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“Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man”1.
The above statement summarizes Lynn White’s argument on why the environment is constantly being mismanaged (today). Most of White’s contribution to the field of environmental ethics is conceptualized in the article titled, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. Here, White explains that most forms of animal species have modified their environments but the human race has done so, extensively (more than other animal species)2.
Partly, White shows that Christianity (in its western form) is partly responsible for the excessive modification of the environment today. White attributes this phenomenon to the centralized teaching in Christianity that propagates the view that the environment exists for man’s service3.
Indeed, unlike other environmental theories, White’s ideology centers on religion and its contribution to environmental management. Due to White’s unique view on environmental ethics, his ideologies have been of great interest to many religious and environmental researchers.
Concisely, because of White’s attempt to associate Christianity with environmental mismanagement, he has been widely condemned for propagating a false ideology of environmental ethics. Most of the criticism has come from religious quarters. However, a section of environmentalists agrees with his opinions.
Some explain that White’s view of Christianity and the environment is factual because White shows the technological powers that people have wielded over the environment for centuries4. Through this assertion, Christianity is portrayed as nature’s worst enemy.
White’s arguments have been in existence for decades but few people agree as to whether his arguments are true or false. This paper seeks to investigate White’s argument with the aim of providing direction to the endless debate regarding the role of Christian doctrines on environmental degradation.
To support its findings, this paper seeks to investigate different aspects of White’s arguments. Among the issues to be investigated will be the weaknesses in White’s arguments, the presence of pejorative presentation in White’s arguments, the superficial theology used to base White’s arguments and the naïve solution presented by White. Comprehensively, this paper proposes the view that White’s argument is flawed.
Weakness in Argument
White’s argument on western philosophy is significantly flawed in the fact that he perceives Christianity as the villain of the piece5. Through this flaw, it has been very difficult to investigate the counter arguments and contradictions of White’s arguments.
For example, White presents an argument based on the extensive deforestation of pre-Christian Romans but still links massive deforestation to decades of western missionary reign. The reign of the pre-Christian roman rulers is only mentioned in White’s argument but it is not properly investigated.
Furthermore, White acknowledges the pressure that an overpopulated world causes on the environment but does not investigate the pressure relief occasioned by a population decrease in some Christian countries in the western world.
White also presents a biased argument about Christianity because he presents two forms of the religion as the cause for environmental mismanagement. He explains that the western form of Christianity is characterized by extreme technological innovations, which are disastrous to the environment while the eastern form of Christianity does not have a technological culture (and therefore, it is not disastrous on the environment)6.
White gives an example of a visit by a Greek clergy to Italy where he witnessed advanced technology in display. Here, White wanted to trace the technological destruction of the environment to the seventh A.D where technology was introduced to improve farming techniques7.
However, there is a strong flaw in his analysis because the split between eastern and Western Christianity only happened at about 1054 A.D8. This was more than 30 decades after the Eastern and western churches split.
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Furthermore, White goes ahead to emphasize the split between Eastern and Western churches, which was only more dramatic in the 13 century (a period that does not emphasize the differences that the western and eastern churches had on White’s argument). The inconsistencies in argument manifest White’s methodological weaknesses.
White’s Pejorative Presentation
White’s pejorative presentation significantly erodes his argument because of his reference to medieval developments in agricultural technology, which were practiced by peasant farmers across the world9. Here, White argues that after the seventh century, ox-driven ploughs were used to prepare fields, and the friction from the soil was so great that it required eight oxen (instead of two) to plough the earth. Consequently, the earth took the shape of ploughed strips.
Even though the above argument comprises a significant part of White’s argument, it is evidently the first time White refers to Jesus or Christianity (by extension). Interestingly, when White refers to Christ and Christianity, he tries to link them with violence and attack on land. This relationship may be deliberate (or not) but it is an attempt to associate Christianity with violence and “attack” on land (which is false)10.
It is important to highlight that White tries to portray a picture that the relationship between people and the environment occurred in an “overnight” fashion (but this is not the case). The transition of technology throughout the decades occurred across decades. In addition, White’s assertion that technology changed the way man and the environment related is characterized by emotive arguments, which may easily be misunderstood for objective discussions.
Essentially, White tries to argue that the shift from subsistence farming to commercial farming can be characterized by greed (at the expense of the environment). However, it is important to highlight that this shift has little to do with Christianity but a lot to do with industrialization.
There is very little evidence that pegs Christianity to the advancement in technology and the consequent destruction of the environment. In fact, associating Christianity with technology is a biased argument because there are some types of technology that do not exploit the environment.
If the argument that Christianity brought forth the advancement in technology (which was meant to exploit the environment), then it would be flawed to link Christianity to technology that has nothing to do with the environment. However, since White’s argument is written in a scientific journal, it may be very easy to assume that his arguments are factual.
White’s argument on environmental ethics is based on a misunderstood concept of Christian theology. When we look at the scientific understanding of the world, it is proposed that the world does not have a definite beginning. However, Christian philosophies dictate that God created the world to serve humanity.
White draws part of his arguments to the Greek belief of the world and its beginnings. Here, it is important to highlight that White’s arguments are dubious, emotive and forced. For instance, based on ancient Greek philosophies, the recognition that the visible world had a beginning is affirmative.
Similarly, the Greeks believed that the world was formed so that human beings can enjoy its fruits. The greatest flaw with White’s arguments is that he portrays these Greek philosophies as being uniquely Judaeo Christian. Here, he fails to acknowledge that Christianity does not attribute the exploitation of the earth as a unique concept of faith.
In no way does Christianity preach that people should go forth and deplete the earth’s natural resources because there is no tenet of Christianity that warns that if people fail to do so, they would be defying God. However, White’s understanding of this argument is that, it is the will of God for people to go forth and deplete earth’s resources11. This is false.
In addition, White claims to base his argument on Christian beliefs, but contrary to his assertions, his arguments are not any different from the ignorance exposed by incompetent theologians. For example, according to the book of Job (which forms a significant part of Christian literature), God gives a hint that he has created a world where he stands as the ultimate Supreme Being. In the same context, Christian literature explains that there are parts of the world that are inaccessible to man12.
In fact, certain sections of Christian literature completely disapprove White’s arguments because they clearly explain the role of nature in sustaining humans and not the exploitative relationship that White seems to suggest13.From the above statement, it is crucial to refrain from taking abstract concepts of Christianity and perceiving them in our unique ways. Instead, we should take a deeper analysis of Christian doctrines if we are to level the criticisms against Christianity.
White’s Naïve Solution
White’s understanding of the ecological crisis today rests in a spiritual solution. He proposes this view because he perceives the ecological problem to be based on a spiritual problem and because of this eventuality, a spiritual solution is needed. Emphatically, White explains that the ecological crisis we experience today can be solved by following the principles of St. Francis of Assisi.
Selectively, White has proposed the adoption of Francis Assisi’s principles but as it would be impossible to impose Islamic principles on western society, it is highly unlikely that ecologists will adopt Francis’s principles as a solution to the ecological crisis we face today. Moreover, all the negative connotations that White has smeared on Christianity has had a lasting impact on his reputation and therefore, his perception is not going to change soon.
Even though this paper identifies different flaws of White’s arguments, it is important to acknowledge that White’s principles are, a worth read because they show a lot of concern for the future of our environment. Indeed, white’s arguments are provocative and interesting but they are deeply incorrect.
However, it is crucial to acknowledge that even in the intensity of White’s incorrect representation of Christian facts; he still acknowledges that a spiritual problem requires a spiritual solution14. Thus, the solution advanced is not based on concepts of atheism but rather, on the importance of reviewing our spiritual beliefs.
Mainly, most of White’s arguments are well intended but they are deeply flawed. Most of white’s arguments are weak and based on superficial theological representations, which misunderstand the entire concept of the relationship between man and the environment.
Moreover, the solutions advanced are essentially impractical and they have no place in today’s deeply divided and scientifically driven society. Nonetheless, despite the above flaws, White’s arguments have received a lot of attention within ecological debate circles but there is a strong need to re-evaluate them if the true solutions to our ecological problems are to be truly realized.
Blaut, J, Eight Eurocentric Historians, Guilford Press, London, 2000.
Bouma-Prediger, S, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation, Care Baker Academic, London, 2010.
Fox, R, Technological Change: Methods and Themes in the History of Technology, Routledge, London, 1996.
Reilly, K, The West and the World: A History of Civilization from the Ancient World To 1700, Markus Wiener Publishers, London, 1989.
Scharper, S, Redeeming the Time, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, 1998.
Whitney, E, Paradise Restored: The Mechanical Arts from Antiquity Through the Thirteenth Century, American Philosophical Society, New York, 1990.
Whitney, E, ‘Lynn White, Ecotheology and History’, Environmental Ethics, vol.15, 1993, pp. 151-69.
1 S Scharper, Redeeming the Time, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, 1998, p. 25.
2 E Whitney, ‘Lynn White, Ecotheology and History’, Environmental Ethics, vol.15, 1993, pp. 151-69.
3 E Whitney, ‘Lynn White, Ecotheology and History’, Environmental Ethics, vol.15, 1993, pp. 151-69.
4 R Fox, Technological Change: Methods and Themes in the History of Technology, Routledge, London, 1996, p. 87.
5 J Blaut, Eight Eurocentric Historians, Guilford Press, London, 2000, p. 31.
6 R Fox, Technological Change: Methods and Themes in the History of Technology, Routledge, London, 1996, p. 87.
7 E, Whitney, Paradise Restored: The Mechanical Arts from Antiquity Through the Thirteenth Century, American Philosophical Society, New York, 1990, p. 57
8 K Reilly, The West and the World: A History of Civilization from the Ancient World To 1700, Markus Wiener Publishers, London, 1989.
9 R Fox, Technological Change: Methods and Themes in the History of Technology, Routledge, London, 1996, p. 87.
10 R Fox, Technological Change: Methods and Themes in the History of Technology, Routledge, London, 1996, p. 87
11 S Scharper, Redeeming the Time, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, 1998, p. 25.
12 S Scharper, Redeeming the Time, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, 1998, p. 25.
13 S Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation, Care
Baker Academic, London, 2010, p. 67.
14 S Scharper, Redeeming the Time, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, 1998, p. 25.