Imagine a future in which humanity’s accumulated wisdom about Earth — our vast experience with weather trends, fish spawning and migration patterns, plant pollination and much more — turns increasingly obsolete. As each decade passes, knowledge of Earth’s past becomes progressively less effective as a guide to the future. Civilization enters a dark age in its practical understanding of our planet.
It is hard for us to take in the reality that the earth is an extinction machine. It doesn’t need us, and we cannot control it. The “ecological crisis” we hear so much about, and which I have written so much about and worked to stave off—well, who says it is a crisis? Humans do—and educated, socially concerned humans at that. For the earth itself, the Holocene Extinction is not a crisis—it is just another shift. Who determined that the planet should remain in the state in which humans find it conducive? Is this not a form of clinging to mutable things, and one that is destined to make us unhappy? When we campaign to “save the earth,” what are we really trying to save? And which earth?
What does this mean? I’m not a scholar, but I can say what it means to me: it means that if you make nature your witness, and if you act as a witness for nature too, there is a truth to be found. It even means, perhaps, that the ultimate witness to who we are comes from the earth itself. When you sit with the earth, when you make it your witness and when you act as a witness for it—what do you see? What are you compelled to do? These are questions that take us beyond political stances, beyond principles, beyond arguments about engagement or detachment. They are questions, it seems to me, that can never be answered in any way other than the strictly personal. Sitting or acting; engagement or retreat; perhaps there need be no contradiction.
So the advent of the Anthropocene shatters the self-contained world of social analysis that is the terrain of modern social science, and explains why those intellectuals who remain within it find it impossible to “analyze” the politics, sociology or philosophy of climate change in a way that is true to the science. They end up floundering in the old categories, unable to see that something epochal has occurred, a rupture on the scale of the Industrial Revolution or the emergence of civilization itself.
Again and again we see in the spiritual traditions the demand to “put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 3:11) and act like responsible adults. By contrast, to plunder without thought, to take without giving back, to make messes without cleaning them up, to demand that others pay for one’s own mistakes, to foster dependency instead of independence, to lie about the harmful impact of one’s business practices, and to attack the poor while remaining on permanent public welfare: these are the acts of exploitive narcissists who never escaped childhood.
Your grief is your love, turned inside-out. That is why it is so deep. That is why it is so consuming. When your sadness seems bottomless, it is because your love knows no bounds.
Contrary to our cherished assumption of vanquishing all forms of injustice, we must ask ourselves if we are willing to put love into action even if we don’t physically survive. The extremity of the crisis does not limit Sacred Activism, but rather expands it because we make ourselves available to 1) Bearing witness to the likely irreversible horrors of climate chaos and 2) Commitment to compassionate service to all living beings who suffer with us. This requires unwavering engagement with serving the earth community and practicing good manners toward all species in order to make their demise, and ours, easier. Taking one’s own life or succumbing to escapist self-medication is easy. Commitment to a life of service and fortifying one’s own connection with the sacred, thus deepening one’s sense of meaning and purpose, constitute a far more daunting and painful path.
In the end, the deepest insight of the Anthropocene will probably be a very simple one: we live in a world of millions of interdependent species with which we have co-evolved. We sunder this web of life at our peril. Earth’s story is fascinating, rich in detail, and continually self-revealing. And it’s not all about us.