Creation and Catastrophe
An Ecotheological Challenge to the Concept of 'Natural Disaster'
Delivered by Kate Rigby, Associate Professor in Comparative Literature at Monash University.
In January 2011, two thirds of the Australian state of Queensland and significant areas of New South Wales and Victoria (in other words, much of eastern Australia) disappeared under flood waters. In February, hard on the heels of this catastrophe, a huge force 5 cyclone ('Yasi') ploughed into a 700-kilometre stretch of the Queensland coast, only dwindling to category 1 some 500 kilometres inland. Both of these events, which were unparalleled in the (admittedly rather short) historical record of this settler nation, were publicly framed as 'natural disasters'. This is hardly surprising. While some American evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists might discern divine agency in such catastrophes (albeit with varying diagnoses of the human ills that could have provoked such heavenly wrath), self-respecting moderns are rightly reticent about attributing moral significance to the periodically unruly behaviour of earth and sky. The banishment of the premise of divine intervention in favour of the systematic investigation of the material causes of potentially troublesome natural phenomena by means of modern science has been invaluable in enhancing human understanding of the physical world, as well as enabling us to alter it more profoundly and extensively, whether for better or for worse, than was possible with earlier forms of human knowledge and technology (powerful though some of those undoubtedly have been). For all that, though, the designation of the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi as 'natural disasters' was almost certainly catastrophically misguided.
While scientists are necessarily cautious about attributing any one event directly to climate change, it was notable that the same edition of Melbourne's Age newspaper that carried reports of "Yasi's trail of destruction" also featured an article on the first of Ross Garnaut's updates for the federal government on his landmark 2008 Climate Change Review. Garnaut is quoted as saying here that, "Australia was seeing an intensification of extreme weather events consistent with warnings from climate scientists". According to this report, the impacts of climate change were now thought likely to be more severe than was estimated only three years previously, and included an increase in the number of extreme cyclones, already recorded in the North Atlantic since the 1970s, along with more frequent and intense flooding. Swiss Re, one of the world's largest reinsurance companies, is reported in this same article as "warning that Australia was becoming a riskier place to do business after a string of extreme natural disasters over the past two years". Another of these was the unprecedented heatwave that culminated in the Victorian firestorm of January 2009, towards the drought-ridden end of the last El Nino cycle. The causality of such events that devastate nonhuman as well as human lives and livelihoods clearly involves multiple factors, not all of which are of human origin. However, the continued attribution of such weather-borne disasters exclusively to a violent and amoral nature 'out there' (interestingly, one that is often feminised by commentators in the press as Mother Nature) risks engendering, or deepening, an underlying "ecophobia" i.e., an irrational fear, loathing and/or disdain for the natural world. As one well-known public figure observed on national radio, for example: "I have lost my faith in Mother Nature, but my faith in human nature has been restored" (Australian Rules footballer, James Hird on ABC radio). Such attitudes occlude the human contribution to the aetiology and unfolding of such calamities, shoring up nature-culture dualism at the very time when we most need to dismantle the mental walls of separation and acknowledge our ethical accountability to those more-than-human others whose lives are increasingly in our fumbling hands.
While it might well be retrograde to see a punitive divine hand at work in these disasters, our reluctance to see our own hand in them is a symptom of modernity's blindness towards the complex entanglement of diverse human and nonhuman agencies in constituting the natural-cultural world, in which, as Bruno Latour has persuasively argued, we have always moved and lived and had our being: a blindness that has become increasingly perilous as those entanglements have expanded and intensified, generating environmental changes that have become ever more deleterious for much life (including a growing percentage of homo sapiens sapiens) on this hard-pressed planet. Recognising and responding to the hybrid natural-cultural phenomena, many of them (such as nuclear radiation, ozone depletion and global warming) seriously malign, that have proliferated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, has been rendered all the more difficult by what Michel Serres terms the "Modern Constitution," sundering Nature from Culture, and, consequently, the 'natural' from the 'human' sciences.
The category of 'natural disaster' owes its genesis to precisely this act of ontological and epistemological separation, the historical emergence of which can be clearly traced in the theological, philosophical and geological debates that erupted in Europe in the wake of the massive earthquake that famously destroyed the city of Lisbon in 1755. It's not possible to go into this in detail here, but I do want to stress the ethically and epistemologically ambiguous aspect of this development. On the one hand, the invention of the concept of "natural disaster" (itself informed by earlier theological reflection on the category of "natural evil"), facilitated the development of more humane responses to such calamities, as exemplified by Immanuel Kant's insistence, in his newspaper articles on the Lisbon disaster, that instead of hubristically speculating about what divine intentions might have been served in such calamities, Christians were called to go to the aid of those who had suffered as a consequence. On the other hand, the notion of national disaster also had the effect of stripping these events of moral significance, except insofar as fellow humans were seen to be affected by them. For Voltaire, e.g., the Lisbon Earthquake shattered his earlier physico-theological faith in the providential nature of creation, and his disillusionment with this form of metaphysical optimism was accompanied by a marked disaffection with the earth. In the ode that he wrote in response to the Lisbon disaster, he construes the earth as given over to evil and destruction: "Il le faut avouer, le mal est sur la terre" (We must acknowledge that evil is in the world/on the earth). In dismissing physico-theology, Voltaire drives a rationalist wedge between God and Nature, and between Nature and Man: since "la nature est muette" (Nature is mute), as he avers in this poem, meaning and morality must be confined to the exclusively human realm. While, in its revised form, the ode ends with the hopeful affirmation, "Un jour tout sera bien" (One day all will be well), the implication is that this will only come about if and when, nature is thoroughly humanised: in the concluding words of Candide, "Il faut cultiver notre jardin" (We must cultivate our garden). Stripped of any lingering traces of the divine, denied both communicative capability and ethical considerability, other-than-human 'nature' would henceforth be handed over to scientific knowledge, technological control and economic exploitation, while the emergent 'humanities' were to confine themselves to the exclusively human domain of 'culture': the Modern Constitution was framed amidst the rubble of Lisbon.
The concept of natural disaster has since been fully assimilated to mainstream and progressive Christianity: instead of discerning in the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi a call to confess and repent of our own manifold sins and wickednesses (i.e. of fossil-fuel combustion), most Christians simply prayed for those affected (and generally only the human ones at that), and made themselves feel good about it all by dutifully shelling out a few dollars to help pay for recovery operations (again, generally only in the service of human interests). In this kairos moment, we need more than cheap charity: the anthropogenic ecological crisis that is increasingly manifest in the growing number and intensity of extreme weather events calls rather for a radical transformation through costly self-limiting and self-giving love. Yet within the Christian tradition (and indeed, in those strands of it that are shared with Judaism, and possibly also Islam), there is a thread that could lead out of the false consciousness that lurks in the concept of natural disaster: one that entails a revitalisation of the theology of creation and a reclamation of the prophetic imagination.
Throughout the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, as in most nonmodern cultures throughout the world, phenomena that modernity is wont to dub natural disaster are consistently linked moral disorder. Conventionally, this has been read in accordance with the logic of the Flood i.e. as a form of purposive violence wrought by an angry deity, who brings calamity to the whole land community as a means of punishing His wayward people. From a modern perspective, this is an instance of the false logic of mythic consciousness to be dispelled by the clear light of scientific reason, according to which any association between human wrong-doing and natural disaster is merely coincidental. According to the view that I am adumbrating here—one that comprises a form of new, post-modern and non-reductive materialism—this rationalist perspective is itself blind to the complex, nonlinear patterns of causation that arise from the dynamic interactivity of multiple human and nonhuman actors and factors. In line with this view, Christian ethicist Michael Northcott argues that the disastrous drying out of the land bewailed by the prophet Jeremiah, for example, could indeed have been linked with the ungodly practices that the prophet targets as having led to the fall of Judea to the Babylonians in 587 BCE.
In Northcott's reading, Jeremiah discerns that "the Israelites had been vanquished because they had neglected to worship Yahweh. Instead they had idolised wealth and power and enslaved one another and the land in the process". Neglecting the Sabbath rest, and transgressing other Deuteronomic laws that prescribe care for the land and domestic animals, as well as failing to "protect the cause of the orphan" and "defend the rights of the needy" (Jer. 5: 27-8), the ruling elite had grown "great and rich [...] fat and sleek" (Jer. 5: 23-4) through treacherous trading practices. As well as engendering social inequity, these forms of wrongdoing are linked by Jeremiah with crop failures, the pollution of wild places, the inability of domestic animals to bear young, and growing desertification. Northcott argues that Jeremiah is probably responding to an agricultural collapse that had occurred around 600 BCE as a consequence of the intensification of land use under the late Israelite monarchy and the "merchant class it spawned" (11), in conjunction with the fragility of soils in this region:
As perennial grasses are cleared and the land cropped with cereal plants the soil is at risk of salinisation from mineral salts in the subsoil and bedrock which rise through the soil when land is ploughed and cropped with non-native plants [...] Once the primeval forests on the high lands were cleared the land also became prone to drought and flash floods, and the precious topsoil which grew the surpluses that sustained empires was gradually washed into the ocean. When the soil was washed away and the land became less green, it absorbed more sunlight, there were fewer clouds, the rains failed, and parts of the land turned to desert. (10)In connecting these environmental problems with a culture geared towards the accumulation of wealth and concentration of power rather than towards social justice and care for creation, Jeremiah might be seen as "the first ecological prophet in literary and religious history," as Northcott puts it (12).
What Northcott does not note, however, is the way in which Jeremiah's poetic witness accords a voice to the land itself. Echoing a trope from the earlier prophetic books of Isaiah (24: 4 and 33:7-9) and Hosea (4:1-3), in which the drying out of the land is referred to with a verbal expression that also means to grieve or mourn (Billingham 2010), Jeremiah laments: "How long will the land [earth] mourn [dry up],/and the grass of every field wither?/For the wickedness of those who live in it/the animals and the birds are swept away" (12:4); to which Yahweh is subsequently is said to respond: "They made it a desolation;/ desolate it mourns to me./The whole land is made desolate,/but no one lays it to heart." (Jer. 12:11). If, as Walter Brueggeman (2001) maintains, the prophetic imagination is summoned forth in response to the cry of the oppressed, it falls to the ecoprophet to attend to what Jan Morgan has termed "Earth's cry". In Jeremiah, as elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures, the drying up of the land and the death and suffering of animals bears prophetic witness to human-wrongdoing: specifically, in Jeremiah, a failure to lay the land, and those, human and otherwise, who depend upon its flourishing, to heart. This calamity, then, is neither a natural disaster, nor the deed of a punitive deity, but has arisen from unsustainable human practices linked to the neglect of religious ordinances keyed to the promise of social justice and the flourishing of creation (what Jesus, walking in the steps of the prophets, would later term "abundant" life).
Challenging the "cosmology of mechanism" that "trains modern people to view the earth as governed by arbitrary mechanical laws" (Northcott 66), Northcott's reading of Jeremiah points towards the recovery a moral understanding of creation, but with post-modern onto-epistemological underpinnings. This ecotheological undertaking, one which echoes the earlier physico-theological concept of providence, but in a new key, is also explored by Norman Habel in an article on wisdom cosmology and climate change. The biblical basis for this view of creation lies in the concept of the "way," derek in Hebrew, that constitutes the inner tendency or telos, the mode of relational being and becoming, of all created entities. These ways, as we read in Proverbs, for example, are wondrous: "Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of man with a girl" (30:18-19) According to Habel, the way of things was woven into creation through the agency of Wisdom (hochma), which is sometimes personified in the Hebrew bible: "YWWH acquired me first, his way before his work [...] from of old, from antiquity I was established, from the first, from the beginnings of the earth" (Prov. 2:22-23; Habel's translation). It is this way, which, as Habel notes, might in some respects be compared with Aboriginal understandings of the indwelling Law of country, that humans are called to endeavour to understand and follow in their own pursuit of wisdom. Recasting creation as nature, understood as a morally indifferent mechanism and storehouse of "resources" to be exploited at will, we have instead ridden roughshod over the way of things, as a consequence of which the created order is becoming increasingly prone to calamity. Today, the hot breath of raging firestorms, the growing ferocity of the cyclone, the increased flooding of the land, and the displacement and dying out of so many of earth's creatures, to name but a few climate change impacts, bear witness, once again, to a ruling social order that has seriously lost track of "the way".
Historically dominant forms of Christianity, all too often in alliance with the interests wealth and power, have been complicit in this. However, in conversation with those scientific practices that seek to better understand the wondrous ways of the physical world, which Christians (in company with Jews and Christians believe to be divinely given), the churches also have the capacity to help get our culture back on track: namely, through a renovated theology of creation and the recovery of their prophetic voice and mission.