In this discussion, recorded at the November 2018 Sinai and Synapses Fellowship meeting, Adam Pryor, Sarah Goss, Adam Reynolds, and Isaac Alderman discuss how thinking outside our mortal, human time-scales can be motivating, rather than scary – and how religion helps us imagine the order of an earth that is sometimes outside our control. Indeed, one of the compelling, and often comforting, aspects of religion is how it helps us envision eternity, or time-scales far beyond the human lifetime. Complementing this “Godly” time frame of thinking is our sense of tangible connection to the world around us – from the grandeur of nature to the multiplying complexity of our microbiome. How can we take action by nurturing both these different kinds of embeddedness?
The Sinai and Synapses Fellows raise these questions in a video focusing on “God’s Creation and Our Creation,” part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum.View Transcript and Video
Adam Pryor: I’m here with Sinai and Synapses Fellows Isaac, Adam and Sarah. And we’re going to talk for a little while about the anthropocene, and the ways in which people are thinking about that today.
So if we need a little bit of a jumping off point from there, we were talking about the anthropocene. We want to think about it as quite a change, yes, but also some of the geological features [of it], about how it is that we mark this distinctive place of human being as a geological force in the history of the planet, right?
So one of the things that I’m interested in – and maybe we’ll talk about it, or maybe we won’t – is this place of thinking about not just the anthropocene right now, but what it would mean for how we would want to talk about climate in 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 years. And what that looks like – or does it matter if we start thinking about our human action in climate change in much longer time scales?
Sarah Goss: So, when you’re talking about time scales, explain that to me – focus me on that, please.
Adam Pryor: So one way to think about this would be to think about the Holocene, right, which lasts around 10,000 years. So the anthropocene, then, would be a new epoch, a place after the holocene. So what does it mean if we start thinking about the next 10,000 years of human history, rather than just the sort of next 100 years of carbon emissions? Does that help us think about, or deal with, the current environmental crises we face in any substantial ways?
Sarah Goss: Well, I mean, I know from the perspective of climate change that we would be going into an ice age, had we not pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So in that context, we have already changed our future by past action that we can’t take back. So I guess, unless we create some sort of mechanism for pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere to reverse that trend, and build up our ice again, that that’s the direction we are going. So in that context, I guess, we’ve changed our future.
Adam Pryor: Yeah, so we’re kind of an indelible part of this. Let me start trying to think about it in – maybe less scary terms, or more in terms that would help us think about longevity or strategies for dealing with this interaction in new ways.
Adam Reynolds: Well, as you were saying a few minutes ago, I do find it sort of lowers my “fear temperature” a little bit to think about however bad we make things with climate change – if we make it so bad that we eradicate ourselves as a species, the earth, and life on earth will sort of continue on. And the earth, the biosphere, will eventually cleanse itself and sort of balance out. I’m just sort of thinking about this loosely, don’t know if that’s actually strictly true, but it sounds good – and it sort of subdues my fear a little bit. But if we’re asking the question of “how do we think about these things on the scale of 2,000 years?” I do sort of have that immediate question of sort of like, “well, are we picturing a 10,000 year future that has humans or doesn’t?”. It’s sort of hard for me to get past that particular question.
Isaac Alderman: So a 10,000 year future – I just picked an arbitrary number, by the way, if you want to [suggest something different], feel free, it just sounded good – perhaps we’ve actually tied ourselves to this planet in a way that the planet has become dependent on us, in the sense that we’re producing – or we have produced 62,000 tons of radioactive waste, and that needs to be climate-controlled and maintained for millions of years.
Adam Reynolds: That’s a really interesting point.
Isaac Alderman: So, we’re not getting rid of that stuff, and neither is the earth, if we’re not there to maintain it. So that goes back to a little bit about our question – perhaps maybe we could go back to this issue of the anthropocene, and when it began. Because if we say it began with leaving chunks of smelt out in the desert from refining metals – yeah, that leaves an indelible mark. Or agricultural waste, that leaves a mark. But I think the Earth can handle those. I’m not sure it can handle the nuclear waste that we’ve created.
Adam Pryor: There’s something really different about choosing smelt from 4,000 or 5,000 years ago, and choosing an entire layer of rock that shows evidence of this nuclear waste from the past 50 years, or 60 years ago, right, and what that means in terms of this. I like that phrase that you use, that the earth needs us, in a way.
Isaac Alderman: We may have made it so. Without the maintenance of these facilities to house nuclear waste that we’re producing – I just looked it up, it’s about 2,000 tons per power plant per year. That has to be maintained in perpetuity.
Sarah Goss: I mean, we could create AI to maintain it for creation, for those beings that evolve after we’re gone. And, I mean, according to how evolution works, if a little gets out – in a little time frame, in a small enough way – it may not destroy everything, and some things may adapt. I mean, that’s a really scary thing to think about. Thanks for that. (laughs)
Isaac Alderman: I need to actually revise my numbers. It’s 2300 tons for the industry per year, and about 20 tons per plant.
Sarah Goss: Wow. 20 tons per plant.
Adam Reynolds: Okay, so that’s a little less terrifying.
Isaac Alderman: 20 tons, per plant, per year.
Adam Reynolds: That has to be temperature maintained.
Sarah Goss: You could just throw it in the Arctic. (laughs) That’s a joke. To clarify, that’s a joke.
Isaac Alderman: So that question of when have we actually made our mark on this planet, perhaps the nuclear age qualifies.
Adam Pryor: So how do we start? Part of my interest in this idea is I also take some comfort in this idea that the earth will roll along with human beings or without us.
Adam Reynolds: I don’t know if I should take comfort in that.
Adam Pryor: Maybe you won’t, as it turns out. But maybe I wonder about – a lot of what we’re describing here is about either the planet, or the sort of issues about how we have to regulate materials that we use now. It ties us to the environment in a way different than, traditionally, how we think about this. I mean, it sounds to me, right, that it’s become sort of inextricably permanent, that it’s a relationship you can’t really get rid of or sever. That becomes critical. But I think that’s hard for people to think about.
Isaac Alderman: We’re not different from nature.
Adam Pryor: Right, that does make that clear in a way that’s – it’s almost more visceral. So what do you think are the challenges? And this is the actually a question that I ask in my research all the time, it’s a real question, I don’t have a good answer. What are the challenges to thinking about our embeddedness in nature in that way? Why does that seem like it’s so hard for us to do?
In my experience, it’s because people tend to be pretty bad at it. And we tend to sort of want to put, like – “nature is over there, it’s all the pristine stuff that we leave alone.” And then there’s us over here, and we can do with it what we want. There’s a big divide there.
Sarah Goss: Even being an environmental ethicist – as an urban human, I’m not immersed in nature the way – I mean, my environment is nature. But it’s been folded and molded. It’s concrete and high rises. It’s pulling into a garage, pulling out of the garage, driving down a concrete highway, pulling into a parking structure, and walking down a sidewalk going into a building, you know – operating on a desktop, and then doing the same to get back to my home.
You know – I go to a grocery store, I don’t go out and harvest. I don’t go berry picking. I don’t go hunting. I’m not swimming in lakes and rivers (sometimes I do, but very rarely). And when I go walking in nature, it’s generally for half an hour to 2 hours, you know, a week, if I’m lucky. And very – even when I’m teaching about the subject, I’m in a building. We have a rock garden on campus that I can take a class to. It’s not the same as being immersed in nature. It’s not the same as even 100 years ago. I’d love to have a garden, but that’s just so much work. Well, I did, so it died, and I haven’t tried it again. So, my immersion in nature is my cat. It kind of despairs me, honestly, on a level that I don’t normally talk about. Yeah.
Adam Reynolds: I mean, I think that’s such an interesting question. And you know, your answer, which I think applies to us to varying degrees. But I sort of wonder if the divide, the chasm we’ve created between ourselves and nature – of living in cities and being in buildings all that stuff – is just sort of like an outward manifestation of something that was already there. You know, to your question, Adam, of “why do we view ourselves as distinct from nature and kind of having agency over it, versus just part of it?”. Yeah, I also don’t know what I meant, and I also don’t know the answer to the question. But I just kind of wonder about how our ego structure seems tied into that, you know – the experience I have of myself as an individual, with consciousness, with agency, somehow gives me the solution of being that individual. And I wonder if it’s related to a question that came to my mind when you mentioned this idea of, you know, maybe it’s not only a new epoch, but like a new eon.
Adam Pryor: Yeah.
Adam Reynolds: My immediate question is sort of like, what kind of – what were the tipping points, or I don’t know if – the tipping agent? What, at its root, would be the root cause of something like that? Is it the fact that we have consciousness, or is it our ability to use tools, or something that’s sort of related to this mindset that we have of being separate, and also a way to kind of like, act out that separateness to terrifying degrees, when we can create substances that are so lethal for ourselves and for the earth at scale? Just finding connections between these things.
Isaac Alderman: And I also wonder about if we’re overestimating the division between ourselves and nature, and that plants and animals have always changed the planet, whether it’s oxygenating the planet, or whether it’s completely – you know, animals move to an area and deforest it, turning it a few thousands of years later into desert.
So we’ve changed it, obviously, we’ve changed our environment, but being part of nature – this is nature. And then beyond that, I absolutely agree with Sarah in the feeling of being so urban that we’re completely divorced from our food production or other animals. But that’s not exactly true, because we have a microbiome that is absolutely essential to our being. And so, on us and in us, we carry a complete environment that is completely natural and not us. The vast majority of the DNA in my body isn’t my own. This is – we haven’t really sanitized ourselves, or separated ourselves from nature. As though we could, as though we were somehow not evolved from the rest of the animal world.
Adam Pryor: My hunch is that the idea of the anthropocene – it’s kind of a symbol. It’s sort of meant to foster that sense of connection in us, that we were never really apart from nature. You know, this becomes a way of sort of indicating that, sort of planting a flag in the ground and say “Aha! this always was that way,” and now we can show here why there was a turning point. I live in a city, right – but I can go out to the fields, and when I go a mile out of town and I’m walking in the sorghum and wheat fields, that’s not a natural environment in any way, shape or form, for that prairie. And it’s also highly modified. So I guess maybe my question is: what are the things that we need to help us feel like we’re part of that environment? I feel like we’ve had a lot of anxiety and despair today about how bad things are. So part of my question is what can we give people to foster that sense of connection, that sort of make that bridge to hope out of these terrifying facts about 20 tons of nuclear material produced by each plant a year.
Adam Reynolds: I really like the example of the microbiome, because sort of like, well, however removed from nature you feel, you’ll still have that, you need it to keep living and digesting and all that. But I don’t think many of us think of that very readily. So I mean I can imagine some, like, really cool animation or VR showing aspects of what the microbiome is and does.
Isaac Alderman: Some people find it just… very disturbing.
Adam Reynolds: I can see that direction.
Isaac Alderman: It’s not a comforting thing.
Sarah Goss: Because they want a clean environment.
Isaac Alderman: Exactly. But we can’t live in a clean environment. We can’t live alone. So your question, though, about –
Adam Pryor: How do we start to engage people, how do we start to get them more comfortable with maybe the idea of – “you’re not living alone.” I like that phrase a lot, it makes a lot of sense to me. But also, how do you help make that an asset? If our sort of standard narrative is like –
Isaac Alderman: To accomplish what, though?
Adam Pryor: Well, I’ll put it this way, right. I’ve got a little bit of a horse in the race. I’m somewhat comforted by the earth going on without us, but on the other hand, I kind of like, you know, humans evolving into something that will sort of still be around.
Sarah Goss: I don’t think that humans, as ingenious, and creative, and diverse as we are – I don’t think that 10,000 years from now, we’re just gonna throw in the towel and say “hey, you know, there’s no oxygen left, we’ve burned the planet up.” I don’t think we’re not going to figure out a way to throw some air conditioning into a building and pump something into it for us to stay alive. I mean I’m just – that’s where I’m at with it. I think humans will figure that out. I don’t know if it will do the best job of keeping everyone alive, and that doesn’t – we don’t need to go on with my feelings about that part of it. But you know, you all have seen the movies on who gets to go into that cave and who doesn’t when the asteroid comes, right. Apocalypse.
Anyway, so, biodiversity, though, speaking of not being alone. If you’re in a community, the strongest communities are the ones that are the most diverse. And they’re the most resilient. And so I think forming those connections and building a stronger community, the strongest community that you can, that’s the ticket. So, microbiome? I don’t know. Build one that’s resistant to nuclear waste. I don’t know if it’s possible though.
Adam Pryor: We were talking about this earlier in our discussion about Crispr.
Sarah Goss: I doubt that’s possible, though. (laughs)
Isaac Alderman: We can build it so we can eat that stuff. (laughter)
Adam Pryor: So this idea of thinking about biodiversity as a community – that’s really interesting. Because I don’t think about what the microbiome is, right. I only just learned it was there.
Sarah Goss: You have one in your brain as well, did you know that?
Adam Reynolds: That’s cool.
Adam Pryor: But I wonder about like, if we’re thinking about that biodiversity as a sort of community, for folks from religious traditions, there’s this implication that human beings have some sort of care or stewardship in creation, as part of our responsibility. Does the way we think about that change, when we think of ourselves as part of this community of diverse sorts of creatures that we want to have around, not just for 200 or 300 or 400 years, but in some way of – that we are are indelibly a part of, for 10 or 20 or or 25 or 30,000 years?
Does thinking about those sorts of scales change the way we want to make decisions? We talked a little bit with Sarah this morning about political will. Does thinking on a bigger timescale leave us with a different sort of political will? Or is it just overwhelming?