An Ironic Dominion
Over the last week or so I have been making my way through an article from last month’s issue of The Walrus which discusses the imminent demise of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. The article talks about the rising acidity levels of oceans around the world by virtue of increased CO2 emissions and the warmer water temperatures this produces. It predicts that some of our most magnificent ecosystems (like the Great Barrier Reef) are living on borrowed time because of human-induced climate change. In some ways, the article reads like many others: it is a tale of human beings wantonly wreaking havoc with nature and a plea to do something about it.
But the article is somewhat unique as far as the solutions it sets forth. We are used to hearing calls to reduce our CO2 emissions by any and all means in order to combat climate change. This author argues that we are long past the point of these strategies having a meaningful impact. We have already done too much damage. Rather, our focus might need to turn to “geo-engineering”—deliberately manipulating the earth’s climate to counteract the effects of global warming. There are a variety of ways this might be done (many of which I can barely understand, much less imagine!), but the overall goal is to accept the (permanent) damage we have done and do what we can to minimize the calamity in the brave new world we have brought about.
Turner admits, this response sounds somewhat counter intuitive, to put it mildly :
[I]t is predicated on the twisted logic that a reasonable response to evidence that human industry has irrevocably altered the biosphere would be to undertake to alter it in much more intentional and grandiose ways.
Nonetheless we are, quite simply, past the point of no return. Recycling our newspapers, driving hybrids, and using energy-efficient light bulbs, while good ideas, are not going to save us (or the Great Barrier Reef!). More radical surgery is required.
As my head was swimming with strange new terms like “anthropocene epoch,” “geo-engineering,” and “carbon sequestration” some very old words also came to mind:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
Familiar words, no doubt. Words that have often been used as an excuse to exploit and dominate nature for human needs. Words that have been used to justify irresponsibility and abuse. Words that have been interpreted as placing an improper ontological gap between human beings and the world they live in.
But as I see it, the article cited above shares a deep irony with a good deal of “environmental” (for lack of a better word) discourse: like Genesis 1, it assumes a sharp distinction between “human beings” and “nature” but from within a mostly naturalistic framework. While it would obviously be too strong a claim to say that all those who advocate care for the environment are atheists or agnostics, I think it would be fair to say that a high percentage of environmental warnings in our public discourse are based upon and justified via a methodological (if not ideological) atheism. God is not really part of the picture (we have no need for that hypothesis) and neither are those charged with caring for the world seen as anything resembling divinely appointed image bearers charged with the lofty task of “ruling” (to borrow from Genesis again) over the natural world.
Yet the article, which advocates human beings altering the very atmosphere we live in, assumes a level of “dominion” over nature that would have staggered the biblical writers. Despite the widespread assumption/belief that human beings are simply a part of nature—one more random organism thrown up from mother nature’s clay—articles like this one assume, indeed depend upon a fairly exalted anthropology. They assume that we are not just a part of nature, that we have the ability and obligation to control nature, that we have a duty to protect nature, to preserve its variety, wonder, and beauty.
This is the language of human dominion, not of one species humbly assuming its place among all others. Of course, from a Christian perspective, this is to be expected. A Christian anthropology can accommodate both the obvious differences between human beings and the rest of creation and the imperative to steward creation responsibly. It can accept that we have much in common with our fellow creatures (that we are, in obvious ways, “of the earth”) while at the same time recognizing that our obligations and abilities extend far beyond theirs.
But the same cannot be said about much of our public discourse with respect to the posture we ought to take toward the world we inhabit. Our public narratives have no place for a God to whom we are accountable for our care of the world. But it seems to me, as I read articles like this one and others, that one of the most pressing ethical issues of our time depends upon, even if it does not acknowledge, something like a biblical understanding of human beings and their position in the cosmos. At least in the realm of our public discourse, ours is an ironic dominion indeed.