Excerpts from: The Historical Roots Of Our Ecologic Crisis

This comes to me from my Ecocriticism class (what’s to criticize?!).

Lynn White Jr. published this fairly short article in 1967 in the magazine Science.  White was an historian, not a scientist – so who knows what business he had publishing in a magazine called Science.  But publish he did.  And below are some snippets that I find relevant to my life.  Hopefully you resonate with them as well…

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 becomming overgrown with unsightly brush because the rabbits that formerly kept such growth under control had largely of their expeditions, have profoundly succumbed to a disease, myxomatosis, changed some ecologies. that was deliberately introduced by the tion that the French landscape falls local farmers to reduce the rabbits’ into two basic types, the open fields destruction of crops. Being something of the north and the bocage of the of a Philistine, I could be silent no longer, 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 fire-drive method of hunting of 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 chanced some ecologies…

…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 canons were fired, in the early 14th century, they affected ecology by sending workers scrambling to the forests and mountains for more potash, sulfur, 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…

…What shall we do?  No one yet knows. [I say we need to revolt] Unless we think about fundamentals, our specific measures may produce new backlashes more serious than those they are designed to remedy…

…A second pair of facts is less well recognized because they result from quite recent historical scholarship.  The leadership in 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 out-moded 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…

…By the end of the 15th century the technological superiority of Europe was such that tis small, mutually hostile nations could spill out over all the rst of the world, conquering, looting and colonizing…

…Until recently, agriculture has been the chief occupation even in “advanced” societies; hence, any change in methods of tillage has much importance.  Early plows, drawen by two oxen, did not normally turn the sod but merely scratched it.  Thus, crossplowing 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…

…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 rotted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian teleology.  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…

…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 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 non-repetitive and linear but also a striking story of creation…

…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 chaped Adam he was foreshadowing teh 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 Zoroastrianism), 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.

Lynn White goes on to talk about how St. Francis (aka San Francisco) of Assisi should be made the patron saint of nature.  He described Francis as a revolutionary thinker who refused to believe in the concept of “dominion” i.e. God gave humanity dominion over nature.  If St. Francis says its false, then that’s good enough for me.

One of the hard things for me to come to grips with is that Christianity, the religion that I’ve devoted my life to thus far, is largely at fault for our current ecological disaster.  Its anthropocentrism and a focus on a heavenly afterlife have lulled its adherents to sleep concerning our environment.

I have a difficult time self-identifying as Christian anymore.  But I do still believe that there is value to the religion if only for its emphasis on community and love.  But what good are those things if you’re exploiting the planet and her resources at the same time.

Something has to give.

I would like to apologize to the world for my religion and its inherently arrogant, self-serving attitudes.  I’m sorry that I’ve been complicit with the destruction of our environment to this point in time.

But enough is enough.

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