Human beings now have the power to change the shape of the earth in a dimension which took – in earlier stages of the evolution - many thousands or even millions of years. Therefore there is a growing tendency to speak of an own age – even though we are talking about a relatively minimal amount of years which have brought about the changes.
How fundamental the changes are and how recently they have developed is impressively shown by a metaphor which Larry Rasmussen, in his book “Earth Ethics, Earth Community” has used. He speaks of a 10 volume encyclopedia in which the history of the cosmos is written down. Even if we skip the first two thirds of the development of the universe we still have 5 billion years in the 10 volumes. If each volume is 500 pages thick, every page tells the story of 1 million years. The most amazing insight of this metaphor concerns the place of humankind and its activities in the development of the universe. Humankind shows up in page 499 of the last volume. The last two words of the last page tell the story of human civilization. And the story of human destruction of nature begins with the last syllable of the last word of the last volume.
Whether there is something like an Anthropocene, is hard to know when you live in the middle of it. There are good reasons that the names with which we have described the specificity of a certain age have so far been given only afterwards – in looking back.
Maybe we have to leave it open and direct our attention to how we should act in a time in which the power of humankind over non-human nature has reached an enormous scale and in which human beings are in the process of destroying the ecological balance which has been the basis of life so far. Politics plays a key role in dealing with this situation. Political decisions must in the future be directed towards transforming the economy from a driving force of destruction of non-human nature with extreme inequalities in the distribution of wealth towards an ecologically sustainable source of prosperity for all human beings. That is a huge but fundamentally necessary task. Since political decision making – at least in democracies – tends to be oriented towards the consent with a wider public which is the electorate at the next elections, politics tends to fall short of the fundamental reorientation which is necessary. That is why civil society is so crucial. Civil society paves the way for necessary political change by generating a political climate which is the basis for courageous political decisions.
Nobody should underestimate what civil society can achieve. Already presently the ecological consciousness has been significantly raised. Big corporations now pay for expensive whole page adds in the national newspapers to highlight their sustainability scores. Even if one might be sceptical of the credibility of such ecological promotion efforts it is remarkable that big economic players seem to think that a good ecological record increases their chances to do business. In comparison with a time only a few decades ago in which ecological advocacy was hardly more than a niche phenomenon in the public debate, this diagnosis expresses a big success story of civil society as much as it still has to achieve.
Change must happen on a global scale. More than in any other political issues, ecological problems do not stop at national borders and can therefore only be responded to by international political action. The way to the climate conference in Paris in December 2015 was an encouraging example for the power of global civil society. Its success was widely attributed by the key political actors to the long term efforts of global civil society. Among the civil society actors the churches played an important role. In the weeks before the conference Christians from all over the world, together wth people of other religious traditions, walked thousands of miles to Paris in a pilgrimage of justice and peace. In a moving multi-religious ceremony which I myself participated in, religious leaders from across the globe came together with the pilgrims to hand over 1,7 million signatures to the conveners of the conference. It was a ceremony of joy and hope which ended in a dance of the Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba with UN climate office director Christina Figueres in which we soon all joined in.
The churches are especially important as actors of global civil society because they are a network of locally rooted parishes all over the world with a common universal horizon. This common universal horizon is based on the belief that the earth is God’s creation and therefore not our possession as human beings but entrusted to us by God to take good care of it. Having “dominion” over the earth as mandated in Genesis 1,26 never meant exploitation of the earth. Rather, the governing task of the king in Old Testament texts was always to especially care for the poor and vulnerable. This biblical theme was perverted by modern thinking into a justification of unlimited human power over non-human nature. What was misinterpreted as something like a Magna Charta of human power in the Antrophocene was in reality a call to responsibility in the age of human misuse of power.
The role of religions in global civil society in the age of Anthropocene is especially important due to another reason. Religions reach not only the minds of people but also their hearts and – even more – their souls. Since ecological reorientation fundamentally includes – besides political and economic structural changes - a change of lifestyle patterns of the people, the success of the intended transformation is dependent on the input of institutions which reach people in the deep levels of their existence.
In order to equip the church with a theological basis which enables her to fulfil this task a public theology is needed. Public theology helps societies to understand themselves, to read the signs of the time, to interpret culture and to give orientation in a situation of disorientation.
Thus, churches have a hermeneutical task. Reading the signs of the time in the Anthropocene could mean showing the imbalance between two possible understandings of human being which have always been part of human existence. Human being as shaper of its destiny has always been a key dimension of humankind. The biblical call for tilling and caring for the earth (Gen 2,15) is an example for it. The Bible, however, also warns of making human being as the shaper into something absolute. The story of the tower of Babel is an impressive example of it. Building the tower to be as great as God, wanting to be God, leads to division and destructive consequences for culture.
Human being as receiver marks the opposite pole. Humankind has always seen its limits. Religion has pointed toward something greater than humankind. It has helped to accept human limitedness. However, there has always been a danger in this conception as well. If human being as receiver is made into something absolute, if it is perverted in a blind subordination to some fate, it pacifies human protest against injustice. Critics of religion like Karl Marx have therefore rightly criticized this form of religion to be ”opium of the people”. Movements like Latin American liberation theologies have drawn the consequences and developed theological concepts which understand Christian faith as a driving force for changing history.
In this interplay between human being as a shaper and human being as a receiver which has characterized human history we must recognize that in the age of Anthropocene the balance has unduely shifted towards human being as a shaper exerting power over non-human nature. We have unlearned to accept our limits in our relationship with non-human nature. What is now needed is an ethic of human self-limitation.
Therefore, churches and other religious communities do not only have a hermeneutical task, but they also have a political task in society. They have to advocate political and sociocultural change to regain an appropriate power balance between humankind and non-human nature. They fulfil this task by issuing public statements such as the call of religious leaders at the climate summit in Paris in 2015. They can intervene directly in political decision to make their positions know to decision makers. One example is a letter that German Protestant bishops wrote to European parliamentarians when they had to decide about the restoration of CO2 Certificate trade as an instrument for reducing CO2 emission levels to meet sustainable goals. Furthermore, church leaders can privately or publicly talk with politicians to share their views with them and argue for a change. Finally, the churches, through their international networks, can listen to the stories of experiences of injustice and vulnerability from the margins, hand them on to the global centers of power and hold decision makers accountable.