A few months ago, my partner and I were invited to dinner at an artists’ colony. The experience proved to be something of an unpleasant surprise for us. Before the meal, we were all instructed to hold hands for a hymn offered to Mother Earth, whose lyrics everyone else seemed to know already. After dinner, those assembled were asked to declare their “full moon intentions”—which we had never heard about and whose character remained mystifying to us even after listening to several declarations. Finally, we were asked to process in silence down to a lake so that we could all join in call-and-response odes to the moon, the river, and other natural objects. By this point, I was growing concerned that we were about to be Midsommar’d, so my memory of the particular songs isn’t so keen. But the gist was to establish a verisimilitude between the soul’s depths and the features of the full moon, the flowing river, etc. We left as quietly, quickly, and (we hope) inoffensively as possible.
In the lapses between the cultic behaviors, however, we learned about the operations of the artists’ colony. The couple who owns and runs the place has a similar institution elsewhere, and they have managed – through relationships with local farms, negotiations with suppliers, and resident buy-in to sustainable practices – to create two communities for itinerant artists to live that are affordable, zero-waste (or close to it), and self-sustaining to a significant extent. Reflecting on these successes hasn’t exactly made me interrogate my personal discomforts, but the achievements do lend some credence to the idea that a non- or alt-modern orientation to nature facilitates sustainable living to a degree that my attitude just doesn’t. My skepticism is probably, at least in some ways, unwarranted. Perhaps a progressive ecological praxis depends on, or would be better off with, fewer people like me and more people like the artists’ colony folks.
I am going to leave this last point as a sincere, open question. But, at risk of a self-interested defense, I want to present some reasons why we should exercise caution in how we conceive the relationship between human and non-human nature. Focusing on the construal of the climate crisis as an apocalypse, I show that, good intentions notwithstanding, today’s environmental movement is attended by dangers of anthropomorphism, ahistoricism, and insensitivity to suffering. These dangers appear not just in local practices like those I experienced at the artists’ colony, but also in left-wing ecosocialist theory and Catholic theology. I don’t intend to play the finger-wagging pedant, though. I want to propose that the political theology of Johann Baptist Metz gives religious and non-religious alike resources for conceiving climate catastrophe without succumbing to these issues or giving up hope for a better relationship with nature.
There is no doubt that something has gone wrong in human beings’ relationship to nature: the name of our epoch of climate crisis, the “Anthropocene,” says at least that much. This conviction lends an initial plausibility to ideas that nature is in “rebellion” – a quotation from John Paul II approvingly reproduced in Francis’ Laudato si’ (§117) – that it is in “revolt,” or that it is taking “revenge” (these last two quotations come from Max Horkheimer and Friedrich Engels, respectively). One needn’t be a theist (let alone a theologian), then, to impute a kind of moral agency to non-human nature. Humans have transgressed the normative relationship between themselves and “sister Earth,” and thus “[t]he violence present in our hearts…is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life” (Laudato si’ §2).
It may well be that personifying nature as a suffering, rebellious moral subject is a rhetorically effective way to convey the ethical urgency of the climate crisis. It certainly has the attractiveness both of just punishment and a natural order restored: human beings are getting their deserts for abusing their “dominion” over nature; subjugated nature devolves into disordered, unseasonal tempests because humanity has failed its proper role as a “responsible steward” (ibid., §116-117). Climate apocalypse, conceived along these lines, would be nature’s final revolution over oppressive human mastery.
Yet the language of “rebellion,” “dominion,” and “stewardship” belies the image of social domination on which these metaphors surreptitiously draw: nature, like the masses, eventually rebels when its rightful masters fail to care for it appropriately. The unwitting appeal to class oppression points to a serious problem with this kind of talk about climate disaster. Our way of conceiving the right relationship between human and non-human nature inevitably borrows from a moral vocabulary that is, itself, warped by our present context. The issue of anthropomorphism is not onlys a problem of scientific accuracy, but also an ethical issue that threatens to displace pathological structures onto our normative concepts of the human-nature relationship. In a way, presenting nature as a moral subject reinstates it as a potential adversary of humanity, as a restless force that needs human reason to subdue and pacify it.
Johann Baptist Metz (1928-2019), an influential political theologian, would have criticized these concepts and metaphors of nature as “idealist” (HH 12, PG 31-2, FHS 73-4), and he would have found their complicity with capitalist oppression, accordingly, unsurprising (FHS 47). Though Metz is sympathetic to the perception that nature suffers today, he would resist construing climate disaster as a revelation of the broken communication between human beings and nature. Such construals are “idealist” because they extract confirmations of their underlying theoretical conception from the suffering caused by climate crisis, whether that be the Catholic dogmatics of nature or Marxism’s “metabolic” conception of human-nature dynamics (see Saito). For Metz, these theoretical gestures lend a false intelligibility to suffering that prevents us from responding to it appropriately. They give way to an enduring temptation of Western intellectual culture, a “reconciling,” “consoling” theodicy (PG 68), which assures us that suffering is meaningful—that suffering expresses, even if negatively, a normative order that inheres in the created world. (For example,acute critics like Nicolete Burbach and Elizabeth Pyne, whose essays appear in this symposium, point out that Laudato si’s diagnosis of a suffering nature opportunistically includes traditional gender and family roles in its “integral ecology.”)
In face of such reassurances, Metz counterpoises a “new sensitivity to theodicy” through which we can experience the “shock” of suffering’s “non-identity” and the “pain over the contradictions in creation” (PG 28-9). Theodicy, on Metz’s view, means wrestling with the problem of meaningless suffering, turning the experience of suffering into a language of “crisis,” “affliction,” “radical danger,” and “crying out” that questions – rather than shores up – our metaphysical, theological, and moral assumptions (PG 66-7). Inspired by Metz, we can ask: Do we really understand what our relationship to nature is supposed to be? What if climate catastrophe – as it is already doing – makes the world uninhabitable for the poor and marginalized, but not for those who control the means of production?
These sorts of desperate queries should give us pause before interpreting the climate crisis as an apocalyptic sign or as an indication that human systems have reached a limit point in their misuse of nature. The caution applies just as much to theology as ecosocialism, which for its part can tend to conceive climate crisis as the death-knell of the capitalist economic system (Jason W. Moore, to wit, speaks of the “biotarian revolution” as a nature-assisted overthrow of capitalism). Ecological catastrophe need not spell the end of the world or capitalism: it may rather, diabolically, extenuate the domination and suffering that have characterized our history. From Metz’s perspective, the only viable conception of the climate crisis is one that can countenance and resist this horrifying – albeit not improbable – possibility: “It is suffering that stands in the way of any positive theory reconciling humankind and nature. Every such attempt at reconciliation degenerates in the end into a crude ontologization of humanity’s passion [i.e., its history of suffering]” (FHS 104).
Political theology, however, cannot simply refuse to speak theoretically about the Anthropocene, the suffering it causes, and the relationship between human and non-human nature. While there are dangers threatening positive conceptions of the climate crisis, an account of what’s wrong with the Anthropocene and what justice would require is necessary. Otherwise, we would risk a dismal quietism more pernicious than the well-intentioned rallying cries treated in this post. Admittedly, Metz did not expand at great length on the threat of climate change in his published work, but this does not prevent us from building on the breadcrumbs he left us. As I close, I want to present this conception of the climate crisis, which – unlike the theodicies Metz criticizes – still retains its “dangerous,” “apocalyptic sting” (FHS 81).
Metz argues ecological praxis today cannot get its “norms from a universal theory of nature, but rather from a historical context of justification” (FHS 102). Human beings’ responsibility for the climate crisis stems from the historical evolution of their capacity both to cause and (partially) address the crisis. This claim not only entails that our moral and cognitive relationship to nature changes historically; it also means that nature itself – its relations and patterns – is historical. For Metz, nature’s inclusion in historical dynamics invalidates any theory that gets its normative bite from a supposed restoration of, or resemblance to, nature. To correct our relations with nature is to correct the social practices that constitute them; nature cannot be isolated as a trans-historical standard.
To be sure, Metz’s warnings against reifying or dehistoricizing nature shouldn’t lead us to conclude that climate disaster is bad only because it harms human beings. This would amount to the same instrumentalizing reductionism about nature that has facilitated our deadly situation today (FHS 103). For Metz, the idea of nature can communicate the suffering of history: as a concept that stands in for what is different or “non-identi[cal]” (PG 28) with history, it reminds us that the historical practices which constitute our relationship to self, other, and world are unreconciled (FHS 102-4). In this way, the hope for a different relationship to nature is conceived as the hope for an end of the history of suffering, a history which encompasses the pain of the living, the dead, and the non-human: “when one understands nature in terms of history,” one understands it only through “respect for the dignity of suffering that has accumulated in history” (FHS 104). Hence, on Metz’s view, “[e]very attempt at reconciling nature and humanity has at its heart a utopian […] character” (FHS 102).
These considerations, finally, connect with Metz’s alternative strategy for connecting apocalypticism and ecological catastrophe. We cannot responsibly conceive the phenomena of climate change as harbingers of the end-times; nevertheless, we may hope that acting in solidarity with – and on behalf of – what has suffered, what does suffer, and what may suffer, could undo the damage that history has inflicted on nature. Hope and struggle for this possibility, of the cessation and redemption of all history’s suffering, is what eschatological hope means today in the face of planetary disaster (FHS 81).
Without this apocalyptic sensitivity to the history of suffering, I fear that attempts to reestablish our communion with nature decline to cultish wishful thinking. It may still be true that the artists’ colony is ecologically preferable to the ordinary life of a resident of the Global North. But for the sake of hope, these better not be our only two options.