‘Laudato Si’ and a Political Theology of the Anthropocene

In the last few posts I’ve been embarking on a rather systematic survey of Bruno Latour’s concept of ‘religion as a mode of existence’, [REL]. But every now and then I’ll jump off that carousel in order to consider or apply some aspect of Latour’s political theology as a whole—that is, I’ll assume some of what I haven’t yet demonstrated.

So today: some thoughts towards a political theology of the Anthropocene.

It was wonderful last Saturday at an Oxford Theological Seminar to be involved in a discussion with Oxford University academic Myles Allen. Myles is Professor of Geosystem Science in the School of Geography and the Environment, as well as being Head of the Climate Dynamics Group in the University’s Department of Physics. He has served on both the third and fourth IPCC assessments. In particular, his work proposes the use of Probabilistic Event Attribution techniques to quantify the contribution of human and other external influences on climate. (And here he is explaining the science of the carbon cycle to Will.i.am for good measure).


Myles’ sober description of the politics of emissions targets was based on the indubitable authority of his own personal involvement in various commissions and panels since the 1980s. And what really stood out in his various reports was his residual optimism: we can act now, he said, and what’s required is more (not less) of the dirty work of assembling governmental actors in the room in order to qualify these targets. In response to my own, impish question, Myles strongly disavowed the role of apocalyptical language in this operation. There’s no need for shock tactics in the way politicians or scientists communicate with the public, he argued, after all, that sort of rhetoric hasn’t caused us to shift our behaviour so far, so what’s to say it ever will? No, what’s required is more down-to-earth and hopeful: working now, with respect to the energy requirements of developing nations, and with an agreed framework in place. There’s a useful, short summary of his position here if you’re interested.

Myles confessed himself to be on the ‘soft’ side of this debate, even as it is understood within his own field. But his basic trust in the power of politics reminded me of aspects of the Good Anthropocene strategy: the eco-modernist idea that whatever limits and tipping points the Earth might throw up in the future, human technology and ingenuity will transcend them. With eco-modernism, there are no planetary boundaries that need limit the advance of the human race and its consumption requirements: instead, the human will increasingly be decoupled from nature, through the construction of  eco-citadels that are maximally efficient and minimally spatially burdensome, in such a way that nature will finally be allowed to go its own way in peace. Indeed, for eco-Modernists, as we enter the Anthropocene, the only barrier to a grand new era for humanity would be self-doubt—self-doubt fostered, it would seem, by the climate change scientists themselves, forever bombarding us with their gloomy statistics and dystopian predictions, rendering the general public frightened and even supine in the face of such apparently overwhelming odds.

(If you want a summary and critique of the eco-modernist manifesto, do check out Philip Conway’s superb series of posts from earlier this year).

Of course, there is surely much to be celebrated in such a strategy. For one thing, at least it doesn’t shy away from the problem. And anyway, pragmatic optimism doesn’t sound like a bad bet—or indeed, might we not even say that it sounds like good politics? If history shows anything, it shows that policy makers and their publics are far more likely to spare nature if at the same time they’re allowed to continue  (or even up-scale) their current trajectories of consumption and development. Wouldn’t this represent a more durable and functional political movement than one assembled, say, around sacred, moral or ideological reasons? Eco-modernism sounds like something that could work, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we go ahead and get on-board?

And yet, I wonder if it is not precisely because it self-consciously withdraws from the sacred, the moral and the ideological that the Good Anthropocene strategy falls short. Its politics may sound convincing, but it simply cannot provide the political theology that is needed at the time of the Anthropocene.

To show why, we need to consider an alternative perspective on the science of the Anthropocene, one that has been helpfully outlined for a layman like myself by Clive Hamilton (for example, here) and is being increasingly taken up in a philosophical register by Latour (for example, here). We might call this an Earth-system strategy.

The idea here is as follows. Where the Good Anthropocene strategy has gone wrong is in failing to make the cognitive leap from ecological thinking to Earth-system thinking. Ecology is the science of the relationship between organisms and their local environments. Earth-system thinking, by contrast, is the science of the whole Earth as a complex system beyond the sum of its parts.

In making the shift to Earth-system thinking, we’d be beginning to appreciate that, however much humans may be able to have a positive impact on some of the local ecologies in which they themselves are embedded, by means of their techno-utopian interventions, it doesn’t really count for anything if this does not address the Earth-system, that is, the Earth as a totality, as a unified, complex system comprised of atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and biosphere, all dependent on each other in their mutually-interacting operations.

And when you think about it, isn’t it the case that Earth-system thinking (as opposed to ecological thinking) is precisely what the Anthropocene is now demanding us to think about? What we’re facing in the Anthropocene is not just a collection of local environments susceptible to recovery and amelioration if only we could gather enough political will to do it. Rather, what we’re facing in the Anthropocene is a single, integrated, dynamic, volatile system. An Earth-system strategy shifts us out of eco-modernist thinking and into an appreciation of the world as interconnectedness, from top to bottom.

And this, I think, is where the recent encyclical, Laudato Si, begins to make a contribution. In fact, we might provocatively say that Laudato Si should not really be considered an ecological treatise at all (even though that’s what it’s always called)—but rather it should be considered an Earth-system treatise, in the sense defined just now.

Perhaps this explains why, in spite of its call for constructive political engagement by us all in our local and national contexts, as much as we can, at various points Laudato Si complicates the idea of a purely political solution to the problem of climate change. In paragraph 106, for example, we’re reminded that various options are provided to us by science and technology to tackle the problem. But will we fall into the trap of using them according to ‘an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm’? What is this paradigm that we should be so careful to avoid? LS goes on to explain: it’s the assumption that ‘a human subject, using logical and rational procedures, can progressively approach and gain control over an external object’. The language here is fascinating: ‘logical and rational procedures’, ‘gaining control over an external object’—perhaps we could just about say that a human collective could manage such things for a local ecosystem (although it would require time, money, and a lot of political consensus), but to do so over the ES? This would be beyond possible. And so the paragraph continues: ‘to think that way is to suppose that the human subject might find himself in the presence of something formless and completely open to manipulation’. The language of ‘formlessness’, with its echo of Genesis 1, seems most apt here: to act providentially over the Earth-system would be the preserve of the Creator alone, the very one who hovered over a scene that was ‘formless and void’ and made order out of it. For humans to think that they might do the same is an overstepping of the mark, a libido dominandi we might say.

I think this is what I most appreciate about Laudato Si—the subtlety of its diagnosis. It doesn’t fall into the trap of demonizing the usual targets: those who just don’t care about the Earth, the capitalists, the corporations, the Protestants, those who show only brute rapaciousness and greed concerning the materials that the Earth offers up to them. A critique like that would be so easy to make. And yet somehow it seems to smack of a politics that has been superseded and that needs to be shifted up to a new realm of subtlety in the time of the Anthropocene.

Rather, Laudato Si gently reminds us that all human action on climate change is liable to overstep the mark, that all human action is subject to the charge of libido dominandi, even when it is carried out for the most pious and well-meaning of reasons. This occurs whenever we believe that we can act upon the Earth monolithically. Or, to put it another way, it occurs whenever we mistake the Earth-System for ecology.

In paragraph 111, Laudato Si calls this the error of ‘globalized logic’. I like that phrase a lot, especially having spent the last month of my life working through Peter Sloterdijk’s monumental Spheres trilogy, in which he seeks to recalibrate the metaphor of human agency away from its fixation with the shape of a globe, with its connotations of navigation, conquest and achievement, and towards structures that are more aware of their delicate, contingent, local construction.


The same ‘globalized logic’ can be seen in the well-meaning clarion call of the eco-modernists for us to take responsibility for the future we want to inhabit. Once again, this betrays their assumption that politics, somehow, ought to be sufficient to get the job done. If only we would take responsibility, then the human race would be mobilised to put into practice the techno-utopian vision they have enunciated.

And yet, as Latour has reminded us, as soon as that word ‘responsibility’ is uttered, hundreds of different people will at once raise their voices and say that they feel no responsibility whatsoever for those deeds at a geological scale.

Here again, Laudato Si demonstrates its awareness that the political solution proposed by the Good Anthropocene strategy is inadequate. In paragraph 49 it makes the following bold statement:

Today we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. (Laudato Si, paragraph 49)

It won’t work to assume that all humans are ready to assemble as one to face the Anthropocene together, as the eco-modernists seem to assume. We can’t even agree on emissions targets, as will be painfully obvious once again at the end of the month in Paris. If there is to be any political unity to face the challenge of the Anthropocene, it will be hard won, and it will come not as a small group of humans propose a techno-utopian future that will sweep us all up on its triumphant progress, but rather it will come as the whole of humanity opens itself up to the possibility of new unscripted and non-controlling forms of reciprocity not just between humans and nature, but between people themselves:

In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation […] and it is faith alone that allows us to interpret the meaning and the mysterious beauty of what is unfolding (Laudato Si, paragraph 79).

I think that this second strategy, what I have called the Earth-system strategy, is really where the theology of Laudato Si begins. That is to say, Laudato Si takes us out of the realm of politics (which is the best that the Good Anthropocene strategy can offer), and into the realm of political theology. In this realm, there is no less requirement on humans to act. But they must act with an awareness of their own finitude and limits, and with an openness to new forms of interconnectedness that come from seeing the Earth not as an territory to be managed, but as a creation to be shared.

Perhaps that is what Laudato Si means in paragraph 10 when it proclaims its aim to show us ‘just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace’. To have only a politics is to have humans without nature; but to have a political theology is to have humans with nature.