No one wakes up and ponders the geologic time scale when mapping out the day’s mundanities: what to have for breakfast, which clothes to wear, how to get to school, work, the grocery store. Instead, we glance at our phones or, if we’re stuck on retro, an alarm clock.
Larry Rasmussen, the noted Santa Fe-based Christian social and environmental ethicist, suggests the former framing, the longer view, in his forthcoming book, The Planet You Inherit: Letters to My Grandchildren When Uncertainty’s a Sure Thing (Broadleaf Books, 2022).
That’s because there is, in fact, cause for alarm, though you won’t find it on an all-knowing, electronic rectangle or glowing from an LED display on your bedside table.
As the climate crisis alters landscapes, sometimes beyond recognition, how must the moral compass change to navigate a transfigured earth?
Rasmussen grew up in rural Minnesota, studied and taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and moved to Santa Fe in 2004 with his wife, Nyla, where they’ve lived ever since.
The Planet You Inherit confronts the changing geological epochs that divide his and his wife’s lives from those of their grandchildren, Eduardo and Martín—namely, the shift between the Holocene and Anthropocene epochs.
The Holocene Epoch dates roughly to the past 11,700 years of earth’s history, beginning at the close of the last major glacial event, or “ice age.” The Anthropocene Epoch is not an official unit of geologic time; it’s been widely credited to atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene F. Stoermer, who popularized the term in 2000. They did not give it a definite start date but held that it encompasses the period of time when humans began to alter environmental systems and processes so fundamentally that we have the power to effect change on a planetary level.
For Rasmussen, the Anthropocene Epoch marks a profound shift in the consequences of human action—and morality. Our decisions’ exponentially far-reaching impacts emphasize the effects of our habits, for good and ill. And it guarantees one thing: a future of uncertainty.
That’s the future into which Rasmussen’s grandchildren were born. Love letters to 7-year-old Eduardo and 4-year-old Martín comprise The Planet You Inherit, weaving together the events of the children’s lives with the cataclysmic unfolding of the climate crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic, the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol.
Rasmussen parallels these formative moments of our time with his early adulthood in the 1960s, but with one crucial difference: the future of the planet itself is now unsettled.
From that condition radiates a central question: With the very premise of a future for his grandkids and all the kids of their generation in question, has the human condition changed? Does the planetary emergency reshape the way we love, the definition of hope, the purpose we find in our lives?
SFR sat down with Rasmussen to learn more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SFR: When did you realize that your grandkids will live in a world irrevocably different from the one you grew up in?
LR: It wasn’t a single moment, but a growing fear. Even before the boys were born, it was very clear that my attention had to shift from present to future generations.
Friends in academe were carefully assessing the impact of a fossil fuel extractive economy. They were seeing that we were changing the systems of the earth itself, changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and the oceans. Scientists have been pretty good at playing out the scenarios of what happens when you change earth’s systems—they were only wrong in the timing.
By the time Eduardo was born, I was very concerned about what the future would be for him and any siblings he might have. Soon we had two grandsons entering this world when the basic planetary systems were undergoing profound change.
Why did you write the book as love letters to your grandchildren?
The reason is really twofold. The first is that [Nyla and I] are octogenarians, and they’re very young. We will not, in all likelihood, see them grow into their teen and young adult years, so I wanted to write them letters so that they know how we’ve been looking at the world they’re entering as we reflected on the one that we grew up in, and the planet we came to love.
I wrote them chronologically with a view to what’s been happening around us. There’s one called “Love in a Time of Plague,” about the onset of COVID when Eduardo couldn’t go back to his Pre-K because it had shut down. So I’m writing in response to what’s happening to them, and I’m remembering things that happened to us that they will have no knowledge of whatsoever except by way of history books.
We were on Manhattan Island when the bombing of the World Trade Center happened. I was in Berlin with friends for a year when Kennedy was assassinated. So I’m thinking back on these major events in our lives that were formative for us, and thinking about what may well be formative for them.
The second one was this growing sense that this planet is a changed planet. The one that Nyla and I grew up on isn’t the one they’re growing up on. So I wanted to try to face what they face in a profoundly altered earth, and see how you communicate love, hope and justice under those conditions.
There’s a thread through the book about the importance of habits—how small, everyday actions make us who we are. How can we become more attentive to our habits, and better understand what they’re forming in ourselves and our communities?
I write in the very first letter to Eduardo that Anthropocene citizens who carry on Holocene habits doom their children. We live as if we can continue driving our fossil-fueled cars and have a fossil-fueled extractive economy. We can’t—not without making things far worse for our children.
We have to attend to systemic racism and systemic inequality, which played out with COVID and vaccine rollouts. We’ve become much more aware of the systemic dimensions attached to our habits. Our systems, structures, institutions and policies become a kind of autopilot for our behavior, and it’s hard when you’re on autopilot to look very deeply into what those habits are.
We have an opportunity now to be aware of our habits that just didn’t register with us when we weren’t paying so much attention to the systemic dimensions of white privilege. I grew up in rural Minnesota, and I was always taught that if you work hard and get good grades, you can be and do anything you want. White privilege was deeply ingrained because systemically it was the way in which the economy was run, the way in which the politics and governance were carried out.
The yearning to return to what we regard as normal ends up being a part of the pattern that played out with the pandemic and racial injustice and systemic inequality, wealth and power distribution. The same pattern played out in every single one of them, and we know that, but still, we yearn for normal. A lot of people don’t want to return to what was normal for them.
It’s amazing to me how we look at climate change in horror, then look away and carry on just as we did before. This morning I fixed breakfast the same way. I had bananas in my granola, and didn’t ask at what cost for the folks whose land produces bananas. So I’m talking more about the persistence of a way of life that is increasingly destructive, and we are increasingly aware of it, but we carry on much as before.
It’s critical to take action. People will slide into despair and depression in the face of climate volatility and mass uncertainty. The source of hope is taking action in response to hopeless situations.
But as you point out in the book, the wealthiest 10% of earth’s population produce half of all carbon emissions, which can make individual action by the rest of us feel futile. How would you approach that reality?
What you can do is work at a sustainable community in the region where you live that addresses social and environmental justice. Shorten those global supply lines, and don’t become so dependent on people who live far away. We’re tied together.
In the late ‘80s I studied what makes for sustainable communities and looked at societies that had to make big transitions. This was during the dissolution of the Soviet Union when the countries in Eastern Europe were becoming independent. The ones that made the most successful transitions were the ones that already had lots of people asking questions like, ‘What kind of education do we want our kids to have, now that we don’t have Soviet-required education? What kind of economy? How are we going to govern ourselves?’ I think the same thing is going on right now. There are lots of communities trying to attend to what a viable, sustainable community would be.
What parameters have changed for creating, or reimagining, communities with the dawn of the Anthropocene?
The mark of the Holocene was climate stability, and the mark of the Anthropocene is climate volatility—and that’s because of the pervasive presence and power of human beings.
The key for the grandkids, and for future generations as far as we can see, is this human power to change earth’s systems themselves. For example, we can rewrite the script in the book of life by way of what we can do with DNA. If you alter genomes, that change is a change forever. And if you get it wrong, it’s wrong forever. So there’s an evolutionary reset that comes with the Anthropocene that wasn’t present in the Holocene.
Hans Jonas put his finger on it in The Imperative of Responsibility by saying that we now, collectively and cumulatively, are exercising human powers to the point where we can’t take responsibility for them. What are the conditions that future generations need, and what will be the conditions in which they live? We’re creating those conditions, and they’ll have to live with them, but we don’t know what we’re doing.
Climate paleontologists say we’ve probably staved off the next ice age, which was due in 50,000 years, by warming the planet now. We’re creating the circumstances not just for future generations of human beings, but for flora and fauna, bacteria, and all those essential workers upon which our lives depend. We’re creating those conditions without having any notion of what we’re doing, much less capacity to be responsible for them.
You write that your worldview is one of tragedy, which is in some way opposed to that slide into despair. What does that mean to you?
The very things from which we benefit in one generation are the source of oppression in a later generation. People continue to carry on with that destructive force, even when it becomes clear that we cannot carry on in that way.
My parents lived in the postwar expanding middle class. My dad had a service station, my mom was a homemaker. We all benefited—I benefited—from the fossil fuel extractive economy. And now, that very source of what led me to get a college education is the source of my grandchildren’s planetary emergency. So part of my tragic view is that good and evil are often twinned. What is good for some people in some circumstances is, at the same time, the source of oppression and injustice for others.
How do you see that playing out here in New Mexico?
We’re so dependent on gas and oil royalties that even when we’ve committed to move to fully renewable sources of energy, the governor still says, “I gotta work with everybody because our budget is so dependent on it.”
I was at the Roundhouse for all of those hearings on the Energy Transition Act and it stunned me that Farmington schools were dependent upon the money they got from gas and oil. New Mexico is a kind of microcosm of commitment to renewables and the resources to do that—320 days of sunshine—and at the same time being utterly dependent on fossil fuels, which create climate change.
So how should your grandkids’ generation fight hopelessness in the face of those cycles?
We’re in the sixth mass extinction, the first one effected by human beings. Our grandchildren will have words for it that Nyla and I never knew—eco-anxiety; eco-lament. These are psychological realities with which their generation will live in uncertainty. They’re growing up in a world where there will be an enormous amount of suffering—human suffering, and suffering of the more-than-human world.
The question I always get is, ‘What gives you hope? How would you want your children and grandchildren to live into this?’ When I think back to the ‘60s when there was a lot of danger and a lot of worry about society coming apart, but we were genuinely hopeful. There was a sense of progress, a sense of optimism. That’s not what we’ve got now. When I think of that, I think what matters is what kind of meaning they find in their response to these overwhelming challenges.
In the letter called “You Finish the Story,” I pick up on something that came from Greta Thunberg. People responded to her prophetic voice about the planetary emergency by saying, since she’s always the bearer of bad news, that she must be suffering. And Thunberg says, “No—in this cause, I found the meaning of my life.”
What’s the role of imagination, or faith, in shaping the planet’s future?
One of the themes in the literature about our present circumstances is that we need to actually reimagine our imagination. We need to be able to conceive of something different and see its possibilities, and that’s a task of mind as both intellect and imagination.
Human beings do that because we’re the kind of creature that not only responds to the immediacy of our environment, but lives on an arc that goes from what is, to what could be, to what ought to be. Moral imagination is natural for us.
But we’ve got conflicting stories about what our guiding narrative should be, so that adds another dimension to imagining a different world, when the stories that you have are themselves incompatible.
I don’t think we can’t make our way to where we ought to go apart from some spiritual vision and some values that are rooted in religion— and the word religion is really a reference to the ties that bind. Where are you rooted? What risks will you take because you are tied to certain values, visions, hopes and dreams?
I think we have to have a creed we would risk our lives for. You don’t have to make it so dramatic as if life were being risked in every moment, but what I mean to ask is, ‘What way of life would you want to be a part of?’ Because it’s so fundamentally important that you live in that way, and that your kids and grandkids have that opportunity to choose their way of life, too.
If you find your way in life it will be because of the meaning you found, and the meaning you gave, as you and your generation face down the single greatest collective challenge humankind has ever confronted.
Humans have long degraded their environments, sometimes to the point of exhaustion of their own living worlds or, more likely, the worlds of those they conquered and colonized. But if the stark warnings of the IPCC and the UN are as well-founded as daily apocalypse reports and California fires now make obvious, then my ancestors and I have done something qualitatively different than what we had in the Holocene. Australia is aflame as I write. An area the size of Switzerland is charred and littered with millions of dead animals. The “trees of ashes wave goodbye to goodbye” as ecologists become coroners.
I don’t mean only that we’ve ravaged the natural world in the process of thinking we could build our way out of nature into a habitat of our own (the myth of separation). I mean we have re-engineered nature as a whole such that Earth has been set on a new course. Something like an “evolutionary reset” is the astonishing circumstance that falls to you and yours. That’s Anthropocene singularity.
Your vocation, your calling, your Great Work will be to remap the world on an altered Earth for a different way of life in an uncharted future. The relatively stable center of the Holocene no longer holds. You, then, are setting out on a new age of discovery and a dangerous pilgrimage. Yet you may find the meaning of that journey strangely life-giving! You may find in it the why that will not let you go even as you live into the unknown. You may even find unlimited enthusiasm for unprecedented challenges. I suspect you will find yourself “saying yes to life in spite of everything.”
I think of Greta Thunberg, the environmental activist. At sixteen she began the school strikes for climate action that became a movement of world youth. This thrust her onto the world stage where, like a prophet, she has been unrelenting about a brave commitment for urgent action to Confront climate calamity. Since her campaign always bore bad news about a worsening reality—a stark planetary emergency is upon us, she repeated over and over—people thought she herself must suffer its message. Her response? “People seem to think I am depressed, or angry, or worried, but that’s not true. It was like I got meaning in my life.”
Leading the charge in a great cause is exhilarating and gives her satisfaction and meaning. Still, I worry about the burden you and Eduardo will carry and how it will affect you. The Talmud is wise about this: “You are not obligated to complete the task. But neither are you free to desist from it.” Your calling is to take a few steps for a new chapter, not put the old world back together or finish the new one. Just begin.
I so hope you and Eduardo make this adventure your life. It’s not often that the chance to create civilization comes calling.
From The Planet You Inherit: Letters to My Grandchildren When Uncertainty’s a Sure Thing by Larry L. Rasmussen copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission.