Anthropocene: The Pope and the Posthuman

In late August 2016, a group of experts recommended the declaration of a new geological epoch to the International Geological Congress.1 This new epoch, the anthropocene, presents a gestalt shift in the way that human being live and interact with the world. Whereas humanity was before a being in the world of the holocene, the anthropocene presents what Timothy Morton describes as “disturbing moment at which human history intersects decisively with geological time.”2 Despite its widespread use in the humanities and earth sciences since the 1980s, the potential declaration of a new geological epoch by a major geological organization has the potential to shift the way that humans exist in the world. Philosopher Rosi Braidotti has suggested that the anthropocene brings about a “time of deep epistemological, epistemological, ethical and political crises of values in human societies.”3

As many already know, climate change is intimately connected with racism and sexism.4 Climate change is caused by the richest countries at the expense of poorer counties and disproportionately impacts marginalized populations. As German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk points out, the anthropocene leads humans to “Humans create their own climate”5 through their technological prowess. The ability to create ones own climate leads humanity to be regarded as the designers of their own climate The purpose of this paper is to explore the impact that the anthropocene’s “crisis of values” has on religious values and practice. Specifically, how should Christians6 handle and grasp humanity’s responsibility as designers of the world?

Pope Francis’s anthropocentric stewardship
Any attempt at interrogating the relationship between Christianity and the anthropocene must engage with Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato si’. In this controversial encyclical–written for all of humanity–, the Pope calls “for a radical transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, blending a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action.”7 Pope Francis suggests that capitalism and individualism are at the heart of the climate crisis. Climate change contains “environmental, social, economic, [and] political”8 implications, and it impacts are most likely to impact and shape the lives of those in areas of poverty. This happens in at least two ways. First, Capitalism allows rich countries control over poor countries through debt which leads to a global situation in which “developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.”9 Second, Climate Change is most likely to affect poorer countries who remain “largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry.”10 Pope Francis suggests that the rise in temperature produces disproportional “repercussions on the poorest area of the world […] where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.”11

Peter Sloterdijk has argued that the anthropocene “paves the way for a fundamental change in attitude whereby human beings lose their status as would-be ‘lords and masters’ of nature and become atmosphere designers and climate guardians.” 12 The Pope gives a similar message stating that ““our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.”13 With the anthropocene, the ability to design the world has been placed in human hands. The climate crisis is not only an ecological event, but also a socio-political crisis which means that human design pervades into this realm as well. Creation care cannot be separated from issues of economic or social oppression. Thus, when designing a response to the climate crisis one must consider the social, economic and political in addition to the ecological.

Pope Francis’s call for stewardship incorporates the intersectional nature of climate change. The stewardship of Francis’s design is inseparable from communion with all of creation. This is “the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world”14 which is expressed in a communitarian embrace of love. Paragraph 231 describes the solution to capitalism and individualism as a “civilization of love” in which “social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society.”15 A community where love takes precedence over greed and individualism, and where domination is not seen as ownership, but as care. Rather than a disconnected ownership with all creatures of the earth, Francis suggests that “It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.”16 One might go so far as to suggest that Francis is advocating a design in which Dasein is being in loving community with all of being.

Yet, despite Francis’s advocacy for communion with all of creation, his writing retains an anthropocentric or human centric assumption. Francis argues that part of God’s design for the earth contains a provision that “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”17 Thus, while Pope Francis argues against dominion and ownership over the earth, his message of stewardship is still centred in a preservation of the earth for future humanity. Futhermore, despite his talk of stewardship and communion, the text retains at least some notion of dominion: “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.”18 The move away from damaging authoritarianism to a communitarian society retains a hierarchical notion of humanity as guardian or steward above those which they are guardian or steward of. Francis’s community retains the human at its centre and stewardship is presented as sustainability and preservation of the earth for humans.

Against Sustainability
The retention of the human centre is problematic because it retains a notion that earth and the creatures upon earth belong to humanity. Thus, when we talk about sustainability, it is centred on how to design the world so that it is beneficial to humans. In his recent New York Times opinion piece, “Against ‘Sustainability’” Jeremy Butman argues for an adaptable design rather than a conservational design. In order to do this Butman begins by discussing the lineage of the environmental movement. Traditionally, environmentalism is seen as coming out of 18th century romanticism, and Butman does not disagree. The traditional narrative suggests that Descartes, in his reduction of “nature” to mathematics, opens the door for a scientific, technological worldview which “cleared the way for the domination of nature by industry and prepared philosophy for Nietzsche’s dramatic declaration of the death of God.”19

What is left out of the dominant narrative is the idea that the central attributes of God “were in different ways transposed onto the body of nature” 20 in various discourses such as German and English Romanticism and American transcendentalism. What is problematic in this transposition is that nature is given the attribute of perfection – if perfection changes it becomes imperfect. Thus, the Aristotelean notion of nature as physis or change is discarded and nature becomes a Garden of Eden with the Death of God. Thus, when humans talk about sustainability our hope is to sustain nature for humans. Humans wish to retain their understanding of a perfect nature. Butman suggests that “we preserve the resources needed for human consumption, whether that means energy consumption or aesthetic consumption. In one sense, we preserve nature for industry.”21 Thus, Pope Francis suggestion that humanity ought to preserve for human consumption in ensuring the earth’s fruitfulness for future generations doesn’t undermine industrial consumption, but affirms it.

The problem with preservation is that it is based upon the idea that changes to the earth are destroying humanities perfect Garden of Eden. As Butman states, extinction is “only tragic if nature is viewed as something perfect that we are destroying rather than as a state of flux in which we are participating.”22 The idea of participation is powerful. It leads to a new conception of humanities communion with the earth, animals and inanimate beings. Rather than being “rulers over” the other, or even “guardians” of the other, Butman situates humanity as “participants” with the other. Participation with the other means saying “yes” to the anthropocene. Saying “yes” means that instead of the oppositional position of sustainability, humans should speak of adaptability. Butman envisions a worldview which sees the earth not as something other from humanity, but “…as a bustling world of colleagues, both human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, over whom we have influence, but also influence us.”23

The Posthuman
In proposing humanity as participants within a greater community of adaption, Butman begins to move beyond the humanistic sustainability of Pope Francis and other environmentalists in order to envision a posthuman communion. Rosi Braidotti’s work in the Posthuman will allow us to explore what this interdependence community of participants might do. In order to examine the community, it is important to first understand the lineage of humanism to posthumanism which Braidotti outlines in the first chapter of The Posthuman. It is only after one is grounded in an understanding of this posthuman that one can begin to explore what a posthuman community might become.

Braidotti defines humanism as a tradition which, going back to Protagoras, centres man as the subject of universal rationality (i.e. man as the measure of all things). Against this universal “man” stand the sexualized, radicalized, and naturalized Other. The Other, through their otherness, is capable of calling out the power and imperialism of the universal. It is in the Other’s response to humanism that anti-humanism emerges. Anti-humanism is a dialectical move which positions itself in opposition to humanism. It was prevalent throughout the 1960’s in both American opposition to the war in Vietnam and the1968 student protests in Europe. Anti-humanism “appealed directly to the subversive potential of the texts of Marx, so as to recover their anti-institutional roots”24 – a subversive potential which reaches its climax in Foucault’s “Death of Man”. It is out of this human/anti-human dichotomy that posthumanism is able to emerge. While anti-humanism rejects humanism it still retains universalizing qualities in the human/antihuman binary. The binary itself functions as a universal either/or. In anti-humanism one is either a human or not a human – and these details are strictly black and white. Posthumanism is an attempt to escape this binary and dichotomous thinking.

Braidotti presents to the audience 3 types of humanism: 1. Reactive posthumanism which is a reactionary movement against anti-humanism and attempts a return to universal humanism; 2. Scientific or analytic posthumanism which alters the understanding of human and technology by proposing a merging interconnectivity between the two (while in a sense retaining an understanding of human – just a different one then before); and 3. Critical posthumanism which is the humanism Braidotti adopts. This is a posthumanism which can be traced back to the “post-structuralism, anti-universalism of feminism, anti-colonial phenomenology of Frantz Fanon and of his teacher Aimé Césaire.”25 Within posthumanism the human centre of humanism is decentred and the critical posthumanist moves beyond liberal universalism to embrace complexity and subjectivity while at the same time resting on a Deleuzian ethic of becoming. A critical posthumanism “raises issues of power and entitlement in the age of globalization and calls for self-reflexivity on the part of the subjects who occupy the former humanist centre, but also those who dwell in on of the many scattered centres of power of advanced post-modernity.”26 This critical posthumanism is a decentred network of subjectivities which is not reducible to humans. It is “vitalist, embodied and embedded, firmly located somewhere, according to the feminist ‘politics of location’.”It is a becoming which usurps the dominant centre. In rupturing the centrality of the human subject, the new subjectivity comes to include a flux of being – including, but not limited to, humans, machines, the earth, and animals.

Thus far, we’ve looked at Braidotti’s posthuman in an attempt to expand upon the decentring of the human subjectivity. Now we’ll interrogate how a inter-relational community being might become. Braidotti adopts a Spinozist monism – a unity or univocity of being. Using the Deleuzian method of becoming27, Bradotti argues for a Zoe-centric egalitarianism through which interdependence with multiple other can take place. Zoe is the structure of life that brings vitality, and it is a zoe-centric egalitarianism which the posthuman strives for. Braidotti’s monism “implies the open-ended, interrelational, multi-sexed and trans-species flows of becoming through interaction with multiple others. A posthuman subject thus constituted exceeds the boundaries of both anthropocentrism and of compensatory humanism, to acquire a planetary dimension.”28 Within the taxonomy of being a radical decentreing of humanity takes place. Animals, machines, humans and earth are no longer considered strict categories of being. They are constantly and consistently beings together bound within a monistic framework of relationality. Through this relationality in which these animals, humans, machines and earth no longer function as seperate concepts, but participants wrapped up together through interdependence, a community based praxis is able to emerge. This is a community bounded by an “interdependence with multiple others”29 which includes animals, humans, earth, technology.

Within such a community a zoe-egalitarianism is possible where Zoe is “the ‘generative power that flows across all species.”30 Like the community Butman envisions, this community is not one that strives but preservation or sustainability, but instead affirms adaptability and creative designs. With the posthuman is the potential for a community of interdependence in which the division between human and non-human dissolves into a community of interdependence where individualism – not just for individual actors, but anthropocentrism as a whole – is replaced with a community fully engaged in zoe-centric and communal care. In order for this to happen, humans must develop new positive relationships with animals, the earth, and technology through processes of becoming which allow for an ending of hierarchical measure. The interdependence of zoe-centric communities allows for the creation of new ways of looking at the anthropocene and embracing it as designers of new, post-anthropocentric worlds in new post-human rhythms and flows.

Both Pope Francis, Jeremy Butman, and Rosi Braidotti stress the important of a communality within their articulation of how to respond to the anthropocene. The difference between their responses is that Pope Francis favours the negation of change while Butman and Braidotti strive for the affirmation of it. Both recognize the ability of humans to design and shape the world, but while Francis centres his design on humanism where humans act upon the world, Butman and Braidotti goes beyond to a community of posthuman actors acting upon one another. In striving for community, all three thinkers stress the important of being with in community. In a sense, the community is able to work together in what Sloteridjk might label a co-immunizing force.31 For Pope Francis, this results in a communitarian movement of return. For Rosi Braidotti, it results in a zoe-centric egalitarianism which affirms the anthropocene and attempts to adapt the world to new rhythms and flows. In either case, there is a need for the creation of design strategies for interaction within the community. For Pope Francis this creativity requires “an ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems,”32 for Butman it requires new adaptability, and for Braidotti it means the creation of new rhythms and flows which repeat throughout being. In all of these there is a desire for creation.

Since my sympathies lie with Braidotti, my conclusions will as well, but I don’t think that they are so far divorced from the humanism of Pope Francis that a bridge cannot be seen at some point in the distance. How is it that we, Christians or otherwise, should respond to the anthropocene? Through affirmation! By affirming that we play – within a community of interrelated multiple others – a role in the design process of new worlds, we must affirm and encourage creation and adaption of new designs that push forward an zoe-egalitarianism which has at its focus a love of being. This means developing new creative ways of circumnavigating capitalism in order to benefit the earth and those on it. This might also mean moving away from certain practices that do not fit within the new affirmative rhythms.

Going forward I’m not sure exactly what this goes, or where these pathways lead. Andrew Culp’s thesis that “We need to stop saving the world in order to find new ones”33 is one that works against sustainability and towards the new becoming, outside of ‘the world’. For Culp, the “[d]iscourse of domination is winning…we need to explore new discourses of the anthropocene”34. Yet, it still doesn’t unlock or give a simple answer to what these discourses look like. Creating and affirming new ways to explore and work within the anthropocene is the next step. This involves the affirmation of technologies that are used in ways that benefit zoe, rather than harm. Rather than Francis’ return to a simpler time, we must contemplate technologies that move outside of capitalism and consumption. Affirming new technologies that strive towards zoe-egalitrianism. Now it is up to us to create these affirmative intensities.

[1]Carrington, “The Anthropocene Epoch.”

[2]Morton, “This Is Not My Beautiful Biosphere,” p. 229

[3]Braidotti, The Posthuman, p. 79

[4]c.f. Klein, This Changes Everything

[5]Sloterdijk, Globes, p. 985. It should be noted that Sloterdijk is talking about climate in two senses – the sociological climate and the physical climate. In pre-enlightenment era, humans created immunological climates which functioned to protect against the exterior. After the enlightenment we see a shift to what Sloterdijk calls “atmotechnics” which lead to humanities “air conditioning” of the world (c.f. Sloterdijk, Globes, p. 961-967).

[6]I admit that when one talks about “Christianity” one is always already talking about a multiplicity of diverse members and groups. Christianity, as a concept, contains a plurality of different denominations, sects, religious texts, interpretations, etc., and talking about these groups as a cohesive unit can at times appear disingenuous. I recognize this problem, and move forward cautiously, understanding that the message is aimed at an ecumenical church.

[7] Yardley and Goodstein, “Pope Francis, in Sweeping Encyclical, Calls for Swift Action on Climate Change.”

[8]Pope Francis, Encyclical on Capitalism and Inequality, Paragraph 25. While Pope Francis focuses here on socio-political phenomena at the state level, it would be a mistake to think that climate change doesn’t impact poorer people domestically. Elderly people who cannot afford air conditioning are at increased risk of heat stroke due to a rise in temperature (c.f. NIA: Hyperthermia: Too Hot for Your Health). Drought also raises food prices which leads to higher costs of living which is particularly harmful for people below the poverty threshold.

[9]Pope Francis, Encyclical on Capitalism and Inequality, Paragraph 52.

[10] ibid., Paragraph 25.

[11] ibid., Paragraph 51

[12] Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air, p. 89

[13]Pope Francis, Encyclical on Capitalism and Inequality, Paragraph 116.

[14] ibid., Paragraph 229

[15] ibid., Paragraph 231

[16] ibid., Paragraph 220

[17] ibid., Paragraph 67

[18] ibid

[19] Butman, “Against ‘Sustainability.’”

[20] ibid

[21] ibid

[22] ibid

[23] ibid

[24] Braidotti, The Posthuman, p. 22

[25] ibid., p. 47

[26] ibid., p. 51

[27] I do not have enough space here to fully explain how becoming works in Deleuze’s ontology. For an introduction I recommend the sections on Becoming, Becoming + Music, and Becoming + Performance Art in Parr’s, The Deleuze Dictionary, p. 25-31

[28] Braidotti, The Posthuman, p. 89

[29] ibid., p. 101

[30] ibid., p. 103

[31] Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life, p. 450 “All social organization in history, from the primal hordes to the world empires, can, from a systemic perspective, be explained as structures of co-immunity”.

[32] Pope Francis, Encyclical on Capitalism and Inequality, Paragraph 220

[33] Culp, “The ‘Anthropocene’: A Problematic Term for Problematic Times.”

[34] Culp, “Aliens, Monsters, and Revolution in the Dark Deleuze.”

Works Cited
Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. 1st ed. Oxford: Wiley, 2013.

Butman, Jeremy. “Against ‘Sustainability.’” The New York Times, August 8, 2016.

Carrington, Damian. “The Anthropocene Epoch: Scientists Declare Dawn of Human-Influenced Age.” The Guardian, August 29, 2016, sec. Science.

Culp, Andrew. “The ‘Anthropocene’: A Problematic Term for Problematic Times.” presented at the 2016 Anthropocene Consortium Series, Evergreen State College, 2016.

Culp, Andrew. “Aliens, Monsters, and Revolution in the Dark Deleuze.” Anarchist Without Content, August 26, 2016.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Reprint edition. Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Morton, Timothy. “This Is Not My Beautiful Biosphere.” In A Cultural History of Climate Change, edited by Tom Bristow and Thomas Ford, 229–39. Routledge, 2016.

Parr, Adrian. The Deleuze Dictionary. 2nd Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Pope Francis. Encyclical on Capitalism and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home. Edited by Same Lavigne. Verso, 2015.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Globes: Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology. Translated by Wieland Hoban. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext, 2014.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Terror from the Air. Translated by Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009.

Sloterdijk, Peter. You Must Change Your Life. 1 edition. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2014.

Yardley, Jim, and Laurie Goodstein. “Pope Francis, in Sweeping Encyclical, Calls for Swift Action on Climate Change.” The New York Times, June 18, 2015.


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