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The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis

April 25, 2022 Authored by: Lynn White

A conversation with Aldous Huxley not infrequently put one at the receiving end of an
unforgettable monologue. About a year before his lamented death he was discoursing on
a favorite topic: Man’s unnatural treatment of nature and its sad results. To illustrate his
point he told how, during the previous summer, he had returned to a little valley in
England where he had spent many happy months as a child. Once it had been composed
of delightful grassy glades; now it was becoming overgrown with unsightly brush
because the rabbits that formerly kept such growth under control had largely succumbed
to a disease, myxomatosis, that was deliberately introduced by the local farmers to reduce
the rabbits’ destruction of crops. Being something of a Philistine, I could be silent no
longer, even in the interests of great rhetoric. I interrupted to point out that the rabbit
itself had been brought as a domestic animal to England in 1176, presumably to improve
the protein diet of the peasantry.
All forms of life modify their contexts. The most spectacular and benign instance is
doubtless the coral polyp. By serving its own ends, it has created a vast undersea world
favorable to thousands of other kinds of animals and plants. Ever since man became a
numerous species he has affected his environment notably. The hypothesis that his firedrive method of hunting created the world’s great grasslands and helped to exterminate
the monster mammals of the Pleistocene from much of the globe is plausible, if not
proved. For 6 millennia at least, the banks of the lower Nile have been a human artifact
rather than the swampy African jungle which nature, apart from man, would have made
it. The Aswan Dam, flooding 5000 square miles, is only the latest stage in a long process.
In many regions terracing or irrigation, overgrazing, the cutting of forests by Romans to
build ships to fight Carthaginians or by Crusaders to solve the logistics problems of their
expeditions, have profoundly changed some ecologies. Observation that the French
landscape falls into two basic types, the open fields of the north and the bocage of the
south and west, inspired Marc Bloch to undertake his classic study of medieval
agricultural methods. Quite unintentionally, changes in human ways often affect
nonhuman nature. It has been noted, for example, that the advent of the automobile
eliminated huge flocks of sparrows that once fed on the horse manure littering every
street.
The history of ecologic change is still so rudimentary that we know little about what
really happened, or what the results were. The extinction of the European aurochs as late
as 1627 would seem to have been a simple case of overenthusiastic hunting. On more
intricate matters it often is impossible to find solid information. For a thousand years or
more the Frisians and Hollanders have been pushing back the North Sea, and the process
is culminating in our own time in the reclamation of the Zuider Zee. What, if any, species
of animals, birds, fish, shore life, or plants have died out in the process? In their epic
combat with Neptune have the Netherlanders overlooked ecological values in such a way
that the quality of human life in the Netherlands has suffered? I cannot discover that the
questions have ever been asked, much less answered.
People, then, have often been a dynamic element in their own environment, but in the
present state of historical scholarship we usually do not know exactly when, where, or
with what effects man-induced changes came. As we enter the last third of the 20th
century, however, concern for the problem of ecologic backlash is mounting feverishly.
Natural science, conceived as the effort to understand the nature of things, had flourished
in several eras and among several peoples. Similarly there had been an age-old
accumulation of technological skills, sometimes growing rapidly, sometimes slowly. But
it was not until about four generations ago that Western Europe and North America
arranged a marriage between science and technology, a union of the theoretical and the
empirical approaches to our natural environment. 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 acceptance as a normal pattern of action may mark the
greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in
nonhuman terrestrial history as well.
Almost at once the new situation forced the crystallization of the novel concept of
ecology; indeed, the word ecology first appeared in the English language in 1873. Today,
less than a century later, the impact of our race upon the environment has so increased in
force that it has changed in essence. When the first cannons were fired, in the early 14th
century, they affected ecology by sending workers scrambling to the forests and
mountains for more potash, sulphur, iron ore, and charcoal, with some resulting erosion
and deforestation. Hydrogen bombs are of a different order: a war fought with them
might alter the genetics of all life on this planet. By 1285 London had a smog problem
arising from the burning of soft coal, but our present combustion of fossil fuels threatens
to change the chemistry of the globe’s atmosphere as a whole, with consequences which
we are only beginning to guess. With the population explosion, the carcinoma of planless
urbanism, the now geological deposits of sewage and garbage, surely no creature other
than man has ever managed to foul its nest in such short order.
There are many calls to action, but specific proposals, however worthy as individual
items, seem too partial, palliative, negative: ban the bomb, tear down the billboards, give
the Hindus contraceptives and tell them to eat their sacred cows. The simplest solution to
any suspect change is, of course, to stop it, or better yet, to revert to a romanticized past:
make those ugly gasoline stations look like Anne Hathaway’s cottage or (in the Far West)
like ghost-town saloons. The “wilderness area” mentality invariably advocates deepfreezing an ecology, whether San Gimignano or the High Sierra, as it was before the first
Kleenex was dropped. But neither atavism nor prettification will cope with the ecologic
crisis of our time.
What shall we do? No one yet knows. Unless we think about fundamentals, our specific
measures may produce new backlashes more serious than those they are designed to
remedy.
As a beginning we should try to clarify our thinking by looking, in some historical depth,
at the presuppositions that underlie modern technology and science. Science was
traditionally aristocratic, speculative, intellectual in intent; technology 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. Our ecologic crisis is the product of an emerging, entirely novel, democratic
culture. The issue is whether a democratized world can survive its own implications.
Presumably we cannot unless we rethink our axioms.


The Western Traditions of Technology and Science
One thing is so certain that it seems stupid to verbalize it: both modern technology and
modern science are distinctively Occidental. Our technology has absorbed elements from
all over the world, notably from China; yet everywhere today, whether in Japan or in
Nigeria, successful technology is Western. Our science is the heir to all the sciences of
the past, especially perhaps to the work of the great Islamic scientists of the Middle Ages,
who so often outdid the ancient Greeks in skill and perspicacity: al-Razi in medicine, for
example; or ibn-al-Haytham in optics; or Omar Khayyam in mathematics. Indeed, not a
few works of such geniuses seem to have vanished in the original Arabic and to survive
only in medieval Latin translations that helped to lay the foundations for later Western
developments. Today, around the globe, all significant science is Western in style and
method, whatever the pigmentation or language of the scientists.
A second pair of facts is less well recognized because they result from quite recent
historical scholarship. The leadership of the West, both in technology and in science, is
far older than the so-called Scientific Revolution of the 17th century or the so-called
Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. These terms are in fact outmoded and obscure
the true nature of what they try to describe–significant stages in two long and separate
developments. By A.D. 1000 at the latest–and perhaps, feebly, as much as 200 years
earlier–the West began to apply water power to industrial processes other than milling
grain. This was followed in the late 12th century by the harnessing of wind power. From
simple beginnings, but with remarkable consistency of style, the West rapidly expanded
its skills in the development of power machinery, labor-saving devices, and automation.
Those who doubt should contemplate that most monumental achievement in the history
of automation: the weight-driven mechanical clock, which appeared in two forms in the
early 14th century. Not in craftsmanship but in basic technological capacity, the Latin
West of the later Middle Ages far outstripped its elaborate, sophisticated, and esthetically
magnificent sister cultures, Byzantium and Islam. In 1444 a great Greek ecclesiastic,
Bessarion, who had gone to Italy, wrote a letter to a prince in Greece. He is amazed by
the superiority of Western ships, arms, textiles, glass. But above all he is astonished by
the spectacle of waterwheels sawing timbers and pumping the bellows of blast furnaces.
Clearly, he had seen nothing of the sort in the Near East.
By the end of the 15th century the technological superiority of Europe was such that its
small, mutually hostile nations could spill out over all the rest of the world, conquering,
looting, and colonizing. The symbol of this technological superiority is the fact that
Portugal, one of the weakest states of the Occident, was able to become, and to remain
for a century, mistress of the East Indies. And we must remember that the technology of
Vasco da Gama and Albuquerque was built by pure empiricism, drawing remarkably
little support or inspiration from science.
In the present-day vernacular understanding, modern science is supposed to have begun
in 1543, when both Copernicus and Vesalius published their great works. It is no
derogation of their accomplishments, however, to point out that such structures as the
Fabrica and the De revolutionibus do not appear overnight. The distinctive Western
tradition of science, in fact, began in the late 11th century with a massive movement of
translation of Arabic and Greek scientific works into Latin. A few notable books–
Theophrastus, for example–escaped the West’s avid new appetite for science, but within
less than 200 years effectively the entire corpus of Greek and Muslim science was
available in Latin, and was being eagerly read and criticized in the new European
universities. Out of criticism arose new observation, speculation, and increasing distrust
of ancient authorities. By the late 13th century Europe had seized global scientific
leadership from the faltering hands of Islam. It would be as absurd to deny the profound
originality of Newton, Galileo, or Copernicus as to deny that of the 14th century
scholastic scientists like Buridan or Oresme on whose work they built. Before the 11th
century, science scarcely existed in the Latin West, even in Roman times. From the 11th
century onward, the scientific sector of Occidental culture has increased in a steady
crescendo.
Since both our technological and our scientific movements got their start, acquired their
character, and achieved world dominance in the Middle Ages, it would seem that we
cannot understand their nature or their present impact upon ecology without examining
fundamental medieval assumptions and developments.


Medieval View of Man and Nature
Until recently, agriculture has been the chief occupation even in “advanced” societies;
hence, any change in methods of tillage has much importance. Early plows, drawn by two
oxen, did not normally turn the sod but merely scratched it. Thus, cross- plowing was
needed and fields tended to be squarish. In the fairly light soils and semiarid climates of
the Near East and Mediterranean, this worked well. But such a plow was inappropriate to
the wet climate and often sticky soils of northern Europe. By the latter part of the 7th
century after Christ, however, following obscure beginnings, certain northern peasants
were using an entirely new kind of plow, equipped with a vertical knife to cut the line of
the furrow, a horizontal share to slice under the sod, and a moldboard to turn it over. The
friction of this plow with the soil was so great that it normally required not two but eight
oxen. It attacked the land with such violence that cross-plowing was not needed, and
fields tended to be shaped in long strips.
In the days of the scratch-plow, fields were distributed generally in units capable of
supporting a single family. Subsistence farming was the presupposition. But no peasant
owned eight oxen: to use the new and more efficient plow, peasants pooled their oxen to
form large plow-teams, originally receiving (it would appear) plowed strips in proportion
to their contribution. Thus, distribution of land was based no longer on the needs of a
family but, rather, on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth. Man’s relation to
the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly man had been part of nature; now he was the
exploiter of nature. Nowhere else in the world did farmers develop any analogous
agricultural implement. Is it coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness
toward nature, has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of northern
Europe?
This same exploitive attitude appears slightly before A.D. 830 in Western illustrated
calendars. In older calendars the months were shown as passive personifications. The
new Frankish calendars, which set the style for the Middle Ages, are very different: they
show men coercing the world around them–plowing, harvesting, chopping trees,
butchering pigs. Man and nature are two things, and man is master.
These novelties seem to be in harmony with larger intellectual patterns. What people do
about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things
around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and
destiny–that is, by religion. To Western eyes this is very evident in, say, India or Ceylon.
It is equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors.
The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the
history of our culture. It has become fashionable today to say that, for better or worse, we
live in the “post-Christian age.” Certainly the forms of our thinking and language have
largely ceased to be Christian, but to my eye the substance often remains amazingly akin
to that of the past. Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit
faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco- Roman antiquity or to
the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo- Christian theology. The
fact that Communists share it merely helps to show what can be demonstrated on many
other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy. We continue today
to live, as we have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in a context of Christian
axioms.
What did Christianity tell people about their relations with the environment? While many
of the world’s mythologies provide stories of creation, Greco-Roman mythology was
singularly incoherent in this respect. Like Aristotle, the intellectuals of the ancient West
denied that the visible world had a beginning. Indeed, the idea of a beginning was
impossible in the framework of their cyclical notion of time. In sharp contrast,
Christianity inherited from Judaism not only a concept of time as nonrepetitive and linear
but also a striking story of creation. By gradual stages a loving and all- powerful God had
created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth and all its plants, animals, birds,
and fishes. Finally, God had created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from
being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance 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 Tertullian 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 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.
At the level of the common people this worked out in an interesting way. 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. Before 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 functionally quite different from animism. The saint is not in natural
objects; he may have special shrines, but his citizenship 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 Zorastrianism. But these were all as mobile as the saints themselves. The
spirits in natural objects, which formerly 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.
When one speaks in such sweeping terms, a note of caution is in order. Christianity is a
complex faith, and its consequences differ in differing contexts. What I have said may
well apply to the medieval West, where in fact technology made spectacular advances.
But the Greek East, a highly civilized realm of equal Christian devotion, seems to have
produced no marked technological innovation after the late 7th century, when Greek fire
was invented. The key to the contrast may perhaps be found in a difference in the tonality
of piety and thought which students of comparative theology find between the Greek and
the Latin Churches. The Greeks believed that sin was intellectual blindness, and that
salvation was found in illumination, orthodoxy–that is, clear thinking. The Latins, on the
other hand, felt that sin was moral evil, and that salvation was to be found in right
conduct. Eastern theology has been intellectualist. Western theology has been voluntarist.
The Greek saint contemplates; the Western saint acts. The implications of Christianity for
the conquest of nature would emerge more easily in the Western atmosphere.
The Christian dogma of creation, which is found in the first clause of all the Creeds, has
another meaning for our comprehension of today’s ecologic crisis. By revelation, God
had given man the Bible, the Book of Scripture. But since God had made nature, nature
also must reveal the divine mentality. The religious study of nature for the better
understanding of God was known as natural theology. In the early Church, and always in
the Greek East, nature was conceived primarily as a symbolic system through which God
speaks to men: the ant is a sermon to sluggards; rising flames are the symbol of the soul’s
aspiration. The view of nature was essentially artistic rather than scientific. While
Byzantium preserved and copied great numbers of ancient Greek scientific texts, science
as we conceive it could scarcely flourish in such an ambience.
However, in the Latin West by the early 13th century natural theology was following a
very different bent. It was ceasing to be the decoding of the physical symbols of God’s
communication with man and was becoming the effort to understand God’s mind by
discovering how his creation operates. The rainbow was no longer simply a symbol of
hope first sent to Noah after the Deluge: Robert Grosseteste, Friar Roger Bacon, and
Theodoric of Freiberg produced startlingly sophisticated work on the optics of the
rainbow, but they did it as a venture in religious understanding. From the 13th century
onward, up to and including Leitnitz and Newton, every major scientist, in effect,
explained his motivations in religious terms. Indeed, if Galileo had not been so expert an
amateur theologian he would have got into far less trouble: the professionals resented his
intrusion. And Newton seems to have regarded himself more as a theologian than as a
scientist. It was not until the late 18th century that the hypothesis of God became
unnecessary to many scientists.
It is often hard for the historian to judge, when men explain why they are doing what they
want to do, whether they are offering real reasons or merely culturally acceptable
reasons. The consistency with which scientists during the long formative centuries of
Western science said that the task and the reward of the scientist was “to think God’s
thoughts after him” leads one to believe that this was their real motivation. If so, then
modern Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian theology. The dynamism of
religious devotion shaped by the Judeo-Christian dogma of creation, gave it impetus.


An Alternative Christian View
We would seem to be headed toward conclusions unpalatable to many Christians. Since
both science and technology are blessed words in our contemporary vocabulary, some
may be happy at the notions, first, that viewed historically, modern science is an
extrapolation of natural theology and, second, that modern technology is at least partly to
be explained as an Occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man’s
transcendence of, and rightful master over, nature. But, as we now recognize, somewhat
over a century ago science and technology–hitherto quite separate activities–joined to
give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control.
If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.
I personally doubt that disastrous ecologic backlash can be avoided simply by applying to
our problems more science and more technology. Our science and technology have
grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relation to nature which are almost
universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly
regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around
our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We
are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim. The
newly elected Governor of California, like myself a churchman but less troubled than I,
spoke for the Christian tradition when he said (as is alleged), “when you’ve seen one
redwood tree, you’ve seen them all.” To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical
fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the
West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred
groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.
What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship. More
science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis
until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one. The beatniks, who are the basic
revolutionaries of our time, show a sound instinct in their affinity for Zen Buddhism,
which conceives of the man-nature relationship as very nearly the mirror image of the
Christian view. Zen, however, is as deeply conditioned by Asian history as Christianity is
by the experience of the West, and I am dubious of its viability among us.
Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint
Francis of Assisi. The prime miracle of Saint Francis is the fact that he did not end at the
stake, as many of his left-wing followers did. He was so clearly heretical that a General
of the Franciscan Order, Saint Bonavlentura, a great and perceptive Christian, tried to
suppress the early accounts of Franciscanism. The key to an understanding of Francis is
his belief in the virtue of humility–not merely for the individual but for man as a species.
Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of
all God’s creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a
sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister
Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his.
Later commentators have said that Francis preached to the birds as a rebuke to men who
would not listen. The records do not read so: he urged the little birds to praise God, and in
spiritual ecstasy they flapped their wings and chirped rejoicing. Legends of saints,
especially the Irish saints, had long told of their dealings with animals but always, I
believe, to show their human dominance over creatures. With Francis it is different. The
land around Gubbio in the Apennines was ravaged by a fierce wolf. Saint Francis, says
the legend, talked to the wolf and persuaded him of the error of his ways. The wolf
repented, died in the odor of sanctity, and was buried in consecrated ground.
What Sir Steven Ruciman calls “the Franciscan doctrine of the animal soul” was quickly
stamped out. Quite possibly it was in part inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by the
belief in reincarnation held by the Cathar heretics who at that time teemed in Italy and
southern France, and who presumably had got it originally from India. It is significant
that at just the same moment, about 1200, traces of metempsychosis are found also in
western Judaism, in the Provencal Cabbala. But Francis held neither to transmigration of
souls nor to pantheism. His view of nature and of man rested on a unique sort of panpsychism of all things animate and inanimate, designed for the glorification of their
transcendent Creator, who, in the ultimate gesture of cosmic humility, assumed flesh, lay
helpless in a manger, and hung dying on a scaffold.
I am not suggesting that many contemporary Americans who are concerned about our
ecologic crisis will be either able or willing to counsel with wolves or exhort birds.
However, the present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a
dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world
against which Saint Francis was rebelling in so original a way. Their growth cannot be
understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply
grounded in Christian dogma. The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as
Christian is irrelevant. No new set of basic values has been accepted in our society to
displace those of Christianity. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic
crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to
serve man.
The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis, proposed what he
thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it; he tried to
substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s
limitless rule of creation. He failed. Both our present science and our present technology
are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our
ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so
largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or
not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but
heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of
nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.

References:

Lynn White. 1967, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Science 155: 1203-1207.


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