vision 
Many Christians have accepted the need to accommodate their understanding of the beginnings of creation – and the creation stories in Genesis 1-2 in particular – with the insights of modern evolutionary science, while continuing to find value and insight in the biblical stories. But there has been rather less attention given to how the eschatological visions of the Bible might be accommodated to the scientific predictions about the future of the earth. This is partly because there remains a powerful kind of dualism that regards promises of eternal salvation as taking place on an entirely different plane – such as the idea that our souls (if we’re lucky) may go to heaven when we die. Such ideas no doubt play their part in encouraging – or at least allowing – a devaluing of the earth, which will, on this kind of scenario, not be our “eternal home”. One important question is how radically we should demythologise our eschatological visions and find other ways – as with the creation stories – to find value in the Bible’s depictions of future salvation. Would those visions retain some worth if the scientifically convincing story is that I will, at my death, lose all consciousness and decompose? And that our universe will, at some point in a very distant future, either collapse into a heat death or expand to a frozen death?

Would that mean that the biblical eschatological visions become little more than ancient fairy stories? Not necessarily. Take a well-known example, the prophetic oracle attributed to both Isaiah and Micah: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares”. Is this in any sense a prediction that will one day come true? Does that matter? It has served, and will continue to serve, as an inspirational vision for all kinds of movements to end war and conflict, and to seek more peaceable forms of human coexistence – a vision of the world as it is not but might be. That value as ethical ideal, drawing human action towards its visionary goal, remains even without any sense that it is a future prediction.

To foster the kind of new ethic Hamilton calls for, we need imaginative vision, narratives of the human-earth relationship, that could strongly motivate different patterns of human living. Modern industrial capitalism depends on the acceptance of a particular story of what it is to live as a human in this world – one in which wealth and consumption, expansion and acquisition form the central foci. Biblical traditions, like other religious traditions too, despite their antiquity and ambivalence (neither of which should be underestimated) can perhaps play a part in nurturing alternative stories, even strange and disruptive ones, that place different values at their heart and help us to imagine the world otherwise. We may find those alternative visions morally compelling and ethically formative, even if we have no realistic hope of their future fulfilment. Perhaps such stories might provide material for the reconstruction of humanity after the collapse of the expansionist experiment of recent decades. For even with the urgency of the challenge that Hamilton so powerfully presents, I don’t myself harbour much hope that humans will ever voluntarily curtail their rapacious domination and destruction of the earth, unless or until the earth forces us to do so.

David G. Horrell is Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Exeter, UK, author of The Bible and the Environment (Routledge, 2014) and co-author of Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis (Baylor University Press, 2010). This article summarises a talk on “Responding to the Anthropocene”, sponsored by the University of Divinity Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy (www.centrereasp.org), held at Collins Street Baptist Church, Melbourne, on 19 July 2017.