The Sacred Anthropocene – A Conversation with Willis Jenkins

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?

How are Anthropocene relations bearing on religion, and how are religious processes shaping Anthropocene futures? These were the questions with which Willis Jenkins began his talk on April 8th, 2021. Thinking about these questions, Jenkins said, who is trained in religious studies, Christian theology and environmental ethics, has made him realize that traditional academic disciplines are not well suited to answer his questions. Disciplines and their words, including words like “environment,” “ethics,” and “religion,” divide and lump entangled Anthropocene relations in ways that obscure more than they illuminate.

Jenkins argued that instead of staying within disciplinary boundaries, the way to get at the questions that interest him is to work across disciplines. At the University of Virginia, Jenkins does this by participating in transdisciplinary labs. The goal of these labs is to try to make better inquiries about the relation of planetary stresses and cultural change. For example, Sanctuary Lab gathers researchers from arts, sciences, and humanities to ask how planetary stresses are experienced, interpreted, and managed from places set aside as special – as sacred.

One such site is Yellowstone National Park. The labs always involve local experts. At Yellowstone, they spoke with the climate modeler for the Park, Mike Tercek. After giving them an overview of climate science, Tercek also explained how long periods in backcountry forest were central to his understanding of himself. “I’m not religious,” he said, “but I sense a presence here. In the deep wilderness, I feel known and healed. My ego is overcome there.”

Jenkins argued that Tercek’s experience of the Yellowstone wilderness performs religion-like functions of belonging, self-understanding, and orientation. Climate change, however, is threatening these functions. Tercek’s own models predict that within a few decades, more than 100% of the park will burn every ten years. Yellowstone is likely to lose all of its forest. Tercek lives with the anxiety of that loss, to the extent, he said, that it makes him feel physically sick. He hikes into the backcountry forest now and, instead of feeling known and healed, he experiences nausea, vertigo, fragmentation.   

But treating Yellowstone as a kind of secular sacred place also has troubling aspects. Consider, said Jenkins, the prominence of “planetary stewardship” as lead metaphor in major science papers about the human role in an Anthropocene planet. Indigenous peoples were interacting with the high plateau for 9000 years before it became Yellowstone National Park, and that the Crow People maintain that the land remains their territory. The settler imagination of wilderness, as a special place without people, has often been a genocidal idea.  So has the settler idea of stewardship: that only certain societies can be entrusted with the land. If a research team frames climate change with an unthinking stewardship ethic, it could contribute to the implicit idea that the most “advanced” societies have a noble obligation to take control of ecological systems, while at the same time marginalizing Crow ways of interpreting climate change. But, offered Jenkins, if the teams studying planetary change included researchers who could frame Crow cosmopolitics as plausible research premise for thinking about planetary responsibilities, then different futures open and different pathways might be modeled.

Jenkins concluded by suggesting how research itself can become a place of refuge for people. We might, said Jenkins, contribute to public understanding by cultivating practices in which to experience and hold the stresses of this epoch of crises. Perhaps these practices will open ourselves to otherwise ontologies. Perhaps they will teach us practices shaped by people with different ways of knowing the changing world.  

Join us on April 15, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the final installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Suzanne Shanahan, the Nannerl O. Keohane Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Associate Research Professor in Sociology, will interview Dr. Norman Wirzba. To register for this webinar and to learn more about the series, click here.

Mari Jørstad provides support for Facing the Anthropocene, a project under the Ethics and Environmental Policy program area. She is originally from Norway and spent a decade in Canada, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art & art history and political science and an MA in religion before coming to Duke to work toward a PhD studying the Hebrew Bible.

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