Towards a Thanatocene Spirituality

“In fact, while the climate of widespread moral uncertainty can in some way be explained by the multiplicity and gravity of today’s social problems, and these can sometimes mitigate the subjective responsibility of individuals, it is no less true that we are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable ‘culture of death’. This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States.” – Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, I.12 (1995)

I struggled with writing this piece for many weeks – nearly a month – partly because my health has been troubled of late by a few new problems. These aren’t relevant to this discussion, however. More to the point, I can also account for the aforementioned struggle by pointing to the complexity of the subject matter: I am by no means a scientist, and this investigation has been a foray into the worlds of environmental science, climate change, and the current state of affairs of international policy regarding the mitigation (or lack thereof) of anthropogenic affects on our climate.

I’ll begin by explaining the title of this post: “Thanatocene Spirituality.” The suffix –cene is generally used to refer to the geologic subdivisions that occurred in the Cenozoic Era of our current geologic moment. We are currently in the Holocene epoch—or maybe not anymore, according to many environmental scientists and geologists.

I’ll get to “spirituality” later in the piece.

Joseph Stromberg, in Smithsonian Magazine, notes that the use of Holocene as a “label is outdated,” according to some experts. He continues, “They argue for ‘Anthropocene’—from anthropo, for ‘man,” and cene, for ‘new’—because human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.”

When we speak of the Anthropocene, we are in essence committing a sociopolitical act. At bottom, this must be so because the term still requires formal adoption by the International Commission on Stratigraphy—the body that standardizes the dizzying array of terms designating the particular number of years BP (before present) in which various environmental and geologic shifts occurred.

The sixth chapter of Bonneuil and Fressoz’s The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us is titled “Thanatocene: Power and Ecocide.” It is a fascinating and deeply disturbing account of the effects of primarily European military engagement on the environment. The authors argue that

“[the] basic transformation of the Western way of making war, its deep integration in the industrial system, the way in which the military are embedded in research and development, all underlie the argument of the present chapter that the Anthropocene is also (and perhaps above all) a Thanatocene.”

Beyond the Anthropocene, Bonneuil and Fressoz venture to speak of a Thanatocene, embedded in the splintering of the Anthropocene into fractured, more differentiated dimensions. In Greek mythology, Thanatos was the personification of death. Should we have indeed transgressed the temporal geologic border from the Holocene (meaning “entirely new”) to the Anthropocene, I believe the implications of this rhizomatic splintering into an age of enviro-geologic death via human warfare are enormous.

Assuming that the Anthropocene refers to a real, profound, and irreversible change in the ecological history of Earth (generally demarcated by the atomic Trinity Test of 1945), what are we to say about such changes as far as spirituality is concerned? Do we, in fact, need to say anything at all?

As far as theological ecology is concerned in the popular consciousness, we only need to make reference to Pope Francis’ second encyclical, “Laudato si: On Care for Our Common Home,” published in 2015, in which His Holiness argues for the critical need for sustainable development in our day and age. I think it behooves us to recognize how Pope John Paul II’s articulation of a “culture of death,” recognized in the mid ‘90s has dovetailed with our present understanding of the theoretical apparatus of Thanatocene, articulated by Bonneuil and Fressoz.

Perhaps our death-epoch has pressing theological import beyond questions of environmentalism proper, and perhaps it may be compressed and configured onto a conceptual schema of critique. We can focalize on such a critique on pertinent narratives of global cultural, intellectual, social, national, etc., turmoil. We can begin to talk about the possibility of a radical (theological) confrontation with a structurally defined Thanatocene.

Warfare has mapped and interpellated the Earth as a subject of its dominance. Material terrain, geographies, soil textures, air and water quality, etc., have been irreversibly affected by military activity over the course of the last two centuries. Not to dismiss the considerable developments of feminist and ecological theology, theorizing and expressing classical theism and its variants within the context of John Paul II’s “culture of death” presents several problems. Namely, our subjective relationship to terrain as embodied representatives of the God of Israel vis-à-vis particular interpretations of the Cultural Mandate (Genesis 1:28).

Notwithstanding these problems, the Thanatocene/culture-of-death (in its combined sense I am using) must be the cultural, social, and theological manifestation of the Thanatocene as an environmental and material epochal development.

One potential project of a Death Age theology could be the vindication of global redemption. This implies the necessity of a spirituality that focuses on finding meaning beyond survival; a theology of self-and-other care. Thanatocene spirituality recognizes the fundamental and irreversible perishing of the Earth, yet it nevertheless continues the fight for radical social, cultural, economic, political, environmental, and scientific renewal to bring life to mitigate further damage and bring whatever healing is possible to our inhabited spaces.

I’m going to continue writing about this by expanding upon some further thoughts about practical applications of Thanatocene spirituality in the coming days.

Header image source: Tumblr, the Catacombs of Paris

One Reply to “Towards a Thanatocene Spirituality”

  1. Interesting for sure! Some immediate thoughts are a such. To a certain degree a “culture of death” or rather impending demise of the planet isn’t that surprising within a Christian Worldview. I have two examples of this that came to mind. First from a theological basis, if we are to truly accept the Gospel we must also truly accept Revelation’s essential message. That is that there will be and end of days prior to a New Creation, whilst that is happening from our call is simply to be “Faithful unto death”. Second from a scientific standpoint, it is also not surprising. The world is going to end, that is a scientific fact. The debate comes down to how soon it will be. The argument currently accepted by most scientists is that we are speeding up the rate at which the planet becomes unsustainable for human life. The biggest problem we have in coming up with solutions is that our scope of time is very limited. We’ve only truly been recording significant data on environment, etc. within the last 100-150 years or so but the effects we’re trying to extrapolate extends into the thousands and millions of years. Not only that but we can only look so far into the past with any sense of accuracy. Most people can’t even say how the dinosaurs went extinct aside from the fact that somehow the climate and environment changed drastically.


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