Like Setting One's Bible on Fire

Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse.
—Romans 1:20

John Hammond: All major theme parks have delays. When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked!
Ian Malcolm: Yeah, but, John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists.
—Jurassic Park

In the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park, an eccentric businessman, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), opens an animal park to awe spectators with cloned living dinosaurs. Wanting to assure the public of the park’s safety, Hammond invites a group of scientists to inspect his enterprise. The visitors are amazed by what they see. He impresses upon them that he and his team have total control over their monstrous creations. As Hammond’s chief geneticist states, they can strictly regulate the dinosaurs’ population because the various species are engineered only to be female. To this assertion, the mathematician, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), sardonically replies, “Life, uh, finds a way.”

Anxiety for humanity’s interventions into nature by means of scientific knowledge and technological manipulation has long been the stuff of science fiction. In print and on film, authors explore the dangers of science run amok, especially after life has found its way. For example, questions about the limits of scientific inquiry and the responsibility of human creators are central to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1818). Indeed, there has long been an awareness that despite a scientist’s best efforts, once something is out of the lab, it can take on a life of its own. In the language of Greek myth, there is no closing the jar once the evils have been released.

Despite these warnings, humanity trundles on, confident in its ability to interfere with beneficence. In his social encyclical Laudato si’ Pope Francis draws attention to the negative repercussions that come from such activities. Human beings have long used and even manipulated nature for their own benefit, such as in the domestication of animals, in genetic research by Gregor Mendel, OSA, and in many other areas. The problem, however, is that, not being blessed with omniscience, we do not always foresee what the full consequences of our actions will be, an axiomatic truth that should raise moral concern. Pope Francis writes:

Human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation (Laudato si’ §34).

As things spin out of control from an initial action or decision, it becomes necessary to correct this by means that are often more and more drastic.

It would perhaps be too facile to ascribe such behavior to humanity’s hubris or pride. Tempting as it is to shrug and admit that since the age of Sophocles, human beings have largely rejected the notion that there should be proper limits to behavior (rules are made to be broken), it is perhaps better to look at the epistemological presuppositions that undergird confidence in humanity’s scientific and technological abilities. The notion that present thinking corrects and supersedes older views is endemic to scientific research. At its core progress is destructive of the past. Gone are the days when the maxim that we benefit from “standing on the shoulders of giants” reigned, replaced by a more insidious “we know better than our ancestors” and the concomitant damnatio memoriae.

Yet, what is it that would make scientists, even with the best intentions, oversee work that might potentially destroy life?[1] Indeed, such an outlook bespeaks a separation of humanity from the natural world. The environment becomes not our habitat but rather a specimen to be pricked, prodded, and manipulated with all of the callousness that such activity requires. It is as if the scientific community has taken the injunction that one should be “of the world but not in it” (John 15:19) not in a moral sense but literally and handed this axiom down as a first principle. It is this notion that lies at the heart of Bruno Latour’s essay, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, on the political ramifications of a changing climate.

The Separation of Humanity from the Natural World: The Scientific Revolution

Reaping the fruits of nature for the benefit of humanity is, of course, a good thing. Unfortunately, a darker attitude has too often conditioned humanity’s interactions with its environment. Since the scientific revolution, man has desired to conquer nature, subdue it, and render it powerless, making it a slave to fulfill his curiosity, increase his wealth, and maximize his pleasure. As Descartes famously put it, the goal is to become “masters and possessors of nature” (Discourse on Method). With this motto, scientists since the seventeenth century have tried to understand nature with complete objectivity, mentally removing themselves from participation in the natural world. This approach can have dire consequences. Indeed, it can blind the scientist, businessman, and politician to the effects, in both the long and short term, that their decisions have.

Bruno Latour has long pointed out that the goal of the scientific revolution to act like gods and isolate humanity from nature has never been achieved. This was the central thesis of his We Have Never Been Modern,[2] which concluded that the modern project is a failure. In his latest book, Down to Earth, he goes one step further and enters the political realm to warn that unless science and politics change their attitude towards the natural world, the globe itself has and will continue to respond.

Latour lays out the standard political arrangement that has been in place since industrialization but especially since the end of World War II.[3] According to this scheme, both the political Left and Right exist on a continuum torn between two main Attractors: the Global and the Local. The Global corresponds to the notions of progress and prosperity. It has been the promise of a better tomorrow built on the assurance of new markets and new resources. By contrast focus on the Local is often deemed reactionary or conservative, a political stance that, in its best moments, seeks to temper the mad dash towards globalization with arguments from, and an abiding respect for, local traditions and customs whether connected to a place, a region, a nation, or even a religion.[4]

However, since the 1980s, the standard push-and-pull of Western politics and economics between these two Attractors has broken down. At some point during the mad dash for globalization and deregulation that characterized the excesses of the 1980s, the “elite” realized to their horror that their world, that little blue marble orbiting the Sun, was simply not big enough to continue their increase of wealth and lift society to a standard of living considered normative in many Western countries. At this point, rather than provoking a moment of conscience and self-reflection, the masters-of-mankind[5] decided to accrue as much wealth as possible to insulate themselves against the inevitable crash. Latour writes:

It is as though a significant segment of the ruling classes (known today rather too loosely as “the elites”) had concluded that the earth no longer had room enough for them and for everyone else.

Consequently, they decided that it was pointless to act as though history were going to continue to move toward a common horizon, toward a world in which all humans could prosper equally. From the 1980s on, the ruling classes stopped purporting to lead and began instead to shelter themselves from the world.[6]

One might expect that once this happened, the situation was ripe for revolution. But this has not been the case. For the most part, society has continued to consume the myth that an increasingly globalized, neoliberal economy is perfectly capable of spreading wealth and raising standards of living. Reality, by contrast, shows that this is not the case as income inequality has accelerated in the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Notwithstanding its technological sophistication that provides a garden of endless digital delights, all is not peaceful in Western societies. In France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, there is a sense among a significant segment of the population that the neoliberal, globalized order has failed them. Rather than engage in meaningful political action to change this, there is a tendancy among those who instinctually know this to be true to fly to a realm of fantasy and delusion. According to Latour, in this warped view the political and economic norms of the last 80 or so years are still viable even if the physical space that one relies upon for that increase in wealth can no longer sustain it. This movement realizes the insufficiency of the old “attractors” (the Global and the Local) but leaves reality to establish a movement based on nostalgia for an idiosyncratic view of the past wrapped in the flag. Thus Latour explains the ascendancy of someone like Donald Trump. In both cases then, the elites and the so-called “populists” when confronted with certain facts shirk their political responsibilities for a flight of fancy.

Latour argues that the underlying epistemological assumptions for both globalization and mechanization come from the scientific community. In its drive for objectivity and rigorous, rational understanding, science has separated itself from the world that it purports to study. It views things from a great distance whether through a microscope or from outer space. Even when armed with Darwin’s theory of evolution that argues for a dynamism inherent in natural systems, the scientist still relies on the presupposition of regularity in nature. Indeed, the establishment of scientifically verifiable laws can only be achieved if the planet is a fundamentally static reality.

To show how this plays out in terms of economics, Latour contrasts the realities of a coal-based economy to one based on oil. In the glory days of coal, the negative effects of the means of production were obvious. The labor required to extract coal required difficult and dangerous work. The results were shocking: soot and ash covered miners, black lung, slag heaps, pollution, and the destruction of hills and mountains. The extraction of oil, by contrast, is seemingly clean. It does not require the same kind of labor as coal on a daily basis. Once established, the process becomes largely mechanized. In fact, the workers controlling the wells may not be anywhere near the rigs. Its negative effects come into the public’s consciousness only when something breaks.[7]

Latour’s insight concerning the deleterious consequences of industrialization and mechanization and the repercussions they have both for our humanity and our relationship with the natural world is not new. It has been highlighted and warned against for centuries. Unfortunately, the demands of commerce often outweigh both common sense and the pangs of moral conscience. In the metaphor of Gerald Manley Hopkins, the foot is shod and cannot feel what is going on underneath it.

A New Political Force: The “Terrestrial”

Into this situation, Latour sees a new political actor emerging: “the Terrestrial” (Le Terrestre). He chooses this term deliberately in order to give his idea a more rigorous and unique signification than one in more common use such as the globe, the earth, or nature as well as indicate its more conceptual nature.[8] The Terrestrial, which encompasses all of these, is actively responding to the activity of humanity. It is trying to defend itself, to preserve its right to life.

Such agency on the part of the Terrestrial has political and economic consequences. One can see this in the events of the past five months. The smallest of organisms, a virus, has wreaked tremendous damage on the global economy. Health experts have warned, largely unheeded, that as cities and farms expand into uninhabited regions, the resulting destruction of a previously pristine environment as well as the new proximity of human beings to animal life in these areas will no doubt cause the release of previously unknown or at least uncommon diseases. And yet, few make the connection that this is the Terrestrial’s natural defense mechanism against the encroachments of unneeded human activity.

One consequence of the Terrestrial’s response has been an increase in migration. As regions become less habitable and people lack the technological resources to overcome such conditions, whole communities are forced to move to temperate places, placing tremendous strains on governments and their resources.

No one, however, when confronted with these emerging realities is suggesting an examination of the very foundations of modern life and the globalized economy. Societies and government may at one level or another implicitly know that the increase in migration and the ensuing political discord have a necessary link to a changing environment. The problem is that no one has any idea of how to address it. Latour points to the historic agreement at the Paris climate summit on 12 December 2015 as revealing the true nature of the crisis that the global community faces:

What counts as a measure of the event’s real impact is not what the delegates decided; it is not even whether or not the agreement is carried out (the climate change deniers will do their utmost to eviscerate it); no, the crucial fact is that, on that December day all the signatory countries, even as they were applauding the success of the improbable agreement, realized with alarm that, if they all went ahead according to the terms of their respective modernization plans, there would be no planet compatible with their hopes for development. They would need several planets; they have only one.[9]

The sad truth of the matter is that the world is not big enough to support all of the demands of a globalized economy. Changing that economy is the real challenge of the age, but, as of yet, few seem up to the task. The virus COVID-19 has clearly shown what the benefits of decreased human activity can have for the natural world. But as recently as July the World Meteorological Organization (OMM) has warned such results are insufficient, urging political and business leaders to continue with efforts to “green” the means of production.[10] That globalized industrialization is itself the problem and that the economy needs to be reconceived is apparently unthinkable.

And Renew the Face of the Earth

Perhaps, globalized society needs as much a change in philosophy as one of economy. In this regard an ancient bastion of wisdom can be quite helpful. At first glance, admittedly, it may seem strange to look to Christianity as a resource from which to approach the new political reality of the Terrestrial. This is, after all, the religion that is well known for referring to its adherents as wayfarers or pilgrims, for teaching that humanity’s true home (patria) is not of this world, and for, at various times, emphasizing a quasi-Manicheanism with regard to a dualism between spirit and flesh.

And yet, it is Christianity perhaps most of all that can supply the intellectual orientation to confront a dynamic and changing environment in a way that science, as currently oriented, is poorly equipped to handle. This is not a problem that can be easily solved with objective technological solutions based on distant and dispassionate observation but rather one that needs to begin from inside the dynamism at play. In this regard, Christianity has two key doctrines: Creation and Incarnation.

The biblical account of creation easily lends itself to the rather lazy interpretation that it is man’s divine right to subjugate the rest of creation to his whim and will. This view has to ignore, of course, that humanity’s first sin was not only prideful disobedience to a divine injunction but also an abuse of creation. It is worth noting that earlier in the narrative, the creation of Adam indicates humanity’s close relationship with the natural world because it provided literally the “stuff” from which Adam was formed. As Pope Francis put it in his encyclical, “we have forgotten that we are dust of the earth.”[11] This idea that we are fashioned from the very soil, from the mud of creation (if you will) has profound repercussions for our self-understanding.[12]

The biblical account shows that we are not above creation or even that we live in creation but are separate from it. Rather we are intimately bound and connected to it. Augustine in his literal commentary of the Book of Genesis writes that the human soul has a natural inclination for the body.[13] Unlike the Platonic soul longing to escape the prison of the body, the human person is precisely that unity of body and soul (hence the importance of the resurrection of the body). The linking of soul and body is essential for our understanding of ourselves and our relation to the world around us. If we damage the environment, the globe, nature, or the Terrestrial, we are in fact mutilating ourselves.

It should be no surprise then that creation plays such an outsized role in theology, and especially sacramentology. As Paul says in Romans 1:20, it is through creation that we first encounter God and revelation. In this sense, the destruction of forests and mountains for the sake of economic profit is akin to setting one’s Bible on fire. Furthermore, the Sacraments themselves, those outward manifestations of an interior grace, depend upon the use of natural things: water, oil, bread, wine, etc. As material that is either naturally occurring or easily produced from the Earth’s bounty, these signs intimately tie humanity to creation. If salvation is the work of interior grace, it is facilitated by the fruits of creation.

This is especially true of the Eucharist. It is no mere chance that Christ chose the elements of bread and wine to be the acceptable offering that reinstantiates his sacrifice. It should call to mind that the Incarnation itself united divinity to humanity. That through this emptying of himself, Christ took on our nature, entered into his creation, and sanctified it. Is it any wonder then that life, which is precious in the sight of the Lord, would strive to defend itself from unprovoked and unneeded aggression that is based solely on greed?

In the end the necessary action needed in the face of rising inequality and a dynamic natural environment is not going to be technological but rather moral. This is precisely where science fails the most. It cannot make a convincing moral argument. Environmental scientists are at pains to make an impression in the political sphere. Science was supposed to be the means that would free humanity from that old limit to human behavior: religion. Unfortunately, the descendants of Prometheus have failed too often to account for the moral repercussions of their actions, and their adherents, convinced of the supremacy that science would give them freed of moral restraint, are not capable of recognizing their failings and correcting them. Into this crisis the old religion has something very important to say: there is always time for repentance.


[1] One can see this viewpoint perhaps most clearly during the Manhattan Project when the best minds willingly agreed to create such a destructive weapon and then a sizable group hastily petitioned the government never to use it.

[2] I have drawn some repercussions of this argument for the historiography of the Middle Ages here.

[3] What I am about to enunciate is a rough sketch of Latour’s rough sketch, so I ask the reader’s indulgence for this admitted oversimplification. Latour’s analysis is worthy of a careful reading as are the sources from which he draws.

[4] He is quick to enunciate that such rhetoric has also been used to further darker aims of repression fanaticism.

[5] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations III.4.

[6] Latour, Down to Earth, 11.

[7] Ibid., 107-108.

[8] Ibid., 72-73.

[9] Ibid., 16-17.

[10] Anna Lisa Antonucci, “Non si attenua il riscaldamento globale, nonostante il rallentamento industriale causato dalla pandemia”, in L’Osservatore romano, 11 July 2020.

[11] Pope Francis, Laudato si’, n.2.

[12] Latour cannot help but use this very analogy; see: 146.

[13] Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram XII.35, ed. J. Zycha (CSEL 28.1), Vienna 1894, 432-433.

Featured Image: Flammarion Engraving colored by Houston Physicist created on 27 October 2017; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Author

Stephen M. Metzger

Stephen Metzger is Assistant Scriptor at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's Medieval Institute and the author of the two-volume Gerard of Abbeville, Secular Master, on Knowledge, Wisdom and Contemplation.

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Stephen Metzger, Ph.D. Notre Dame Medieval Institute, explodes the unexamined assumptions of modernity by extending Bruno Latour's argument into the "Middle Ages."

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