I have written about the beginning of the Anthropocene before. It is a subject that I continue to find intriguing. For the first time in the expanse of history human beings find themselves significant participants in various environmental systems on Earth. Our species affects the nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle (to cite two examples) in ways that were previously impossible - so inconsequential was our presence on the planet.
Such is the under-heralded power of modern humanity. We have grown to become as much a factor in the Earthly order of things as anything else in nature. It strikes me as myopic to doubt the coming of the Anthropocene and everything that its tangibility entails. On the other hand, those who embrace this reality can find relevant meaning within it - and possibly find their place in the universe, in spite of the consequences. Indeed, finding our relevant place in this existential reality, this newly arrived at human geologic age might be essential to our very survival.
The Sunday after New Year's Day, I went for a long run. Upon returning I found Jennifer doing a bit of weeding in our gardens. We chit chatted for awhile outside as I cooled down. At one point she asked: "So what are your new year's resolutions?" It briefly confounded me. Here I was three days into the new year, suddenly I realized that, not only did I not make any resolutions, I had not even thought about it. The whole concept of resolving something for 2016 simply had not entered my mind. Strange.
Considering this later I realized that, perhaps, I made one resolution without being consciously aware of it. I want to articulate why I find traditional approaches to human meaning inadequate, particularly religious and "spiritual" (however you want to define that vague term) approaches, and to define how a more relevant meaning is possible - in the Anthropocene.
How that might happen begins with a recognition of who we are as a species and our place on this Earth, as well as what we need as individuals to grow and mature in a world where religions and traditional concepts of spirituality have proven themselves inadequate to address the urgent needs of humanity and our home, Earth.
I resolved to see the Earth as it is in this moment, not simply within my ability to precieve, but more importantly within the tangibility of manifestation - within the fact that half the wildlife on our planet has been wiped out in the industrial age, for example. You won't find the truth of that fact inside yourself. It is definitely out there. Very particularly, our introspective approaches to guidance have failed us in terms of addressing wars, genocide, environmental crises, domestic violence, chauvinism, racism, depression, and a general malaise among humanity.
Clearly, we are not an enlightened species in this moment; though we are quite clever and we exhibit all the longings for meaning and understanding. Maybe it is time to redefine what "enlightenment" might mean. Is there an enlightenment more relevant than human happiness and peace and compassion within ourselves? I think the answer is yes. Because seeking that inner peace and our displays of compassion so far have not brought outer peace to a violent world. So, I question the relevance of our traditionally accepted "path to peace."
In his NYT piece, Scranton provides as good an introduction to this issue as any I have read. He calls everyone out on this, no matter your politics or belief system, you need to take relevant ownership of your life and of this Earth, not just find a way to feel good about being alive. Feeling "good" or "insightful" or "connected" has clearly been our practice for centuries and it has not resulted in anything more than a few people or communities who believe they have "arrived" spiritually or rationally even as the planet seethes in chaos. Just look out there for a moment and you can see all this - the Being of Earth. You think you can separate your reality from the Earth in this moment?
So I want to open this blog in 2016 with a nod to Scranton's editorial. I have edited the original piece down for the sake of brevity. But it serves as a great starting point for my 2016 "resolution". You can read the entire op-ed piece here.
Meanwhile, as the gap between the future we’re entering and the future we once imagined grows ever wider, nihilism takes root in the shadow of our fear: if all is already lost, nothing matters anyway.
You can feel this nihilism in TV shows like “True Detective,” “The Leftovers,” “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones,” and you can see it in the rush to war, sectarianism and racial hatred. It defines our current moment, though in truth it’s nothing new. The Western world has been grappling with radical nihilism since at least the 17th century, when scientific insights into human behavior began to undermine religious belief.
Scientific materialism, taken to its extreme, threatens us with meaninglessness; if consciousness is reducible to the brain and our actions are determined not by will but by causes, then our values and beliefs are merely rationalizations for the things we were going to do anyway. Most people find this view of human life repugnant, if not incomprehensible....our dogged insistence on free agency makes a kind of evolutionary sense. Indeed, humanity’s keenest evolutionary advantage has been its drive to create collective meaning. That drive is as ingenious as it is relentless, and it can find a way to make sense of despair, depression, catastrophe, genocide, war, disaster, plagues and even the humiliations of science.
Our drive to make meaning is powerful enough even to turn nihilism against itself. As Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Western philosophy’s most incisive diagnosticians of nihilism, wrote near the end of the 19th century: “Man will sooner will nothingness than not will.” This dense aphorism builds on one of the thoughts at the core of Nietzsche’s philosophy, today so widely accepted as to be almost unrecognizable, that human beings make their own meaning out of life.
Nietzsche wasn’t himself a nihilist. He developed his idea of truth as a “mobile army of metaphors” into a more complex philosophy of perspectivism, which conceived of subjective truth as a variety of constructions arising out of particular perspectives on objective reality. The more perspectives we learn to see from, the more truth we have access to. This is different from relativism, with which it’s often confused, which says that all truth is relative and there is no objective reality. Fundamentally, Nietzsche was an empiricist who believed that beyond all of our interpretations there was, at last, something we can call the world — even if we can never quite apprehend it objectively. “Even great spirits have only their five fingers breadth of experience,” he writes. “Just beyond it their thinking ceases and their endless empty space and stupidity begins.”
Nietzsche’s positive philosophical project, what he called his “gay science,” was to create the conditions for the possibility of a human being who could comprehend the meaninglessness of our drive to make meaning, yet nonetheless affirm human existence, a human being who could learn “amor fati,” the love of one’s fate: this was his much-misunderstood idea of the “overman.”
We stand today on a precipice of annihilation that Nietzsche could not have even imagined. There is little reason to hope that we’ll be able to slow down global warming before we pass a tipping point. We’re already one degree Celsius above preindustrial temperatures and there’s another half a degree baked in. The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing, Greenland is melting, permafrost across the world is liquefying, and methane has been detected leaking from sea floors and Siberian craters: it’s probably already too late to stop these feedbacks, which means it’s probably already too late to stop apocalyptic planetary warming. Meanwhile the world slides into hate-filled, bloody havoc, like the last act of a particularly ugly Shakespearean tragedy.
Yet it’s at just this moment of crisis that our human drive to make meaning reappears as our only salvation … if we’re willing to reflect consciously on the ways we make life meaningful — on how we decide what is good, what our goals are, what’s worth living or dying for, and what we do every day, day to day, and how we do it. Because if it’s true that we make our lives meaningful ourselves and not through revealed wisdom handed down by God or the Market or History, then it’s also true that we hold within ourselves the power to change our lives — wholly, utterly — by changing what our lives mean. Our drive to make meaning is more powerful than oil, the atom, and the market, and it’s up to us to harness that power to secure the future of the human species.
...we need to give up defending and protecting our truth, our perspective, our Western values, and understand that truth is found not in one perspective but in their multiplication, not in one point of view but in the aggregate, not in opposition but in the whole. We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes, and polar bear eyes, and not even just with eyes at all but with the wild, barely articulate being of clouds and seas and rocks and trees and stars.
We were born on the eve of what may be the human world’s greatest catastrophe. None of us chose this, not deliberately. None of us can choose to avoid it either. Some of us will even live through it. What meaning we pass on to the future will depend on how well we remember those who have come before us, how wisely and how gently we’re able to shed the ruinous way of life that’s destroying us today, and how consciously we’re able to affirm our role as creators of our fated future.
Accepting the fatality of our situation isn’t nihilism, but rather the necessary first step in forging a new way of life. Between self-destruction and giving up, between willing nothingness and not willing, there is another choice: willing our fate. Conscious self-creation. We owe it to the generations whose futures we’ve burned and wasted to build a bridge, to be a bridge, to connect the diverse human traditions of meaning-making in our past to those survivors, children of the Anthropocene, who will build a new world among our ruins.
Note: By coincidence, a scientific study on the Anthropocene was released as I was developing this post. This spawned numerous articles in the media. Some are sprinkled throughout the post above. Others can be read here, here, here, here, and here.