Living with Nature

As part of the Environmental Lecture Series, Chip Oscarson discusses Christian stewardship of the environment and the importance of understanding the relationship of humans and nature.

PROVO, Utah (Jan. 20, 2017)—Have we entered a new geological age? Since the retreat of the glaciers about 12,000 years ago, Earth has been in the Holocene Epoch, characterized by the various species that arose during that time and the functioning of various planetary systems within known boundaries. But with the loss of biodiversity due to human activity and new anthropogenic inputs in various planetary systems, some environmentalists propose that we have entered a new epoch – the Anthropocene.

One of the first instances of the term Anthropocene was published in 2000 by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and his coauthor Eugene Stoermer. In their paper, they included a long list of the ways humans have affected the environment, highlighting our central role in climate change.

“Anthropocene has proven quite controversial both among geologists who govern the definition of geological epochs, as well as environmentalists concerned about human impact on the local and global ecosystems,” said Chip Oscarson, associate professor of comparative arts and letters as part of his lecture for an installment of the Environmental Lecture Series. “Even as the idea has gained tremendous cultural traction as a shorthand way of referencing human impact and activity on various parts of the planet’s ecology.”

Geologists, explained Oscarson, are reluctant to begin a new epoch after only 12,000 years, a relatively short period of history to declare major geological changes. The impact of humans in this short amount of time, however, is undeniable. “Evidence remains from the detonation of atomic weapons, the rising level of nitrogen, biodiversity loss, overuse of fresh water, greenhouse gasses, and other evidences of pollution, all of which may well leave a legible mark that may be detected in the rock for generations to come,” Oscarson remarked.

He continued, “In our relatively short existence as a species, have we become a geological force at a scale that has objectively and fundamentally altered the course of geologic history?” Oscarson suggested that it will take a global effort to combat the effects of our species on the planet and lead us towards a path of environmentally sustainable world management.

Oscarson explained that a way for believers to help manage local and global use of resources is through understanding their role as stewards of the earth. God has given dominion to his children, and with that earthly dominion comes a charge to behave like God.

“Hugh Nibely wrote ‘The glory of a king is measured by the happiness, prosperity and increase in the power of his subjects even as the power and glory of God shall show forth,’” said Oscarson. “Doctrine and Covenants 121 can be read as a kind of ecological manifesto, declaring to us that proper stewardship is grounded in longsuffering and gentleness . . . and most importantly by charity and love.”

When considering dominion, however, there can be a tendency to separate the human from nature. “At the same time we’re given dominion over these things, God underscores a place that we have within those systems–we’re not actually completely separate from them,” said Oscarson.

This idea of separation between human and ecological spheres is the thinking behind national parks, where visitors are allowed in certain areas while the rest of the area is supposed to be untouched by human influence.  “I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be national parks and protected areas – there definitely should be – but if we fixate too much on this idea of purity and extracting the human, we’re creating more problems. There are billions of us on this planet and we have to find a way to take care of those billions of people,” Oscarson explained.

Anthropocene recognizes both our place within the environmental system, as well as our ability to affect it. Oscarson continued, “[Anthropocene is] the recognition of my participation, of my involvement, of my connectedness to all these things and the way that their health has something to do with my health. Embracing the idea of the Anthropocene simply means acknowledging this participation.”

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Comparative Arts and Letters Department for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.  

Image Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures