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A Humbler Vision of the Human Station

IN 2019, The New Yorker published an essay by Jonathan Franzen titled “What if We Stopped Pretending?” Franzen’s premise was simple—climate change is here, and no power or populace is making the sacrifices to stop it. His essay was met with an outcry that it is not too late, but since then that consensus has eroded. Bill Gates may still write books like How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, but the people who were doing that work while Gates was making his billions have come to darker conclusions.

Timothy Beal’s new book, When Time Is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene, is, as he states in the introduction, a “‘what if it’s already too late?’ book.” That we have a hard time accepting this possibility, Beal believes, is rooted in “our denial of the mortality of our species.” Those of us formed in an Enlightenment-capitalist frame simply can’t imagine the world without us. And that lack of imagination is one source of the very systems of exploitation and extraction that brought us to this point.

Beal, a religion professor and Hebrew Bible scholar, argues that our denial of death is in large part rooted in a particular (mis)reading of Genesis 1. There, humans are given dominion over creation and named as exceptional creatures in God’s own image. That exceptionalism, read through Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Bacon and John Locke, became what Bacon called the “charter of foundation” of the colonialist project. Unprecedented exploitation and extraction followed. Indigenous cultures were uprooted from the land because Locke and others believed they had “forfeited by not fully subduing and maximally using its natural resources.”

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