White Explores the Judeo-Christian Roots of Environmental Problems Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Historian Lynn Townshend White, Jr., in a controversial journal article, explored the roots of modern environmental problems in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He concluded that modern ecological problems cannot be solved until Judeo-Christian arrogance toward nature is understood and reversed.

Summary of Event

By the time “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” was published in Science (March 10, 1967), Lynn Townshend White, Jr., already had established himself as an eminent historian of science and technology of the Middle Ages. His book Medieval Technology and Social Change Medieval Technology and Social Change (White) (1962) caused substantial debate among historians, some of whom questioned White’s conclusions and even the evidence upon which he had based those conclusions. White, therefore, understood that his essay on the ecological crisis would create some controversy. His eight-page article would become one of the most often cited sources in the modern discourse on the environment. The essay stirred the imaginations of journalists, scholars, and scientists. It even managed to gain the attention of the Vatican. "Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, The" (White)[Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis] Environmentalism Christianity;environmental attitudes Judaism;environmental attitudes [kw]White Explores the Judeo-Christian Roots of Environmental Problems (Mar. 10, 1967) [kw]Judeo-Christian Roots of Environmental Problems, White Explores the (Mar. 10, 1967)[Judeo Christian Roots of Environmental Problems, White Explores the] [kw]Christian Roots of Environmental Problems, White Explores the Judeo- (Mar. 10, 1967) [kw]Environmental Problems, White Explores the Judeo-Christian Roots of (Mar. 10, 1967) "Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, The" (White)[Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis] Environmentalism Christianity;environmental attitudes Judaism;environmental attitudes [g]North America;Mar. 10, 1967: White Explores the Judeo-Christian Roots of Environmental Problems[09190] [g]United States;Mar. 10, 1967: White Explores the Judeo-Christian Roots of Environmental Problems[09190] [c]Environmental issues;Mar. 10, 1967: White Explores the Judeo-Christian Roots of Environmental Problems[09190] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Mar. 10, 1967: White Explores the Judeo-Christian Roots of Environmental Problems[09190] White, Lynn Townshend, Jr. Francis of Assisi, Saint Thomas, Keith

Inspiration for the essay, which was first read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science in December, 1966, came from a conversation White had with Aldous Huxley Huxley, Aldous in which Huxley complained about the way humans abused nature and the terrible consequences this produced. Listening to Huxley, White realized that knowledge about the history of ecological changes, and how humans were involved in those changes, was severely limited. He believed that a historical understanding of human interaction with the ecology of the earth was a necessary foundation for dealing with the planet’s increasing environmental problems. He noted that the word “ecology” first appeared in the English language in 1873 in response to the growing power of technology over nature. Except among a small number of naturalists and other social critics, the advance of technological might was accepted as the proper and inevitable course of human development. It was a view encouraged by industrialists and government leaders who saw profit and power as the end result. Consumers were being convinced that nature should be used to improve their material well-being.

In his paper, White makes clear that modern technology and science, and their application, are Western in origin. Although the Western cultures absorbed science and technology from other regions of the earth prior to the eighteenth century (principally from China and the world of Islam), by the nineteenth century successful science and technology around the globe was Western in form and substance. Fundamental is White’s contention that the West firmly stamped its values on science and technology by the late Middle Ages (1100-1400 c.e.). Moreover, White argues that despite the magnificence of Byzantine and Islamic culture in the late Middle Ages, the Latin West already had taken the lead in technology. For proof of this, he points to the fourteenth century European achievement of the weight-driven mechanical clock, which all historians of technology regard as the most astounding accomplishment of human endeavor in the Middle Ages. Because the modern technological world still embraces the values established in the late Middle Ages, and because Western technology and science has dominated the globe for the past two hundred years, White believed that it was necessary to trace the origins of medieval assumptions about human progress.

The key to understanding these assumptions, White wrote, is in appreciating the revolution in thinking that occurred with the triumph of Christianity over paganism. Christians live their lives with a belief that progress (moving forward toward a goal) is continual. This sort of belief was unknown in pagan antiquity. The Hebrews bequeathed to Christians a linear perception of time as opposed to the cyclical notion of time favored by Greco-Roman philosophers. The creation story in Genesis established the beginning of human existence, and from that point humans were to progress as the special creation of God. The Hebrew story, as White interprets it, maintains that humans were created in God’s image and thus were given dominion over every other thing created.

Genesis leaves little doubt, White argued, that God had planned everything for the benefit of humans. Therefore, it was assumed in the Judeo-Christian world that everything on Earth could be used and exploited to advance human well-being. In paganism, everything in nature has a guardian spirit that must be placated before humans altered a tree, bush, animal, or other creature in any way. Christians, however, believed that only humans were protected by the spirit of God; hence, they had an indifferent attitude toward natural things. Modern thinking that progress is always linked with using Earth’s available resources, White wrote, was shaped by Christian beliefs with regard to the relationship between humans and natural things.

White does allow that some Christians tried to change the accepted Christian perception of nature. Most prominent among them was Francis of Assisi (later sainted), whom White contends was the most radical Christian since Jesus of Nazareth. Francis, founder of the Franciscan order of monks, traveled across Europe preaching a simple message of love and humility. Describing how Francis spoke to birds, wolves, and other animals, White shows that this humble cleric wanted everyone to see that all creatures were equal in the mind of God. Humans were not to assume that nature was created solely to serve their interests. Francis did not succeed in changing Christian thinking, and even his own order eventually rejected his ideas. The wonder is, wrote White rather provocatively, that Francis was not burned at the stake for his strange beliefs.

Significance

The amazing explosion of articles and books in the 1970’s and 1980’s pertaining to the issue of religion and ecology is testimony to the impact of White’s brief essay. Other writers had expressed similar opinions in the past, including German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and Oxford theologian Hastings Rashdall, but the appearance of White’s article at a time when people were awakening to environmental issues enabled it to capture the attention of those who were seeking explanations and solutions. Ecologists were quick to accept White’s claim that the medieval church had provided the philosophical underpinning for the abuse of nature and that this abuse would result in ecological disaster for the earth. Animal rights groups were particularly keen to seize upon White’s ideas as an explanation for human mistreatment of animals.

It was not long before philosophers, theologians, geographers, businesspeople, zoologists, and historians entered the dialogue spurred by White. Most people used White’s essay as their starting point and then went on to argue either in favor of his position or in opposition. Some experts complained that White based his conclusions on incomplete, or misused, evidence. Geographer David Pepper Pepper, David , in his The Roots of Modern Environmentalism Roots of Modern Environmentalism, The (Pepper) (1984), took White to task for being vague about dates and for using them carelessly. Pepper also asserted that White failed to show the relationship between his conclusions and the social and economic changes that occurred over many centuries.

Pepper’s criticisms of White’s casual use of evidence and dates were echoed by many historians. White’s view of pagan culture came under intense challenge. It was noted by several historians of antiquity that pagan Greece and Rome had exploited nature far more effectively than medieval Christians. In their use of land, in their building of aqueducts and roads, and in their exploitation of nature for military purposes, pagans had revealed a conviction that humans should manipulate natural surroundings for their own objectives.

Historian Keith Thomas, meanwhile, noted that the Japanese, renowned for their worship of nature, nevertheless experienced an expanding problem of industrial pollution. Civilizations that have little or no connection with Judeo-Christian thought seem, according to Thomas, quite capable of damaging or destroying their environment. Thomas believes that White’s fundamental error is in his assumption that Christianity was unique in believing that God gave humans dominion over the world of nature.

Thomas also suggested that White ignored Old Testament passages that suggest humans ought to see animals as part of the covenant with God. It is quite possible, Thomas argues, that pagan philosophy altered the Hebrew legacy to Christianity in such a way as to make the New Testament much more human-centered than the Old Testament. Thomas did not dispute, however, White’s contention that Christian clerics and commentators, at least until the 1960’s, were in nearly unanimous agreement that the natural world existed to be exploited by humans. This did not necessarily mean that they condoned the wanton abuse of nature, but they did believe that the Scriptures confirmed human dominion over the earth.

Famed environmentalist René Dubos Dubos, René , while acknowledging in his Wooing of the Earth Wooing of the Earth (Dubos) (1980) that White’s article had caused him to read more than one hundred books and articles on the subject, concluded that the biblical injunction that humans should have control over nature had played virtually no role in the desecration of the environment. He pointed out, as many others did, that destruction of the environment began long before the biblical writings began. Instead, Dubos attributed the degradation of nature over the centuries to population increases and to the continuing development of technology that made it easier for humans to intervene in nature. When people had axes made of stone, Dubos wrote, it took them eons to bring down forests, but with power saws forests were destroyed in a few years. It was not Genesis that caused the ecological crisis, Dubos insisted, but the failure of humans to anticipate the problems created by advanced technology.

The fairly extensive criticism of White’s evidence and conclusions did not in any way diminish the impact of his thesis, particularly within established Christian organizations. Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans engaged in written and oral debates in which the relationship of humans to the environment was the principal focus. Officials and theologians from the major Christian denominations, and from Judaism as well, generally agreed that some reconciliation between humans and nature was required. A spate of literature published by religious presses in the 1970’s and 1980’s investigated the implications of various biblical passages to determine how Christians should relate to the natural things around them. The effect of this discourse was to bring about a greater recognition of Christian responsibility for preserving ecosystems. Whether Genesis implied that humans should exploit or protect nature was largely irrelevant, because Christian industrialized nations had clearly acted as exploiters.

The impact of the discussion that White inspired reached the Vatican. In 1981, Pope John Paul II made Saint Francis the patron saint of animals and it was widely acknowledged that, in a more general sense, Saint Francis had become the patron saint for all environmentalists. In 1989, the pontiff issued the encyclical “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all Creation,” which emphasized the need for followers of the Roman Catholic Church to act in a responsible and compassionate manner toward all things created by God. "Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, The" (White)[Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis] Environmentalism Christianity;environmental attitudes Judaism;environmental attitudes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, John. The Dominion of Man: The Search for Ecological Responsibility. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1970. A probing essay that points out the many ways in which humans have behaved irresponsibly in regard to the environment. There are suggestions for how this poor behavior can be corrected. Notes, bibliography, index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Glacken, Clarence J. Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. A monumental and brilliant scholarly essay that has greatly influenced debate on White’s article. Discusses pre-Christian and Christian ideas about nature. Glacken discusses development of the notion that humans must preside over nature. Superb bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gottlieb, Roger S. A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Traces the connections among trends in environmentalism and ecology, environmental stewardship, and Christianity. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Liberating Faith: Religious Voices for Justice, Peace, and Ecological Wisdom. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. A vast compendium covering the “ecological wisdom” and environmentalism of the world’s religious peoples. Highly recommended as a resource for those interested in a comparative understanding of religion and nature. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, Michael, ed. This Little Planet. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970. A compendium of essays of which two are especially pertinent. Conrad Bonifazi’s “Biblical Roots of an Ecological Conscience” and Clarence J. Glacken’s “Man’s Place in Nature in Recent Western Thought” bear directly on White’s article.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keith, Thomas. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800. London: Allen Lane, 1983. Thomas agrees with White’s conclusions about Christian attitudes toward nature but says that White overestimates the impact of religion on human behavior. Deftly written, this work covers the entire realm of human interaction with nature during the period discussed. Extensive notes, index, no bibliography. Highly recommended.
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    xlink:type="simple">Klaits, Joseph, and Barrie Klaits, eds. Animals and Man in Historical Perspective. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. A collection of articles, all previously published in books and journals, focusing on the relationship between humans and animals. Includes a reprint of White’s article. No bibliography or index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Passmore, John. Man’s Responsibility for Nature: Ecological Problems and Western Traditions. London: Duckworth, 1974. Examines White’s argument based on Genesis and finds it wanting. Looks at whether Western culture, given its basic traditions, can solve its ecological problems. Provides a strong defense of the Christian philosophy. Useful notes, index, no bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pepper, David. The Roots of Modern Environmentalism. Dover, N.H.: Croom Helm, 1984. Provides an overview of the history and philosophy of environmental thinking from the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s. Does not accept White’s perspective. Useful bibliography, glossary, and index. Recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spring, David, and Eileen Spring, eds. Ecology and Religion in History. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. These previously published articles center on the issues raised by White. Historians David and Eileen Spring have chosen the essays judiciously, and many viewpoints are represented. No bibliography or index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Lynn, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science (March 10, 1967): 1203-1207. White’s controversial article, in a journal available online through most academic and local libraries.
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    xlink:type="simple">Young, John. Post-Environmentalism. London: Belhaven Press, 1990. Young examines most of the major ecological issues of the late twentieth century. His chapter “The Parable of the Talents” relates directly to White’s essay. Useful bibliography and index.

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