Lynn White (Science, 1967)

“The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”


1.      White an env historian concerned about how both

         a.      Humans shape nature

         b.      Nature shapes human societies


2.      BASIC DIAGNOSIS: "Orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature" is a (the?) root cause of environmental problems

3.      Our treatment of nature a function of our philosophical/religious world views

         a.      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.

4.      Joining of science and technology to master nature rooted in arrogant Christian attitude toward nature

         a.      Can’t understand the growth of Western science/technology’s ruthless exploitation of nature without seeing their origin in distinctive Christian attitudes toward nature

         b.      "Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt"

         c.      Joining also due to democracy

5.      Idea that it is normal/proper to use scientific knowledge to give us technological power over nature is greatest event in human history (except perhaps agriculture)


6.      God made the world for man to exploit (“dominion” means dominate)

         a.      Planned it for man’s benefit

         b.      God wants us to rule/exploit the earth (gave us “dominion,” we are its master and “should be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth”)

         c.      "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"

         d.      “Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man”

7.      Man (and only man) made in God’s image

         a.      Humans are the only being on earth with a soul or spirit

         b.      Like God, we transcend nature

         c.      Leads to a dualism of man and nature: Man is not a part of nature, but separate from it

                   i.       This is a significant reason we don’t take environmental problems seriously; we don’t see ourselves as part of nature

8.      Rejects animism (spirit in everything, everything has intrinsic value) and paganism (worship of earth)

         a.      Rejects idea of spirts in natural entities that must be placated if used

                   i.       The old inhibitions towards exploiting nature are removed

         b.      Allows us to exploit nature with indifference (as no spirit in nature)

9.      Connection of Christianity and Science/Technology

         a.      Christian linear view of time (rather than cyclical with no beginning) allowed for our implicit faith in perpetual progress

         b.      Christian action oriented view of salvation (instead of contemplative attitude) encouraged technology

         c.      Christian natural theology led to science as reading God’s mind to understand how nature worked (instead of seeing nature as God’s symbolic communication to man)

         d.      Technology is partly to be explained as a realization of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of and rightful mastery over, nature


10.    Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen

         a.      Anthropocentrism: The view that only humans are morally significant in their own right

11.     Christianity’s dogma of man’s transcendence and rightful mastery over nature is what allowed for modern science and technology

         a.      And for our environmentally harmful use of science and technology

12.    That non-Christian societies have also exploited nature can be explained by fact that they use Western (Christian-inspired) science and technology


13.    Not more science and technology:

         a.      Can’t avoid an ecological backlash by more application of the science and technology (so tainted with Christian arrogance toward nature) that got us here in the first place

14.    Because the cause is philosophical/religious, so must be the solution

         a.      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 re-feel our nature and destiny.”

15.    Proposes Saint Francis of Assisi as a patron saint for environmentalists

         a.      Humility for man as a species

         b.      Panpsychism (animals and plants? have souls)

         c.      Equality of all beings (deposes man from monarchy over all creatures)

         d.      Each being praises the creator in its own way (as do humans)

White, The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis

1.         According the White, what are the historical roots of our ecological crisis?

2.         Describe the features of Christianity that White thinks result in ecologically irresponsible world views and behavior. Identify three distinct features.

3.         What does it mean to say a religion is anthropocentric?

4.         Does White think science and technology have played a major role in getting us into the environmental crisis? How? Does he think more science and technology are the way out of this crisis?

5.         Does White think there are any redeeming resources in the Christian tradition that would help move us toward a more environmentally friendly worldview?

6.         How might White answer the objection that lots of non-Christian societies (e.g., China) also destroy their environments (and why might someone think this is an objection to his view)?