April 21 2024

Laurie Zoloth Was Right to Ask for an AAR Sabbatical, but It's Too Little, Too Late 

by Mary L. Keller, University of Wyoming

Airplane taking off, distorted by heat

As an applied historian of religions, I am working with Rod Morrison, MBA, a local Wyoming organic farmer, to consider “Ecology as the Arbiter of Value in the 21st Century.” In a paper we developed for a 2014 Critical Finance Studies conference at the University of Amsterdam, and drawing from Wes Jackson’s work in Consulting the Genius of the Place (Counterpoint 2011) and Emmanuel Pastereich’s promotion of an international eco-currency, Rod and I proposed a currency based on the calorie, what we call the FCV—food calorie value. What does the FCV have to do with Laurie Zoloth’s 2014 presidential address to the AAR in which she proposed an Annual Meeting sabbatical every seven years? Everything for those of us interested in adapting to the super forces of ecology that are now arbitrating the value of everything from shoreline property to the diminishment of biodiversity, an incalculable loss.

The FCV brings together Zoloth’s proposed sabbatical with Thomas Tweed’s 2015 presidential address on “Valuing the Study of Religion” by offering every AAR member a simple daily index with which to identify, measure, and understand why we moderns cannot continue convening yearly with gross expenditures of “calorie capital.” The FCV shows us the unholy disparity between how many calories biological life requires and how many calories our industrial world consumes and eliminates as waste. This daily calculus makes clear what we will have to refuse if we are going to interrupt the Hunger Games that we, as intellectuals with access to all the evidence a person needs in order to understand the stakes, condone in our passive participation—that is, clicking on the “submit” button to register for another year’s Annual Meeting.   


A currency based on the calorie makes sense when the earth is recognized as a carbon-banking system. The sun provides free energy that gets stored in carbon-based molecules. Earth’s five biggest carbon banks are forests, soils, coal, gas, and oil.1 When the energy of a carbon bank is released, it can be measured as horsepower or watts, but the calorie is a useful scale because humans are hard-wired to make connections between calories and fairness. As Wray Herbert has explored from the world of cognitive and behavioral studies, “The calorie heuristic is the brain’s ancient link among food and money and fairness.” Rod and I proposed the FCV as a grass-roots tool to promote citizen science and self-governance. We can also speculate how the international economy might shift to an eco-currency. In fact, the FCV makes sense on a world-wide scale because it is standardized: calories in China equal calories in Mexico. With this as an empirical measure, and with Pastereich’s idea that we use natural resource indexes to evaluate the carbon banks of each country, international regulating institutions like the IMF could evaluate policy.

While there is a case to be made for the broad application of the FCV, Morrison and I initially developed it to allow us to measure priorities in meeting daily human needs. Take the following example: In 2015, the cost of one gallon of diesel fuel was $2.75USD and equivalent to 35,000 FCV. Compare that to food itself: Those same 35,000 calories could power seventeen human bodies for a day at an equivalent cost of $300USD. If we used an FCV currency to evaluate these costs, not only would the gallon of diesel fuel costs 35,000FCV, but a bag of locally-grown carrots would cost twenty five calories (the carrot itself), plus the costs of input (irrigation, transportation, etc.) for which a community garden and farmer’s market might equal something like 160FCV. We could see the actual costs hidden in our calorie spending. Transporting food great distances would prove to be cost-prohibitive, and small-scale farming would become the hottest market going.

So, to recap, the sun makes free deposits to the earth as a carbon banking system every day. We deplete these banks by liberating their energy, which can be measured in terms of the calories burned when the banked carbon is eaten or otherwise expended. Using this calculation, we understand just what it is we are doing to the carbon bank when we use combustion or diesel engines—as we do when we gather each year for the AAR. When one calculates costs of running an annual conference, the exponential release of calories into the atmosphere as greenhouse gasses becomes stunningly clear. 

The FCV Costs of the Annual Meeting

When I fly the 1900-mile round trip flight to San Antonio and back home, it will be at the cost of 38,000 calories per gallon of jet fuel (three miles to the gallon), a total expenditure of approximately 18,012,000 calories. Divide that by 100 people average on my planes, and my use of calories is still theological in its scale. I fly like a legion of soldiers, and together we devour calories and excrete their waste products like gods. The millions of lotus petals that greeted the birth of the Buddha have nothing on my daily excesses. It would kill me to eat these calories in a day. It is at this excessive and geometric scale of calorie consumption that I overtake the godly work of warming the earth.

I am an army in the simplest of tasks I might accomplish at the meeting, such as tweeting about speakers. In 2010, the Twitterverse alone was calculated as emitting one metric ton of CO2 daily, not counting the energy used by the devices sending the tweets. Laurie Zoloth’s suggestion that we cancel the AAR for a sabbatical every seventh year is not only sound, but it is also unfortunately too little and too late. Each and every vehicle, computer screen, and cell phone that are part of everyday entourage is unsustainably depleting the carbon banks at a speed calculated by the Post Carbon Institute to be one million times faster than the earth can recapture. Our deficit spending, and subsequent production of waste, is a million times too great—how do we not see this as a call to slam on the brakes? What academic values do we embody when we gather annually, expending billions of calories to do so? How can research communities respond so slowly to the catastrophe at hand? How can we either maintain our ignorance or pretend that the theology of interruption described by Zoloth is simply not on?

Brake-squealing interruption should have hit forty years ago when I was studying religion at Williams College and concentrating in Environmental Studies. In the early 1980s I learned from people like Thomas Jorling (currently teaching at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies) and Amory Lovins that the crisis had arrived and good energy and ecological policy would save money as well as biodiversity. As I focused on religious studies, I thought the genius of their leadership would be my steady partner on the landscape of American research communities. 

Content as I was that intelligence would win the day, it turns out my complacence instead brought me to the landscape of dystopia in which contemporary young adult literature is immersed. I have been walking around like a zombie in shock. When I sit in the audience of a smart and clever AAR session, I see us as Caesar Flickerman of The Hunger Games movies, with the daring to ask the tough questions while the larger premise goes unquestioned: the adults are abdicating their moral responsibility and leaving the mortal fight to their children.

Actor Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, The Hunger Games films

Every year that I have headed to the Annual Meeting from Cody, Wyoming (a settler-colonial tourist community in the heart of coal country), I find myself at the curb of a distant airport, waiting beside those other anxious academics for our shuttle van (poker faces we do not generally have), breathing in the fumes of either the San Diego warm air (during the most extreme drought on record for the region in 2015) or scanning through the exhaust clouds in cold Chicago winds, thinking to myself, “In what way are any of us acting any differently than the comedic tragedians who are my climate-change-denying state and national legislators? When and how will we, as members of research institutions, stop gathering with the unsustainable carbon footprint that our planes, trains, and shuttle busses entail?”

As an applied historian of religions, I read how the geological and cultural landscapes move and make humans, which now means understanding how what I am calling “the Spirit of Climate Change” is moving us. This spirit speaks through us, alters our reality, and makes entire populations shift, flee, and respond to the droughts, flooding, and superstorms of our time. It is, I am arguing, the first ever global spirit, impacting every biosphere and community. It is too big to see in its entirety, and instead we see it through its avatars, the animated digital data that shows us the increasing red of global warming over fifty years, or the cold blue blobs as Arctic waters circle off the coast of Washington State and New England, due to ice melting from the warming Arctic. According to NASA, 2015 was the warmest year of recorded temperatures, and we’re on course to set a new record of warmth in 2016. This February included the warmest temperatures ever recorded in the Arctic—“absurdly warm” according to Mark Serrez, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, resulting in a radically reduced ice sheet. The devastation of flooding in Huston in April 2016 was yet another perfect storm, the memory of which will be echoing when we gather in San Antonio. Like the famous hockey stick of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, we have left the scales of linear progression and have entered the tipping points and geometric increases of self-reinforcing feedback loops that destabilize the oceans and agricultural biospheres from whence come our oceanic and soil-based food calories. We have rubbed the bottle and the genie is with us.

Considering the Future

I used to think that 2100 was not going to be pretty, but the scientific studies over the past three years have demonstrated that climate change must be faced as an issue that requires a massive reorientation of practice, now. I read and follow scientists such as Paul Beckwith at the University of Ottawa who posts regular blogs and tweets providing context for events such as the brutal heat wave in India, May 2016, and he calls our time “Abrupt Climate Change.” As Guy McPherson, professor emeritus in the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment, describes this moment, we are a species in hospice, and as Distinguished Professor Emerita Donna Harraway puts it, we are entering the Chthulucene where the life-threatening underground dynamics of our biospheres are erupting like methane bubbles in the Arctic ice shelf. These are trusted and steady voices. It is not alarmist to say these things.

As cochair of the Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection Group of the AAR until 2018, I will attend meetings until then, though I have quit attending the annual Critical Finance Studies meetings in northern Europe—where this work was originally developed—due to the calorie count of an international flight. These choices reflect the quandary of the intellectual at a time of crisis: we value our work so highly it is easy to assume we must be the ones still flying. If, however, one gains the clarity of recognizing that as a species, we are entering hospice, our clarity regarding priorities and expenditures improves. McPherson counsels that one must do what one loves and pursue excellence as we enter hospice. Doing so—pursuing excellence while prioritizing what I love to do—puts me at odds with myself daily, though the calorie counting calculus makes the choices very transparent.

My daily prayer at the interface of research and practice is Satnam 2030 and it means “May I reach 2030 having lived and spoken the truth of my name.” My children will be twenty-nine and thirty-one that year. Perhaps the AAR will have had one or two sabbaticals? But perhaps the dream of a sabbatical will have been long past. Invoking the title of Shirley Graham Du Bois’s 1937 play It’s Morning, it is time to wake up and count the calories. In that play, an enslaved woman considers infanticide in order to protect her daughter from the rape, torture, and degradation that were her certain destiny as an enslaved person. The play inspired Tony Morrison’s novel Beloved, and it is to my beloved research community that I propose we count the calories, adjudicate the values we hold as members of the AAR/SBL regarding what is fair to future generations, and reorganize our annual meetings for their sakes, not ours.


1 Jackson, Wes. 2011. Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Mary L. Keller, PhD, graduated with a BA in Religion from Williams College (1987), and PhD in religion from Syracuse University (1998). Keller works at the intersections of feminist theory, philosophy of religion, and comparative studies.  Located in Cody, Wyoming, she teaches online classes for the University of Wyoming Department of Religious Studies and as adjunct with the African American and Diaspora studies program. Her first book, The Hammer and the Flute: Women, Power and Spirit Possession (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) won the Best First Book in the History of Religions Award from the AAR. After teaching five years at the University of Stirling in Scotland, Keller returned to her hometown, where she pursues applied history of religions, including an electronic cultural atlas project with Apsáalooke (Crow) elders, and other research as an ally of Indigenous scholars and communities, including “Indigenous Studies and ‘the Sacred’” in American Indian Quarterly (38.1, Jan. 2014).