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Livin' in the Anthropocene: Stewardship or Exploitation?

Eric Metaxas | Author | Monday, November 4, 2013

Livin' in the Anthropocene: Stewardship or Exploitation?

Geologists divide the earth’s history into what are known as “periods,” which in turn are divided into “epochs.” The best-known period is probably the Jurassic, while we are said to be living today in the Holocene epoch of the Quaternary period. Bet you didn’t know that!

Now, however, some scientists are calling the age we’re living in the “Anthropocene,” that is, the “new human age.”

And that is not a compliment. It’s intended to draw attention to humanity’s “dramatic impact on the planet.” It’s a way of expressing the “feeling that monumental events and dynamics capable of changing the Earth's geologic realities [are] unfolding under our feet.”

Just as previous periods left “distinctive paleontological, chemical, or physical signatures” in rocks, the promoters of the “Anthropocene” insist that this current epoch will leave signatures “every bit as distinctive as those used to define the past geological epochs.”

The most obvious of these signatures is increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Thus, advocates of the idea date the onset of the period to the beginning of the industrial revolution, which was made possible by the burning of fossil fuels.

If this strikes you as more politics than science, you’re not alone. Some of the idea’s most prominent supporters acknowledge that calling the present geological period the “Anthropocene” is a political act intended to highlight our impact on the planet.

Not everyone is buying the idea of the Anthropocene: Nigel Clark of West Virginia University spoke for many of his colleagues when he wrote that “the term neglects the presence — and force — of terrestrial processes that exist independently from human relationships.”

Speaking of “terrestrial processes,” it’s difficult not to notice that, as impacts go, our effect on the planet pales compared to what the Earth has accomplished without us. Towards the end of the Pleistocene, about 12,000 years ago, scientists tell us that Manhattan, where I live, was covered by a sheet of ice two-and-one-half times the height of the Empire State Building.

Yet, in a biblical sense we are living in the Anthropocene. As Genesis tells us, God created man and gave him the task of stewardship over all of creation. And stewardship assumes that what is being looked after is not ours to do with as we please.

As N.T. Wright wrote in After You Believe, the “creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 ... certainly don’t envisage humans tyrannizing creation. Try doing that to a garden, forcing it to do what you want whether the soil will take it or not, and you may well create a wilderness.”

The analogy to a garden is especially apt. Not simply because the Bible uses the word, but because an important part of our response to a well-cared for garden is aesthetic. There’s a seemliness, a beauty, and a rightness to a well-tended garden. It’s unmistakably the work of human hands, but hands that work with and for nature, not to exploit it.

When it comes to stewarding creation today, however, many of our practices can only be described as “unseemly.” Think of the images of the recent smog-out that enveloped northeastern China, for instance. Instead of respecting creation and honoring the creator, we too often treat it as disposable. Even worse, we do this in the name of preserving not human life, but a particular lifestyle enjoyed by a relative handful of us.

This kind of exploitation is of course the antithesis of stewardship. And in more ways than one, the rocks will cry out against us.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: November 4, 2013

Livin' in the Anthropocene: Stewardship or Exploitation?