White, Lynn Townsend, Jr. (1907 – 1987) American Historian and Writer

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Lynn Townsend White Jr. (1907 1987)
American historian and writer

For most readers interested in environmental issues, White is known by only one article: "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," first published in Science in 1967, and widely reprinted. That article, like most of White's work, grew out of his professional interest in medieval technology, including technology's role in "dominating nature." Born in San Francisco, schooled at Stanford and the Union Theological Seminary, White received a doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1934. He taught at Princeton and Stanford Universities, spent 15 years as the President of Mills College (19431958), and retired from his position of university professor of history at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1974.

White received most of the honors his profession could bestow. He was a founding member of the Society for the History of Technology, served as its president, and was also elected president of the History of Science Society, president of the American Historical Association, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Perhaps the best introduction to his work can be obtained from two collections of articles, Machina ex Deo: Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture (1968) and Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays (1978).

White's article on the ecological crisis traced that crisis back to "modern science [as] an extrapolation of natural theology." The modern technology that emerged from that science "is at least partly to be explained as an Occidental voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man's transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature." White then concluded that, since modern science and technology have led us into an ecological crisis, "Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt." Numerous articles over many years either picked up on White's argument or took issue with it, a debate White extended by "Continuing the Conversation" in 1973, and a debate that continues today.

Although White's article received widespread attention, his more significant contributions may have been achieved through his extensive research on technology and its relationship to culture and society. Of particular importance has been his establishment of connections between religion and the way a culture perceives technology. Such perceptions have profound implications for human relationships to the environment . White also embraced the cause of women's rights, using his presidency at Mills College as a pulpit to advance those rights, especially in higher education. Feminist issues, such as reproduction or status, also have profound implications for human-environment relationships, and his writings in this area are still worth reading today.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Eckberg, D. L., and T. J. Blocker. "Varieties of Religious Involvement and Environmental Concerns: Testing the Lynn White Thesis." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28 (December 1989): 509517.

Hall, B. S. "Lynn Townsend White, Jr. (19071987)." Technology and Culture 30 (January 1989): 194213.

Shaiko, R. G. "Religion, Politics, and Environmental Concern: A Powerful Mix of Passions." Social Science Quarterly 68 (June 1987): 244262.

White Jr., L. T. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." Science 155 (March 10, 1967): 12037.

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White, Lynn Townsend, Jr. (1907 – 1987) American Historian and Writer

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