Given our current global struggles combating, suffering, and—please God—recovering from the COVID 19 virus, this blog post seems particular poignant. In the evolutionary process, pain, death, and mass extinction are troubling yet necessary companions of innovation, life, and complexity. Nonetheless, these “natural evils” leave a wake of suffering in their path. But not all pain, death, and extinction in creation is actually the result of evolution. Well, not directly. It would seem that human beings, the so-called pinnacle of the evolutionary process are actively engaging in ecocide, the wanton destruction of the created world.
Some examples of what this looks like:
– In last 500 years, 322 animals have gone extinct, which scientists attribute to human causes.
– By September 2019, 2.2 million acres of the Amazon basin were burned, nearly all of the 121,000 fires had human origins—farmers setting fires to clear the land.
– After years of climate change-induced drought, in the Fall of 2019 and early 2020, more than 16 million acres, the size of the state of West Virginia, went up in flames in Australia. Lightning strikes on brutally dry land caused most of fires, but at least 24 persons are under arrest for having ignited some fires.
– An estimated billion animals lost their lives in the fires that ravaged New South Wales and Victoria.
– On September 9, 2019, the small island of Gizo, one of the 990 that make up the Solomon Islands, suffered unseasonal monsoon-like rains that caused a mudslide, killing a local mother and teacher. I know, because I sat with the other sisters attempting to console her grieving husband who had been pulled from the mud.
It seems researchers and scholars are correct in their assessment that we are living in a new geological epoch. For the past 12,000 years, we have been in the Holocene, the period that began after the last ice age. They propose that we live in the Anthropocene, which describes the geological epoch in which human actions impact planetary systems. Sam Mickey explains that, “The Anthropocene is named after humans because it is a time when humans have massive, Earth-changing impacts, altering the chemistry of the atmosphere (climate change), changing DNA (genetic modification), and depositing non-biodegradable plastic, Styrofoam, and radioactive materials around the planet” (Whole Earth Thinking and Planetary Coexistence [New York: Routledge, 2016], 6).
As I continue this research on the New Cosmology (or cosmotheology) and its implications, I am shaken out of my academic silo and shamed by my lethargic activism. Theological insights derived from new scientific discoveries should lead to new modes of behavior. In other words, theology cannot be divorced from ethics. What we think about God has implications for our actions as children of God. And evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley argued it is our destiny to act on behalf of the cosmos:
[The hu]man is that part of reality in which and through which the cosmic process has become conscious and
has begun to comprehend itself. [Our] supreme task is to increase that conscious comprehension and to apply
it as fully as possible to guide the course of events (Religion without Revelation [London: Max Parrish, 1959],
In light of this evolutionary consciousness (our advancing awareness of our place in the cosmos and interrelationship with all creation), we need to move beyond simply “thinking globally and acting locally.” Rather, as Mickey proposes, we should engage in “Whole Earth thinking,” which
calls for dangerous dreams of emancipation, dreams of freedom from the destructive refrains of domination
and oppression. It calls for a vision of a more peaceful, just, and sustainable Earth community, a vision of
participatory ecological democracy (Mickey, Whole Earth Thinking and Planetary Coexistence, 147).
Perhaps the first step to Whole Earth thinking is to pay attention. The fires in the Amazon, the drought in Australia, the floods in the United States, the typhoons in the Philippines, the volcanic eruptions in New Zealand aren’t happening to those people and that land over there. We are “those people” and the interconnectivity of all creation means we share in the suffering. St. Paul’s words have never been more true: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Rom 8:22).
Here are questions that I invite us all to ponder: What does an ethic of the New Cosmology (or cosmotheology) and evolutionary consciousness look like? How do we engage in Whole Earth thinking, for the benefit of the whole web of life?
A note to commentators: I am a Catholic Christian scholar for whom the Gospel directs not only my teaching, but my actions and hopefully my speech. I look forward to your insights, but I ask that in the spirit of Christian charity and courteous discourse you write with love and civility. Uncharitable or discourteous speech has no place in thoughtful dialogue.
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29).