The Metaphysics of Planetary Hope: Exploring texts on faith and practice in a technocapitalist world

In 2009, the environmentalist and poet Paul Kingsnorth published a long letter in The Guardian in which he announced that addressing the challenge of climate change was a lost cause and that henceforth he was going to establish a community dedicated to preparing for the next civilisation. In response, his friend and colleague George Monbiot protested that to abandon the struggle was to condemn millions to misery and death. Further exchanges between them became sharper and more adversarial. Since then Kingsnorth has established a Dark Mountain community, while Monbiot has continued to be a resolute advocate for progressive change, including writing books on rewilding the earth and regenerative agriculture.

The poignant exchange between Kingsnorth and Monbiot illustrates the tension between despair and hope that is the experience of many across the planet who are seeking to bring about the great transition to a just, peaceable and sustainable world. To achieve such a transition in the context of escalating climate disruption represents a massive challenge. It involves the formidable technical tasks involved in reshaping the sociotechnical systems upon which human life and flourishing depends, from industrial agriculture to farmer-based agroecology, from centralised fossil-fuel-based energy to distributed renewables, from throughput manufacturing to circular production, from commercially distorted to public-good health care, from resource-intensive to biophilic cities and from militarised to peacemaking domestic and global security. But in the process it also requires contesting the pervasive global culture of technocapitalism that dominates and shapes our existing sociotechnical systems. Sociotechnical system change thus requires us to contest the powerful influence of the various levels of this technoculture: the extractive imperatives of global corporations and financial institutions, the regulatory regimes of neoliberal governance, the ingrained habits of consumer culture and the taken-for-granted cultural imaginary of ongoing progress through human transcendence of natural limits.

Over the past few decades literally thousands of scientists have documented the increasing disruption of natural systems brought about by the growth imperative of capitalist modernity, with many augmenting their scientific work with attempts to mobilise populations and governments to take the darkening ‘climate emergency’ seriously. A recent example of this in Australia has been Joelle Gergis, lead author of the most recent IPCC report and also author of Humanity’s Moment. What is so impressive about Gergis’s book is its combination of her clear account of the science involved in climate change and ecological disruption and her willingness to ‘bare her soul’ in terms of the emotional struggle and psychological cost of understanding that science. Gergis’s task of reviewing thousands of scientific papers in preparation for the IPCC report coincided with the horrendous bushfires of early 2020, and more recently she watched with horror the effects of the floods that devastated rural communities in NSW. Like many other climate scientists, she has had to find resources within herself to keep going—to remain committed to both doing the science and awakening an inattentive and indifferent public.

Gergis’s very personal account expresses an enduring and widespread hunger in late modern popular culture for a deeper spiritual and emotional connection with the more-than-human world—for a way of respecting its dignity and its ‘otherness’, or what philosophers call ‘intrinsic value’, that goes beyond or constrains its utilitarian value. For example, in an eloquent epilogue to Humanity’s Moment, Gergis recalls a visit to one of her favourite places, the Nightcap National Park in northern NSW. Despite the threats of loggers in the 1970s and the heat and fires of 2020, the forest was still thriving, having been blessed by two wet summers in a row. She recounts the joy of immersion:

I take a slow deep breath and feel my molecules rearranging. The air is different here; its crisp density tingles in my lungs. The sound of the rushing creek beckons me to stop, to listen. So I do, pausing long enough for this primal communion to restore me … I find a giant boulder to rest on, and lie down to take in the immensity of the landscape. The cool spray of the falls gently mists my face. I close my eyes to take in the charge of it all. My mind drifts before it settles into a place where stillness is always and already here, awaiting my return. I stay this way until I dissolve into the rock beneath me and merge with the sky above … When I finally peel my spine from the boulder, I feel like a phone slipping free from its charger. As I close my eyes, adjusting to my new equilibrium, I feel a sense of calm. I know that I will always be part of the Earth’s life force and it will always be part of me. Our time on this planet is both ephemeral and eternal.

In his book Hope and Courage in the Climate Crisis, John Wiseman documents the acute awareness of the reality of global ‘existential risk’ shared by the majority of climate scientists as well as many activists, artists and ordinary citizens. Like Gergis, Wiseman believes in the capacity of civil society to be a catalyst for progressive change, with examples including, Pacific Climate Warriors, the Sunrise movement, the German Energiewende and the School Strikes for Climate. He argues that in the face of systemic refusal and resistance by governments, corporations and media, climate activists can draw on the resources of various intellectual and spiritual traditions to fashion a new relationship with the natural world. In the core chapters of his book he provides an impressively wide-ranging survey of the contributions made by diverse religious and philosophical visions to the recovery of a more holistic or integrated relationship with the more-than-human world. These include the earth wisdom of First Nations, Western enlightenment and romantic traditions, the critical theory of the Frankfurt school, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), Buddhism and deep ecology.

Such a recovery, or re-articulation, of moral/spiritual sources was also the major focus of Charles Taylor’s 1989 book Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Taylor argued that to be a human person necessarily entailed a wider moral ontology—what he called an ‘inescapable framework’ that was not an optional choice but an intrinsic foundation for personhood. The larger purpose of his book was to overcome the effective repression of moral sources, which he considered a root cause of the malaise of modernity and which he approached through the genealogical articulation of the plural sources of Western modernity: humanist, romantic and theist. His later book, A Secular Age (2007), approached the issue of transcendental sources rather differently, via a revisionist account of the story of secularisation, in which ‘God’ had been effectively reduced to the status of optional extra. Taylor argued that the process of secularisation involved not just the decline of religious belief and practice and the displacement of religious institutions and ideology from the centres of political power, but a deeper shift in social imaginary away from transcendental sources and towards what he called ‘the immanent frame’—a taken-for-granted way of being in the world that assumed a disenchanted cosmos (an impersonal order), a punctual self (as distinct from a porous self), a contract view of society and a linear, secular view of time. Despite the immanent frame’s dominance of secular modernity, Taylor argued that modernity was not necessarily closed to the experience of a wider transcendent reality, thanks to what he called the ‘spin’ of ‘closed world structures’. In other words, despite the assumed secularity of the world and personal life, it was still possible to find spiritual orientation and meaning in the still-resonant spiritual traditions that retained the languages of transcendence. In his final chapter, Taylor rather tentatively canvassed the possibility of a paradigm shift in social imaginary that might enable the recovery of a transcendental frame through the re-enchantment of reality and the open porosity of the self.

This emphasis on re-enchantment and the transformation of the self has been more directly connected to the politics of climate change in the work of thinkers such as Clive Hamilton. In 2009, Hamilton argued that humanity would not be able to deal with the ecological crisis until it overcame the illusion of a natural world drained of spiritual meaning and purpose. Reflecting on Weber’s notion of the ‘disenchantment of the world’, he wrote that it represented

not just a change in our beliefs about the world, but a radical transformation of our ‘inner landscape’, our consciousness, one that severed or suppressed the connection with the natural world in order to allow us to exploit it without faltering. The mechanical philosophy provided the basis for the extraordinary advances of industrial society, but it also imposed a pattern on human behaviour that alienated us from nature. It is the foundation of the big ideas on which the modern world has been
constructed—economics, industrial organisation, technological optimism, the medical model of human health and the idea of sustainable development.

A new consciousness cannot be built solely on a better scientific understanding of the world; it must be rooted in a different ontology, a different conception of reality, one that allows for participatory knowledge as well as scientific knowledge, one that allows for the mystery of being as well as the certainty of its manifestations. Such an understanding of the world requires a transformation of our attitudes, our values and our institutions; but above all it requires an expansion of our selves.

The central question of his 2015 book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change was whether James Lovelock’s vision of Gaia provided an alternative to a disenchanted earth. His conclusion was that a Gaian re-enchantment was not scientifically credible, but that re-connecting to deeper spiritual sources remained an urgent task:

Perhaps these archaic patterns (the reference is to Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane) remain implanted within us, structuring our deeper consciousness so that, as the climate disruption unfolds and the sky seems to turn against us, we will abandon the lesser gods of money, growth and hedonism and turn to the celestial god, the creator god who alone has the power to save us. Is not the tentative turn to Gaia just such an appeal? If our scientific and technological control over the world allowed us to discard the gods, will the re-assertion of Nature’s power see us turn again to the sacred for protection? Will the late surge of militant atheism come to be seen as a Homeric burst of pride before the fall?

Hamilton’s more recent book, Defiant Earth, focused less of the possible return of the sacred and more on the implications of an emergent earth systems science, and the civilisational rupture brought about by the advent of the Anthropocene. Hamilton opposed the technohubris of the ecomodernists, the romantic naturalism of the deep ecologists, and the deconstructive postmodernism of the posthumanists. Instead, he argued that confronting the Anthropocene would call forth a new, anthropocentric vision of human responsibility and technological engagement with the more-than-human world that expressed a culture of attachment rather than one of transcendence. In this revisioning of modernity, it would be the community of earth scientists that provided the intellectual and moral framework for coming to terms with the new era of a defiant rather than a benign earth. Hamilton was dismissive of those who advocated a recovery of the cosmologies of premodern traditions, whether those of Indigenous traditions or Christian theology. In his view,

It is true that the grounding of certain Indigenous ontologies holds something that ought to be recovered in the new Anthropocene way of being beyond modernity and that is their cosmological sensibility. It is the very ‘primitivity’ of these cosmo-ontologies that separates them from more ‘sophisticated’ pre-modern traditions like Christianity, city religions that turned inwards to become pre-occupied with the self and its salvation. As the Anthropocene consumes the world, it’s hard to listen to earnest words spoken in prayer halls or meditation rooms about how to know God or to achieve emptiness without being struck by the thought that the inwardness of all such journeys of the self serves as a distraction from what is happening outside the window, and that the absence of separation of the traditional Indigenous self from its natural world may hold a powerful message for how to live in the Anthropocene.

However, Hamilton’s assumption of a responsible and embedded humanism is belied by the fact that the technologising of earth systems reflects a fundamental ‘technologising of everything’, in which the objectifying logic of the immanent frame is being progressively realised in the transformation of human politics, culture, social relations and experiences of selfhood. In other words, the excitement and apprehensions surrounding the advent of genomics, artificial intelligence (or machine learning) and what Yuval Harari describes as ‘data-ism’ are best seen as the fuller realisation of a long-established instrumentalist orientation to the world.

As I noted at the beginning of this article, the progressive and ubiquitous technologising of the world is most obviously driven and shaped by the economic and political interests of a globalising technocapitalism. In pursuing the mundane interests of profit, power and market share, the corporate activities of ongoing R&D, investment, product development and so on serve as vehicles for a wider transforming ontology. It is a deeply ambiguous way of being in the world. On the one hand, technocapitalism’s radical instrumentalising of both the human and the more-than-human world it is inherently nihilistic. Everything—the ‘resources’ of both nature and human beings—is reduced to the stuff of commodification. Yet on the other hand, technocapitalist development also expresses an aspiration to transcendence—the realisation of a spiritual desire to overcome the limits of the material world and of human frailty. It is extraordinary how pervasive the language of transcendence is in relation to various projects of technological development. We are as gods, opines Stuart Brand, and we might as well get good at it.

Whether in its nihilistic commodification of everything or in its dream of transcendence, though, the ongoing technologisation of everything is likely to open up not a future of equitable and free human flourishing, but one of domination and alienation. In the light of this, Wiseman’s project of drawing on the moral/spiritual sources of hope and courage in the struggle for a just and sustainable relationship between humans and the wider human world is an urgent task which I suggest needs to probe further the ambiguous ontological meanings of technocapitalist modernity.

This would require us firstly to go beyond the assumption of an expressive or postsecular humanism and engage with various philosophical and religious traditions, not simply in terms of their affirmation of the value and meaning of the more-than-human world but as comprehensive, often incommensurable visions of reality and humanity’s place within it. Wiseman’s assumption of a common earth-affirming spirituality is one shared by many people, most prominently the Yale University Forum on Religion and Ecology led by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim: Wiseman quotes their forthright view that quibbling about significant differences between spiritual traditions is an impediment to common action. This assumption of fundamental spiritual unity was evident in a meeting of representatives of various faiths in the lead up to COP 15 in Copenhagen, expressed in the document Many Heavens, One Earth: Faith Commitments to a Living Planet (2009). While the cooperative efforts of diverse ‘faith traditions’ is to be welcomed at a practical political level, though, this should not mask the deep differences between them as comprehensive accounts of reality. As Stephen Prothero commented in a discussion of his 2011 book, God is Not One: Eight Rival Religions that Rule the World:

[In graduate school] I repeatedly heard from professors that all religions were different paths up the same mountain. That sentiment never made any sense to me. I had Jewish and Muslim and Christian and atheist friends, and none of us was under the illusion that we agreed with each other … The main argument [of God is not One] is that the world’s religions are climbing different mountains with very different tools and techniques. One perspective that new atheists and liberal multiculturalists share is that all religions are essentially the same (false and poisonous on the one hand, and true and beautiful on the other). I think this view is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca, and Muslims do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. Moreover, going on the hajj is not peripheral to Muslims—in fact it is one of Islam’s Five Pillars. And the belief that Jesus is the Son of God is not inessential to Christians—in fact it stands at the heart of the Christian gospel …

The need to recognise the deeper incommensurabilities of diverse ‘faith traditions’ is particularly important, I suggest, in relation to the crisis of the immanent frame. Out of their own distinctive comprehensive forms of life, including their core practices and underlying visions of transcendence, each tradition faces the challenge not only of affirming the sacredness of the earth, but of navigating technocapitalism’s progressive technologising of everything.

Secondly, there is a need to recognise that Christianity is not simply one of several spiritual sources, but one that has been and continues to be deeply implicated in the ongoing development of technology. Wiseman refers to Lynn White’s essay on Christianity’s seminal contribution to the ‘Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis’, in which White identifies a spiritual imaginary of dualism, disenchantment and domination within medieval Christendom as a key factor shaping the emergence and development of Western science and technology. In The Religion of Technology, David Noble agreed that the Western development of modern technologies has deep roots in formative medieval Christian millennial ideas: of the dream of restoring an Edenic paradise or the realisation of the eschatological renewal of creation through the practical arts. However, he went further, describing this historical development as continuing to animate what he called ‘technologies of transcendence’ such as nuclear weaponry, space exploration, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, all profoundly influenced by a (secularised) Christian social imaginary:

the present enchantment with things technological—the very measure of modern enlightenment—is rooted in religious myths and ancient imaginings. Although today’s technologists, in their sober pursuit of utility, power and profit, seem to set society’s standard for rationality, they are driven also by distant dreams, spiritual yearnings for supernatural redemption. However dazzling and daunting their display of worldly wisdom, their true inspiration lies elsewhere, in an enduring, other worldly quest for transcendence and salvation.

Somewhat surprisingly, Noble doesn’t emphasise capitalism’s key role in the unfolding story of technological enchantment, something that is central to Eugene McCarraher’s book The Enchantment of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, which traces in sometimes excruciating detail the appropriation of Christianity in the hubristic rise of American technocapitalism.

Thirdly, we need to address the diverse and often contradictory strands within historical Christianity in relation to humanity’s place within the natural world. While Wiseman refers approvingly to examples of positive Christian affirmation of the integrity of creation, such as Pope Francis and prominent climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, there are other influential expressions of Christianity, such as the Christian evangelical right in the US and globally extensive Pentecostalism, that are at best indifferent and at worst hostile to caring for creation. These deep internal differences within contemporary Christianity should not be seen as being of limited relevance to the broader task of navigating a technologised world, but as vitally important. Although demographically in decline in the Western developed world, right-wing Christian political movements are engaged in strategic, long term, internationally coordinated efforts to renew some kind of Christian hegemony, often in alliance with populist authoritarian leaders such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary and also with techno-corporate financial support.

Of course, disagreement and division have been a central feature of ‘Christianity’ throughout its turbulent development over the past 2000 years, a theme central to Tom Holland’s provocatively titled book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. Holland explores the ways in which the Christian movement has been characterised by a revolutionary restlessness arising from its extraordinary beginnings in the strange and extraordinary career of Jesus of Nazareth. Despite its effective co-option by systems of power and domination on the one hand and otherworldly disengagement on the other, Holland argues that Christianity at its deepest level was rooted in the seminal event of a crucified Messiah. Its politics subverted and subordinated systems of power and domination in an alternative order of peaceable communion and a cosmology of the larger drama of creation, framed by both the sacramental ontology of created being (the world is charged with the grandeur of God) and by the eschatological horizon of the ultimate reconciliation of all things—a narrative vision which in his 2019 Gifford Lectures, History and Eschatology, the English biblical scholar Tom Wright expressed in terms of the image of the world as a ‘waiting chalice’.

Holland is not arguing for a renewed Christian hegemony. Rather, he is bringing to the surface the deep ‘Christianisation’ of the modern world that is occluded by a notionally secularist techno-scientific modernity. As Lynn White argued, contemporary Christians thus have the singular task of dealing with their historical responsibility for the creation of a global technosphere characterised by the disenchantment of the natural world and the enchantment of technology. In the context of a globalised late modernity, this internal Christian self-critique will necessarily happen in what Chantal Mouffe refers to as ‘agonistic’ dialogue with the diverse spiritual and religious traditions mentioned by John Wiseman—a dialogue that in contributing to the common tasks of the great transition will also be able to name and explore their deep differences.

The fundamental question remains as to what epistemological and ontological framework will underpin an integrated approach to earth history and governance. On the one hand, within the still-dominant epistemology of scientific investigation’s disciplined value-neutrality and the ontology of an impersonal material order, governing the Anthropocene will entail further technocratic adaptation of the kind promoted by ecomodernists and corporately driven sustainable development. Yet on the other, the more holistic systems approach of earth system science with its key concept of emergent properties opens the way to a recognition that the sphere of human personhood, of culture, sociality and moral meaning, is ontologically disclosive of the nature of reality rather than being epiphenomenal. In this context, the various spiritual traditions described by Wiseman et al., albeit as part of their agonistic re-framings of a technologised world, are much more than just additional resources to sustain activists and citizens. They are vitally important in framing adaptive pathways to a just, peaceable and sustainable world.

Books discussed:

Joelle Gergis, Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope, Black Inc 2022

Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Polity 2017

Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change, Routledge 2015

Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, Basic Books, 2019

David Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, Penguin 1999

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: Making the Modern Identity, Harvard University Press 1989

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Belknap Press 2007

John Wiseman, Hope and Courage in the Climate Crisis: Wisdom and Action in the Long Emergency, Palgrave Macmillan 2021

Additional references

ARC (Alliance of Religions and Conservation)/Windsor Castle, Many Heavens, One Earth: Faith Commitments to a Living Planet (2009).

Clive Hamilton, ‘The Rebirth of Nature and the Climate Crisis’, A Sydney Ideas Lecture University of Sydney, 7 July 2009

Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot, ‘Is there any point in fighting to stave off

industrial apocalypse?’ The Guardian August 17, 2009

Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantment of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, Belknap Press 2019

Chantal Mouffe, ‘Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism’, Wien Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna, 2000

Stephen Prothero, God is Not One: Eight Rival Religions that rule the world, HarperOne 2011

Rebecca Solnit Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2nd Edition) Haymarket Books 2016

Neil Turnbull, ‘Modern Technology within the Western Theological Imaginary’, Imago: A Journal of Social Imaginary, 6 (2015) 7 -26

Lynn White, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’, Science 155 (1967): 1203-1207.

NT Wright, History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology, Baylor University Press 2019

About the author

Ian Barns

Ian Barns is a retired academic with ongoing research interests in the nexus between sustainability, technology and theology. He has a PhD in the social history of science. From 1988 to 2011 he worked at Murdoch University in the School of Sustainability and before that at RMIT in the School of Humanities between 1985 and 1987. He now lives in Melbourne.

More articles by Ian Barns

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