I recently read the book Earth in Human Hands by David Grinspoon. In his book, he discusses how human civilization is shaping the planet and how humanity has become a geological force, affecting planetary cycles in unexpected ways. Over the past few decades, various authors have noticed this and have begun to use the term “Anthropocene” to describe this current human-created epoch.
He goes one step farther, however, and argues that we could be in the midst of a new eon, the “Sapiozoic” eon. Earth’s history is divided up into four eons, the Hadean, the Archean, the Proterozoic, and the Phanerozoic. Each eon is defined by a particular geologic regime that changed the nature of the planetary system. For example, the Archaean, is when life first formed on Earth About 3.8 billion years ago. The Proterozoic, which began about 2.5 Billion years ago and ended 542 million years ago with the Cambrian explosion, may have been when life became a geologic force, when life on Earth went from being life on a planet to being part of a living planet. This could be considered the birth of the biosphere as we understand it today. That is a globally connected system that influences planetary processes.
Grinspoon suggests something similar might be happening today with the relationship between intelligence and the planet. Just as living systems became a dominant geological force in the Proterozoic, cognitive processes may be becoming a dominant geological force in the present time, beginning a new eon. The planet may be becoming not just a living planet but a sapient planet. This is an idea which I have explored in previous blog posts. The consequence of this of course is that humans may be become the masters of the planet during this new eon. The destiny of Earth’s biosphere is increasingly in our hands. This is a point which David Grinspoon explores in his book. Although he does discuss the ways in which we are unprepared and even unworthy of the role of planetary engineers, he takes a hopeful stance, arguing that planetary engineer is a role that we, or our descendents, or our creations, may be able to grow into over time.
Humans do not have the best track record with running the planet. The past few centuries, characterized by environmental destruction at the hands of human industry and an ongoing mass extinction demonstrate this. There are some people who argue that we are unworthy of being planetary stewards and that we should abdicate and go back to a simpler lifestyle in which we are not running the planet and driving geologic processes.
Grinspoon acknowledges this but argues that we have gotten ourselves too deep. We are already controlling the planet so much that even if we did take our hands off the controls we still would be deciding the fate of the planet. Any action we take at this point is going to affect the whole planet and be our responsibility. We may not want this role and are probably unworthy of it, but we are also not able to escape it. The planet is our responsibility now whether we like it or not and whether or not we are qualified.
This tension between being unworthy of a role but being given responsibility for it anyway is very Christian in nature. As Christians have been called to participate in God’s mission to renew the world through his son Jesus Christ. As sinners, we are not worthy of this role, but it is a role that we have been given, nonetheless as Christ followers. This reality both elevates us and humbles us. It elevates us saying that we are precious to God and made co-heirs with Christ. At the same time, it also humbles us by reminding us that our position before God does not have to do with our merits but with the fact that God loves us and all human beings and has shown us mercy by making us co-heirs with his son.
Western Christianity unfortunately also does not have the greatest track record when it comes to the environment. We need to realize that we have responsibility now to manage the planet, but also need to realize that this responsibility does not make us superior to other forms of life. We need to remember that we were not given this role because we are worthy of it.
Grinspoon would probably argue that we have this role because we stumbled into it. We are like a group of teenaged hackers who have discovered that they are now controlling a passenger jet and now have to somehow figure out how to land the plane even though they have no idea how. I would argue that we did not stumble into this role. We were given this role by God so that he could bless us and all creation through us. The fact that we are unqualified for it and unworthy of it should remind us that creation is not about us. We are one part in something far greater. We play an important role in God’s creation but that does not mean that it is all about us.
This is also what Christianity teaches about reality and life in general. We have been given an important role as God’s image bearers, but life and reality are not about us. They are about God and his purposes.
In this way, Christian humility can go hand-in-hand with an ecologically sensitive approach to human development that seeks not just human development, but development of the entire biosphere. Christian humility reminds us that creation is not about us but about God and God has a plan much greater than our dreams of material wealth and accumulation which have fueled so much of the ecological destruction at the hands of human beings.