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Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis

August 10, 2010

Caveat: Most of this writing comes from an essay I wrote a few years back. Hopefully it isn’t too patchy.

In the 1967 March 10 issue of Science, Lynn White, professor of Medieval Studies, wrote

“Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen… Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends”

in his essay The Historical Foundations of Our Ecological Crisis. His essay went beyond a simple-minded attack on western Christianity to consider more broadly how religions of the past few thousand years have impacted the way in which human beings view their position within nature. White argues that the impact of religion on man’s perspective on nature is not limited to the domain of philosophy, but rather

“Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian theology.”

He then goes onto investigate the role that modern science and technology has played in our speedy destruction of the environment. After all, Science has produced technology that has allowed man to conquer wilderness by creating highways, dams, bridges, toxins, clear-cut rain forests, and weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, for White, the need to examine the psychological and spiritual foundations for our interaction with the environment is apparent.

Thinkers such as White and Aldo Leopold – author of the 1949 landmark conservation book A Sand County Almanac – would nowadays be classified as defenders of the “Deep Ecology” movement. Coined in 1973 by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, the term deep ecology refers to a philosophical movement that holds that the problems of the environment cannot be readily resolved by the application of more science and technology, but rather requires a fundamental shift in human consciousness. In Zen Buddhism and Environmental Ethics, Simon P. James describes deep ecology as not only “a call for us to revise what our intellectual understanding of the world is; it is a call for us to change the way we actually experience the world.”

For White, this experience is present in the older animist traditions of earth-based pagan religions. He describes how “In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit… Before one cut a tree, or mined a mountain, or damned a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated.” In such a belief system, exploitation is kept to an absolute minimum and respect for nature follows as a logical corollary. It is truly unfortunate that some of this mystical, superstitious reverence of nature seems to be omitted in major spiritual traditions of today. According to historian Lynn White, in the West, paganism was rapidly replaced by Christianity, which effectively “made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects”. One should note that White provides a stellar example of how “superstitious thinking” had the practical advantage of ecological sustainability.

As condemning as White may sound, he does concede that “Christianity is a complex faith,” and that different branches and sects of the church have held different views regarding the environment. The practice of natural theology – that since God created nature, nature must in turn reveal God’s thoughts – historically followed distinct paths in the Greek Eastern Orthodox and Latin Western churches. While the Greek East viewed nature as filled with archetypes and metaphors, something to be decoded artistically, the Latin West used a much more mathematical and scientific way of interpreting nature. White argues that Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Leibnitz dedicated their work to the Church because they considered their scientific discoveries to be theological pursuits.

A natural question that arises is: What impact did these differences in thinking have upon the environment? It seems perfectly harmless for Galileo to work out the mathematics of projectile bodies, and for Newton to formulate the Calculus and his law of universal gravitation. The quest to understand nature did not immediately lead to its abuse. It would take considerable time before the craftsman would be able to build anything new to use these remarkable discoveries. As White explains:

“Science was traditionally aristocratic, speculative, intellectual in intent; tech- nology was lower-class, empirical, action-oriented. The quite sudden fusion of these two, towards the middle of the 19th century, is surely related to the slightly prior and contemporary democratic revolutions which, by reducing social barriers, tended to assert a functional unity of brain and hand.”

It was at this point that the purely philosophical differences of faith became manifest physically in gigantic proportions. The combination of science and technology gave man power greater than was previously thought imaginable. This power outstretched the available environmental ethics, and the operating framework of Christian thinking led man to a dangerous relationship with his surroundings. The ability to go from simple smog to hydrogen bombs is indicative of this awesome power.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2010 3:18 PM

    It is truly unfortunate that some of this mystical, superstitious reverence of nature seems to be omitted in major spiritual traditions of today.

    Really? I don’t see why. Would the world be a better place for it? I’m strongly of the view that it is the truth that matters – if we’re basing a system of environmental ethics of mystical superstition then this is basing it on a lie. I’m not going to claim to have the answer, but our actions should, if possible, be based on truth. Our increasing knowledge of the natural world and our increasing ability to affect it both positively and negatively obviously lead to a responsibility to think about how we are affecting the planet. If we don’t try to stop any harm that we are causing then we are threatening to home of future generations. This should be reason enough to rethink some of our attitudes. Our current hydrocarbon dependency isn’t sustainable, even ignoring the finite resource base, but it is through facts that we will hopefully come to face and deal with this, not through superstition.

  2. August 11, 2010 9:56 AM

    I don’t see that science will have much to offer on the quantification of the intrinsic value of nature.
    The fascination with which we observe a wild stag, the peace of an unspoilt beach, the pleasure of a pod of playful dolphins, the wistfulness of the free flight of a bird of prey. To exclude these experiences, whatever semantics you use, is making the world a poorer place, not just economically but socially.

  3. August 11, 2010 12:06 PM

    I’m not saying I exclude the experience, just that for anything meaningful to happen I think it has to be based on fact. Experience and feeling is all well and good but surely it opens the door to too much relativism. Sure, I like trees, but you may not. How do we decide whether to cut a load of them down? If we can asses the facts of the case, the effects of our potential actions, then we can have a proper argument.

  4. Justin permalink
    August 11, 2010 4:19 PM

    Ah, but we know how to deal with our hydrocarbon dependence. The science exists (sort of, see below). Hybrid cars, biofuel, nuclear power, efficient building design to reduce heating and cooling costs, population control, consumption of meat, etc. We know their impact because of science and this is good, but how to we get the populace to act, to care?

    You seem to believe that a system of ethics based on science is possible. I agree that scientific people tend to be more aware of the impact their actions carry, but this seems to be a fusion of intelligence and some pre-existing ethic. Science does not make normative claims, only declarative, right? Science ideally produces statements of fact, truth, just as you claim. But can we say anything is *bad* or *good* from a scientific point of view? We can just try to hazard guesses at connections: “Biodiversity will most likely be effected by…”

    But how do we legislate? No red meat? Law. No more gasoline cars? Law. How do we get society to care? Appeal to their vast understanding of science? I hate to sound pessimistic, but any sort of democratic governance that would be effective that relies on said understanding, would be doomed. The alternative would essentially require an elite group to set the laws (Plato advocated this), while providing cartoon understandings of the real issues at hands. There are too many dystopian movies to make the simile concrete.

    I suppose the real issue is as follows: If you are an optimist and believe that every human is capable of handling The Truth, then by all means tear down the walls of irrationality and give them The Truth. Otherwise, a mystical proto-science redirected towards our current environmental concerns may be the best option.

    As a final note, I’d like to say that our current understanding of ecology may be too late. Even if we wanted to base our actions on the truth, we might not know it. Cut down this tree or not? I don’t know, what is the effect of cutting down one tree? What is the effect of CO2 emissions? What about extinguishing a species? Will it cause catastrophic mayhem, or will it go the way of the DoDo? Even 50 years ago, we wouldn’t have known the answers. The trouble with all of these questions is that they require hard science to understand. They are inherently non-linear equations, because the ecosystem is a massive, coupled system of equations. They may be deterministic, but completely unpredictable. Chaos has taught us that there are Impossibility theorems when it comes to knowledge, so what then? Science/Mathematics has established its own limits. What do we do in the face of them?

  5. August 12, 2010 4:24 AM

    The problem for me is that I really don’t like relativism, and I have a problem with basing a decision of the sort we’re talking about on something mystical, spiritual of whatever we decide to call it. It’s easy to disagree about things when we talk about them in a wishy-washy way, and when we disagree, how do we adjudicate between rival claims? There needs to be an underlying truth that we can start with.

    I’m not trying to say that a system of ethics based on science is possible; science obviously has it’s limits and there is nothing to suggest to me that science can provide a system of ethics. What I am saying is that I think we have to have an understanding of the systems we’re talking about before an ethical system can be valid. As you point out this has problems in the environmental case (and in others), in that we don’t have that understanding as much as we’d like.

    I don’t know what system of ethics would work in this case. I don’t think “environmental utilitarianism” cuts it – I’m reminded of the story from the recent radiolab about the birds that are making a comeback somewhere in north america. Someone was killed in a forest fire started to burn down an area of forest for them. Was his life worth protecting a species of rare bird? I don’t know, and don’t know how I’d answer this question.

    It’s early, and I’m in Cairo airport, and the coffees not good to say the least, so hopefully some of the above makes sense!

  6. Justin permalink
    August 12, 2010 3:46 PM

    I’m leaving a reply here because the indentations are getting a bit much.

    Christian, Everything you say makes sense. I am just afraid that relativism can’t be overcome. In Mathematics we can make absolutely precise what framework we’re working in, make sure our definitions agree and then discourse harmoniously. The second we leave formal systems, confusion creeps in and we can no longer be unambiguously true or false. I suppose the whole goal of this website is to see how far we can be “true” in an unambiguous way. As you’ve said we want to somehow put Cartesian skepticism in its place and be “rational.”

    If we are going to succeed, we need to understand more broadly a few better thought-out positions. Attacking religion is too easy in some regards and can be pretty useless in my opinion. A better place to attack would be something like Postmodernism, where we have non-theistic philosophers doing the arguing and trying to make cohesive, rational arguments. The issue of God v. No-God seems like small potatoes in the face of Truth v. No-Truth.

    I started reading Walter Truett Anderson’s “Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be” a month or two ago (I since put it down, but will hopefully pick it back up) to try to get an accessible introduction to Post-modernism. I see that Wikipedia has an article on Anderson as well:

    “Walter Truett Anderson addresses ‘the big picture’. For instance in ‘Four Different Ways to Be Absolutely Right’ Truett identifies four world views.

    These four worldviews are:
    (a) the postmodern-ironist, which sees truth as socially constructed
    (b) the scientific-rational in which truth is ‘found’ through methodical, disciplined inquiry
    (c) the social-traditional in which truth is found in the heritage of American and Western civilisation
    (d) the neo-romantic in which truth is found either through attaining harmony with nature and/or spiritual exploration of the inner self.

    Each of these has its own sets of truths and its own ideas about what truth is – where and how you look for it, how you test or prove it.”

    The mentioned article is in his book “The Truth About Truth.” I’d be up for collectively trying to blog on and understand post-modernism. In particular, this is the ultimate form of relativism and probably the hardest to defeat. The idea that cultures and sub-cultures each narrate their own reality is observable, but the extent to which it is defensible would be interesting to see.

    This idea of empiricism being The Path-to-the-Truth is too old idea to think that there is anything new in “New Atheism.” In order to avoid living hand-to-mouth we should understand the centuries of intellectual discourse that have occurred between now and then. How did Sartre’s analysis of Phenomenology lead him to Atheism? What is Phenomenology? If there is truth, what is it about?

    Less Harris and Hitchens, more Hume, Kant, Lucretius and Nietzsche.

  7. August 13, 2010 7:37 AM

    The indents are a bit strange, might see what I can do about that.

    Yes, I have to admit defeat at the moment when it comes to relativism – I’m too new to the “anti-relativism” camp to be able to make any really cogent arguments. I’m arguing for an ideal world, not one that I can argue is actually possible yet. That puts a downer on my day…

    I’m definitely keen to explore post-modernism in more detail. I’ve just read “Why Truth Matters” by Ophelia Benson, which is well worth a look and which I suspect I’ll be rereading a fair few times. I’ll check out this Anderson chap to see what he has to say. Also, Grayling is pretty ruthless in his description of post-modernism in “Ideas that Matter”, I’ll quote some of it in a post soon.

    Less Harris and Hitchens, more Hume, Kant, Lucretius and Nietzsche.

    I was thinking more Hume, Kant, Lucretius and Nietzsche as well as the Harris and Hitchens…

  8. August 13, 2010 7:42 AM

    I’ve stopped indentation of comments, but that was only possible by stopping the nested comments feature. I don’t think it’s possible to directly reply to a comment now, so you might have to check the site itself for follow up comments. Or it might be possible to change your personal settings to get emails whenever someone comments.

    Is this an improvement?

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