Sermon: Anthropocene – The Dawn of a New Era – Devarim 2011

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 11 August 2011

Though world stock markets took a scary dip on the rollercoaster of capitalism this week the world is not about to end.  However, just suppose it was and each of the seven billion people on the earth were told to leave this planet and take with them their fair share of the earth.  It is really quite staggering just how much of the earth each of us would be entitled to.  If the Earth were divided up evenly between the 7 billion inhabitants of this planet each of us would get about 1 trillion tons to take with us {[1]}.

You would have thought then that, if so much of the earth is available to each of us, humanity cannot really have had that much impact upon the planet.  Indeed humans have only existed on the earth for less than 1% of 1% of its history.  In one rather fun image of the shortness of human history in earth terms, if you unrolled a typical roll of toilet paper, which is around 400 sheets long,  to represent the history of the Earth– the entire time of the existence of the human race would be in the final millimeter of the final sheet of the roll – and recorded human history in the last one tenth of a millimeter.

We have been here for such a little time and we are still tiny compared to the total mass of the planet but my goodness we have made an impact.   Right now 90% of all of the world’s plant activity is found in ecosystems under human control. Our ability to have a fighting chance of feeding 7 billion people, six billion more than inhabited the world in the first years of Reform Judaism two centuries ago, is due to our ability to speed up the fixing of nitrogen for fertilisation. Our domestic and farm animals together with ourselves greatly outweighs the number of every other type of large animal on the earth.  One single mine, the Syncrude mine in Alberta Canada will in its lifetime requite the moving of 30 billion tonnes of earth – though this is actually rather less that your’s and my personal allocation of the planet it is still equivalent to two years worth of the sediment flow of all of the rivers in the world put together – a flow which is 20% less than it was fifty years ago because of the 50,000 large dams which have been built over that half a century.  There are now more trees on farms worldwide than there are in natural forests.

The human impact on the world is so great nowadays that many geologists now opine that the Earth has left the Holocene era that began 10,000 years ago and which is characterised by relative earth stability in temperature, which created the conditions for humanity to spread out over the earth and to thrive.  They say that we have now entered a new geological era – the Anthropocene.  Now Holocene just means “entirely recent” era but Anthropocene, a word coined by Dutch Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, means the era where human activity determines the behaviour and situation of the planet.  He dates the beginning of this era to the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th Century.

Human activity here means the way that we farm, the scale on which we change the balance of chemicals in the air, the way that we allocate resources between us so that the poorest do not need to denude forest which fix nitrogen and swallow carbon dioxide in order to live and the rich do not live without regard to their huge use of resources, the environmental costs of the meat we eat and more.

To suggest that it is now human activity that determines the future of our planet is in a way to reverse the trend in science which took humanity out of the centre of things – when Copernicus found that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way round, when James Hutton proved the Earth’s fossil record to show that the our planet is billions and not thousands of years old, when Charles Darwin showed humanity to be just one twig on one branch of the evolutionary tree of life.

The Anthropocene theory means that Torah, especially the Book of Deuteronomy ends up being just what our tradition has said that it is – the blueprint for the world.  In our Torah and especially in Devarim, Deuteronomy, we will be told that the way that we behave will determine the rains that we need for our agriculture, in the passage which has become the second paragraph of the Shema – “This will happen if you listen carefully to My commands which I give you today, to love and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and all your soul. I shall then give your land rain at the right time, the autumn rain and the spring rain, so that each one of you can harvest your own grain, wine and oil. I shall also give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. “  {[2]}  We will be told that our care for the poor and dispossessed, the orphan, the widow and the stranger will determine how long we will be able to live on our God given land.    We will be told that earth is ours conditionally – based on Covenant with the teachings that God gives us.   We do not own it although we may impact it hugely.

Torah seems to prepare us for the responsibility required by our entering the Anthropocene era, the era when our essential security on our own planet as a species seems to be determined as much by our own actions as a species as the uncontrollable actions of tectonic plates and natural processes.  It only truly prepares us though if you see Torah, as Reform and Progressive Judaism, does as a continual unfolding of revelation which inspires us to act in the world of today with the ideas and knowledge of today.

Torah begins with one person, then two – Adam and Eve and shows them learning responsibility as they are tested with the Tree of Knowledge.  It then expands our contact with our spiritual history to one family – Abraham and Sarah’s.  We follow them in the Book of Genesis every year as they learn to be in Covenant with God and take on mutual obligations in order that their family can have the success to grow.   When we enter Exodus and right up to the Torah portions that we began to hear today we become a people – responsible for each other – with obligations to protect each other’s safety, security and dedication to God – and especially to protect the Promised Land.  Deuteronomy sets us up in relationship to each other as Jews – wherever we may be – with the sense of a spiritual centre in the Land of Israel, with the sense of care each of us for each other, especially if we are not well favoured in the world, in need of a loan and being treated with dignity, if we are an orphan or without family,

It is beyond the time that the written Torah occupies that Judaism developed the tools to extend its message in order to give us a hold in the era in which we live.  Jeremiah’s reaction to the exile precipitated by the destruction of the Temple, which we will commemorate this week on Tisha b’Av was to say – “Pray for the Peace of the City to which you are been exiled for in its peace you will have peace” {[3]}.  That is be concerned and active in making the world around you liveable, wherever you are.  We built in Rabbinic texts on the foundation that we should love the stranger as we love ourselves that we should help the poor of the wider communities in which we live whether Jewish or not because in this is “the ways of peace”.

Now that we live in a society so hugely expanded even from the days when our Reform Judaism first began – in a world with seven times the population of that at the beginning of the 19th Century, our Judaism must surely be concerned with the human effect on that world.  We should be good citizens of the Anthropocenic era, helping to ameliorate the effects of mankind on the planet.  We cannot shrink back into thinking that all that matters is our own people and we cannot shrink away from acting as if God has given us stewardship of the world.  He has – and its effects both good and challenging and even potentially evil are all around us.  There are seven billion of us because we have learned how to steward the world being able to feed us all.  A good though not large enough proportion of us live comfortable lives.  We are though greatly challenged by the effects on the climate and even geological behaviour that our human activity now creates.  The Jewish response, a response for all humanity actually is to understand ourselves in Covenant with the world – it will support us if we care for it – just as God is with us if we are loyal to him.

This is a remarkable era and I doubt if any of us would wish to go back to the peasant, subsistence existence that was the maximum expectation of so many before our days.  But the days of taking the earth for granted are over.