Out of the Depths: Denialism, Nihilism, and the Possibility of Ecological Civilization

By Catherine Keller

At this moment in this prematurely aging new year, with Omicron omnipresent, I do not want to discuss the virus. You already know it reveals environmental imbalance, social injustice,  global interdependence. Instead, I want to think with you about that inescapable non-separability, about the planetary environment and its relentless warming. And warning.

One planetary paradox that worries me is the following: because climate change exacerbates human injustice and worsens the effects of systemic poverty, racism, and neo-colonialism, these human torments and their political drivers will repeatedly eclipse the inhuman scale of climate change. At the same time, the sciences of climate change dwarf and may thereby trivialize the human suffering. So liberal and progressive publics face the danger of a zero-sum planetary game in which social justice and environmental degradation compete for attention and resources.

The language of “ecosocial justice” tries to avoid that competition among crucial issues. It compactly signals their interlinkages. How might we work within that intersectional, ecosocial web to hold a more vibrant solidarity across our insistent differences—and in resistance to right-wing denialism?

That paradox lives within a second, broader challenge: it spins in the vicious circle of climate denialism on the right and climate nihilism on the left. The tension takes on apocalyptic tonalities. The worse the climate data trends, the fiercer must be the denial—and the deeper the nihilistic hopelessness. The Don’t Look Up perspective of the former is far louder. But the nihilism of the latter spreads quietly among climate-informed publics, younger and older, along with the worsening facts. It is not so much a position (as in “it is now too late”) as a mood. It undermines the motives for action on the part of those from whose engagement is most needed.

I catch myself falling into a denialism of sorts—into stretches in which I set the questions of the future habitability of the planet aside, not explicitly doubting the trend but in practice ignoring it, a practical denialism in defense against despair. No doubt short-term shifts of focus are crucial for mental health, not to mention for responsibility toward other pressing social issues. But this kind of denialism is a much larger zone of unintended repression.

Such nihilistic despair on the left does a few things. It strengthens conservative Christian investment in capitalist optimism—the confidence that climate change is a hoax, or exaggerated, or technologically fixable. It demonstrates a lack of faith on the left, who lack belief that an omnipotent Lord rules sovereign over the climate. This helps make the left dismissible.

This conservative Christian response is not always driven by antagonism against “liberals.” At times, it’s driven by belief and care. A young friend who grew up on a farm in the deep South reports this conversation with his mother: “Son, I know you’ve been worrying about this climate thing. I used to think you were wrong. But we’re farmers, we can see the changes now. But honey you don’t have to worry about it: it just means the Lord is coming again real soon.” On this view, the movement toward ecological responsibility reads as faithlessness. Indeed, environmentalists, whether secular or religious, lack faith in an all-controlling deity.

Of course, if left-wing nihilism contains its own unrecognized denialism, the reverse is true: climate (or pandemic) denialism carries its own hidden nihilism. Human responsibility to care for the broad systems of the Earth is negated in favor of a distorted misreading of human “dominion.”  The God who created the world from nothing is left to determine the important outcomes. Such inconsistency oscillates between predetermination of human actions to correction for them. Thus, the post-biblical dogma of creatio ex nihilo foments its own practical nihilism: a creation not just from but toward human self-destruction: a creatio ad nihilum.

The theological energy of right-wing deniers makes faith-based environmental movements critical to preserving the habitable planet. The groups that link faith(s) with commitment to healing the earth motivate ecological and social justice. Their theologies differ broadly and they rarely convey belief in the Creator’s control over the creatures, human and otherwise. Their theologies work to empower action rather withdrawal from the matter of the shared world.

For instance, even as I write, the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest is unfolding. Its theology in a biblical nutshell:

From yesterday: Noah was warned that the state of society would cause a flood that would threaten life on Earth, but didn’t act because he didn’t realize that he actually had the power to make a difference. Abraham, by contrast, pleaded with G-d to save Sodom and Gomorrah, even against seemingly impossible odds. Let us be like Abraham, find our power, and use it to work for our planet and all that lives on.

Such self-empowerment pauses the vicious circling of denialism and nihilism.

In an academic example of theology that eco-activates, I just taught an intensive on Process Theology for ministerial students. Based on the philosophy of A.N. Whitehead, process thought reads every creature as an event of interconnection with its environment, extending out beyond the very planet. Its theos does not control the process but lures it with fresh possibilities of becoming. As part of the actualization of such possibilities, process theology half a century ago became inseparable from ecotheology, largely due to the visionary leadership of John B. Cobb, Jr. His prophetic reading of our civilization’s trend, Is it Too Late?, has just been republished in a 50 year centennial edition. Our class ended with What is Ecological Civilization? by theologians Philip Clayton and Andrew Schwartz, which grew out of the work reported on the quickly growing Ecociv website. This book uses almost only secular arguments yet draws upon their deep spiritual motivation. Process theology grows from a cosmic wisdom that offers no guaranteed outcomes but rather improbable possibilities for more just and sustainable materializations.

In the interest of such improbabilities, let me conclude by meditating on one new, unbearable fact: the oceans have warmed this past year more than at any time in history. How warm? John Abraham, professor of thermal sciences, writes, “The oceans have absorbed heat equivalent to seven Hiroshima atomic bombs detonating each second, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.” This heating speeds the dying of the coral reefs and therefore of all of sea life, like the plankton, which provide 50 to 80 percent of the oxygen we breathe—more than the equally threatened forests.

In resistance to a nihilistic response to this chilling news, we may resort to a theological argument. Most biblical scholars agree that Genesis 1:2 reports not a beginning of the world ex nihilo, from nothing, but out of the tehom (the deep) and the mayim (waters) over which the Spirit vibrates. The pre-creation waters are already there when Elohim, God, begins to create, making creation ex profundis (out of the depths) more than ex nihilo (see my Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming) This suggests a God who created not in solitary omnipotence but in primordial co-responsibility with or from the tehom and mayim. And if God is not in sole dominion, humanity, in God’s image, is also not. We must work co-creatively with all the creatures of our world.

While the deep, watery metaphor won’t cool the oceans, it can call forth a creativity ex profundis, out of whatever depths of fear and devastation we face. From the author of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry unto you.” But the cry today is not for a divine fix. It is for faith—God-full or God-less—in the transforming possibilities that still sparkle in the depths.

In the face of those “seemingly impossible odds,” as the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest puts it, we can deny or nihilate those im/possible possibilities for the healing of earth, of ocean, of us. Or we can find energy in those depths. They not only accommodate but strengthen the intersections among our manifold commitments to the environment and to social justice. Tough as the facts remain, they do include the finding that the number of those “alarmed” by climate change has doubled in just five years. Breaking the stuck cycles of denialism and nihilism, we might find the force and flow of a widening solidarity.


Catherine Keller is George T. Cobb Professor of Constructive Theology in The Graduate Division of Religion of Drew University. She teaches and lectures across a broad spectrum of pluralist, ecofeminist, process, and political theology. Her most recent book is Facing Apocalypse:  Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances. Other books include:  Face of the Deep: a Theology of Becoming;  Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement; and Political Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Public. She has co-edited multiple volumes of the Drew Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium, most recently Political Theology on Edge: Ruptures of Justice and Belief in the Anthropocene.

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Photo: Steve Lamb “Arctic Ocean Ice” Barrow, Alaska, 2018.







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