And now…The Anthropocene Epoch, or The Age of Man


We’ve done it. We’ve remade creation according to our own needs, desires, and vision. And so it is now different than it has ever been before. That appears to be the message of an increasing number of scientists and writers who argue that we have moved out of the 10,000 year holocene epoch (the period of time since the end of the last ice age) and entered into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. The National Geographic covered it in March followed by a helpful article by Oliver Morton titled, “A Man-made World” in The Economist. One of my favorite bloggers, Andrew Revkin of the NYT, has several entries on it. The idea of an anthropcene epoch says something about how we now see ourselves and our relationship to creation.

The Anthropocene epoch is marked by the impact of human creatures upon the entire earth, its ecosystems, and all its creatures. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel winning atmospheric chemist, used the term in 2000 to describe the way humans have transformed the earth. He notes, “From their trawlers scraping the floors of the seas to their dams impounding sediment by the gigatonne, from their stripping of forests to their irrigation of farms, from their mile-deep mines to their melting of glaciers, humans were bringing about an age of planetary change.” Similarly, Erle Ellis, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, notes that there are now “more trees on farms than in wild forests.” Morton concludes his article, “dam by dam, mine by mine, farm by farm and city by city it is remaking the Earth before your eyes.”

So now what? Many lament this achievement of power often fueled by greed and pride. They argue that we must resist the technology that destroys or at the least use it cautiously. We need to preserve the oceans, rain forests, wilderness, and the diversity of life on earth. On this point, environmentalists often show themselves to be conservatives. We need to preserve what we have inherited. Yet others suggest that such efforts are too late and doomed to fail. So forget it. Instead, we would do best to embrace our godlike status and try to manage the earth as best we can Our job is now to remake and rebuild it as sustainable and livable we can.

Andrew Revkin suggests that it is time for humanity to move out of adolescence, grow up, and become responsible adults as a species. After all, “The earth is Us.” Revkin notes, “One clear reality is that for a long to come, Earth is what we choose to make it, for better or worse.” Revkin, cites Stewart Brand, of the “Whole Earth Catalog” who asserts with his latest book, Whole Earth Discipline, “We are as gods and have to get good at it.” Along these same lines, The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans, by Mark Lynas notes that “We humans are the God species, both creatures and destroyers of life.”

This discussion raises important theological questions for us. How do we see ourselves and our relationship to the world in which we live? What does it mean to be a creature? And more specifically, what does it mean to be a human creature? And for that matter, what are the implications for the earth of being a fallen human creature? These questions lie behind nearly everything that Christians have to say about the story they tell.

For example, Christian theology with its emphasis on the Fall, speak of disobedience to God. But what lay at the heart of that disobedience? A refusal be creatures, a refusal to accept our creatureliness. We did not want to live by faith from the gifts of God. We wanted to be more than creaturely, to be like God. The theme continued with the result that the tower of Babel syndrome infects us still. We want to be like gods (powerful, in charge, and in control)…and now it looks like we have achieved that goal?

It seems to me that we need a theology of creatureliness more than ever. After all, Christ affirmed our creatureliness by becoming a creature. And he promises to restore completely our creatureliness with the resurrection (and not make us little deities). So what does it mean to be a human creature and embrace our creatureliness in the “Age of Man?”

For starters, it might mean that as creatures we willingly accept certain limits to our knowledge and power. We are not the creator. We did not design creation. Yet as human creatures, God has given us the capability and responsibility for looking after his creation and the needs of all his creatures so that creation may flourish. That’s quite a balancing act without sin. But as a fallen human creature, do we have the knowledge and capability of “managing” the planet so that it all life flourishes and it gives witness to the creator? And to what end? When we now look around, should we increasingly see only our fingerprints all over creation rather than God’s fingerprints?

4 Responses to “And now…The Anthropocene Epoch, or The Age of Man”

  1. Paul A. Nelson Says:

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    The willful decision to be creatures – to acknowledge not only that we are limited, but that we are flawed and limited and to conduct ourselves appropriately – is it even possible?

    One of my favorite books is “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter Miller Jr. In this tripartite novel, he explores a post-apocalyptic world through the eyes of a small monastery in the Utah desert. A lone outpost of what remains of civilization. Over the course of the book we see a mirroring of history as we know it as mankind emerges from subsistence existence to mastery over the earth – making key decisions along the way about who is master and who is creature.

    Within the realm of fiction it is comparatively easy to advocate for the role of creature, benevolently refusing to bite off on every apple that we’re tossed. But in a broken and sinful world, the fact remains that if *we* don’t bite the apples, someone else is going to. Our self-restraint is someone else’s opportunity for the upper hand.

    This unveils an entirely new aspect of being a creature – acknowledging that our refusal to assert control over creation could mean that we will end up subservient to others who did not restrain themselves. Turning the other cheek to our enemy is all well and good provided that the enemy can only bruise our cheek. But what if turning the other cheek requires us to accept servitude to another nation, relinquishing in the process our rights to exercise our freedom of religion along with all of our other prized rights?

    Willingly accepting our limits has reached a point with global implications. How much do we trust our God to look after our needs if our obedience thrusts us into a role of great and dire need? It’s a fascinating theological as well as ecological and political question, isn’t it?

  2. Concordia Theology » And now…The Anthropocene Epoch, or The Age of Man Says:

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  3. arandc Says:

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    Hi, Paul. Thanks for the very thoughtful reply. I will have to check out it out. It looks really interesting. You are right that in a sinful world, that “self-restraint” is someone else’s opportunity for the upper hand.”

    Your point about acknowledging our creatureliness and refusing to assert control could mean that “we end up subservient to those who did not restrain themselves” left me wondering about whom you meant. If the “we” refers to society or government in the left hand realm, you are probably right. We can seek to have our government try to “balance the goods” of competing interests as best they can between asserting power and acting with self-restraint. But if “we” refers to Christians, then there is a sense where we are called to do precisely that even in the face of consequences. I shared your comment with my colleague, Dr. Gibbs, and he made the interesting point (especially the last sentence): “The complexity of it all shows that, to use N.T. Wright’s phrasing, although we can try to work for the kingdom/reign of God, we cannot bring it. So our discourse will be marked by a humility and a sort of winsome tentativeness perhaps, ready to acknowledge that complexity.”

    I guess I was thinking primarily of ourselves as individuals called to live in a particular place and time. It seems to me that in dealing with the anthropocene, we are dealing with certain attitudes of which it is an expression. And in reacting to it (embracing or rejecting it) We are dealing with attitudes and values. How do we perceive ourselves and how do we conceive of our relation to creation? E.g. if I define myself as consumer then the world is my shopping mall; if as a conqueror then the world is our enemy; if as a transformer then world is the raw material for me to rework. But what if I see myself as a creature made by God “from the earth for life on the earth”? What if I see myself as a creature who has been called by God to embrace the gift of life that we share with all our fellow creatures on earth? I’m not sure I’ve figured that out yet. But think that it needs to be explored.

    Changes in attitudes don’t occur overnight. We can’t legislate, force, or impose values. Sheer amounts of information and ever new technology are not answer (they can instill other values). They need to be formed within us. And that takes time. Takes time as we make the connections between world we now know, our impact, Scriptures’s teaching. We are dealing with with gratitude for the gift of an embodied life, awe before the mystery of a world that we did not create, adoration for a God such as made such beauty. Chirstianity frees us to see the world anew and to embrace God’s design for it as I find myself in a world that I did not make. It takes time to rediscover these connections.

    I appreciate you giving this some thought, Paul! I welcome the conversation.

  4. Learn Magic Says:

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    Thanks for the very informative writeup. in my experience things are slighly more complicated. time will tell

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