Cicero, in his Tusculan Disputations, recounts the ancient story of Damocles: a fawning Sicilian courtier to the King Dionysius II whofor one day was allowed to switch positions with the Machiavellian king. To signify to Damocles the many threats to his throne, the king had a new ornament installed. One of Chaucer’s knights in The Canterbury Tales describes the would-be parvenue “With the sharpe swerd over his heed / Hangynge by a soutil twynes threed.”1
Damocles’ ease was short lived. Despite his newfound opulence and power, his mind begins to narrow onto the blade hanging threateningly above him. He soon asks to be relieved of his new position. Many have compared Damocles sword to the existential threat of climate change and the comparison suggest itself poetically; Damocles even lends his name to an Arctic ice-loss monitoring system.
Our present environmental trajectory is, by all reports, following worst-case predictions.2 And this, in conjunction with the public’s nonchalance, gives the situation an apocalyptic air. Language seems not quite up to the task, yet it must still be said. Climate change is an existential threat to any semblance of organized human life we have known up until this point. Scientific lingo hasn’t been terribly convincing, so let’s begin by saying it another way: your children and grandchildren may know the taste of famine and starvation. They may know a desecrated planet whose temperature is now outside of the 10,000 year-long window of agriculture-permitting stability, whose water-cycles are perverted, and whose living topsoil – that thin biotic layer on which all plant life depends – has mostly been eroded and washed out to the ocean. We are at the brink of triggering multiple positive feedback loops (tipping points like methane release from a melting Arctic permafrost) whose consequences are truly unknown. Christopher Nolan’s latest film TENET centers around a machine that makes time flow backwards. The villain tells us the motivation of the inventors: “Their oceans rose and their rivers ran dry.” It is no surprise that doctors have said climate change is the greatest threat to global human health in the 21st century.3
The basic problem is geometric at its core: we live on a cyclical world, yet have linear expectations of it. Any industrial, exponential logic which expects growth at any cost (the 7% annual rate of return of your 401k) shares the same logic as cancer. It is, obviously, only a short-term strategy for growth. Parasites die when they kill their hosts. Such a mode of life is what Wendell Berry calls an “explosive” economy “that will set no limits on itself.”4 This is the economy that sees nature not as fellow-creature but as a “resource” to control, as a sphere for human domination. This is what William Blake foresaw in the sooty mechanical blossoming of industrial capitalism: “dark Satanic mills” spreading over, and mining for their fuel, “Englands mountains green.”5 Locke, Bacon, and Newton are those sorcerers of modernity who would not live to see the otherworldly power of the spells they cast. While the liberation and enlightenment they promised certainly contained elements of truth, Blake describes how their imagination ultimately chokes creaturely flourishing: “Reasonings like vast Serpents / Enfold around my limbs, bruising my minute articulations.”
… black the cloth
In heavy wreaths folds over every Nation: cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic,
Moving by compulsion each other; not as those in Eden, which,
Wheel within wheel, in freedom revolve, in harmony and peace.
Wendell Berry expounds upon these lines of Blake, drawing special attention to their two modes of coupling. The first is the mechanical metaphor of two gears driving one another in opposite directions, ‘wheel without wheel’ hellishly embodying the principle of division and dead mechanical connection. The root meaning of ‘control’ is to roll against. The second mode is the relation of mutual, Edenic, and creaturely flourishing: the harmony of ‘wheel within wheel’. This is what Berry calls our little economy in right relation with the Great Economy. The Great Economy is “both known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious,” a harmonious way of being which recognizes the true sources of life – the Creator, the earth, the soil, and our deep connection with one another. Berry calls this, alternatively, the Tao, the Kingdom of God, or E.F. Shumacher’s ‘Buddhist economics’; I would add to this shalom/salaam, or Ivan Illich’s conviviality. All of these are correlates with the many rich indigenous visions of mutual flourishing, like Randy Woodley’s “harmony way” or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s interweaving of human culture and indigenous wisdom in Braiding Sweetgrass. The violence inflicted by the colonial trifecta – the capitalist merchant, the indoctrinating missionary, and the conquering soldier6 – upon indigenous communities is a parallel of our contemporary war upon creaturely well-being. Our little economies, the way our household (oikos) is ordered (nomos), only thrives if synchronized with the Great Economy, weal within Weal. A recovery of the ‘indigenous’ roots of Western culture allows a rapprochement with the rest of creation, a deep repentance towards the sins committed towards our siblings, and the repair of our relationship with the earth.
Blake’s image of the wheels is drawn from the book of Ezekiel. Against the dead mechanicism of industrial gears, the living creatures, divine chariot, and mystical tempest the prophet experiences in the first chapter of Ezekiel is an experience of spirit-infused life. The wheels themselves are alive, “for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”7 While such a way of life builds on organic and spiritual images – not mechanical – it is not to deny the role of human cultural cultivation and the dignity of work. The final chapters of the book of Ezekiel eschatologically explore a garden city as the telos of creaturely life.
As another example of the distinction between ‘wheel within wheel’ and ‘wheel without wheel,’ Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy expresses the cosmology both of Heaven and Hell in circular terms. In Inferno, Dante is led through the descending circles of hell, each one colder and more lifeless:
I am in the third circle, of eternal,
hateful rain, cold and leaden,
changeless in its monotony.8
Paradise, too, is circular. Dante is led in ascent through the planets whose orbits, before Kepler, were thought to exemplify circular geometrical perfection. But theirs is not the perfect cold and lifeless rigidity of Hell; the Heavens embody the harmony of the cosmos put to right. In fact, the triune God is even imagined as three interpenetrating circles. Paradiso ends with an ecstatic thunderclap, launching Dante into the depths of the divine life:
Here my exalted vision lost its power.
But now my will and my desire, like wheels revolving
with an even motion, were turning with
the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.9
We must model creaturely relations after what is most true of the Creator, in whose image, after all, we are created. The economy of ‘wheel within wheel’ resonates with current attempts to move beyond capitalism towards a true garden economics: a garden, while it experiences evolution and maturation, is cultivated within discrete creaturely borders.10 Indeed, the saints in Paradiso are nestled within a rose, a “sure and joyful kingdom” around which buzz angelic bees “bestow[ing] peace and love … upon the pedals, row on row”.11 Of course, roses represent Mary, the orator of the Magnificat, as well as the struggle for a liberatory politics.
Starting in 2020, the city of Amsterdam – the birthplace of the Dutch East India company and an early birthplace of modern colonial capitalism12 – began charting a new course by drawing upon economist Kate Raworth’s work and pursuing a purposefully circular Doughnut Economics.13
This model envisions our collective footprint upon earth as ideally situated between poverty and threateningly decadent overconsumption, in full recognition of ecological boundaries and the Great Economy. Only within these bounds can a truly rich and convivial life be cultivated. Such a way of life implies a sharp break with present global inequality, where eight men own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, and where the costs of the emissions of the wealthy fall upon the backs of the poor. There is great precedent for such work, as well as affirmation of its moral necessity, from contemporary thinkers as diverse as Donatella Meadows, Pope Francis, Yanis Varoufakis, Rowan Williams, and Noam Chomsky. Such a framework is a step towards a decolonial, democratic, theological, and rights-centered approach which may yet allow a way for creaturely life to flourish on earth. But for this to happen, we must turn aside from our present highway to destruction. We should allow the density of apocalyptic language to rest upon us; we must feel its weight in our bones. All predictions and actions come down to a simple reality. Scientists now affirm what the biblical prophetic tradition said all along: we either choose life, or die.
In his famous speech, Chief Seattle spoke to the conquerors of his people, lamenting the callousness they showed to their siblings in the rest of creation:
We know that the white man does not understand our ways … The earth is not his brother but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his fathers’ graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children.14
Damocles’ sword is a tempting way to think about environmental threats, but it is incomplete because it presumes a necessary connection between flourishing and danger – Damocles’ day in the sun could only come with the price of the looming sword. This is false. We can flourish without putting ourselves in danger, by pursuing the way of peace, justice, and cultivated right-relationship. We do not live with a sword over our heads. Poets and prophets have raised a call against our current way of life. The status quo is a slow suicide.15 The status quo is Russian Roulette. Even this is not quite stark enough; it is rather that the rich are playing Russian Roulette with the lives of all of us, beginning first with the poor and vulnerable. We put ‘wheel against wheel’ as we roll the revolver’s cylinder. Year after year we keep pulling the trigger, inviting destruction through our greed and callousness. Indigenous communities, scientists, and the young speak out about the threat of climate collapse; thankfully, the direction towards survival, away from collapse, is also the movement towards flourishing, justice, and equality. May we take the bullet out of the gun, and continue to prayerfully work, agitate, and hunger for a world of abundant life.
- Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, interlinear translation available at https://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/kt-par3.htm.
- Fiona Harvey, “Global Ice Loss Accelerating At Record Rate, Study Finds,” The Guardian, January 25, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/25/global-ice-loss-accelerating-at-record-rate-study-finds.
- David Introcaso,”Climate Change Is The Greatest Threat To Human Health In History,” Health Affairs Blog, December 19, 2018. https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20181218.278288/full/
- Wendell Berry, “Two Economies,” Review & Expositor 81, no. 2 (May 1984): 209–23. https://doi.org/10.1177/003463738408100204.
- William Blake, The Poetical Works of William Blake, ed. by John Sampson, (London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1908), f. 2, selections available at https://www.bartleby.com/235/284.html.
- Willie James Jennings, “Reframing the World: Toward an Actual Christian Doctrine of Creation,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 21, no. 4 (October 2019):388-407, doi:10.1111/ijst.12385.
- Ezek 1:20
- Dante Alighieri, Inferno, trans.Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2000), Canto VI:7-9.
- Dante Alighieri. Paradiso, trans. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (New York: Anchor Books), Canto XXX:142-5.
- Cf. Alejandro Garcia-Rivera, The Garden of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 2009 for a developed theological cosmology of the garden.
- Dante, Paradiso, XXXI:1-18.
- In another floral economic twist, Amsterdam is also home to the ‘tulip fever’ of the 17th century, the iconic image of the boom-and-bust nature of modern finance and futures trading. The implications with regards to Reformed theology – another tulip phenomenon popular in the Netherlands – remain to be explored.
- Ciara Nugent, “Amsterdam Is Embracing a Radical New Economic Theory to Help Save the Environment. Could It Also Replace Capitalism?,” Time.com, January 22, 2021, https://time.com/5930093/amsterdam-doughnut-economics/
- Chief Seattle’s speech is easily available online, for example at https://suquamish.nsn.us/home/about-us/chief-seattle-speech/
- Julia Pyper, ” UN Chief Guterres: The Status Quo on Climate Policy ‘Is a Suicide’,” GreenTechMedia.com, June 7, 2019, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/un-chief-guterres-the-status-quo-is-a-suicide.