Why post-WW2 era will be seen as the 'time of the Fall'
BookDefiant Earth: the Fate of humans in the Anthropocene reviewed
By George Browning
August 16 2017Defiant Earth: the Fate of humans in the Anthropocene, by Clive Hamilton (Allen & Unwin 2017 24.95)
Reviewed by George Browning
This is a book unlike Clive Hamilton’s previous forays into the challenge of climate change. In previous writings Clive warns of the serious crisis we face if we do not mend our ways. He warns of the catastrophic consequences of ‘activity as normal’ and urges us to quickly reduce the emissions and consumption that precipitate the crisis.
This book is different in that he now takes for granted that no matter how we respond into the future, irreparable and irreversible damage has already been done and asks the question: what does it mean for humans to continue to live on planet earth knowing that we have set in motion a process which will inevitably mean the conditions in which humans have flourished, the Holocene, will no longer prevail?
He explains the modern antinomy of human life as follows: “On the one hand, science tells us that humans have become so powerful that we rival the great forces of nature, to the point that we have altered the trajectory of the planet. On the other hand the forces of nature have been aroused from their Holocene slumber so that we enter a long era in which they are more dangerous to us and more uncontrollable... Humans are more powerful; nature is more powerful. A power struggle between mankind and earth is underway, a tug-of-war in which humans strain to drag the Earth into our sphere of influence while earth attempts to drag us back into its domain” (p45).
He argues that it is no longer tenable to accept the words of Pope Francis in Laudato Si 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” (p48).
Given the above it is quite a ‘dark’ book. As I said in Canberra when Clive delivered an address based on his book: “it sounds as if we are all stuffed.”
And yet this is not where Clive leaves the matter. He very courageously seeks meaning, direction, purpose, in this situation. Although Clive’s work office in Canberra sits amongst a bunch of theologians; theology is not his discipline. And yet theological vapours appear to have wafted under his door. He says: “Future historians of the cosmos will identify the century after World War II and particularly the decades from the 1990’s when we knew what we were doing, as the time of the Fall” (p126). He then goes on to explain what he considers to be the primary purpose of this book, namely: “to begin the task of reinventing freedom [my emphasis] and necessity in the light of our new knowledge of the Earth System” (p140).
Since the Enlightenment the concept of freedom and the ethic that undergirds it has been based on the primacy of the individual. This has been underscored in Protestant theological assumptions from the Luther to the present day. Luther sought to free the individual and her/his salvation from the sacerdotal gymnastics of the Roman Church. However, his arguments would not justify what appears to be the retreat of Protestantism from the public square to an obsession with personal morality as we are currently observing in debates about same-sex marriage and an absence of serious debate from the protestant churches on climate change, intergenerational justice, environmental justice or even the serious growth of global inequity.
We are not ‘free’ to do as we please at the expense of future generations, nor are we free to exploit the planet at the expense of bio-diversity and global warming. Clive argues that in the age of the anthropocene an ethic based on the primacy of the individual can no longer serve us, for in a world of interconnectedness individualism is the problem.
Secondly, because when the more than 7+billion people assert power assumed from their ‘freedom’, the more earth systems will fight back. He says dramatically there is no prevailing ethic suitable for humans who live in the anthropocene. “The cupboard is bare... where once we could fear and love God and truly believe in him and his saving power, now we can only fear Gaia. But Gaia is no Messiah” (p155).
Much more could and should be said about the book. I want to conclude by saying Clive has not simply given the Christian community a challenge—but a gift. The Gospel is the same yesterday today and forever, but how it is experienced and lived changes in each succeeding generation. What passes for popular Christianity today does not even begin to grapple with the rapidly changing context in which humans find themselves in the first half of the 21st century. What is the basis of Christian hope in our current context? Is it simply ‘pie in the sky when we die’? Such hope underwrites the vests warn by suicide bombers.
And how do we understand Christian eschatology in this context? Are we to keep doing what we are doing because we believe apocalyptic events will hasten Christ’s return, in the same manner that Christian Zionists apparently believe that the obliteration of Palestinian rights to secure Israel’s dominance ‘from river to ocean’ will hasten Jesus’ return?
Every age has been an occasion for the Gospel to be truly incarnated. Two World Wars and a Great Depression posed serious questions for the hole of humanity. Current human migration does the same. More than them all, humanity in the age of the anthropocene poses enormous questions for us all to face. We Christians trade on hope. Now is the time to think and pray carefully about what this means in our present era.
Bishop George Browning PhD DLitt is the inaugural chair of the Anglican Communion Environment Network and the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.