A creation myth for the Anthropocene

Stephen’s post on Lynn White helped me focus on an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while: the need for a new creation myth suited to the Anthropocene.

White’s argument reminds us that creation myths derive their power from their status as fundamental texts within the religious tradition that underlies a society’s moral life; a key strategy for justifying a course of action is to demonstrate its consistency with an interpretation of the myth.1 Thus, he argues, the creation story in Genesis 1, with its divine grant to human beings of “dominion” over creation, legitimated Europeans’ treatment of the natural world as a mere storehouse of exploitable resources.

As Stephen notes, White’s critique of Christianity was controversial, and called forth rebuttals. One strategy adopted by defenders of Christianity against White’s charge that it licensed environmental degradation was to appeal to the other creation myth in Genesis, the story of the Garden of Eden. In that myth human beings are not given dominion, but are instead cast in the role of caretakers, grounding an ethic of environmental stewardship. Thus, in a mirror image of White’s account of the domination of nature, the idea of “creation care” anchors the moral basis for environmental protection in an interpretation of a creation story.

However, in my view, neither myth conveys the rich picture, attuned to the distinctive features of the Anthropocene, required to respond to the specific moral situation we now face. For creation myths function in two ways. First, as noted, they provide a basis for a normative outlook. But they do that by, second, enmeshing their normative meaning in a description that, in narrating how the world came to be, conveys its underlying character. That description is what justifies the fundamental relations between the world’s constituents. It is reasonable that, for the justification—the normative meaning—to be fully persuasive, it must be tied to a tied to a compelling description, one that captures the essence of the way the world is.

To my mind both of the Genesis stories miss a feature of the world that is essential to our understanding of the Anthropocene. In particular, both present the natural world as created in advance of humanity, as a platform onto which human beings enter and lead their lives, but which is ontologically distinct from them. Thus, neither story has the narrative resources needed to represent one of the aspects of the world the Anthropocene makes vividly salient: the fact that human beings now inhabit (and perhaps have almost always inhabited) a physical environment they themselves have constructed.2

In other words, both Genesis stories, as White argues explicitly regarding the first, convey a fundamental dualism between humanity and nature. The myths, as the phrase goes, make that dualism “easy to think.” Yet a recurring theme in discussions of the Anthropocene is the need to overcome the dualism that strictly distinguishes humanity from nature—finding a way to transcend that dualism is one of the key conceptual challenges of our moment.3 Neither Genesis story makes it easy to think of humanity and nature as essentially inter-related. Indeed, the Garden of Eden story frames human transformation of the landscape, i.e. agricultural labor, as punishment, associating human manipulation of nature with sin and the Fall. A positive normative implication of the dualistic understanding of humanity and nature might indeed be an ethic of creation care.4 But neither story seems to inspire the idea of the “co-creation” (in a quite material sense) at work in the Anthropocene, from either a descriptive or normative point of view.

Is there then an alternative myth that makes the idea of co-creation easy to think? Here I’ll explicitly not propose that what follows reflects what would have actual appeal in our society: I’m about to engage in pure speculation. But perhaps the Anthropocene calls for a deliberate intervention in the mythic life of our culture, to reweave existing strands into a new pattern, in order to produce a story that articulates a new outlook that will nonetheless be recognizable to its audience.5

In fact I believe that an extremely useful model for a myth appropriate to the Anthropocene exists in the speculative genealogy of modern society offered by the 18th Century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755). Rousseau quite self-consciously “re-mixes” some key elements of the Fall story, along with elements of the best science of his day, to produce a narrative designed to resonate with his readers’ sensibilities, and—crucially—to ground a fundamental critique of their way of life. His account centers on the way people radically transform the landscapes they inhabit, encapsulating a description of the Anthropocene (at least in its pre-industrial form) by depicting human society and its natural environment as interacting in a dynamic system. And his description is inextricably linked to a normative framework, used to evaluate the society that environment has been shaped to sustain. Thus, his myth might provide guidance for moral judgment in the Anthropocene, via the lesson that the humanized landscape can, or can fail to, provide the physical conditions for good human lives.

Now my claim that Rousseau can provide some insight into the Anthropocene might be surprising, given his reputation as an advocate of “returning to nature.” In future posts I will provide a reading of the Discourse, and some of his other works, that I hope will make my suggestion more plausible.

  1. To be precise: I am not trying to make too sweeping a claim here; I am thinking specifically of the Judeo-Christian stories. 
  2.  A main theme of this blog—see the Prospectus, and my post on habitability
  3. Indeed, in light of all the efforts to transcend this dualism, the current challenge might be better seen as explaining its persistence!
  4. As noted, the notion that Adam has the responsibility to tend the Garden of Eden underlies the stewardship ethic taken up by many Christians. But it can also be argued that even the Genesis 1 account supports a strong sustainability ethic. This argument is, in fact, found in John Locke–perhaps unexpectedly, since Locke is typically associated with a support for private property rights typically aligned with opposition to environmental regulation. Locke insists that God’s grant of the earth (Genesis 1:28) is not to Adam personally, but to all of Adam and Eve’s descendants throughout time. Because it applies equally to any descendant, independent of temporal position, all descendants, at all times, have the same right to make use of the Earth to support their survival. (Locke, First Treatise on Government, §§ 29-31) Of course this requires that the ability of the Earth to provide that support be sustained. 
  5. It can be said that Plato does just this in the Republic, where Socrates explicitly uses elements of traditional myths to prompt his listeners to think about their lives in a new way. 

5 thoughts on “A creation myth for the Anthropocene

  1. There are deep problems with the biblical creation stories you mention, but the problem is not that they presume a preexisting nature into which humans appear. On the one hand, the Bible is essentially correct: human appeared very late in the history of the universe, solar system, earth and earthly life.* Any viable new creation myth will surely continue to describe a long history of existence and life prior to the creation/evolution of humans.

    One the other hand, I see little evidence that the harmful** nature/culture division stems fundamentally from the belief that nature preceded humans. Indeed, one of the most common and damaging binary stories accepts that in the deep past humans were entirely “natural” but by the power of language/community rose out of it to live primarily within culture.

    In short, problematic duality is drive far more by ideas of dominion, providence, and exceptionalism than by whether the world preceded us or not.

    A few additional thoughts. Attempts to overcome duality go back two thousand years in eastern and western philosophy. Further back if you consider grounding stories such as Gilgamesh and his wild brother Enkidu. The latter is older than Christianity by a good bit. These texts mostly attempt to rise above the division by either obliterating both term in favor of third neutral ground, or preserving what is meaningful in each while showing their mutual dependency. These seem very different from a good deal of the anthropocene thinking which appears to seek unity by enlarging the dominant term (human) until it obliterates the oppressed term (nature). Strictly speaking, this is a radical hardening of the dualism, rather than an overcoming. It proceeds by making a hyper purity of non-human nature, a purity so pure it is impossible. Thus nature disappears. In the mirror image to this, it defines as “human” any place where the slightest human imprint can be found. This quest for “unity” therefore in no way rejects dualism. It is a radical form of dualism in which the divisions are drawn so sharply, one of the terms is reduced to zero.

    It seems you are going down this path of radical dualism in imagining that the prehuman world is of little consequence and that a new creation story would only consider that the “humanized landscape can, or can fail to, provide the physical conditions for good human lives.” What of the millions of other earthlings affected by humans? Are they not essential to the ethical discourse? I think that a thought which imagines it has “overcome” the human/nature divide by delacring “all is human” will always struggle to account for the non-human species, which by the way, make up 90% of the cells in your body. You could neither digest food nor think without them.

    • It is remarkable that creation stories around the world, to the extent that they present an order of species creation, tend to get the order roughly correct. This needs to be studied and understood more deeply.

    ** Though I don’t have space to explain here, it is not clear that there is not also a useful nature/culture division. Or alternatively put, there are many nature/culture divisions, some entirely incompatible with each other. Debate on the topic is often deeply confounded by not recognizing the many meanings at play.

    • I am intrigued by (and inclined to agree with) two points made above, one by Zev and the other by Kieran: (1) that we need compelling moral narratives to inspire collective action in the Anthropocence and (2) that making “good human lives” the measure of habitability may not offer a conceptual or ethical alternative to nature/culture dualism. With respect to point 1, I wonder whether Lynn’s new post doesn’t offer a compelling starting point for an Anthropocene “creation myth”…? (https://inhabitingtheanthropocene.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/earth-life-and-time-what-is-natural/) She helps us understand how the cumulative actions of our species, as part of a larger system, are bringing about potentially catastrophic planetary changes at an unprecedented rate. That makes the agency and urgency of the situation clear without making humans somehow antithetical to nature. On point 2, I think this is precisely the problem that a lot of posthumanist scholarship has grappled with: how do we transcend the nature/culture dualism without collapsing everything into culture? Some of the answers are more appealing than others, but Latour’s work (especially Politics of Nature) certainly makes some compelling strides in that direction. I will take this as further motivation to write some Reading posts about posthumanism.

  2. I want to thank Kieran and Noah for their thoughtful and challenging comments. I’ve been thinking hard about them, and what follows is not so much a full reply as some attempts to clarify (mostly for myself) some of the elements of my view, as prompted by what they had to say. I’d welcome further discussion—I am eager to keep trying to crack this nut.

    I am intrigued by what Kieran says about dualism—and will think about that more. For now I want to make two points that don’t deal with the dualism issue head on, but rather with how I understand myth, and how I understand moral discourse.

    First, though I think myth intertwines what I think of as normative and descriptive elements, I think the normative is in a sense the dog, and the descriptive is the tail. That is, on my interpretation the purpose of myth is not to be accurate in a scientific sense, but to make a moral point—myths serve to legitimate or justify, either an existing order, or a critique of it. That normative purpose is the dog that wags the descriptive tail (or the tale—sorry): the narrative features of the myth are presented as a description of the world which lends authority to the normative imperatives. That authority might derive from some combination of the notions that a) this is the cosmic order, independent of human choice, and b) of course that there is a morally privileged will involved, e.g. the Creator’s. (Again, I am thinking of the Biblical stories as my touchstones—and I acknowledge that my account may not apply to other cultures at all.) The implicit message of the myth is that we must just accept the moral meaning of the events it recounts—which have been “baked into” the events’ telling.

    So the point of a myth is not to get the science right, and, though mapping the science might make a myth more plausible, the fact that it might still leaves open its moral interpretation (if not indeed its purpose). Consider the Genesis 1 account: the narrative presents human beings as the culmination of creation, which, on the standard interpretation, justifies the normative position of human exceptionalism. I suggest (and I think Kieran and Noah would agree) that we can readily think that the exceptionalism comes first; that the function of the narrative is to mythologize exceptionalism—making it easy and proper to think—which it does by way of a story that presents humanity as the telos of Creation.

    The fact that the story happens to track certain features of what science tells us is indeed interesting—but I think in a way it is beside the point. For, say that one’s normative goal is, in the face of the exceptional value placed on humanity (a la White’s account), to re-value humanity, to present a moral picture in which we are not morally exceptional. Well, we might offer a critique of the standard view by telling a story that emphasizes the vastness and indifference of the cosmos, or the tiny temporal slice of cosmic history in which humanity is present. That description of the cosmos might be correct (let’s say it is). But that fact is distinct and independent of moral meaning—people who appeal to it to justify a critique of exceptionalism have really just found what they were looking for.

    Now here’s how I think of what I’m doing—though indeed I may not fully understand the implications of the move I am making. I am trying to start from neither the normative commitment to human exceptionalism nor from its converse. Rather, my starting place is what I take to be a brute fact: human beings (like many many other species and perhaps all forms of life) transform their environment, creating (not ex nihilo but from given circumstances) conditions conducive to their way of life (again I’m thinking of niche construction). The huge issue for me—really what underlies my interest in habitability throughout this blog—is the normative claim that there has to be a way of thinking of some transformations that human beings make as morally acceptable and others as morally unacceptable that is based on a single moral outlook rooted in the specific dynamics of human niche construction. I think that neither of the given alternatives—humans are the culmination of creation/humans are a cosmic afterthought—allow for a genuinely helpful discussion of that issue. I seek a perspective rooted in the facts of transformation that allows for transformation to be a matter for moral judgment—and my interest in myth reflects the hunch that there might be a narrative (Rousseau’s?) that conveys that outlook.

    Second, let me say something about what I take to be the character of moral discourse—which, I think, leads to a position which I expect is more frankly humanist than either Kieran’s or Noah’s. I look at moral language in pragmatic terms—as making a demand of someone who is in a position to act. (I do not think, that is, that moral claims are statements about some feature of the world.) Thus, moral statements have an explicit or implicit addressee, who is assumed to have agency. Agency, let me stress, is not simply causal efficacy—in my view agency is conceptually linked to the idea of moral responsibility: I think it quite literally only makes sense to attribute agency to something if we are willing to hold it morally responsible (with all that entails) for what it causes to happen.

    It follows, and I fully acknowledge this, that although I very much want to think of humanity and nature as essentially in relation (so to speak, as moments of a wider dialectical whole), I am committed to the view that there is a certain asymmetry in that relation. Let me try to characterize that as precisely as I can, by distinguishing what I think from a quasi-Hegelian interpretation, which is perhaps what Kieran had in mind in his critique of my attempt to overcome dualism (though I’m quite far from any actual textual reference here). On a Hegelian model, the dialectic is driven by the unfolding of Geist (spirit or mind), and the “higher” stages are more Geistlich. In the opposition between humanity and non-human nature, to be overcome by some wider stage which encompasses both, “humanity” is the more Geistlich term . . . so indeed it looks like the putative reconciliation of the two is more of a colonization of one (nature) by the other (humanity).

    That’s not exactly what I mean. Nor do I mean that the interrelationship between humanity and nature is asymmetrical because of some divinely ordained difference in inherent moral worthiness—nor do I attribute it to humanity’s superior power. Rather, the asymmetry I see is due precisely to the fact that only human beings are addressees of moral discourse: whatever any other source of causation can do, only human beings can be held responsible for the effects of their actions. I have the extremely strong hunch that this implies that demands expressed in moral discourse have to be internalizable (if not actually internalized) from the human point of view. (Perhaps I should say, more precisely, from the point of view of those human agents whose actions are at issue. And I should mention that I think of myself as following Michael Walzer’s position on social criticism here.)

    No doubt advocates of a less anthropocentric position might say that humans can internalize the moral status of non-human nature. Though I agree this occurs to a certain extent I am dubious that it offers a workable solution to the challenges of the Anthropocene. (As Kieran no doubt knows, this very debate is being played out in the conservation community right now; see the account in this New Yorker article.) Nonetheless my deeply felt intuition is that the impulse to transform the landscape—to make it more “habitable” in terms of a human standard of habitability—is much more central to the human point of view. I believe that if moral discourse is to be effective it has to make sense from that point of view—and this is why I am making habitability by humans central. I acknowledge the asymmetry here, and that it might be dangerous; for this reason I accept the challenge of trying to characterize habitability in a way that disallows wanton destruction. My thought is that the concept of habitability is tightly linked to the ideal of, as philosophers say, the good human life, and my impulse is to characterize the idea of a good human life in a way that, as the saying goes, leaves room for nature. But this is very much an IOU, on which I need to make payments.

    • Thank you, Zev, for this thorough reply. I want to think about this more before responding. In the meantime, though, I just re-read my original comment and would like clarify that I brought up Lynn’s post because it was fresh in my memory and seemed relevant, but not because I wanted to push the conversation away from Rousseau. I very much look forward to hearing more from you about Rousseau as a possible origin myth for the Anthropocene!

  3. Returning to this now, Zev, I cannot respond in kind (i.e., with such a thorough and well-crafted response as yours). One thing that occurs to me, though, is that the issue of human intentionality is crucial in this, as you suggest. Our cumulative impacts on the environments we inhabit are often not intentional, even if we are intentional in trying to make particular landscapes more habitable. So, by looking to Rousseau as part of a creation myth and ethics for the Anthropocene, you push us to consider how we can be more intentional and thus morally accountable in how we do what is basic to us as a species: define habitability and then try to realize it. I am not ready to give up on the idea of humans internalizing the moral status of nonhumans—not because I believe that other sources of causation can be held accountable for their actions (though there is room for debate there) but because I think that such moral status may be the very standard that effectively “disallows wanton destruction.” Plenty of human societies have conceived of certain nonhumans as persons, and this has served them well for a number of reasons, one of which is avoiding wanton destruction. In any event, this is a fascinating discussion, and I look forward to continuing it.

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