A Challenge to Rethink our Future Now
A Review of
The Planet You Inherit: Letters to My Grandchildren When Uncertainty’s a Sure Thing
Larry L. Rasmussen
Hardback: Broadleaf Books, 2022
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Reviewed by Leroy Seat
Eduardo and Martin Rasmussen Villegas, born in 2015 and 2018, have a prominent grandfather who took considerable time and energy to write loving letters to them. But while the letters clearly express his love for the two young boys, it will likely be 2035 and beyond before the grandsons will be able to comprehend the meaning and significance of those letters. Maybe, though, the writer’s intention was to say important things to adults who are reading those letters now, as well as to Eduardo and Martin, who will be reading them much later.
Larry L. Rasmussen (b. 1939) is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, emeritus, at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Among his published books are Earth Community Earth Ethics (Orbis Books, 1996) and Earth Honoring Faith (Oxford U. Press, 2013). It is no surprise, then, that the letters to his grandsons in this new book are primarily related to his many years of eco-theological teaching and writing. The twenty-two letters in The Planet You Inherit were dated from January 2018 to April 2021. The book was published in November 2022, and it certainly deserves to be widely read in 2023—and beyond.
The first page of the first letter, titled “Epoch Times,” introduces a theme that the author mentions in many of the following letters, the change from the late Holocene to the early Anthropocene epochs. According to Grandfather Rasmussen, the former means “the wholly recent,” which covers approximately the last 11,700 years of Earth’s history, and the latter term means “the age of the human,” the new epoch in which Eduardo and Martin are living.
The shift of geological epochs is the basis for the book’s subtitle. Recognizing that “climate stability is a prerequisite for organized society,” the author ponders the question of “what do we do now when planetary uncertainty’s the only sure thing?” He recognizes that the trajectory for the years ahead “is climate instability, mass uncertainty, and breathtaking extinction” (11, 12). Rasmussen seeks to write about more pleasant matters, such as beauty and love, in the last part of this nine-page letter. Yet, near the end he raises the question for those of us still living in the Holocene epoch, “How is it that we missed the obvious: that it’s suicidal to live our lives at the expense of planetary life, and that planetary life is all we have?” (17).
When this reviewer finished reading the first letter, he wrote Wow! at the end. Grandpa Rasmussen dealt with so much there that needs to be thoughtfully considered and acted on by people of his/my age and our children’s ages long before Eduardo is able to comprehend most of what his grandfather wrote to him.
The author’s second letter was written on July 8, 2020, the second birthday of his second grandson, affectionately called Spud. It is mostly about the writer’s boyhood in a small village in southwestern Minnesota. The ethical issue dealt with at the end of this letter is that of “white racism,” and it is one of the few letters that is not primarily about ecological concerns. But in the next letter, written just a week later, Grandpa writes, “We are . . . at the outset of the mass extinction for which we are uniquely responsible.” Then he quickly adds, “There is still time to avert the worst” (32). However, assuming that was true in 2020, which it may not have been, will it still be true in 2040, when Spud is twenty years old?
In the following letter, “You Finish the Story,” written the very next day, the author says to his youngest grandson, “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” (39). In many of the following letters, he reiterates this idea of the Great Work. It seems Rasmussen’s hope is for his grandsons– and us– to embark on this Great Work.
There is much that could be said, of course, about each of the letters, but that cannot be done within the scope of this review. But the above references to the first four letters indicate the central emphasis of the book. Some letters, though, are about broader theological issues, letters such as the three published on pages 95-116. The first of those begins with Grandpa Rasmussen noting that Martin’s middle name is Theo, and he takes it from there, writing important things regarding language about God. The following two chapters are about theological/religious ideas as found in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Albert Einstein. Political matters are also included in some of the letters: “Democracy Endangered” was written on Nov. 10, 2020, soon after the presidential election, and “Democracy Enhanced” on Jan. 18, 2021.
One of the most important letters, though, is titled “Responsible by Degrees,” and it appears later in the book even though it was written in August 2020. Here Rasmussen broaches the possibility of “widespread civilizational collapse,” and he asserts that “we know we must put an end to a growing, extractive economy running on ecological deficits” (160, 162). He hopes that Anthropocene humans will act responsibly with their ability to engage in productive “assisted evolution.” But given that the current trajectory seemingly is pointing toward inevitable collapse, one might wonder if assisted evolution is perhaps too much to expect.
Rasmussen’s book is certainly worth reading, and its hopeful views about confronting the current and coming ecological crisis need to be pondered thoughtfully. Still, this challenging book written for the author’s young grandsons will need to be balanced – both in the future and now– with careful consideration of more realistic views about what is most likely to occur in Eduardo’s and Martin’s lifetime.
Leroy Seat, Ph.D., was a Baptist missionary to Japan and a full-time professor of Christian Studies and theology at Seinan Gakuin University from 1968 to 2004. He is now retired in his home state of Missouri. After 65 years as a Baptist church member, he joined a progressive Mennonite church in 2012. Find him online at: https://theviewfromthisseat.blogspot.com/
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