The one complex crisis of the anthropocene – musings on possibly revolutionary fusions of religious and scientific authority

In recent weeks the idea that we are living through some kind of revolutionary period has begun to feel palpable. Radical ideas and violent reactions abound all over.

The world appears to be drawing out new ideas even from institutions not often known for their political courage: science and religion.

Those interested in environmental thought will be familiar with the term Anthropocene, a word to capture in an encompassing scientific language, how human actions are destroying human futures. The Anthropocene is an all-embracing and global concept. It highlights that we do not have multiple crises that pertain to environmental or social or religious matters etc. We have just one complex crisis.

It is surprising but it is Pope Francis who today is using such language, and challenging the world to get out of this disastrous spiral. His encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si (Praise Be), On the Care of Our Common Home“, has been in the news for days. Today twitter and the headlines are full of its key messages. Encyclical

One message that many will be grateful for and many resist, is his insistence that the rich bear the responsibility for the mess we are in. (The arguments have been out there since before the 1987 publication of the UN report, Our Common Future, and since then the problems have only become massively worse. Saskia Sassen’s 2014 book Expulsions makes the point rather well.)

After all these years of deafness to what many environmentalists consider obvious arguments, the capacity of a critical voice to ring so loud and so sweeping is amazing. in the mainstream we have become used to more narrowly focussed debate. Particularly the rich (and those who think like, or want to be like, the rich) have long had a tendency to avoid joining the dots between the multiple miseries of others and their own comforts. The preferred approach has been to let the scientists deal with the science, the economists with the economy, etc.

Perhaps the Pope needed something like the Anthropocene-idea to become familiar before he could launch such an attack on dominant ideas. I say this because the term Anthropocene is an illustration of how that effort to keep things artificially separate has been breaking down.

The rise of the word can be dated to the publication, in 2002, of a short article in the journal Nature by Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen. He noted that the scale and intensity of the changes caused by technology were producing irreversible and lasting damage to the global environment. What we have is a new, human-dominated, geological epoch, for which he suggested the existing but then obscure term Anthropocene. In 2013 when a new journal was founded, called Anthropocene, the word was already in widespread use.

The Anthropocene, or Human Era, is a useful addition to environmentalist vocabulary being both a normative and a scientific concept. And in one word it captures the full range of transformations, from species extinctions, altered landscapes and toxic emissions to genetic engineering and explosive urbanisation that are easy to see as originating in human activity.

But it still niggles.

Firstly, the scientific basis for a new geological epoch is shaky. It’s a far bigger claim than noting that the environment of the Earth as a whole is under unprecedented strain, or even that the climate has been altered by human activity. (After all, humans have transformed landscapes for millennia, waterways and even weather patterns probably for centuries.) Critics of the idea say there is no evidence of a distinct break between the Holocene epoch (starting about 12 000 years ago) and the Anthropocene, its supposed successor.

Many of those who use the term Anthropocene acknowledge that its justification is primarily political: it is scientists’ effort to get lay people to realise that humankind’s current ways have irreversible and potentially catastrophic effects, unless they are modified.

The implication of recognising the destructive role of anthropos is to remake that role, to take responsibility for this mess or, in the websites’ translations, the “immense pile of filth” that the Pope has so loudly proclaimed today.

The Pope’s narrative is a little more appealing than the Anthropocene idea. It talks about humanity as a whole, but makes sure to hold some more responsible than others. That has been one problem that many of us have had with the Anthropocene idea. To hold “humanity” responsible would be to ignore the crucial fact that it, the anthropos, is far from homogenous. It is only some humans who have been acting as drivers of environmental damage.

Climate change is a case in point. Only a very small portion of humanity has benefitted from or been responsible for fossil-based modern energy consumption and the resource-intensive way of life now threatening all these Earth systems. Vaclav Smil, a world authority on environmental history, has noted that ‘the difference in modern energy consumption between a subsistence pastoralist in the Sahel and an average Canadian may easily be larger than 1,000-fold’.*

Other than as a social or historical phenomenon, I’ve never had much interest in Catholicism. The Pope’s intervention, and the way it has managed to capture the Anthropocene idea without evacuating our options of political choices, has made me take note. I do hope others do too.

* Smil V. (2008) Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Quoted in Malm, A. and Hornborg, A. (2014) ‘The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative’, The Anthropocene Review, Vol.1(1): 62-69

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