A 2017 profile of philosopher Timothy Morton in the Guardian raises some important points about the present state of our ecological awareness. Titled “A Reckoning for Our Species: The Philosopher Prophet of the Anthropocene,” the piece by Alex Blasdel lays out the dynamics of Morton’s thought: specifically, that we have entered a new geological epoch in which humans are the dominant force in shaping life on earth. This epoch is called the Anthropocene, stemming from the Greek word anthropos, or “human.”
The age of the Anthropocene is marked by climate change, increased amounts of carbon in the atmosphere, the presence of plastics and radioactive material in the soil, desertification, and other evidence of drastic transformation of the planet. In Morton’s view, which he terms “dark ecology,” the climate crisis has already happened, brought about by thousands of years of agricultural and industrial practice in which humans believed we were operating apart from the environment rather than as beings “enmeshed” within it. The challenge is not to merely to “solve” the crisis on a pragmatic or technocratic level (though we do need to adopt more sustainable practices), but to fundamentally revise our way of thinking from one of dominance and control over nature to one that internalizes the interdependence of all living things.
This is not a new idea—one thinks of a range of writers and thinkers, from Emerson and Thoreau to Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, and Matthew Fox, who have expressed it in their own ways—but Morton is unique in the way he reframes it for the 21st century. Humans today are aware that our smallest choices can impact the planet as a whole, from its temperature to the health of a child halfway around the world, and so feel our every action fraught with apocalyptic significance. Such a “moral calculus,” Blasdel explains, “didn’t exist before.” He continues:
Now, doing just about anything is an environmental question. That wasn’t true 60 years ago—or at least people weren’t aware that it was true. Tragically, it is only by despoiling the planet that we have realized just how much a part of it we are.
This realization can paralyze us with fear. In “Coming to Terms with My Tick Anxiety,” an article in Slate from this past July, Rebecca Onion discusses the concept of “ecophobia” as a “snowballing phenomenon whereby people fear aspects of the natural environment, which they perceive as irretrievably degraded, and spend less time outside in their local contexts, eventually getting more and more disconnected from nature.” Rather than succumbing to fear, Morton senses in this historical moment new opportunities for human self-understanding. Blasdel again:
Science can only take us so far. This means changing our relationship with the other entities in the universe—whether animal, vegetable or mineral—from one of exploitation through science to one of solidarity in ignorance. . . . In contrast to utopian fantasies that we will be saved by the rise of artificial intelligence or some other new technology, the Anthropocene teaches us that we can’t transcend our limitations or our reliance on other beings. We can only live with them.
For Christians, Catholic or otherwise, this is where Morton’s ideas get really interesting. The phrase “solidarity in ignorance” hearkens to the 15th-century Christian humanist Nicholas of Cusa’s doctrine of “learned ignorance”: a deeply mystical concept, rooted in the teachings of Saint Augustine and others, which states that we can only approach a knowledge of the divine by admitting the limitations of our knowledge. Glimpsed in this light, the ecological crisis opens up new space for prayer—not just isolated prayers “for the planet” or “for creation” (as important as these are), but prayer that shares in the limitations of all created beings to grasp their ungraspable Creator. Such a prayer brings us into deeper communion with each other and the other “entities in the universe” bound together in the mystery of God; by honoring this mystery, by using it as the starting point for prayer and action, we can move from a model of scientism and domination imposed from above to one of “solidarity” and cocreation lived from within.
From here it is one short step to Christ, who comes to us at our weakest, precisely at the point of our limitation. He is at the heart of our “learned ignorance,” the revelation of God’s mystery to humanity and the key to our understanding of how to be in the world. Emboldened by the words of John 16:33 (“In the world you will have trouble, but be brave: I have conquered the world”), we can begin to act out of our prayer, approaching our ecological crisis with an ethic of love. “If we give up the delusion of controlling everything around us,” Blasdel writes, “we might refocus ourselves on the pleasure we take in other beings and life itself.”
For Morton, operating outside of the Christian tradition, humankind’s new disposition could lead to a political awakening. He envisions a politics of “enjoyment” and liberation, what Blasdel terms an “animistic” or “radically pluralistic” politics that takes into account the needs of other species. Catholics who find the pantheistic overtones of this vision problematic might remind themselves of Pope Francis’s special concern for biodiversity in paragraph 35 of Laudato Si’.
Morton’s critics contend that the ecological catastrophe facing us demands more than just an intellectual response, however innovative or integrational, and that his ideas are too abstract to take root in our day-to-day lives. And when one considers rising sea levels, food shortages, and all-too-frequent hurricanes, these criticisms seem appropriate. But they downplay the importance of our inner lives in effecting change: how they calibrate our external actions; how human ingenuity will only go so far to solve our problems if we are not prepared to make sacrifices; how our prayer life, grounded in the sort of intellectual humility that Morton proposes, changes the way we stand before God, and so before each other.
This past month Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, took the stage at the United Nations and delivered a blistering speech on the failure of global leaders to address the climate crisis. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she admonished. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Ms. Thunberg’s speech was a dire warning. Between September 20 and 27, over 7.6 million people in 185 countries took to the streets in the worldwide Global Climate Strike. Many of them were students—the upcoming generation that will face even more of the effects of the age of the Anthropocene. Regardless of where one stands on Morton’s theories, or the need for new patterns of thought in our overheated age, the speech and the strikes gave ample opportunity for the first step of any prayerful action: to listen. In listening we put aside our own concerns and dispose ourselves to the needs of another. By giving credence to the voices of the young and others most affected by climate change, we can begin to make the fierce urgency of their concerns our own.
Editor, Today’s American Catholic