“The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”

Lynn White, Jr. 1967. Science, Vol. 155, No. 3767, pp. 1203-7.

This article claims that the modern ecological crisis arose out of an ethic derived from

Medieval Christian theology. By focusing on the passage in Genesis in which God gave man dominion over the earth, Christian theology justified the exploitation of nature. White compares this outlook with non-Western perspectives, and he concludes the article with a suggestion that a radical Franciscan theology of nature might open the way for a more ecologically sensitive Christian environmental ethics.

In the previous post, Zev Trachtenberg explained that “a defining (and obvious) feature of human habitation is that it is social, and cannot be understood apart from the structures and forces that characterize human society.” This focus on human society is the launching point for this post and upcoming ones, where I will explore how religious belief and behavior pertains to habitability. In these posts, I will ask How are religions facing the anthropocene?

I plan to consider religion and secularism worldwide, but now I will look only at Christian perceptions of man and nature, and I will reflect primarily on the curious problem of conservative evangelicalism.

The problem was posed first in a seminal 1967 paper by historian Lynn White Jr. (1907-1987), in which he claimed that Christianity has been one of the primary causes of the modern environmental crisis because it has encouraged human exploitation of nature: “Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen,” something that is “in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions.” (p. 1205) White’s claims were controversial at the time, and I believe that he exaggerated the importance of religion and greatly oversimplified Christian theology. Nonetheless, his claim resonates with some aspects of contemporary American evangelicalism.

A Pew Poll from 2009 showed that only 34 percent of white evangelicals accepted that human beings are causing global warming, as compared with 47 percent of the population of the U.S. as a whole. In other words, a starkly anthropocentric religion, according to White, refuses to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change. Clearly, this is not a Christian problem, however; the survey found that both mainline Protestants and non-Hispanic Catholics scored about the same as the overall population, so the low evangelical response indicates something else. I believe it is more likely the result of years of cynical political maneuvering by right-wing industry lobbyists than theology. I say that because there are some strong evangelical environmentalists.

One of the earliest of these environmental voices is a seminal figure in modern evangelical circles, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). Schaeffer took White’s message to heart as soon as it was published and wrote a response in his largely forgotten book Pollution and the Death of Man. Schaeffer accepted White’s charge that Christianity as a whole had not been kind to God’s Creation, and urged Christians to do a better job. He embraced what has come to be called the stewardship position, in which man is seen to be the steward of nature, not its master.

But what does this have to do with habitability? In one telling passage, Schaeffer explains the contrast that he saw between a Christian community and a pagan group living just opposite it on the other side of a ravine:

… I realized what a poor situation this was. When I stood on Christian ground and looked at the Bohemian people’s place, it was beautiful. … Then I stood on pagan ground and looked at the Christian community and saw ugliness. Here you have a Christianity that is failing to take into account man’s responsibility and proper relationship to nature. (p. 43)

Habitation, for Schaeffer, meant much more than simply living in a place; it was linked to aesthetics and spirituality as well. Indeed, one of his major criticisms of modernity is that it was simply based on pragmatic and utilitarian notions. Schaeffer, who preached his evangelical theology from a chateau in the Swiss Alps, described a complex relationship between man, nature, and God, a compelling theology for many young Christian intellectuals.

The conservative evangelical community mostly ignored the environmentalist message after Schaeffer. Only recently are we witnessing a resurgence of this kind of thinking. One can see this evidenced in a recent television series on Showtime, Years of Living Dangerously, which addresses the religious question directly in an entire segment on a drought-stricken West Texas evangelical community. The segment features the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who is herself an Evangelical Christian, showing the way toward an anthropocene Christianity.

For Christians of all stripes, the anthropocene presents a challenge because it forces people to come to grips with a different sort of Creation than the one that was experienced when the religion was in its infancy. But this is nothing new. Every age has presented similar challenges.

(Note that this article has been corrected since it was published. The original version contained an incorrect value for the percentage of evangelicals who believed in human induce climate change as reported in the 2009 Pew poll. The author thanks Tyler Wilson for pointing out the discrepancy.)

Willis Jenkins. 2009. “After Lynn White: Religious Ethics and Environmental Problems.” Journal of Religious Ethics. Vol. 37, Iss. 2, pp. 283-309. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9795.2009.00387.x. Jenkins surveys much of the work in environmental ethics and religion and ecology that have stemmed from White’s seminal work, and he offers critical commentary on the work. 
David Roberts. 2006. “An interview with environmental scientist and evangelical leader Calvin DeWitt.” Grist. (http://grist.org/article/dewitt/). The Calvin DeWitt interview is short but provides some history of the evangelical environmental movement and climate change from the 1970s to the early 2000s not covered in this post.
Francis Schaeffer. 1970. Pollution and the Death of Man. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books. Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Pollution-Death-Man-Francis-Schaeffer/dp/143351947XSchaeffer’s book is printed along with the full text of White’s article from Science; understanding Schaeffer’s criticism of paganism comprises a significant part of this work and is well worth reading to understand better why many modern evangelicals reject environmentalism as a false religion. 

4 thoughts on ““The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”

  1. Stephen’s post sent me back to White’s article–and I was struck by the point he makes at the very outset, summarized in the second paragraph: “All forms of life modify their contexts. . . . Ever since man became a numerous species he has affected his environment notably” (p. 1203). This is the core of the niche construction idea I mentioned in my habitability post (and I have reading post on that idea). It was fascinating to me that White is so focused on that phenomenon.

    Now seeing human beings as niche constructors is a way of thinking of them as natural. But another striking thing about the article is White’s suggestion that at a certain point human beings leave nature–when they developed a new technology for plowing: “Man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature” (p. 1205). It seems, then, that for White a low degree of technological development is natural–but when technology advances too far it is no longer natural, even though it is has the very same kind of effect, viz. the modification of context.

    So exactly what is it that makes one kind of relation with the environment natural (and therefore acceptable?), and the other kind exploitative (and therefore unacceptable?)? Is it the ideology underlying it–here, the domination of creation licensed by Christianity? Was that not present with the earlier technology as well? Is White’s view fully reconciled on the naturalness/unnaturalness of human action? (I have posted on an article by Steven Vogel which addresses related questions.)

    Finally, I think Stephen is absolutely right to immediately bring religion into the conversation on habitability. For, especially if we think that our niche construction activities stem from a kind of natural impulse, a key issue in developing an ethics of habitation is certainly to think through how that impulse can/should be restrained. White suggests that the Genesis creation myth, far from grounding restraint, in fact legitimates its absence–prompting his search for an alternative that might prompt human beings to rein in their expansive practices of habitation. That connection between underlying religious world-view and the way people understand habitability is vital, and I look forward to more discussion of it.

  2. This is an interesting topic. As Stephen suggests, it is important to put religion in societal, political-economic, and historical context. Only then can we account for the simultaneous existence of evangelical environmentalism and Dominionism in the contemporary US. Likewise for similar contrasts in Asia, where humans are no less prone to contradictions or competing interpretations of values. Identity is, I think, one way of trying to tie these issues together. Religion–along with race, class, ethnicity, gender, etc.–influences our identification with particular groups and values sets. Two recent news articles may be of interest in this regard:
    The former points to the importance of religious and political identity in shaping one’s orientation toward science. The latter traces an intentionally anti-environment(alist) practice to gender and class identity, which I would hypothesize has religious and political dimensions as well.

    • Wow–that rollin’ coal thing is stunning. I think I’ve seen some, but thought they couldn’t afford to go to the shop. Is this an example of the power of the powerless? Certainly an example of deep ressentiment. And clearly a form of marking territory. But I wonder about the religion connection–are these guys church goers? Or worshippers of Duck Dynasty?

      • I can only speculate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the rollin’ coalers tended to identify as evangelical Christians. It would fit with the geography and other demographics. Again, though, that is purely speculation.

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