Geography, the writing of the earth: reflections for the beginning of the Byzantine Year

Geography, the writing of the earth: reflections for the beginning of the Byzantine Year September 1, 2017

Icon: Creation of the Cosmos - Christ creating the cosmos Genesis 1 In the beginning - by Ted, 4 Mar 2011 (5504096566_f9119d89ea_o) (CC BY-SA 2.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]), via Flickr
Icon: Creation of the Cosmos – Christ creating the cosmos Genesis 1 In the beginning – by Ted, 4 Mar 2011 (5504096566_f9119d89ea_o) (CC BY-SA 2.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]), via Flickr
I have a PhD in geography, so it follows that I should have something to say on this Day for the Protection of Our Natural Environment. It is, after all, a big day for our churches: since 1989, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople has rung in the new Byzantine year on September 1, and since the publication of the Bishop of Rome’s encyclical Laudato Si’ in 2015, the Latin Church has joined in the fun. Those who know something about geography – the writing (graphos) of the earth () – perhaps should have something to say about this, as what else are the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Bishop of Rome doing besides geography when they issue, as they have this year, a joint statement about how the way that we inhabit the earth in our way as market consumers is destroying its ecological system and impoverishing those who cannot participate in such colonialism?

Alas, important as this day is, I do not feel like I have much to say. I may be a geographer, but not the kind that deals with rocks, trees, and the weather; properly speaking, I am a social and cultural geographer, so my knowledge of political economy is elementary as well.

In fact, the story of how I got into geography is itself a little nonsensical. I was a pastor’s kid who grew up in Chinese evangelical churches, and this means that I have issues. Because of those issues, I ended up majoring in history as an undergraduate thinking that I’d grow up to write the history of Chinese evangelical churches, and because I met a girl in Vancouver, I decided that I was very interested in Chinese evangelical churches in Vancouver. Alas, the historians at the University of British Columbia, where I was going to school, were less than interested, except for the religious historian, who told me that he wouldn’t be able to supervise me because he was retiring. He said, however, that his tennis partner was a professor in the geography department and that he had expressed some interest in ethnic churches in Vancouver. I went over to the tennis partner, who had supervised a master’s thesis on German churches in the city, and he asked me if I wanted to defect. And so I became a geographer.

What I learned very quickly as a graduate student in geography is that, topically speaking, there isn’t much holding the discipline together and that outsiders looking in usually ask about geography is, to which no geographer has ever provided a coherent answer. In fact, we relish our incoherence. There are physical geographers who study geomorphology (the changing of the earth, like through erosion), climatology (including in cities – this is pretty cool, actually), forestry, and (in our department, at least) the Arctic. And then there are human geographers who work on borders, migration, economic networks, warzones, everyday lives, and even philosophical concepts like phenomenology and posthumanism. Because of this, we like to joke that this world is composed of physicals and humans, and for the record, I am human.

One of the trends in human geography at the time that I was a graduate student was to study poverty and sustainable living. I had no interest in these topics because I was interested in Chinese Christians, by which I meant evangelical Protestants. I once complained to a colleague that it felt like I was a bit of a unicorn. Everybody else was interested in how poor people become poor and get by in the city, as well as how human-environment interactions could be made more sustainable instead of completely destroying the earth, and here I was, interested in questions of religion and theology with a population that was generally middle-class and typically uninterested in ecology.

Because people in the department were interested in sustainability, however, I had to get my game on, at least in my everyday practices. Before I was a graduate student, I didn’t know the first thing about what was trash, what was recyclable, and what was compostable; all I really knew about it was what I had learned from watching Captain Planet when I was five. The most that I had ever known as an undergraduate was that the building that I worked in as a research assistant, the Institute of Asian Research, had composting toilets, which meant that when you did your business, it would all end up in this tank underneath the building that provided fertilizer to the surrounding area. I still remember the day when, ten years after building it, they decided to clean out the tanks. The custodian, with whom I was friends, told me that it had turned into a disaster: they had apparently hired two young men to carry out bags of waste from the tank, but it had all caked in to the tank, so they had to scrape it, and while they were scraping, they had forgotten to tell people to not use the toilets. What then happened is that one of these guys, while carrying the bags, dislocated his shoulder. Eventually, professionals had to be called in to clean up the mess.

But in the coffee room of the geography department at the University of British Columbia, I learned my ecological lessons. After all, putting things in the wrong place had the potential into making someone into a social pariah in our department. After a few close calls, I quickly learned what was biodegradable, which meant that it could go into the composting bin. I diligently sorted my papers and plastics. I refrained from putting things into the trash if it didn’t have to go there.

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who is himself a kind of pariah in the world of critical theory, says that all this is nice, but it is a bit stupid too. After all, me finally sorting out my own waste sometimes has the effect of me thinking that I’ve done my part for the environment, so my job is done, all the while ignoring the corporations that produce massive waste and perform big dumps that actually destroy ecosystems. Because of this, Žižek criticizes ecology as a kind of religion in a pejorative way, where you do just enough to achieve your own salvation while the reality is that you are living in a fantasyland of your own making.

The irony is that the two religious figures who are calling for Christian attention to ecology, the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Bishop of Rome, are not doing the kind of thing that Žižek is criticizing as ‘religion.’ When they call for Christians, both western and eastern, to pray for creation, they are calling for a kind of prayerful attentiveness to precisely those market-based systems of environmental degradation. Here is the short statement in full:

The story of creation presents us with a panoramic view of the world. Scripture reveals that, “in the beginning”, God intended humanity to cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment. At first, as we read in Genesis, “no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground” (2:5). The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility until, “in the end”, all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). Our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation.

However, “in the meantime”, the history of the world presents a very different context. It reveals a morally decaying scenario where our attitude and behaviour towards creation obscures our calling as God’s co-operators. Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets – all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation. We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession. We no longer associate with nature in order to sustain it; instead, we lord over it to support our own constructs.

The consequences of this alternative worldview are tragic and lasting. The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe. Our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly implies the recognition of and respect for all people and all living creatures. The urgent call and challenge to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work towards sustainable and integral development.

Therefore, united by the same concern for God’s creation and acknowledging the earth as a shared good, we fervently invite all people of goodwill to dedicate a time of prayer for the environment on 1 September.  On this occasion, we wish to offer thanks to the loving Creator for the noble gift of creation and to pledge commitment to its care and preservation for the sake of future generations. After all, we know that we labour in vain if the Lord is not by our side (cf. Ps 126-127), if prayer is not at the centre of our reflection and celebration. Indeed, an objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world. The goal of our promise is to be courageous in embracing greater simplicity and solidarity in our lives.

We urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation. We are convinced that there can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change unless the response is concerted and collective, unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, unless we give priority to solidarity and service.

From the Vatican and from the Phanar, 1 September 2017

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

The scale at which they want to think is a global one, and the practices that they are criticizing may be personal, but not individual. Instead, they are concerned about the systems that have been created to eliminate the consideration of morality when it comes to ecology; that system, they suggest, is the one that turns the world into a market, where the environment becomes a set of objects that are valued at a price – commodities – and are possessed instead of shared. This, they are both saying, is the source of human poverty, the destruction of an environment for both human and animal inhabitation, and climate change, the warming of the earth due to industrial practices that has devastating consequences, including in (but by no means limited to) the current experience of Hurricane Harvey.

There is a kind of integration of processes here – physical and human, social and economic, political and cultural, personal and institutional, market and moral. These processes all coincide on the earth; they are the means by which the earth is being written right now in the terms of death and devastation, whether we know it or not. By prayer, the Patriarch and the Pope ask for a new kind of writing, a different way of imagining and practicing how to inhabit the earth. Such prayer is therefore geographical in its most classical sense; if liturgy is the work of the people in making Christ present in the space of our gathering, then the making of geography must be liturgical in the sense that Christ’s presence in our midst rewrites the way the earth is to be inhabited. As the ecological activist and Orthodox Church in America (OCA) priest Fr Kaleeg Hainsworth puts it,

In the face of this reality, the Orthodox must respond with praxis and courage. No one really knows what to do anymore. That’s the truth of it. This is the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. The ecosystems changing around the world are not only more complex than humans know; they are more complex than we can know. Human ingenuity and technology will not be enough. We were smart enough to build our Babel; but not smart enough to know the consequences.

This is the real reason we must pray liturgically: out of a sense of helplessness and in the face of such amorality, it is in the Lord’s mercy that a world constituted by the truth can be re-imagined and with the presence of the Lord in our midst that we begin to build our inhabitation afresh. In prayer, what might be discovered is what Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon called at the publication of Laudato Si’ an existential ecumenism: ‘the effort to face together the most profound existential problems that preoccupy humanity in its entirety – not simply in particular places or classes of people. Ecology is without doubt the most obvious candidate in this case.’

In this way, geography is shown to be less incoherent than what it seems on the surface. The reason that geography is literally about anything and everything that is happening on this earth is that the various processes that the earth is being written and lived on cannot neatly be separated from one another. As a social and cultural geographer, for example, I may not be so good at deciphering the arcane patterns of political economy, but what interests me about politics and economics is the way that they form moral sensibilities and become frameworks of practice. As a human geographer, I wouldn’t be able to say the first thing about fluvial geomorphology or urban climatology, but I can talk about everyday practices of inhabitation that are tied to larger institutional realities. These processes are all tied together through the acts of making spaces into places, and some modes of placemaking are sustainable while others are not – and this is a moral problem. Interested as I may be in Chinese evangelicals in my research, in other words, their private sensibilities, bourgeois practices, and market mentalities are part and parcel of this global ecosystem. The reality is that this earth that is a common home that we write together, but too often, as both of the patriarchs as well as Žižek point out, the ideology is that we live lives that are privately cordoned off from each other as we bask in our material possessions. Ecology is only irrelevant in the terms of the private consensus.

On the first day of the Byzantine Year – the Day of Indiction, as it was called in imperial times – the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Bishop of Rome have called for a kind of non-imperial prayer, a liturgy by which we are in fact doing geography, writing the earth through the work of the people. For me as a professional geographer, it is an encouragement for me to do my job better. But as I think about all of my friends and family, sisters and brothers, who live on this common earth, I also meditate on why it is that I have a job to do: to do geography as an act of service to people of good will who are writing this earth together. It is for the strength to do this in yet another upcoming year that I need to pray, and for this, I ask your prayers as well.

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