Chapter 2: The Genesis of Eco-Theology — Is Christianity to Blame for our “Ecologic Crisis”?
There is a tradition in American nature writing, drawing on the precedent of transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson, to wax poetic about a beautiful nature scene in the introduction of a chapter or book. Stephen Budiansky in Nature’s Keepers plays on this tradition by pillorying it as he begins his first chapter, “Good Poetry, Bad Science”:
If this were a conventional nature book in the mode of Thoreau and his countless latter-day imitators, I should begin by describing the walk I took early this morning across field and wood. How I rejoiced in the cry of the Canada geese overhead and the flash of the white tail of a fleeting deer; how the crackling of the frosted grass beneath my feet as I crossed a hollow by the wood put me in mind of the family of wild turkeys I had seen there early in the fall; how my spirit, indeed my every pore, was open to the sweet beneficence of Nature’s society unfettered by the artifices of man. No worldly thoughts could intrude upon so perfect a reverie – unless it were that ever so slightly nagging doubt that even such unassailable testimony to my earnestness, sensitivity, renunciation of materialism, and oneness with creation had failed to make up for an utter lack of originality… But this is not a conventional nature book, and so I shall begin instead by pointing out how everything I saw this morning was a fake.
His point is that what is extolled as “natural” isn’t as “natural” as Americans think. Bill McKibben highlights a similar point in his book, The End of Nature; human impact has now stretched to the ends of the planet, so “nature” untouched by humans – the ideal of American wilderness sentiment – no longer exists. Another sort of rebellion against the canon of American environmental writing is when Michael Pollan takes Thoreau to task for one of his famous lines in Walden:
As an observer and naturalist, Thoreau consistently refuses to make “invidious distinctions” between different orders of nature; sworn enemy of hierarchy, the man boasts of the fact that he loves swamps more than gardens. But as soon as he determines to make “the earth say beans instead of grass” he finds he has made enemies in nature: worms, the morning dew, woodchucks, and weeds. The bean field “attached me to the earth,” Thoreau felt, giving him positions he must defend if he hopes to prove his experiment in self-reliance a success. And so Thoreau is obliged to wage a long and decidedly uncharacteristic “war, not with cranes, but with weeds, those Trojans who had sun and rain and dews on their side. Daily the beans saw me come to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up the trenches with weedy dead.” He finds himself “making such invidious distinctions with his hoe, levelling whole ranks of one species, and sedulously cultivating another.”
Thoreau is gardening here, of course, and this forces him at least for a time to throw out his romanticism about nature – to drop what naturalists today hail as his precious “biocentrism” (as opposed to anthropocentrism). But by the end of the chapter, his bean field having achieved its purpose, Thoreau trudges back – lamely, it seems to me – to the Emersonian fold: “The sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction….Do [these beans] not grow for woodchucks too? … How, then, can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?”
Sure, Henry, rejoice. And starve. (Pollan, p. 108)
Pollan believes Thoreau to be the progenitor of an American Wilderness ethic, whose romantic notions are sometimes not in line with reality. Pollan proceeds to track a history of various compelling ideas of nature in America, which he analogizes as different trees (The Colonial Tree, the Wilderness Tree, the Litigious Tree…). Pollan’s eventual point is that some American ideas of nature that have been compelling in the past have outlived their usefulness.
I suspect something similar is going on in American environmental ideas about religion.
A familiar refrain in environmental values literature is for an author to retrace their journey of enlightenment, from some self-centered, utilitarian view of nature as a “resource” to be exploited by humans to a more indigenous or eastern view that reveals the duality of their American expectations and awakens them to a more deeply ethical perspective on nature. The assumption is often that Western views (and Western religion) are uniquely mired in duality and antagonism to nature. This idea makes great press for environmentalists, apparently. If only it were true.
Having briefly surveyed the landscape of developments in American religious environmentalism in the last chapter, here I want to look at the most influential and famous idea in religion-environment thinking, Lynn White Jr’s thesis about the culpability of Western Christian doctrine for our modern environmental problems. That question was the focus of the primary chapter of my dissertation, which was published in Environmental Education Research in 2007. That article can be found here.
For those who already appreciate the details of the case I make in that article, the bottom line is this: Lynn White’s thesis posited that Western biblical notions of “dominion” and Christian anthropocentrism and duality were the key roots of our ecologic crisis. A number of significant critiques of White’s thesis have evolved in the literature, as summarized in Hitzhusen (2007); in a nutshell, White’s thesis is weakened because:
- White’s thesis suffered from misinterpretation and overgeneralization,
- Other cultural factors have been more salient than religion in enabling environmental degradation in the West, such as: materialism, secularization, democratization, individualism, and wealth,
- Environmental degradation in the East (which is typically more severe than in the West) suggests that Eastern religions have been not been more “ecological” than Western,
- White’s biblical interpretations are theologically incoherent, and
- White’s thesis has not been well supported by empirical findings.
In brief, the thesis has not held up to scrutiny – it appears to be sociologically, geographically, and historically dubious, and I think Wendell Berry (1990) has it right in terms of the theological accuracy of White’s claims: if the question is “does the Bible imply that humans are free to do as they please with Earth because of ‘dominion,’” Berry replies that such an “extremely unintelligent” reading of Genesis “is contradicted by virtually all the rest of the Bible.”
Lacking substantive evidence, many environmental writers who have continued to champion some variant of White’s thesis have used a line from Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, as their primary evidence for White’s theological claims, but it turns out that this is a famous misquote (Watt was alleged as saying “when the last tree is felled, Christ will return”). What many environmentalists assumed to be Watt’s view of biblically-based disregard for the environment was derived from a comment by Watt that actually indicated that his Christian beliefs motivated him toward careful stewardship of natural resources for future generations (p. 61 of Hitzhusen (2007) elaborates on these specific details – Watt actually said that we don’t know how long it will be until the Lord returns, so we need to manage natural resources with care). White’s contemporary examples of anti-environmental biblical views were therefore ungrounded, and moreover, his theological claims were not just poor interpretations, they were theologically incoherent.
I realize that calling someone’s thesis “incoherent” – especially a thesis that was as widely lauded as White’s – is a dangerously frank criticism, and requires more elaboration. But White’s idea has been around for over 50 years now, and given that it has not held up well to empirical scrutiny, maybe it should not be surprising that the theological assumptions of the thesis were flawed in the first place. I acknowledge that White’s ideas remain compelling for some environmentalists, especially for those who argue that their own views are compelling in part because they avoid the criticisms of White’s thesis. But the fact remains that White’s theological claims make sense only through improbable interpretations of biblical theology. For instance, just on its face, to call an obviously theo-centric belief system “anthropocentric” is surely to miss the point of that system. For most religions, re-orienting humans from their self-centeredness towards something greater than themselves (in the case of Biblical religions, that’s God) is more or less the point – a point that White and his environmental champions seemed to completely ignore.
- For instance, Stephen Kellert, in Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World (Yale U. Press, 2012): “An inordinate desire to control nature is said to be a characteristic of Western society, particularly its Judeo-Christian religious traditions that have encouraged human domination of the natural world.” ↵
- ENR 3470 students at OSU have access to this article in Canvas. ↵