Skip to main content

Lynn White's thesis

There is a standard environmental history that takes it for granted that anthropocentrism is at the center of the Judeo-Christian story. This notion goes back to Lynn White’s 1967 essay on the “Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, which does, in my view correctly, understand that the Artificial Paradise is not something that popped out of the minds of Baconian natural philosophers in the 17th century, but a fact about the Industrial system in the 19th century:

“The emergence in widespread practice of the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature can scarcely be dated before about 1850, save in the chemical industries, where it is anticipated in the 18th century. Its accept- anceas a normal pattern of action may mark the greatest event in human his- tory since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as well. “

However, if this is the material history of the Artificial Paradise, it is preceded, in White’s view, by a sort of mental prehension of man’s mastery of nature, written in the Bible:

“Man named all the animals, thus establishing his domi- nance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes. And, although man's body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God's image. Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. As early as the 2nd century both Tertul- lian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure, God's transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient pagan- ism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps, Zoroastrianism), not only es- tablished a dualism of man and na- ture but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends. “

In this narrative, the tradition, starting with the Old Testament and going through the Catholic church up through the Protestants, is that God appointed man to rule over the beasts, in accordance with God’s words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28:

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

White’s thesis that the the origin of the Western tradition of mastering nature goes back to our religious roots has sunk into the popular culture. I’ve noticed, at parties, that when I run into someone and the talk turns to my happiness work in progress, inevitably the theme will come up of how Christianity encourages the rape of nature, usually in contrast with the happier and more balanced view of nature taken by … well, the non-Western culture of your choice.

Now, it is obvious from my construction of the rise of the happiness culture and the dissolution of the human limit that I think this history is, in many significant ways, exaggerated and wrong. It is not wrong that the impulse to subdue the earth is part of the code of Judaism and Christianity – it is, however, wrong to think that this impulse is not crossed, polemicized, conflicted, polarized and paralysed within that same tradition. Other significant motifs flow out of, for instance, that same account in Genesis. As is well known, the blessing of replenishing the earth, at the beginning of the Paradise story, becomes the curse of childbirth and the life of toil, at the end of it. In between, God plants and grows a tree of which the fruit is forbidden to Adam and Eve – the first of many taboos on the use of living things. It is not only the fruit of the tree of knowledge that is forbidden to God’s chosen people – in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we are given a long list of interdictions and permissions concerning living things that move upon the earth. And throughout the Old Testament, there is a strong sense of the meaning of sacred places that has nothing to do with man and everything to do with the mysterious will of God. To interpret these things in the light of anthropocentrism is certainly to miss the point – mastery, as a matter of knowing and action, is hedged about throughout the sacred history. As one would expect of an agrarian society that is always just living over the edge of the Malthusian line between a population the land can support and a population it can’t.

White makes a move to counter this by playing with the idea that, in a strong sense, the Pagan religions saw the spirits in things in the world, whereas Christianity divested those things of their spirits:

“In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Be- fore one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects. It is often said that for animism. the Church substituted the cult of saints. True; but the cult of saints is func-tionally quite different from animism. The saint is not in natural objects; he may have special shrines, but his citi-zenship is in heaven. Moreover, a saint is entirely a man; he can be approached in human terms. In addition to saints, Christianity of course also had angels and demons inherited from Judaism and perhaps, at one remove, from Zoroastrianism. But these were all as mobile as the saints themselves. The spirits in natural objects, which for- merly had protected nature from man, evaporated. Man's effective monopoly on spirit in -this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.”

It would seem to me that a historian, noticing the amounts of bloodshed that were produced in battles over whether Christ was in the wine and bread of the Eucharist or whether they were symbols only, might be hesitant to give this history a wholly Unitarian cast.

I am not saying that White’s macro-story is wholly without merit. The problem is in treated Christianity, over one and a half millennia, as a wholly homogeneous unit, along with treating such things as the genius loci of the tree in terms of syllogistic logic. The “in-ness”, here, of the spirit – the closedness of nature upon itself, or at least its openness to, ultimately, the gods – does not operate as crudely as in White’s sketch.

Far from living in a land and on a planet that humans have mastered, the story, as unfolded, institutionally, by the Catholic and Protestant churches, is of humans living in a world of divine signs, which can easily threaten human society. Plague, drought, cold – all are about a theocentric, rather than an anthropocentric, universe. When, in the psalms, man is called a little lower than the angels, the statement takes on a different cast if, as the Psalmist does, you believe in the angels. Reshuffling that past from a viewpoint in which the angels are, at best, creatures that appear with wings on Christmas cards, is not to understand what is being said here.