Living in the Anthropocene: Resilience and adaptability 14 Jan 2021
A blog from the Tragedy and Congregations team, www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk
I am writing this in mid-January 2021. We are in our third lockdown in the UK. A new more highly transmissible variant of Covid-19 is sweeping through the country. Of late, daily deaths have numbered over 1,000 (today over 1,500). When will it end?
Today the BBC reported that 2.6 million people have been vaccinated. It is hoped that in a little over a month’s time, all people over 70 and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable will have had the opportunity to receive at least one jab. We do not know if those who are vaccinated can still transmit the virus. As for potential new variants, our scientists are confident that vaccines can quickly be re-engineered to meet the challenge. The vaccine is good news. But it is not enough. I confess that I find myself less and less interested in getting ‘back to normal’.
2020 was an annus horribilis for the human family. But it was not just bad news for us; the earth and other life forms suffered too. 2020 was the year that we achieved the redoubtable distinction of so filling the planet with our stuff that now there is more human-made material on earth than biomass. It was also the year that upper ocean temperatures hit a record high, nearly 47 million acres of land burned in Australia, and the Arctic continued to warm at over twice the rate as subarctic lands. Zombie fires in Siberia and Alaska erupted from peatland and permafrost. Violent storms pummelled areas in East Asia, the United States and South America, and included a record Atlantic hurricane season. The sixth mass extinction continued to accelerate: species dying out at a rate 100 times greater than the natural evolutionary rate. This mass extinction has human fingerprints all over it.
We are living in the Anthropocene, the first planetary epoch defined by human activity shaping the natural world…not for the good. That human well-being is tied to the well-being of the land is a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament: there can be no long-term flourishing of one without the other, says Ellen Davis. Is it any surprise that by means of a pandemic the land may be trying to, in Meg Warner’s words, vomit us out? The evidence of the Anthropocene is that we have sold our inheritance, squandered our vocation and forgotten that to be fully human is to protect and preserve. And for what? Package holidays and more stuff than we can use?
I strongly suspect that 2020 will have been just the first of many anni horribiles to come, as we continue to reap the consequences of our ways of living.
How will we live if rolling crises will be our lot for some time to come? What does resilience look like in the Anthropocene? What is pastoral care when so much is at stake?
Perhaps some of the lessons of the pandemic will prove 2020 to have been a training ground for years to come. We learned and re-learned some basic things about ourselves and the natural world that can serve us well in the future. We learned how vulnerable we are to forces outside of our control. We learned that our lives are interdependent with others and with the life of the planet. (The earth breathed easier when we stopped rushing around: recall the birdsong that was the soundtrack to Lockdown one, the goats that roamed Llandudno freely, the goose that nested in York Railway Station.) We learned that there can be serious consequences from the simplest of our actions: a handshake or hug can lead to a Covid fatality. But perhaps most of all we learned that we are adaptable. When circumstances require, we do things differently. We create. We innovate. We do what we need to do.
Resilience in the Anthropocene must be rooted in adaptability, and pastoral care must major in strengthening. We are learners our whole lives long, thanks in part to the neuroplasticity in our brains. The lessons of the 6thcentury BCE, when the sustained catastrophe that was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the carrying off of people to exile in Babylon resulted in theological innovation, give me hope. It will not be without pain, but we can change. We will not survive as a species if we do not. It is clear to me that getting ‘back to normal’ is not good enough. As Pope Francis writes, ‘This is the moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek – and commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.’
Walter Brueggemann’s framework of reality, grief and hope structures the way forward. It is the only way we will be able to hear God’s call for the living of these days and the redeeming of our time. Facing fiercely into what is really happening in our world, naming and grieving the suffering caused, and holding on to our faith in God who is and who will be and who never lets us go but continually calls us to faithfulness, we will do what we have to do. We will do what we can.
So I end on a note of hope. Things are tough. They may well get tougher. But we have all we need to navigate the storms. Getting ‘back to normal’ has little appeal and, as wonderful as vaccination is and as grateful as I am for it, it is not the answer to our predicament. What is needed for our tomorrows is what Martin Luther King, Jr. prescribed nearly sixty years ago: courage, compassion and creativity. Now, as always, it is about practising the faith, hope and love that engender those qualities.
God help, sustain and bless us and our world in those practices.
Carla A. Grosch-Miller, January 2021
 Davis, Ellen F., 2009, ‘Learning our place: the agrarian perspective of the Bible’, Word & World, 29:2 (Spring 2009), pp. 109-20; Davis, Ellen and Berry, Wendell, ‘The art of being creatures’, On Being with Krista Tippett [podcast], National Public Radio, (broadcast 10 June 2010, updated 16 April 2020), https://onbeing.org/programs/wendell-berry-ellen-davis-the-art-of-being-creatures/, accessed 13 Jan. 2021.
 Warner, Megan, 2020, ‘Resilience in a time of COVID-19 – Three biblical models: plague, uncleanness and indigestion’, Crucible, (12/10/2020), https://crucible.hymnsam.co.uk/articles/2020/october/articles/resilience-in-a-time-of-covid-19-three-biblical-models/, accessed 13 Jan. 2021.
 Pope Francis and Ivereigh, Austen, 2020, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, London: Simon & Schuster.
 Brueggemann, Walter, 2014, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Cambridge and Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.