Larry Rasmussen is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and author of The Planet You Inherit: Letters to My Grandchildren When Uncertainty’s a Sure Thing.

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There's No Place to Hide in the Anthropocene

by Larry Rasmussen 02-21-2023
“The Earth can't afford more black belts in shopping and using things up.”
An illustration of four anthropomorphic representations of human revolutions. From left to right, a blue man is digging. A tan woman is holding a vase. An orange figure has a mechanical gear for a head. A man is wearing a suit with smokestacks for a head.

Illustration by Eoin Ryan

PHILIP JENKINS’ REMARKABLE  Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval leads off with Voltaire: “Three things exercise a constant influence over the minds of [humankind] — climate, government, and religion ... That is the only way of explaining the enigma of this world.”

Climate and geology are now the new prisms for our shared discernment of how we are to live in our own time and place as followers of Christ. We’re driven to centering climate because we can no longer live with the expectation of the balanced climate of the last 12,000 years, the geologic epoch called the late Holocene. We are now in a new geologic epoch: the Age of the Human, or the Anthropocene.

Anthropocene reality leaves Christian ethics nowhere to hide. Nowhere to hide because unprecedented cumulative human powers doubled down on planet-spanning changes that launched the first geological epoch created by human choice and action. The fact that human choice and action has done this means that everything, including extinction, turns on ethics. As Christians, we can look away and abdicate our responsibility, but we cannot escape the massive human presence that lines out our lives — and all life. We’ve become totalizing creatures. We humans are, for the first time, both ark and flood.

This extraordinary power has been recognized for a while. In 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the unprecedented powers of modern science and technology led to a world in which “it all comes down to the human being,” a world where “everything turns upon humanity.” He thus set out to reconceive human responsibility for a world that had come of age. For Bonhoeffer, “world come of age” was not a statement of moral maturity. It was a statement of moral accountability. People who legally come of age at 18 or 21 are accountable, whether they exercise their agency maturely or not. When everything turns on humanity, Bonhoeffer said, the whole human world has arrived at that point of accountability.

A current term for human powers and their collective impact is “assisted evolution.” But the phrase is deceptive because it hides the depth, breadth, and temporal reach of those powers. Does the phrase “assisted evolution” reveal that the carbon people produce has the ability to alter marine chemistry, flood coastlines, strip glaciers “to bare bones,” embolden deserts, warp the circulation of ocean currents, “supercharge extreme weather events,” and rearrange “the distribution of animal, plant, and microbial species across the globe,” as author David Farrier puts it? This isn’t evolution “assisted”; it’s evolution hacked and hijacked.

An Earth-Honoring Faith

by Larry Rasmussen 06-01-2010

What does it mean that planet Earth is jeopardized by its supposed stewards, who fail even to wince at our species' cumulative threats to life?

The Steep Price of Grace

by Larry Rasmussen 02-01-2006

100 years after Dietrich Bonhoeffer's birth, he still has much to teach us.

In the Face of War

by Larry Rasmussen 01-01-2005

Bush has been re-elected, the war in Iraq rages on, and militarism seems the order of the day. What's next for those committed to the way of peace?

Building a Living Democracy ... The Dialogue Continues

Responses to an economic vision beyond socialism and capitalism