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.
- To be precise: I am not trying to make too sweeping a claim here; I am thinking specifically of the Judeo-Christian stories. ↩
- A main theme of this blog—see the Prospectus, and my post on habitability. ↩
- Indeed, in light of all the efforts to transcend this dualism, the current challenge might be better seen as explaining its persistence! ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩