The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis

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"The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis"

Journal article

By: Lynn Townsend White, Jr.

Date: March 10, 1967

Source: White, Lynn Townsend, Jr. "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis." Science 155 (10 March 1967): 1203-1207.

About the Author: Lynn Townsend White, Jr. (1907–1987) was the first American historian to accurately examine the role of technological discovery in the Middle Ages. Although best known for his ideas on the causes of modern environmental problems, within the academic community White was regarded first and foremost as a pioneer in the field of medieval technology. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1938, he taught briefly at Princeton and Stanford Universities until becoming president of Mills College in 1943. In 1958, he left Mills and until his retirement in 1974, served as a Professor of History at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he published Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962) and Medieval Technology and Religion: Collected Essays (1978). White continued to write and engage in intellectual debate until his death in 1987.

INTRODUCTION

White's article "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis," published in Science magazine in 1967, argued that mass destruction of nature by humankind is an unintended consequence of religious viewpoints of nature. In particular, the viewpoints related to Christian theology as they were frequently applied, or misapplied, toward dealing with the natural world. A conversation with English naturalist Aldous Huxley is the article's starting point. Huxley recalls that a delightful valley that he visited as a child was now overgrown with brush because the rabbits that kept the growth under control were dying of a disease introduced by farmers to reduce the rabbits' destruction of crops.

White claimed that "all forms of life modify their contexts," and that changes can be either benign or malignant to the environment. Modifications triggered by men, however, are in general accompanied with tragic consequences in the ecological equilibrium. In 1967, White warned that "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."

Although the terms Scientific and Industrial Revolutions are used to describe specific turning points in European history, White points out that the actual genesis of these revolutions can be traced to earlier points in time. With regard to the Industrial Revolution, White argued that it began around 1000 a.d. when humans began "to apply water power to industrial processes other than milling grain." This led to the use of wind power in the twelfth century along with other labor-saving devices, and subsequently, automation (such as the invention of the mechanical clock in the fourteenth century). The technological superiority of the European countries empowered them to conquer countries around the world.

PRIMARY SOURCE

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SIGNIFICANCE

The impact of White's writings on the community of environmentalists, philosophers of technology, and religious scholars concerned with environmental issues was immediate and long-lasting. In the twenty years following the publication of "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," over 200 books and articles used White's ideas as a focal point. His ideas penetrated the popular press, appearing in TIME, Horizon, and the New York Times, among others.

"The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" was one of the most significant interpretations of history to come out of medieval studies in the second half of the twentieth century. Connecting the culture of medieval Christianity to the emergence of what White called an "exploitative" attitude toward nature in the Western world throughout the Middle Ages, White's ideas set off a wide debate about the role of religion in creating and supporting the developed world's increasingly successful control of the natural world through technology. The explosiveness of this debate, which still reverberates, was touched off by a confluence of factors: urgency in the late 1960s and 1970s over the newly discovered environmental crisis, White's ability to reach an audience beyond that of professional Historians, and the perception among some that White's thoughts constituted an attack on Christianity that needed to be answered before additional injury was done to the value of traditionally held religious beliefs.

White argued that the destruction of paganism by Christianity was a tremendous psychic revolution in human history. As a result, Europe received a number of key axioms that would shape the European worldview to the present day: faith in progress; the concept of time as linear (rather than cyclical according to the seasons); the creation of the world to serve the needs of humanity as set out in the Genesis account; and the creation of humanity in God's image and God (and man) as "other" than nature. Furthermore, paganism had stressed the sacredness of the created order ("In antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own "guardian spirit"), yet by destroying this Christianity allowed nature to be exploited. In other religions this essential relationship between humanity and the Earth has the ability to be preserved (Hindu pantheism, as an example). However, according to White it has been the Christian account of the creation of the world ex nihilo ("out of nothing"), and apart from God, which has allowed this to be particularly difficult in Western European cultures.

White noted that the human capacity to wreak damage and destruction upon the environment grows out of Western technological and scientific advances made since the Medieval period. These advances have occurred in a social context informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition. White focuses his analysis on Western Christianity, understood as both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism together. He asserts that this Western Christianity is "the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen." This overt anthropocentrism gives humans permission to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the integrity of natural objects. White argued that within Christian theology, "nature has no reason for existence save to serve (humans)." Thus, for White, Christian arrogance towards nature "bears a huge burden of guilt" for the contemporary environmental crisis.

To counteract "our ecological crisis" White is straightforward: "we shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man". He also sets that as Saint Francis of Assisi did, we need to develop another way of seeing nonhuman nature. All of living organisms must to be seen as in the same "hierarchical" level of human beings. According to Saint Francis "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". In addition, because of Saint Francis' ecotheologian values, White suggests Francis as a patron saint of ecologists.

The debate is still strong, as several Web pages are maintained to support or crush White's ideas. White's powerful and innovative reading of history, which has formed a generation of scholarship, remains a hallmark for current and future discussion.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Wackernagel, Mathis. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1996.

White, Lynn Townsend. Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

White, Lynn Townsend. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Periodicals

Elspeth, W. "Lynn White, Ecotheology, and History." Environmental Ethics 15 (1993): 151-169.

Kelly, H.A. "Lynn White's Legacy." Viva Vox 1 (2002/2003): 1-11.

Web sites

Center for Medieval and Renaissance History. 〈http://www.humnet.ucla.edu/humnet/cmrs/default.html〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).

Society for the History of Technology. 〈http://shot.press.jhu.edu/Publications/Publications_Main_Page.htm〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).

Audio and Visual Media

The Soul of Science. Video. Hawkhill Associates, Inc., 2002.