In my last post, as part of reflecting on the Easter story from a twenty-first century perspective, I shared a challenge from the evolutionary evangelist Michael Dowd. He says that instead of dating the most significant turning point in history as B.C. (“Before Christ”), we should start thinking in terms of B.C. as “Before Copernicus.” Before the Scientific Revolution, it was more reasonable to maintain that we humans were the point of creation—that we were the reason anything even existed in the first place. But more than five hundred years ago, Copernicus presented reason, logic, and data demonstrating that Earth is not the center of the universe. And in the ensuing centuries, science has invited us to comprehend that our human species is only a tiny part of a much larger universe story that has been evolving for more than 13.8 billion years across more than two trillion galaxies.
Last Saturday, two buses carrying more than a hundred passengers departed the parking lot of the congregation I serve as minister to attend the March for Science in D.C. Another busload will head to D.C. tomorrow for the People’s Climate March in D.C. Local sibling marches were also planned. Both the #ScienceMarch and #ClimateMarch are protests against a human-centric perspective that disregards scientific data and denies the threat of human-created climate change. We humans are not at the center of the universe. And when we act like we are, we wreak havoc on this beautiful but fragile planet.
In the 1980s, an ecologist coined the term Anthropocene (similar to the word anthropology) to highlight the ways we humans may have created a new geologic time period in which we are the dominant force shaping this planet. Anthropocene literally means “the age of the humans.” There actually is a committee who decides such things, the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London, and they have taken the matter under advisement. But they are in no rush. After all, we’re talking about geologic time (Purdy 1-2).
From about 2.5 million years ago until only about 12,000 years ago, our planet was in the Pleistocene epoch (often called the “Ice Age”). Starting about 12,000 years ago until today, we have been in the Holocene epoch. And to give just one example of the vast spans that have to be accounted for in geologic time, during the entire twelve-millennia length of the Holocene, “plate tectonics has driven the continents a little more than half a mile.” That means that most of us could move the scale of millennia-long planetary change in the matter of a few minutes (1).
Geologically, the major force shaping Earth in recent years has not been plate tectonics; it has been the lifestyle of one particular species of the Animal Kingdom: us, homo sapiens. Astonishingly, the world population of human beings has increased sevenfold in a mere two centuries—from approximately 1 billion in 1800 to more than 7 billion today—with no signs of stopping.
However, I invite you to consider that before we get too excited about the possibility of that term Anthropocene helping us wrestle with the longterm consequences of our human behavior on this planet, we should consider whether the name Anthropocene ironically continues to center humanity in an unhelpful and inaccurate way. As scientists have noted,
We don’t name a new era after the destructive force that ended the era that came before. [We] didn’t name the time of the dinosaurs the Asteroidic, even if an asteroid is suspected of having ended the Cretaceous Period…. The period after the Permian isn’t the Super Volcanic…. (Moore 132)
From the perspective of geologic time, as destructive as that asteroid and volcano were, both of them soon “sank into the earth.” And it may be that we humans continue to cause extreme climate change to this planet before also sinking into the earth, leaving few longterm remnants of our civilization. (Think of all those dystopian films in which modern cities, like The Lost City of Z, become rapidly overgrown with vines as nature reclaims the planet.)
At this point, the question is not whether climate change is going to happen. It is already happening. The question is: how much worse will we let things get? Both the March for Science and the People’s Climate March call us to heed the warnings of science—and to seek to build our economy not on the alleged bottom line of “profit alone,” but to account for a triple-bottom line that balances “people, planet, and profit.” Monetary profit motive is still a principle factor, but it is no longer allowed to externalize its impact on labor and the environment—people and the planet.
Along these lines, the environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore in her 2016 book Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a time of Planetary Change says that just as we have added increasingly large warning labels to packs of cigarettes, we need to add large warning labels to all the harmful ways we use fossil fuels:
WARNING: Fossil fuels are addictive.
WARNING: Burning fossil fuels can harm your children.
WARNING: Burning fossil fuels can cause fatal lung disease and cancer.
WARNING: Burning fossil fuels during pregnancy can harm your baby, directly through pollution, or indirectly by damaging the planets’s life-giving systems that will sustain that small person into the future.
WARNING: Burning fossil fuels can kill you, and (so far, in tandem with habitat destruction) has killed 40 percent of the plants and animals on Earth.
WARNING: Burning fossil fuels causes harm even to those who cannot afford to burn them.
WARNING: Quitting fossil fuels now greatly reduces serious risks to your health, the health of the planet, and the health of future generations. (178)
Or, to quote the 1995 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, who discovered that chlorofluorocarbons contribute to ozone depletion: “What is the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?” (Flannery ix).
Of course, it does not help that climate change denial is on the ascendency in our government. Moreover, science itself is not neutral. Even as science keeps getting better at predicting the causes and impact of climate change, science is also getting better at extracting the fossil fuels of coal, oil, and gas that contribute to climate change in the first place (78-9).
We need to use the power of science wisely. Tim Flannery details in his important 2015 book, Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis, the red line we should avoid crossing is “pushing average global surface temperatures 2°C or more above” the average prior to the 18th-century Industrial Revolution, when we started pumping carbon into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates. If we think of humanity’s “carbon budget” as the amount of carbon we can burn and stay under that 2°C threshold, then experts tell us “about 80 percent of the world’s valued fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground” (106). Meeting the challenge of this tough metric will require valuing the longterm health of people and planet over short-term profit.
(I will continue this reflection tomorrow in a post on The Earth Challenge & the Spiritual Practice of Earth Breathing.)
The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).
Learn more about Unitarian Universalism: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles