The Challenges of “Global” Environmental Awareness

On the one hand, the environmental movement has been quite critical of the phenomenon commonly known as “globalization” or as Derrida more aptly terms it, “globalatinization,” in order to point out that the effects of globalization are not felt equally everywhere. What exactly is being globalized? Environmental ethics tend toward more local and place-based thinking (even when recognizing global problems), which is reflected in the rhetoric of localization, bioregionalism, and other spatial metaphors designed to focus us in on the near and dear. On the other hand, the environmental movement would not be necessary or possible without globalization, or the increase of transportation, exchange, and communications that is literally outstripping the planet’s capacity for regeneration. 1  This is only the first of many paradoxes to consider when it comes to thinking about globalization and environmental ethics.

A second and related paradox has to do with the fact that the image of the globe, surely a product of globalization, is the very image that is still used to conjure up concern for the earth.  Even if we, as Ursula Heise suggests, move this from the “Earth Rise” static image to “Google Earth” which incorporates the ways in which our experience of places are mediated through various technologies and that we can never really experience the earth “all at once,” the fact remains that globalization is as much constitutive of environmental ethics as it is the punching bag of most solutions to environmental problems. 2

Since this is a theological journal, let’s now throw religion and theology into the mix.  What more “global” narratives can one find than religious claims of universalism, and here in particular the salvific narratives of monotheism that are made global through colonial and economic forces?  Environmentalism too, competes with these globalizing /universalizing narratives in trying to spread its own narrative of either decline or recovery 3, and with (justified) rhetoric of the common planet or global village in which we live.  This universalizing discourse of the environmental movement mimics the universalizing drive of some religions  so much so that some have argued the dominant “religious wars” today take place between the universal narratives offered by capitalism and those offered by environmentalism. 4

In this brief essay, I want to play with and stay with these paradoxes in an attempt to highlight some of the positives and negatives of environmental metaphors that draw from these global images.  Might other metaphors be possible?  If so, what might they be?

Global or Planetary Ethics?

Our contemporary desire to seek out a global ethic has deep roots in the history of our meaning-making practices.  Consider the time at which our extant philosophical and religious traditions/trajectories emerged on the scene some 2,000-4,000 years ago.  During this time, people were much more “localized” in that they lived their lives from womb to tomb in a much smaller radius than we do today.  Given that, and given that communication and transportation technologies were much slower, it was much easier to assume one’s understanding of the world was “universal”: the space of universalizing a meaning-making practice was simply much smaller.

Our cognitive capacities for understanding moral problems are still culturally and evolutionarily shaped by these modes of understanding the world. 5 However, the contemporary world is marked by the space-time crunch brought about by waves of colonization and globalization through which increased speed in technologies of communication, transportation, and production have literally put us into contact with multiple places around the planet on a daily basis.  Whether we are talking about the meals on our tables, our daily communications on the internet and via smart phones, or participation in the fossil-fuel economy, our daily lives are intersected by multiple planetary flows even if we never leave our hometown or home community.

This crisscrossing of planetary flows that make up our daily lives also means that our meaning-making practices are much more hybrid.  Though strict boundaries between one tradition and another, between academic disciplines, or between religion and science, have never really existed, now they are even more mixed up in our daily lives.  We make decisions and create meaning based upon information from multiple religious traditions, sciences, philosophies, literature and art on a daily basis.  Yet, we still search in our solutions for the “globalized” or “universal” answers to our problems. We have not yet adapted to the hybrid, “polydox” world in which we now find ourselves. 6

Thus, rather than seeking a global ethic or a common solution, perhaps we need to begin to search for multiple planetary possibilities from within our hybrid contexts.  What is right for one time and place may not be right for all.  What works in one environment may not work for all environments.  Rather than imposing sameness over the globe from our contexts, why not connect the multiple possibilities and solutions together in a planetary community. 7  The difference here, though subtle, might be summed up in looking at the subtle differences between the national motto of the United States (from diversity, unity) and that of Indonesia (unity in diversity).  The former suggests a coming together around a common central core: a mentality that still reflects the idea of a global, universal, central axis of meaning on which the whole world turns and through which it can be ordered. The latter reflects the de-centered, multiple, yet connected reality we find ourselves in today. Just as there are universalizing and globalizing strands in our religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions, so too are there strands that keep us focused on the textures and embodiments of our daily lives.

Religious concern for the details and incarnation

As Bruno Latour has suggested, the nature of religion is to keep us focused on the here and now and not to take us away to some sort of transcendent space. 8 Paying deep attention to the intersecting flows that make up bodies and places is at the heart of the difference between a planetary and global ethic. Global ethics, for the most part, still assume a managerial approach to our ecological ills and thus assumes that humans are somehow responsible, above the rest, or in charge.  This is the legacy of thousands of years of thinking humans are exceptional to the rest of the natural world. 9 If we are indeed creatures, emergent from and interconnected with the rest of the natural world, then so are our cultures, technologies, agency and responsibility. From within this entanglement, we don’t seek global solutions, but we offer planetary possibilities.

The nature of globalization and climate change is that they create what have been called “wicked” problems. 10 These problems are intergenerational, multiply caused, and have no single solution: in fact solutions will give rise to unintended consequences both good and bad that cannot be imagined from where we stand.  The “managerial” approach is partly what has led to these problems, and is thus undoing itself.  As Adorno and Horkheimer observed of the attempt to spread rationality and reason over the face of the earth, to impose a human-located capacity on all life, will in the end unravel itself because life is not merely reasonable or rational. 11 This is the same thing happening with metaphors of global management.  Our contemporary environmental ills are the result of the managerial attitude of the Industrial Revolution, yet environmentalism (to some degree) has adopted this managerial approach: as if “better management” were the answer to all of our problems.

From a planetary perspective, humans are embedded in evolving natural-cultural agential communities.  Humans cannot “manage” the earth, but must learn to work with and from the evolving planetary community as partners. 12 We work from within contexts and we remain focused on those contexts with an eye toward the worlds we want to help co-create. This is, in part, the message of the incarnation: a deep attention to the ways in which our bodies are radically interconnected with material and cultural flows, that we are “not our own,” yet that we do have the capacity for responding to the situation at hand in an effort to create channels for different ways of becoming. Whether we are talking about the bodhisattva tradition in which the enlightened continue to return again and again until all beings reach salvation (which takes different routes depending upon context), or we are talking about Jesus on the Cross, who had to give up on his understanding of God in order to be re-born, incarnation entails a bit of unknowing and being open to multiple possibilities for future becoming. 13

The prophetic figures of religious traditions all emerge in specific contexts and seek to address the problems of that context.  As religions institutionalize, they become more and more concerned with maintaining some sort of orthodoxy (and authority) than with the demands of polydoxy: contexts require attention to the details.  Thus, over and over again in religious and philosophical traditions we have what John Cobb refers to as “secularizing moments.” 14 These are moments of deconstruction, the death of God, iconoclasm, trickster tactics, and apophasis in which reified institutions seeking to globalize their own truth as the truth are broken open so that new meanings can be co-created from multiple planetary contexts. Thus, perhaps the most “eco-theological” thing we can do is to begin to embody and practice uncertainty and unknowing.

Uncertain and Open-Ended Theologies

If, as Catherine Keller has noted, more violence has been done in the name of certainty than uncertainty, then perhaps it is time to embrace some of the more apophatic traditions within our meaning-making practices. 15 Certainty presumes a transcendent space of removal that we human beings can gain some sort of access to and thus also provides an impetus to spread that truth over the face of the entire planet.  Again, this is not just a tendency within religious traditions but also within modern science.  The Enlightenment, Industrial Civilization, Development, The Green Revolution, and other tropes that suggest modern scientific thinking and its technology is “more true” than anything else that exists or has come before, also participate in the violence of certainty. Though the scientific method has a built-in mechanism for a skeptical approach to knowledge, scientific information (much like religious information) tends to get reified into institutions of power that begin to promote a way of knowing as the way of knowing.

Part of the problem is that the projection of certainty allows our lives to proceed at the hyper, fossil-fueled pace that we are accustomed to.  Uncertainty, ambiguity, hybridity, and a world with open-ended possibilities are messier, take more time, and require that we take the time to think-with ambiguities and uncertainties rather than ignore all that is uncertain in the name of acting toward some notion of progress. Hence, there is a resurgence among socially and ecologically minded scholars of religion of lifting up religious traditions of unknowing, and the mystical and contemplative practices that help us to live into spaces of unknowing and think with them a bit. 16 Theologically, we ought to be examining what it means to slow down and think with uncertainty: this represents the re-emergence of faith and hope, which is the opposite of certainty. Though overwhelming, it is also a relief that we are not fully in control, that we are not alone in the world, and that there are many possibilities for the ways in which the planetary community might become (it’s not “all or nothing”).

Toward that end, and as I have argued elsewhere, rather than look at environmental ethics as merely those issues that constitute concern with the non-human world or our interactions with the non-human world, environmental ethics in a time of ambiguity ought to be calling for things that give us the time to slow down and think: free health care, free education, public transportation, shorter work weeks, and moving away from the fossil-fueled realities that keep our imaginings in hyper-speeds that literally outstrip the carrying capacities of the planet. 17  Imagine a world that we could really stop to enjoy and live into; one that promotes technologies for human-earth relations rather than just for removing humans from the rest of the natural world.  And when you are done with that imagining, imagine a different possibility that is even better; and continue this process ad infinitum. This is what a theology and ethics of ambiguity calls for: nothing more, and nothing less. 18


  1. Brennan, Teresa. 2003. Globalization and its Terrors: Daily Life in the West. New York, NY: Routledge.
  2. Heise, Ursula. 2008. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  3. Merchant, Carolyn. 2003. Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture. New York, NY: Routledge.
  4. Nelson, Robert. 2010. The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
  5. Jenkins, Willis. 2013. The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
  6. Keller, Catherine and Laurel Schneider, eds. 2010. Polydoxy: Theology of Multiplicity and Relation. New York, NY: Routledge.
  7. Spivak, Gayatri. 2005. Death of a Discipline. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  8. Latour, Bruno.  2005. “‘Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame’ – or How not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate” in James D. Proctor. Ed. Science Religion and the Human Experience, pp27-48. New York, Oxford University Press.
  9. Peterson, Anna. 2001. Being Human: Ethics, Environment and Our Place in the World. Berkeley, CA: University CA Press.
  10. Jenkins, Willis.  2013. The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
  11. Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. 2007 ed. Dialectic of Enlightenment (Cultural Memory in the Present). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  12. Merchant, Carolyn. 2003. Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture. New York, NY: Routledge.
  13. Kearney, Richard. 2009. Anatheism: Returning to God After God. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  14. Cobb, John. 2010. Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
  15. Keller, Catherine. 2005. God and Power: Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
  16. Boesel, Chris and Catherine Keller, eds. 2009. Apophatic Bodies: Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.
  17. Bauman, Whitney. 2014. Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  18. The “ethics of ambiguity” is the subject of a coauthored book I am working on with Richard Bohannon and Kevin O’Brien.  It is tentatively entitled: Religion, Nature and Ambiguity: The Ethics of Unknowing (Forthcoming 2015).
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