What can we do?

Some writing starts with an argument, and follows with the author convincing the reader how right they are. “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen” doesn’t do this. It reads more like a newspaper article building up to a conclusive point, or a conversation aimed at increasing understanding.

Because I only read the introduction, “Sustainability,” and “Business,” and I’m not an anthropologist, I feel grossly unqualified to tease some overarching meaning from the Lexicon.

But I’ll try and do it anyway.

The Lexicon comes in a context of great change and ecological trouble already starting to affect us. As individuals it is easy to feel powerless. The introduction mirrors this, in a passage you should not be embarrassed to look up the words in: “We are faced with circumstances undeniably beyond our control, as hyposubjects rather than wielders of a putative mastery.” When we hear that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions, it is natural to ask “what is my recycling going to change?”

The Lexicon has a lot in common with historian Lynn White Jr.’s view that our ecological crisis comes from something intrinsically wrong in society, specifically Western society. As evidence, I offer a single word from the Lexicon page on hyposubjects: “androleukoheteropetromodernity.”

But to get to the heart of it, the Lexicon says that our ecological problem is really a cultural, social problem. A global problem. That technology isn’t the solution. Challenges differ around the globe, just as the vocabulary to describe concepts differs. In “Sustainability,” the authors recount working with their host on a farm in Guatemala on a shared vocabulary of sustainability, translating from English to Spanish to Mam. The translation and conversation wasn’t easy.

Luckily, human history is full of examples of social problems being overcome. What can we do? We can recycle, protest, vote for politicians that will take action, compost and raise the social capital necessary for change. Sorry for the cliche, I’m just trying to be hopeful – but not complacent. 

Who’s In the right?

This past week we discussed the culpability of Christianity in the environment. This idea was taken through two perspectives.

Lynn White claims that Christianity made gave man the incentive to exploit nature at their own expense. Essentially, God planned nature’s existence for the benefit of man, where the world is the hands of man. On the other hand, Saint Francis claims that man – like all creatures in the world – were created equally, and man was just the resulting culprit of a superior being.

As different as they may seem, these claims share some similarities. For example, they both agree on the fact that in some way shape or form, a change to our environment has occurred due to an association between man and god. Whether or not these similarities cause a consequence to the environment, is a whole different discussion. Both of these arguments are formed on many different layers. In terms of Lynn White, this author agrees on more than one culprit of our environment. White also discussed western traditions, and medieval influence to provide content to the culpability of Christianity. With the support of the previous context, White goes on to explain the scientific reasoning as to why Saint Francis is wrong. In this case, they state “Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone”. With so many layers to each claim the solution to our ecologic crisis seems scarce.

However, the differences between the arguments of Lynn White and Saint Francis propose a defined cause. In terms of White, they claim that since the roots of our ecologic crisis involves christianity, then it must involve christiany to solve these problems. In terms of Saint Francis, he doesn’t state that any entity is the culprit – rather – what occurs as a result of man is a result of fate. Furthermore, Saint Francis proposes no solution.

Therefore in conclusion, with no clear definition on Christianity’s motives with the environment, we cannot come to a conclusive answer as to who is at fault.

Sustainability is subjective

The subjectivity of sustainability is a truth which is not easily recognized. Many people have visions of a utopian, carbon-negative society. But between each of those people, each vision will be slightly different. And if those people are from different cultures and different career backgrounds, the differences in their visions will be greatly magnified to the point that they will likely contradict one another in certain aspects.

In Sustainability from the Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, this idea is explored, using the differences between languages to contrast industrialized Western society with the developing societies in Guatemala. They introduce their article with the phrase “Sustainability is an English word”, a point that largely goes forgotten. Not all languages have an equivalent for this word, and even if they do, the meaning is notably different when taken into the context of the language.

Sustainable translates into Spanish as either sostenible or sustentable. Though these words all refer to the same concept, they are not completely synonymous. This is a problem, since this means that when a person says that something is “sustainable” in English, the same meaning will not be carried over to Spanish when they say that it is “sostenible”, even though the translation is correct.

But this problem becomes much more obvious when looking at a language and culture that is completely unrelated to the West. The article uses the example of the Mam language. They have no word for sustainable. The closest the authors found was the term tanquib’ela, which referred more to being a part of life, surviving in it. But, as the article also states, this word has no mention of the future; only of being present in life.

Tanquib’ela and the concepts carried around it in the hills of Guatemala are incompatible with the image of sustainability that Western society prefers. The people living there have little clue as to why they are being pushed toward sustainability, since they do not truly know what it is. And this problem is typically not recognized when we talk about sustainable development for these cultures around the world. Often, the people living in developing cultures are uncertain about accepting change, so communicating the advantages of sustainability is necessary to expedite their development. But since sustainability is a concept that not all cultures have, they will too be uncertain of it, and may not understand why it is so important.

Therefore, as described in Sustainability, the goal is not just proper communication. It is to cultivate the growth of sustainable practices, not just with words, but with leadership and action. Only then will there be followers in the way of benefiting the world.

What Can We All Learn From the Earth?

“Lexicon for the Anthropocene yet Unseen” begins with an introduction written by Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian, that questions the term “Anthropocene” itself. The term is inherently human-focused in it’s meaning. It acknowledges the role humans play in the evolution of the world and its changing climate. Howe and Pandian note that critics view the naming of the geological age the “Anthropocene” as far too human-centered, too “anthropocentric” as it were. It is problematic when we assert ourselves to such high standing in the natural systems. This is because that outlook generally blinds us to the reality that we are a part of the natural system. 

Howe and Pandian say that the purpose of the lexicon is finding solutions through looking at other patterns and processes of life, and to compare them with the Anthropocentric way of thinking. This is demonstrated later on by comparing human population behavior to the growth patterns of weeds. Both weeds and humans able to easily adapt and spread over the Earth. Perhaps the answers lie in a mixture of new ideas and old, forgotten practices.

The essay “Sustainability” written by María García Maldonado, Rosario García Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr, goes through how solutions to the climate crisis invented by modern scientists may be methods that do not work in all areas of the globe. Often when experts in the field of climate science look for solutions to climate change, they look for “sustainable” solutions. These are methods that produce less waste, that last for longer periods of time. However, while those sustainable solutions may have perceived positive physical effects, they may also have consequences depending on where they are implemented. Living “sustainably” may not be a way of living that translates the same across the world. It is possible to inflict damage while imposing Western sustainable living practices onto non-western cultures. While it is important to strive to conserve nature and the environment, we should also consider how these solutions affect global populations at a cultural and social level. Many cultures practiced sustainable lifestyles that looked different from the modern, western definition. Some if these lifestyles actually fell out of practice because of imposing western forces. Perhaps there are old methods of sustainable living that should be re-examined as potential solutions to utilize in the future. 

The essay “Care” written by Charis Boke, covers a method of changing our relationship with plants in order to serve as a solution to reduce pollution and the mistreatment of our planet. She discusses North American herbalists and certain rituals some practice to form a special connection with the plants they are harvesting from. They do this ritual to recognize the relationship between themselves and the organism, to acknowledge how both subjects mutually serve each other. It creates an intimacy that can potentially help to understand our role as humans in the environment.  I connected with this section personally. My family, who are passionate about nature and gardening, engage in similar practices of connecting with the botanical species around us. By fostering this relationship with the plants, we enhance and deepen our connection with and appreciation for those forms of life and the environment as a whole. 

The Anthropocene, Who Is To Blame?

I first became aware of the term “Anthropocene” about four years ago. It was a lot to wrap my head around at first, because I had always associated geological time scales as being ancient, and immune to human interference. It is simply stunning that one species, over the course of a few thousand years, can have such a profound impact on the environment and the Earth’s geological processes. 

I liked the point brought up in the introduction about how naming this current geological epoch after ourselves is a little arrogant. Though, none of the alternative names mentioned at the end of the introduction really intrigued me much, so I guess the name “Anthropocene” will have to do. I also liked the point in the introduction about humans being a “weedy species”. With all the talk about zebra mussels and Himalaya blackberry, I think people often forget that humans could be considered an invasive species. If this is the case, then we would certainly be the most destructive of all biological invaders. Everywhere you can go in nature, there is always some semblance of human impact (often times trash), no matter how remote your location. 

In the article “Sustainability”, I thought the story with the language barrier was quite interesting. The idea of a word for sustainability not existing in other cultures is intriguing. It is possible sustainability only exists in English because a word was needed to express the importance of not over exploiting our resources, only because resources were being over exploited on a grand scale. In smaller indigenous cultures, it is possible a word for sustainability has never been needed, because over-exploitation has never occurred on such as grand scale. 

The other article I read was entitled “Leviathans”. It was about how larger institutions, such as the Union Nations and big businesses, are contributing to the Anthropocene. These large institutions promote a sense of shifting responsibilities, to a point where people rarely take responsibility for their own actions. Thus, these institutions should be broken up into many small institutions. The article also argues that encouraging self-responsibility will also help society focus on non-immediate threats, such as climate change, by promoting empathy and a mutual sense of understanding throughout all of humanity.

Sustainable, Sostenible, and Sustentable

Humanity is currently in the midst of an ecological crisis and everyday the consequences become more apparent. The movement toward reforming our exploitation of the natural world has slowly risen but it may not gain the necessary momentum in time. We hear the word sustainability a lot, especially in today’s news. It’s a word that everyone knows and has a general understanding of within the context of human consumption. Rarely would we need to deliberate the meaning of the word but after reading Sustainability, by Maria Garcia Maldonado, Rosario Garcia Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr, it seems that it might be a topic for discussion. 

The author recalls the Nutricion para el desarollo sostenible conference in 2015. They describe the moment when a speaker asked if the word sustainable should be translated into Spanish as sostenible or sustentable. Both were valid translations but conveyed different meanings. 

Again, the author notices a similar issue when staying at Dona Marta’s house in Guatemala. Though the effects of recent policy change were apparent, action was no different than before. The new implementations were “english” and therefore Marta was uninfluenced by it. I find it hard to believe any real progress can be made if there isn’t a way to translate and define our problem and its solutions.  Despite the lack of understanding though, Marta clearly worried about the future and so did the others around her. In their own way, each person worked to preserve something. Whether it be their farms, wage labor, or their own lives, all of it was a part of their own definition for sustainability. At the end of the article, the author speaks on defining our terms with ideas that may be too specific. Now is a time where the relationship between humans and the natural world is being redefined so maybe we should account for this in our interpretation of possible solutions. While there are certainly right and wrong ways to manage our natural resources, we should refrain from excluding multiple options. Especially if they ignore or alienate other cultural practices that have been held on to for generations.

Time

After reading the Introduction and Maria Garcia Maldonado, Rosario Garcia Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerrs’ essay, Sustainability, in addition to Jerome Whitington’s Carbon, I couldn’t help but reevaluate where we stand in the grand scope of time.

Admittedly, it is rather difficult not to think of time when thinking about the anthropocene but it surprised me how there were so many “labels” to what we may call the “anthropocene”. I found it very reasonable that Whitington described carbon as a marker of the anthropocene in that excess carbon (and other greenhouse gases) is very much a product of what human actions have done over the recent years. Yes, carbon had always existed well before humans “took over” as the “apex” but his phrase “carbon is a metric of the human” struck a chord with me because it made me stand back and think about what other things could be marked in correlation to the “anthropocene”. Of course, the improvement of technology is a major by-product of humans (and this is obvious) but in the grand scale of things, what could only be measured in today’s time? Or rather, what sustaining effects were solely brought on by humans?

War, money, religion, are three things very foundational to the global society today and almost all three things can be linked to the destruction of our planet. I won’t go into detail into how are connected since that’d make for a long blog post but I think most of us can see how, regardless. It is almost fascinating to see, however, how humans are trying to “correct” their mistakes in “going green” and being more actively aware of the harm we are doing the environment but as the Sustainability essay pointed out, even in languages there are different ideas of what it means to “sustain”. It seems that a huge difference between humans and other creatures of the earth is that humans have the most interpersonal conflict. I read a book over the summer for the Honors class about how humans can’t seem to view things from the same ground for a multitude of reasons including life experiences, religion, what you’ve been taught, etc. which makes it incredibly difficult to tackle our responsibilities towards this planet together. Togetherness is a thing you can see in nature whether it be the birds migrating in the air, or the wolves staying in a pack, or salmon swimming upstream, and it appears that another major trait for this “anthropocene” is “disjunction”.

In the end, it appears that all in all, environmental effects could almost directly be linked to humans. Looking back at history, humans have always been the “forerunners of everything bad” as I like to say, and it’s not that I think all humans are terrible or human life is the “bane of destruction” but rather, for a race so “innovative” and “intelligent”, we’ve done a lot of harm compared to the other animals and beings in the world in a few thousand years and I can’t help but wonder if this is all there is to the “brilliance” of the human mind. We’ve always been told to try and at least understand others who are different from you and I, but it seems that the human heart when push comes to shove, is unwilling to be so kind.

Climate crisis calls for a shift in human thinking

In the peak existence of science and technology, to deny the dangers of climate change is absurd. However, we live in a current time in which arguing about climate change becomes a “difference in opinion” and becomes associated with politics. The same science and technology which gave humankind their sense of superiority somehow no longer provides reliable information (in the eyes of climate change deniers) in regards to the climate crisis. In order to shift blame from the status quo, individual decisions (usage of plastic straws, not recycling, etc.) are highlighted as the causes of climate change. Although it’s imperative to make environmentally conscious decisions on a daily basis, the fact that 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions often fails to be emphasized in local conversations. Why? Because, on a larger scale, society has accepted this is how the world works. We’re in the age of the Anthropocene; humans have decided our surroundings work for us. In reality, humans have harmed the balance of nature and have proved we cannot co-exist with other species— unless there’s a shift in ideologies. 

In Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of our Economic Climate Crisis,” he argues Christianity serves as a foundation for the climate crisis. God intended nature to be at the disposal of humankind. White asserts that Christianity is, by far, the most anthropocentric religion. As colonialism and Western domination increased, so did the spread of Christianity— hence the large scale influence it has on climate change. In contrast to many Asian religions, White states Christian principles promote humankind and nature to be dichotomous, and not interconnected. In White’s eyes, the climate crisis serves as a reflection upon Christian values and calls for a shift in their religious interpretations.

Pope Francis’s “Laudato Si’” rejects the core claims made by White. He argues true followers of Christianity would find the exploitation of the environment to be a sin. Accepting Christ as your Savior and devoting yourself to God would lead you in a path of kindness, not destruction. However, Pope Francis agrees with White that humans are wrongfully manipulating their surroundings. He urges for new dialogue to occur for the preservation of the environment. 

Both White and Pope Francis blame the climate crisis on humans and our greed. A shift in ideologies is necessary for climate change action, whether this be regarding Christian values or the entitlement humans hold. Regardless of one’s views on the root causes of the climate crisis it’s crucial for policy and activism to take place to lessen the desensitization that’s already occurred. It’s beyond time that people set aside their differences, religious or political, to hold corporations, harmful practices, and ourselves accountable. There has to be a shift in ideologies— the environment doesn’t exist for our gain. 

They’re both wrong

This week we ponder the connections between Christianity and the environment, through two readings.

Lynn White claims that Christianity has set up Western culture to think nature exists for human exploitation, with man as master of nature, and that this has led to Western technological success as well as ecological misery.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, claims that the Bible shows that humans are the stewards of the Earth, using his influence as the Pope to advance the biblical cause for increased environmental mindfulness.

Both argue interesting ideas, and both are accomplished people. But they have something else in common, too – they’re both wrong.

Lynn White comes at history looking for a reason Western Europe had so much success, and he lands on Western Christianity, which was unique to Europe. What else was largely unique to Europe? Constant war. Nowhere on Earth was there such a close competition for power between so many nations, uniting to blunt a common enemy when one got too strong. In Asia, for instance, most countries were tributaries to China: they had a stable position in the world. Europe launched the age of exploration to finance their wars, and they had the best cannons because they had so much practice making them. Necessity is the mother of invention, and competing European powers had plenty of necessity with their survival on the line.

That aside, Lynn White’s argument is defeated by something the Pope brings up. In the encyclical, Pope Francis says “the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people” (92). If exploitation of nature arises from Christianity, where does exploitation of humanity come from? Cultures all over the world have exploited people horribly, showing that exploitation is a universal human qualm. If exploitation has been a problem all over the world, I’m skeptical that non-European powers didn’t become technological leaders because they were too polite to hurt the Earth.

Pope Francis is advocating for environmentalism through the lens of the Bible and Catholicism, which I support him doing.

However what undermines Pope Francis’ point is the apparent mutability of the Bible. You can make the biblical case for anything if you look hard enough. For example, the Americans who say that same-sex marriage goes against their religion because of 1 or 2 verses that indirectly reference same-sex sex. Slavery was even justified through the Bible. So when Pope Francis claims that the Bible and Christianity are inherently and intentionally environmentalist, that is wrong as well. He’s just giving it that meaning.

What is the relationship between Christianity and the environment? Christianity is not the root cause of environmental degradation, nor it is inherently environmentalist. Christianity is a lens to view the world through, and hopefully Christians like Pope Francis can use their faith to make the world a better place.

How religios governing bodies could help

The argument that religion has destroyed the environment stands in some instances through the role it has played in the technological advancement of culture, technology, and society. With ecological downfall in sight, Pope Francis argues that part of the creation described in Christian faith is intertwined with nature meaning proper following of the Christianity requires that humans be stewards of the natural world.

Francis’s view does not agree with that of Lynn White. White’s message counters that of Francis in a way that is more directed at the Christianity itself. White points out the Franciscan way of viewing nature and conserving it glorifies the creator instead of conserving what is given. Another argument that White poses is that “No new set of basic values has been accepted in out society to displace those of Christianity,” meaning that religion is at the core of what society deems to be good and bad. Upon deeper consideration, that means that even those who have refuted dominant belief systems remain within their core values of good and bad, which in turn reflect on decisions concerning environmental stress. White believes that Christianity serves as a vehicle for self-prosperity in which the environment is the sacrifice in the name of the god which brings it.

Pope Francis brings to light an issue regarding Christianity and its power and how it could be used for change. Using his power on Christianity he hopes to highlight and bring a message to Christians to insight change in behaviors. In chapter two of Laodato Si, he covers topics that plague the protection of what all Christians call home. He begins by exploring throwaway culture and its costs on both the environment and human life in hopes of changing habits of his followers. Unless the word of the Church can be used for positive change in the ecological crisis faced today, messages and belief of its existence would be lost into the masses, as a major line of influence and communication would be closed.

WHO CAN WE BLAME?

Blame - Ways to Overcome Anger

Extreme weather, ocean acidification, habitat loss, rapid glacial melt, and pollution-who is to blame? On one extreme we have Lynn White who proposes that we can assign blame, and to him it’s not that complicated-Judeo-Christians. Paganism was replaced by Christianity during and before the middle ages. This loss of this fundamental belief in nature possessing spirits and existing on an equal level as humans has a very profound effect on the world. The first and most important is that scientists from the 13th century and all the way to Newton claimed to have religious motivation for their works. This is a very shaky claim because we know that people will say almost anything to be safe and accepted. Humans learn this early in life when just trying to make friends and be accepted as children.  Mr. White’s argument rests tenuously on this claim, but to give him a fighting chance we’ll accept it. If that is true we need to look deeper and analyze what it is that Christians think about nature. Through the science and technology that Christians enlightened the world with we would think that they think they are above nature and believe we can exploit the world for solely our own grains. Lynn White gives reason to this by quoting the Bible which says that God gave humans dominion over the world and, therefore, elevating us above nature. This would seem to have the effect of humans losing sight of how interconnected we are with nature resulting in its exploitation. In the end he made his argument and the world has moved on, not caring who is to blame but still continuing on in the same way as before. 

Just as a coin has two sides we have one of the biggest religious figures alive today weighing in on climate change- Pope Francis. He makes many of the same points Lynn White makes about our world and its current situation, but he comes with a different field of expertise. If he was arguing against the claims of Lynn White it would come down to the fact that, “an inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world.” The end. Nonetheless, that is not the point that Pope Francis is making. What I like about his book, Laudato Si, is that it not only brings up the issues that we are facing today in terms of climate change, but he also gives us advice on how we can overcome these challenges which, in my opinion, is the most important step in resolving an issue. It seems that too many times people just complain about an issue, but have to real solution or means of addressing the problem they have. 

However, in the end they both reach the same conclusion- and to quote Pope Francis, the Earth is turning into “an immense pile of filth” and humans are the ones to blame.

-Russell Fitch

Why I’m converting to Catholicism

From the age I could comprehend the concept of religion I have been a firm atheist. When I was only ten I got into arguments with religious people about their beliefs. And although I have softened quite a bit on that front I certainly was, and at least partially am still, that kind of atheist. A big part of the reason I am/was this way was because of a fascination with science. To me, science was true and undeniable and religion was blindness to the truth. Another large factor in my avid rejection of religion (especially Christianity) was its conflict with my progressive social views. This coincided with my views on climate change. Largely religious climate change deniers were the big bad that was killing the planet while scientists were the champions of truth that fought for what was right. While my views have shifted and become more nuanced, these sentiments hold a place inside of me. Because of this, I felt like I knew what to expect in Lynn White’s article.

The relationship between Christian ideals and our ecological crisis personally doesn’t feel like a very hot take. Although I haven’t spent a whole lot of time fleshing the concept out, it fits my ingrained tribalistic binary system. Furthermore, the idea of Christianity considering humans as the most important is something I am familiar with. The heavy emphasis on the concept of science and technology in the midst of this was what really made me think.

I spent kindergarten through my 8th-grade year at a self-proclaimed environmental school. A big thing that I got out of this was a belief in renewable energies for the future. The concept of creating better technology to solve the world’s problems was very appealing. Lynn White literally writes: “More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis.”. Middle school Griffin would have a lot of things to say to this. Despite my past beliefs, I do believe that a global attitude change is a necessary part of solving not only our ecological crisis but many of our social problems as well. The idea that this change could be at some level religious is quite novel.

I would first like to mention the relevant fact that our current Pope is named after the very Saint that Lynn White describes as “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history”. This is a huge piece of common ground that I did not expect. I think that ultimately the views conveyed by both authors are near identical. Not only do they both believe that we have a big ecological problem caused by our misguided attitudes toward nature, but also that the solution must be religious rather than technological. Really the only point of disagreement is the role of Christianity in this. Lynn White believes Christianity is largely the cause of our misguided attitudes. He acknowledges Saint Francis as an exception to this, but really no more. Pope Francis believes that the misguided attitudes may connect with incorrect interpretations of the bible, but that the true Catholic ideals are just the opposite.

If my title didn’t make it completely obvious, after reading both perspectives I agree with the Papal Encyclical more. I think where Lynn White gets it wrong is in his unitary view of Christianity. I think he makes a very strong case that Christianity of the middle ages played a big role in developing many of the attitudes we have today. The views of Catholicism today (I cannot speak on other branches of Christianity) clearly hold near opposite view. Christianity is nowhere near singular. Even reading from the exact same text, interpretation is everything. When it comes down to it, I like Pope Francis’s interpretation of the Bible. I convinced my roommate to go to a Catholic church with me as some point, so I’ll update the class when that happens.

An Honors Colloquium in Environmental Arts and Humanities