The Anthropocene

Facing the Anthropocene with The New Cosmology And Earth Spirituality.

This talk provides  an overview of a series of six talks that were given by Mike Bell  in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, British Columbia,  during  the winter of 2014- 2015.  It begins by describing  the  Anthropocene and the climate change challenge to our civilization.  It then describes the New Cosmology—a new awareness that we are earthlings and part of Earth.  Finally it It shows how we must incorporate this new awareness into our hearts and souls with an Earth Spirituality– a spirituality  that will help inspire us to restore a sane relationship between our species and Earth



Mike Bell,

September 24, 2014  



“All we have to decide is what to do in the time that remains to us.”





Good Morning . As you know, my subject is: Facing the Anthropocene:  With a New Cosmology and Earth Spirituality.  I’ll start by explaining the title.  It will give you a quick overview of where I’m going and how I intend to get there.

The Anthropocene is the term geologists give to our current era of the Earth’s development.  Its primary manifestation is world-wide climate change. It is affecting all aspects of life on Earth as we know it.  “Facing the Anthropocene” indicates that we are not going to run away from this reality but, rather we are going to deal with it.  The question is how.

The Anthropocene

We know we can’t depend upon science and technology or we would not be in our present predicament. Science is very good at telling us what is happening, but not very good at motivating us to deal with it. The same is true of our traditional religions and faith groups. In many respects they have been part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  

One of the ways we can face it is to learn think of Earth and our relationship with Earth in a totally different way.  This is where the New Cosmology comes in. It is the second thing I’ll talk about.

The third thing is an Earth Spirituality.  It is not enough to have an intellectual understanding of the new cosmology. We must incorporate our understanding of the New Cosmology into hearts and souls.   We have to turn the new cosmology into a functional cosmology—something that will inspire and motivate us to work together to face the Anthropocene.

Finally I’ll talk about the challenge the Anthropocene presents for organized religions and faith groups.  It will require some radical changes as these groups incorporate the elements of the New Cosmology and Earth spirituality and help us come to grips with facing the anthropocene.

 My approach is not to dazzle you with facts and figures but, rather to adapt the essential tool of the New Cosmology—Story.  The stories will be my stories to I’d best say a few words about myself.

I was born and raised in Toronto.  From the age of thirteen when I entered a prep schools in the U. S. until I was about thirty I lived a monastic life in the Passionist Order. I was eventually ordained and worked as priest. Looking back there were two things during those early years that were to have a profound influence on my life.

For two years in the early ‘60s I lived in a monastery in New York with the geologian Thomas Berry. Because he was considered very radical we young students were encouraged not to have too much to do with him. But we both shared that Passionist bond.  Twenty-five years later I got in contact with him and we met together once or twice a year over a ten year period. He changed my life.

From 1967 while working on a theology degree I served as a student chaplain in Paris at the Cite Universitaire, a huge campus residence that house students from forty different nations. In May, 1968 the student riots broke out.  I was initiated into the very real but often undetectable influence of cultures.  To quote Marshall Mcluhan, “I don’t know who it was that first discovered water but I’m sure it wasn’t a fish.”  We don’t see the world the way it is.  We see the world the way we are.

Upon returning to the U.S. I left the Passionists and the institutional priesthood, married my wife Arlene and we had a family.  Over the next ten years I had a number of organizing jobs.  In 1980 we moved to Baffin Island where I worked for three years as the Superintended of Social Services for the Government of the Northwest Territories. .  Then we moved to Yellowknife in the western Arctic where I started a consulting firm.  For the next 23 years I moved back and forth across the Arctic working in Inuit and Dene communities as an organizer. As you will see shortly this experience with indigenous peoples was to have profound influence on my thinking and my life.

In 2006 my wife and I moved to the Comox Valley, on Vancouver island to retire.  Over the past eight years we’ve gotten involved in the struggles with tar sand pipelines and coal mines

So that is the context for the stories you are about to hear.

For the next few minutes you and I have our respective jobs.  My job is to do the talking. Your job is to do the listening. If you should happen to finish before I do, don’t stampede for the exits.  Just give me a signal.


Since the creation of our human species, when folks got up in the morning and looked outside, they saw the same world they saw the night before.  And for most of us living in this part of the world, when we get up in the morning we think we see the same thing that we saw the night before—just as our ancestors did.  But we don’t really see the same world our ancestors saw because our world is being radically transformed.  And what is amazing about all of this is, unless you live in particular part of the world that is being directly impacted, we don’t even noticed what is happening.

Up until recently we lived in the Holocene Epoch dating from the receding of the ice shield 11,000 years ago.  It was a very stable period of time that saw the development of agriculture, towns and cities, economies and the the world’s cultures. But, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18 Century we have entered the Anthropocene, a new age that is radically transforming all aspects of life on Earth.  The word “anthropocene” means the new man-made age.  Its primary manifestation is climate change. Previous ages were changed by natural occurrences, like the asteroid that wiped out the world of the dinosaurs 26 billion years ago or the receding of the ice shield.  Not this time.  We are the cause of this new epoch.

Every day when we go on line or open our newspapers scientists are telling us about the loss of rainforests, the extinction of species, the deletion of ocean fisheries, the widening of the ozone layers in the Arctic and Antarctic, the acidification of the oceans, the pollution of underground aquifiers, the booming world populations and the loss of habitat for other species etc. etc. We also see reports on the rising temperatures, the forest fires in the California and the American south west, the poisoning of our rivers and lakes form chemical fertilizers, the hurricanes and tornadoes, the receding shorelines lines in populated areas, the warming of the Arctic.

In addition to being man-made the Anthropocene  has three dominant characteristics.

  • First, it is comprehensive affecting all economies, cultures, countries, populations, species, and life-forms.
  • Second, it is affecting the chemistry of Earth, including the eco-systems that we depend upon for our continued existence.
  • Third, though there have been many natural disasters in the history of our Earth, it was resilient.  Though it might take some time it was able to bounce back.  In the Anthropocene Earth is not bouncing back.  Many scientists tell us that we have reached beyond the limits of sustainable systems. We are on the slippery slope to the Sixth Great Extinction. We are becoming system triage workers trying to salvage what we can.  The situation is dire.

As I continue to see these warnings from scientists I’m reminded about a funny/sad cartoon I saw in the New Yorker a while back.  It shows the Grim Reaper knocking on the door of an apartment.  A man answers and he is horrified.  The Grim Reaper is passing him a note while saying to the man, “Now don’t freak out.  This is just a save-the-date notice.”

So we and our children and our grandchildren are setting out on a journey into the future, a journey never before encountered by our species. The major issue in facing the Anthropocene is the relationship between our human species and Earth. We are on a journey to achieve what Thomas Berry has called a mutually enhancing relationship between our species and Earth.

I don’t know where we are going or how we are going to get there.  I can only suggest were we might begin. first we need to change the way we think about our relationship with Earth.  And this is where the New Cosmology is essential.


As you are all aware, cosmology is the study of how the universe and our planet the earth were created and how it developed. The new cosmology, “new” because it incorporates into traditional cosmology the study of the human species along with the study of how other species developed.  As we do this we become aware of our relationship with Earth.  Earth and the environment is not something “out there.”  It is something “in here.”  The Earth Story and the Human Story is one story.

We are Earthlings. Four billion years ago a star went supernova.  It exploded, created the sun, the other planets and our Earth.  Our Earth contains the same minerals that existed in an exploding star. And the minerals in the crust our Earth are also found in our bodies.  We have come from Earth through a process of evolution.  We share with Chimpanzees 96% of our DNA.  Other species are our kin.

As the new cosmology makes us aware that we are one with the Earth that surrounds us, we also begin to see the need for something else–a functional cosmology.  A functional cosmology is, in essence, a determination of meaning.    It is how we translate this awareness of the universe and Earth into actions that guide our lives.

And, since Earth and we ourselves are continuing to grow, develop, and change—what Thomas referred to as part of a cosmogensis—we find ourselves in what theologians call a hermeneutical circle. Originally the term referred to interpreting the biblical texts.  We ask questions and adapt our behavior and lifestyles according to the answers that come to us.

But today, in the new cosmology, the “text” is the universe and Earth.  A Thomas Berry put it, the universe, and by extension our Earth is “The only text without a context.” So we are influenced by changes in Earth and Earth is influenced by changes in us—big time.

When I first got to the Baffin I was quite confident in my abilities. But I knew I needed a context. I was most anxious to try out my management theories:  performance measurement, management by objectives, zero-based budgeting, etc. etc.   But I bombed. I quickly discovered that these contexts weren’t working in the cross cultural environment I found myself in.

Another thing.  I ran into competition.  I’d be way up at the top of Baffin Island in community meetings. It would be in the dead of winter, -40 below without the wind-chill, in twenty-four hours of darkness, and I’d be holding forth on child welfare services or correctional services or mental health services—very serious stuff.  But I’d find myself competing with elders.  As I listened to their speeches through an Inuktitut translator, they would be saying over and over different versions of the same mantra “Learn from the land.  Learn from the land.”   I thought their words were interesting from a cultural point of view, even quaint, but not relevant.  So with my organizational contexts falling apart, and the Inuit elders, in my opinion, not addressing the real issues, I was going through a vocational crisis.  Was I really cut out for this type of work?

Then came the convergence. One day, in the search for a new organizational context that would work in this environment, I picked up one of Thomas Berry’s books and read these words: “The universe is the only text without a context.”  The words began to sink in.  Could this be the context I had been looking for?  Could it be, that all human endeavours should be organized the way Earth and life organizes itself?   Then,  a short time later I read Thomas Berry’s next statement  “We are not a collection of objects. We are a communion of subjects.”  The Earth is living and we are part of that life. As I read these words the teaching of the Elders flashed into my mind:  “Learn from the land. Learn from the land. ” I knew I found what I have been looking for.

Though we may think of the new cosmology new, it is actually the traditional cosmology of most indigenous peoples that have always considered the land as living.

One day I was speaking to a Dene leader about settling the their land claim so they could manage the land.  He said to me, “Mike, this concept of managing the land is difficult for us in our culture.  We don’t manage the land.  The land manages us.”

A while back I saw an interview with a young aboriginal person who worked to protect the Great Bear Rain Forest In Northern B.C. with its White Spirit Bears. When the interviewer asked him why he was doing this work he didn’t talk about his rights as an indigenous person, or his land claim.  He said, “We are doing this because we have made a promise to the land and the bears.”

The next challenge is to turn the awareness of the new cosmology in our heads into a creative and active force in our hearts and souls.  This brings us to an Earth Spiritulity.


On one of my visits to Thomas Berry in North Carolina I said to him, “Tom in the Arctic there are many people interested in an Earth-based spirituality.  Have you ever written anything on an Earth-based Spirituality?”  He paused for a moment, looked at me and said.  “No I haven’t.  But I have written something on the Spirituality of Earth that you might find interesting.” It was a lesson that I have never forgotten. I had to reframe.

For Thomas Berry, because we are earthlings and part of Earth, our human intelligence is “the universe reflecting upon itself.”  In like manner, since we are part of Earth, human spirituality is the human manifestation of Earth Spirituality.  And the Universe and Earth are the primary source of revelation.  As Thomas Berry put it, if we lived on the moon we would have no sense of the divine. It is only through our reflection on the beautiful and bountiful world around us that we have as a sense of a divine presence or of something greater than ourselves.

Several years ago a close friend of mine, a consultant and colleague, was dying and in the final stages of her cancer.  Her husband called me from the hospital.  He said to me, “The doctors have agreed to let Beth go home on the condition that she find a spiritual counsellor.  We told them we had one.”  I asked him who it was. He said to me, “You.”  And I said to myself, “I’d better get down there.”

Beth and her husband lived in a beautiful house, in a rural area of southern Alberta.   The house, designed and built by her architect husband, sat on the edge of a ridge and looked down on a spectacular view of the trees on the hillside below and the fields beyond.

When I got to the house the husband took me aside.  “I’m worried,” he said to me.  “I thought Beth believed what I believe, what we were taught as kids growing up” —he was the son of an Anglican priest—“but she doesn’t believe in any of those things.”   I sensed he wanted me to help straighten her out.

When I went in to the living room Beth was sitting in a chair looking out through their large picture window.  After she welcomed me she said, “Did you talk to my husband?” I nodded.  “He’s worried about me.  I said, “I know.”  She said, “Mike, I don’t know about any of those things we learned about in Sunday School growing up.  They’ve never made much sense to me. But when I look out that window, and see the beauty of what surrounds us, that’s what tells me there is a God.  Please tell my husband not to worry.  I’m ready.”

Beth died a few weeks later.  We held the funeral in a little church out in the midst of the farmers’ fields on a beautiful, sunny, August morning.  In the eulogy I quoted the words of the great Blackfoot chief, Crowfoot who, a century earlier, was reflecting on his own death in a place not very far away from where we were holding the service.  He said, “What is life?  It is the flash of a firefly in the night.  It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.  It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”

So for Beth,  Crowfoot, Thomas Berry and for me and perhaps for you and for humans going back to shamanic times many centuries before organized religions the awareness of a living Earth has been a source of Inspiration and revelation.

I think that adopting an Earth Spirituality with some kind of internal practice—prayer, meditation, walking in the woods, gardening, writing, practising art—is essential for facing the Anthropocene.  It anchors us and strengthens us for the burden and challenges that confronts us.

At the beginning of each year, when I open my new daytimer, I write these words of Teilhard de Chardin as a reminder.  He said, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey.  We are spiritual beings on a human journey.”


I am a Christian, practising my beliefs within a Unitarian Fellowship.  I’m very grateful for my faith and especially for the Passionist Order which guided me in my early years.  But it became increasingly obvious to me that my religious traditions and, I suspect, traditions of many religious faiths are unable to deal creatively with the Anthropocene.  Yet, I can’t deal with it without the spirituality my faith has given me.

There is a story about a devout Christian man who faithfully read his Bible every day and was caught in a flood.  When the water was up to the edge of his porch a person came by in a boat and said, “Hop in, I’ll save you.”  But the man said, “Thanks but no need.  The Lord will save me.”  The same thing happened two more times: when the water was up the first floor ceiling and then when it was up to the top of his roof where the man was standing.  Same response. “No need to save me, “The lord will save me.” Finally the man died. He got up to heaven and he said, Lord, I’ve always been a faithful Christian and I read my Bible every day.  I told people you were going to save me, but you didn’t save me.  Why not?  And the Lord said, “Well, I sent three people to save you but you paid them no heed.”

Leaving aside the question of whether there is place called heaven and a conversation with God, most religious bodies or faith groups depend upon their written texts for answers to the world’s problems.  So what does the Bible say about the Anthropocene? It says nothing about the Anthropocene.

Many Christians tend to see the books of the New Testament as a direct revelation from the Divine. They fail to understand, as many years of modern biblical studies have taught us, that the gospels and the epistles are not a record of what Jesus actually said.  The scriptures were written several generations after Jesus’ death so we know very little about what Jesus may have said. The New Testament scriptures are a reflection of the understanding of the early Christian community written to respond to the challenges of their times. They would examine the challenges facing them, try to work out answers, and then reflect back on their memories of Jesus and his teachings.

So how can today’s believers living in a totally different situation, find help facing the Anthropocene in their religious traditions.  Let me give you a modern example.

For many years I’ve worked with the Tlicho people (previously called the Dogrib) a Dene First Nation north-west of Yellowknife in the NWT. They are intent on preserving their culture and language.

As is the case in most indigenous cultures, their traditional elders are the guardians of the culture.  Their oral teachings are their “scriptures.”  (The Tlicho  have a lovely expression: ‘Our culture is written in our land.”)  But most of their elders lived a nomadic existence.  They have an extensive knowledge of their language and living on the land.  But they have very little practical knowledge about residential schools, modern education, governments, employment practices, alcohol and drug abuse, modern medicine and so forth.  All these modern elements have created a very different context within which their culture must function.

In terms of their culture then, the Tlicho cannot expect the light from the past to shine on the present and provide answers for their current challenges.  They now live in a different context. How do they deal with this?

We are seeing the emergence of younger middle-aged elders with a broad range of experiences—particularly women who are mothers, teachers, social workers, nurses, government employees, and so forth.  They try to come up with answers to modern problems they are facing and they then return to the traditional elders to see if their answers are consistent with their culture. They are shining the light of the present on the past.

I believe the same thing must happen with religious and faith groups. We are the new elders who must find the answers and then try and validate them within our religious traditions.

This will be difficult. To a certain extent our faith groups have been complicit in the current problems. For example, up until quite recently it was quite unusual to hear most churches speak out against tar sands, coal mines, abusive international trade agreements, or about the problem with trickle down economic systems where the rising tide raises the yachts but swamps the row boats. Slowly things are beginning to change.  And they must change much more radically if our faith groups are to help us face the Anthropocene.


We have explored the very real and frightening implications of the Anthropocene, the New Cosmology, an Earth Spirituality and some of the implications for religions and faith groups.

Learning from the land I liken the difficult situation we are all going through as our chrysalis experience.  When the caterpillar’s body breaks down into a mass of protoplasm, a few cells –very different cells—begin to emerge.  They are called imaginal cells.  They carry within them the image of the butterfly that is waiting to be born. At first they are attacked by the caterpillar cells trying to protect its immune system. Some of the imaginal cells are destroyed.  But eventually the imaginal cells become more numerous and succeed in the transformation. The butterfly emerges.

In Facing the Anthropocene we are on a difficult journey. But the New Cosmology and Earth Spirituality can help place within us and nurture an imaginal cell– a mutual enhancing relationship with our species and Earth.

But we must accept the challenge.  It is up to us.

As Gandalf said to Frodo in the midst of his difficulties.  “(Frodo)…all we have to decide is what to do in the time that remains to us.”

 Thank you.


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