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The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis
Lynn White, Jr.
A conversation with Aldous Huxley not infrequently put one at the
receiving end of an unforgettable monologue. About a year before his
lamented death he was discoursing on a favorite topic: Man's unnatural
treatment of nature and its sad results. To illustrate his point he told how,
during the previous summer, he had returned to a little valley in England
where he had spent many happy months as a child. Once it had been
composed of delightful grassy glades; now it was becoming overgrown with
unsightly brush because the rabbits that formerly kept such growth under
control had largely succumbed to a disease, myxomatosis, that was
deliberately introduced by the local farmers to reduce the rabbits'
destruction of crops. Being something of a Philistine, I could be silent no
longer, even in the interests of great rhetoric. I interrupted to point out that
the rabbit itself had been brought as a domestic animal to England in 1176,
presumably to improve the protein diet of the peasantry.
All forms of life modify their contexts. The most spectacular and
benign instance is doubtless the coral polyp. By serving its own ends, it has
created a vast undersea world favorable to thousands of other kinds of
animals and plants. Ever since man became a numerous species he has
affected his environment notably. The hypothesis that his fire-drive method
of hunting created the world's great grasslands and helped to exterminate
the monster mammals of the Pleistocene from much of the globe is
plausible, if not proved. For 6 millennia at least, the banks of the lower Nile
have been a human artifact rather than the swampy African jungle which
nature, apart from man, would have made it. The Aswan Dam, flooding
5000 square miles, is only the latest stage in a long process. In many
regions terracing or irrigation, overgrazing, the cutting of forests by
Romans to build ships to fight Carthaginians or by Crusaders to solve the
logistics problems of their expeditions, have profoundly changed some
ecologies. Observation that the French landscape falls into two basic types,
the open fields of the north and the bocage of the south and west, inspired
Marc Bloch to undertake his classic study of medieval agricultural methods.
Quite unintentionally, changes in human ways often affect nonhuman
nature. It has been noted, for example, that the advent of the automobile
eliminated huge flocks of sparrows that once fed on the horse manure
littering every street.

The history of ecologic change is still so rudimentary that we know
little about what really happened, or what the results were. The extinction of
the European aurochs as late as 1627 would seem to have been a simple
case of overenthusiastic hunting. On more intricate matters it often is
impossible to find solid information. For a thousand years or more the
Frisians and Hollanders have been pushing back the North Sea, and the
process is culminating in our own time in the reclamation of the Zuider Zee.
What, if any, species of animals, birds, fish, shore life, or plants have died
out in the process? In their epic combat with Neptune have the
Netherlanders overlooked ecological values in such a way that the quality of
human life in the Netherlands has suffered? I cannot discover that the
ques tions have ever been asked, much less answered.
People, then, have often been a dynamic element in their own
environment, but in the present state of historical scholarship we usually do
not know exactly when, where, or with what effects man-induced changes
came. As we enter the last third of the 20th century, however, concern for
the problem of ecologic backlash is mounting feverishly. Natural science,
conceived as the effort to understand the nature of things, had flourished in
several eras and among several peoples. Similarly there had been an age-old
accumulation of technological skills, sometimes growing rapidly,
sometimes slowly. But it was not until about four generations ago that
Western Europe and North America arranged a marriage between science
and technology, a union of the theoretical and the empirical approaches to
our natural environment. The emergence in widespread practice of the
Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means technological power over
nature can scarcely be dated before about 1850, save in the chemical
industries, where it is anticipated in the 18th century. Its acceptance as a
normal pattern of action may mark the greatest event in human history since
the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as
Almost at once the new situation forced the crystallization of the
novel concept of ecology; indeed, the word ecology first appeared in the
English language in 1873. Today, less than a century later, the impact of our
race upon the environment has so increased in force that it has changed in
essence. When the first cannons were fired, in the early 14th century, they
affected ecology by sending workers scrambling to the forests and
mountains for more potash, sulphur, iron ore, and charcoal, with some
resulting erosion and deforestation. Hydrogen bombs are of a different
order: a war fought with them might alter the genetics of all life on this
planet. By 1285 London had a smog problem arising from the burning of


soft coal, but 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. With the population explosion, the
carcinoma of planless urbanism, the now geological deposits of sewage and
garbage, surely no creature other than man has ever managed to foul its nest
in such short order.
There are many calls to action, but specific proposals, however
worthy as individual items, seem too partial, palliative, negative: ban the
bomb, tear down the billboards, give the Hindus contraceptives and tell
them to eat their sacred cows. The simplest solution to any suspect change
is, of course, to stop it, or better yet, to revert to a romanticized past: make
those ugly gasoline stations look like Anne Hathaway's cottage or (in the
Far West) like ghost-town saloons. The "wilderness area" mentality
invariably advocates deep-freezing an ecology, whether San Gimignano or
the High Sierra, as it was before the first Kleenex was dropped. But neither
atavism nor prettification will cope with the ecologic crisis of our time.
What shall we do? No one yet knows. Unless we think about
fundamentals, our specific measures may produce new backlashes more
serious than those they are designed to remedy.
As a beginning we should try to clarify our thinking by looking, in
some historical depth, at the presuppositions that underlie modern
technology and science. Science was traditionally aristocratic, speculative,
intellectual in intent; technology was lower-class, empirical, actionoriented. The quite sudden fusion of these two, towards the middle of the
19th century, is surely related to the slightly prior and contemporary
democratic revolutions which, by reducing social barriers, tended to assert a
functional unity of brain and hand. Our ecologic crisis is the product of an
emerging, entirely novel, democratic culture. The issue is whether a
democratized world can survive its own implications. Presumably we
cannot unless we rethink our axioms.

The Western Traditions of Technology and Science
One thing is so certain that it seems stupid to verbalize it: both
modern technology and modern science are distinctively Occidental. Our
technology has absorbed elements from all over the world, notably from
China; yet everywhere today, whether in Japan or in Nigeria, successful
technology is Western. Our science is the heir to all the sciences of the past,
especially perhaps to the work of the great Islamic scientists of the Middle

Ages, who so often outdid the ancient Greeks in skill and perspicacity: alRazi in medicine, for example; or ibn-a l-Haytham in optics; or Omar
Khayyam in mathematics. Indeed, not a few works of such geniuses seem to
have vanished in the original Arabic and to survive only in medieval Latin
translations that helped to lay the foundations for later Western
developments. Today, around the globe, all significant science is Western in
style and method, whatever the pigmentation or language of the scientists.
A second pair of facts is less well recognized because they result
from quite recent historical scholarship. The leadership of the West, both in
technology and in science, is far older than the so-called Scientific
Revolution of the 17th century or the so-called Industrial Revolution of the
18th century. These terms are in fact outmoded and obscure the true nature
of what they try to describe--significant stages in two long and separate
developments. By A.D. 1000 at the latest--and perhaps, feebly, as much as
200 years earlier--the West began to apply water power to industrial
processes other than milling grain. This was followed in the late 12th
century by the harnessing of wind power. From simple beginnings, but with
remarkable consistency of style, the West rapidly expanded its skills in the
development of power machinery, labor-saving devices, and automation.
Those who doubt should contemplate that most monumental achievement in
the history of automation: the weight-driven mechanical clock, which
appeared in two forms in the early 14th century. Not in craftsmanship but in
basic technological capacity, the Latin West of the later Middle Ages far
outstripped its elaborate, sophisticated, and esthetically magnificent sister
cultures, Byzantium and Islam. In 1444 a great Greek ecclesiastic,
Bessarion, who had gone to Italy, wrote a letter to a prince in Greece. He is
amazed by the superiority of Western ships, arms, textiles, glass. But above
all he is astonished by the spectacle of waterwheels sawing timbers and
pumping the bellows of blast furnaces. Clearly, he had seen nothing of the
sort in the Near East.
By the end of the 15th century the technological superiority of
Europe was such that its small, mutually hostile nations could spill out over
all the rest of the world, conquering, looting, and colonizing. The symbol of
this technological superiority is the fact that Portugal, one of the weakest
states of the Occident, was able to become, and to remain for a century,
mistress of the East Indies. And we must remember that the technology of
Vasco da Gama and Albuquerque was built by pure empiricism, drawing
remarkably little support or inspiration from science.
In the present-day vernacular understanding, modern science is
supposed to have begun in 1543, when both Copernicus and Vesalius


published their great works. It is no derogation of their accomplishments,
however, to point out that such structures as the Fabrica and the De
revolutionibus do not appear overnight. The distinctive Western tradition of
science, in fact, began in the late 11th century with a massive movement of
translation of Arabic and Greek scientific works into Latin. A few notable
books-- Theophrastus, for example--escaped the West's avid new appetite
for science, but within less than 200 years effectively the entire corpus of
Greek and Muslim science was available in Latin, and was being eagerly
read and criticized in the new European universities. Out of criticism arose
new observation, speculation, and increasing distrust of ancient authorities.
By the late 13th century Europe had seized global scientific leadership from
the faltering hands of Islam. It would be as absurd to deny the profound
originality of Newton, Galileo, or Copernicus as to deny that of the 14th
century scholastic scientists like Buridan or Oresme on whose work they
built. Before the 11th century, science scarcely existed in the Latin West,
even in Roman times. From the 11th century onward, the scientific sector of
Occidental culture has increased in a steady crescendo.
Since both our technological and our scientific movements got
their start, acquired their character, and achieved world dominance in the
Middle Ages, it would seem that we cannot understand their nature or their
present impact upon ecology without examining fundamental medieval
assumptions and developments.

Medieval View of Man and Nature
Until recently, agriculture has been the chief occupation even in
"advanced" societies; hence, any change in methods of tillage has much
importance. Early plows, drawn by two oxen, did not normally turn the sod
but merely scratched it. Thus, cross- plowing was needed and fields tended
to be squarish. In the fairly light soils and semiarid climates of the Near
East and Mediterranean, this worked well. But such a plow was
inappropriate to the wet climate and often sticky soils of northern Europe.
By the latter part of the 7th century after Christ, however, following obscure
beginnings, certain northern peasants were using an entirely new kind of
plow, equipped with a vertical knife to cut the line of the furrow, a
horizontal share to slice under the sod, and a moldboard to turn it over. The
friction of this plow with the soil was so great that it normally required not
two but eight oxen. It attacked the land with such violence that crossplowing was not needed, and fields tended to be shaped in long strips.

In the days of the scratch-plow, fields were distributed generally in
units capable of supporting a single family. Subsistence farming was the
presupposition. But no peasant owned eight oxen: to use the new and more
efficient plow, peasants pooled their oxen to form large plow-teams,
originally receiving (it would appear) plowed strips in proportion to their
contribution. Thus, distribution of land was based no longer on the needs of
a family but, rather, on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth.
Man's relation to the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly man had been
part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature. Nowhere else in the
world did farmers develop any analogous agricultural implement. Is it
coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature,
has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of northern
This same exploitive attitude appears slightly before A.D. 830 in
Western illustrated calendars. In older calendars the months were shown as
passive personifications. The new Frankish calendars, which set the style
for the Middle Ages, are very different: they show men coercing the world
around them--plowing, harvesting, chopping trees, butchering pigs. Man
and nature are two things, and man is master.
These novelties seem to be in harmony with larger intellectual
patterns. 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. To Western eyes this is very evident in, say, India or Ceylon. It is
equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors.
The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic
revolution in the history of our culture. It has become fashionable today to
say that, for better or worse, we live in the "post-Christian age." Certainly
the forms of our thinking and language have largely ceased to be Christian,
but to my eye the substance often remains amazingly akin to that of the
past. Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit
faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco- Roman
antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from,
Judeo- Christian theology. The fact that Communists share it merely helps
to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism,
like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy. We continue today to live, as we
have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in a context of Christian


What did Christianity tell people about their relations with the
While many of the world's mythologies provide stories of creation,
Greco-Roman mythology was singularly incoherent in this respect. Like
Aristotle, the intellectuals of the ancient West denied that the visible world
had a beginning. Indeed, the idea of a beginning was impossible in the
framework of their cyclical notion of time. In sharp contrast, Christianity
inherited from Judaism not only a concept of time as nonrepetitive and
linear but also a striking story of creation. By gradual stages a loving and
all- powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the
earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes. Finally, God had created
Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man
named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. 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. And,
although man's body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is
made in God's image.
Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most
anthropocentric religion the world has seen. As early as the 2nd century
both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God
shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the
Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure, God's transcendence of
nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's
religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), not only established a dualism of
man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature
for his proper ends.
At the level of the common people this worked out in an
interesting way. In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every
hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible
to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their
ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook,
it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation,
and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it
possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural
It is often said that for animism the Church substituted the cult of
saints. True; but the cult of saints is functionally quite different from
animism. The saint is not in natural objects; he may have special shrines,
but his citizenship is in heaven. Moreover, a saint is entirely a man; he can

be approached in human terms. In addition to saints, Christianity of course
also had angels and demons inherited from Judaism and perhaps, at one
remove, from Zorastrianism. But these were all as mobile as the saints
themselves. The spirits in natural objects, which formerly had protected
nature from man, evaporated. Man's effective monopoly on spirit in this
world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature
When one speaks in such sweeping terms, a note of caution is in
order. Christianity is a complex faith, and its consequences differ in
differing contexts. What I have said may well apply to the medieval West,
where in fact technology made spectacular advances. But the Greek East, a
highly civilized realm of equal Christian devotion, seems to have produced
no marked technological innovation after the late 7th century, when Greek
fire was invented. The key to the contrast may perhaps be found in a
difference in the tonality of piety and thought which students of
comparative theology find between the Greek and the Latin Churches. The
Greeks believed that sin was intellectual blindness, and that salvation was
found in illumination, orthodoxy --that is, clear thinking. The Latins, on the
other hand, felt that sin was moral evil, and that salvation was to be found in
right conduct. Eastern theology has been intellectualist. Western theology
has been voluntarist. The Greek saint contemplates; the Western saint acts.
The implications of Christianity for the conquest of nature would emerge
more easily in the Western atmosphere.
The Christian dogma of creation, which is found in the first clause
of all the Creeds, has another meaning for our comprehension of today's
ecologic crisis. By revelation, God had given man the Bible, the Book of
Scripture. But since God had made nature, nature also must reveal the
divine mentality. The religious study of nature for the better understanding
of God was known as natural theology. In the early Church, and always in
the Greek East, nature was conceived primarily as a symbolic system
through which God speaks to men: the ant is a sermon to sluggards; rising
flames are the symbol of the soul's aspiration. The view of nature was
essentially artistic rather than scientific. While Byzantium preserved and
copied great numbers of ancient Greek scientific texts, science as we
conceive it could scarcely flourish in such an ambience.
However, in the Latin West by the early 13th century natural
theology was following a very different bent. It was ceasing to be the
decoding of the physical symbols of God's communication with man and
was becoming the effort to understand God's mind by dis covering how his
creation operates. The rainbow was no longer simply a symbol of hope first


sent to Noah after the Deluge: Robert Grosseteste, Friar Roger Bacon, and
Theodoric of Freiberg produced startlingly sophisticated work on the optics
of the rainbow, but they did it as a venture in religious understanding. From
the 13th century onward, up to and including Leitnitz and Newton, every
major scientist, in effect, explained his motivations in religious terms.
Indeed, if Galileo had not been so expert an amateur theologian he would
have got into far less trouble: the professionals resented his intrusion. And
Newton seems to have regarded himself more as a theologian than as a
scientist. It was not until the late 18th century that the hypothesis of God
became unnecessary to many scientists.
It is often hard for the historian to judge, when men explain why
they are doing what they want to do, whether they are offering real reasons
or merely culturally acceptable reasons. The consistency with which
scientists during the long formative centuries of Western science said that
the task and the reward of the scientist was "to think God's thoughts after
him" leads one to believe that this was their real motivation. If so, then
modern Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian theology. The
dynamism of religious devotion shaped by the Judeo-Christian dogma of
creation, gave it impetus.

An Alternative Christian View
We would seem to be headed toward conclusions unpalatable to
many Christians. Since both science and technology are blessed words in
our contemporary vocabulary, some may be happy at the notions, first, that
viewed historically, modern science is an extrapolation of natural theology
and, second, that modern technology is at least partly to be explained as an
Occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man's
transcendence of, and rightful master over, nature. But, as we now
recognize, somewhat over a century ago science and technology--hitherto
quite separate activities--joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by
many of the ecologic effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a
huge burden of guilt.
I personally doubt that disastrous ecologic backlash can be avoided
simply by applying to our problems more science and more technology. Our
science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man's
relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians
and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as postChristians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little
globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process.

We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our
slightest whim. The newly elected Governor of California, like myself a
churchman but less troubled than I, spoke for the Christian tradition when
he said (as is alleged), "when you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen
them all." To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The
whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of
the West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping
down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in
What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature
relationship. More science and more technology are not going to get us out
of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old
one. The beatniks, who are the basic revolutionaries of our t ime, show a
sound instinct in their affinity for Zen Buddhism, which conceives of the
man-nature relationship as very nearly the mirror image of the Christian
view. Zen, however, is as deeply conditioned by Asian history as
Christianity is by the experience of the West, and I am dubious of its
viability among us.
Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history
since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi. The prime miracle of Saint Francis is
the fact that he did not end at the stake, as many of his left-wing followers
did. He was so clearly heretical that a General of the Franciscan Order,
Saint Bonavlentura, a great and perceptive Christian, tried to suppress the
early accounts of Franciscanism. The key to an understanding of Francis is
his belief in the virtue of humility--not merely for the individual but for man
as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation
and set up a democracy of all God's creatures. With him 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.
Later commentators have said that Francis preached to the birds as
a rebuke to men who would not listen. The records do not read so: he urged
the little birds to praise God, and in spiritual ecstasy they flapped their
wings and chirped rejoicing. Legends of saints, especially the Irish saints,
had long told of their dealings with animals but always, I believe, to show
their human dominance over creatures. With Francis it is different. The land
around Gubbio in the Apennines was ravaged by a fierce wolf. Saint
Francis, says the legend, talked to the wolf and persuaded him of the error
of his ways. The wolf repented, died in the odor of sanctity, and was buried
in consecrated ground.


What Sir Steven Ruciman calls "the Franciscan doctrine of the
animal soul" was quickly stamped out. Quite possibly it was in part
inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by the belief in reincarnation held
by the Cathar heretics who at that time teemed in Italy and southern France,
and who presumably had got it originally from India. It is significant that at
just the same moment, about 1200, traces of metempsychosis are found also
in western Judaism, in the Provencal Cabbala. But Francis held neither to
transmigration of souls nor to pantheism. His view of nature and of man
rested on a unique sort of pan-psychism of all things animate and inaminate,
designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator, who, in the
ultimate gesture of cosmic humility, assumed flesh, lay helpless in a
manger, and hung dying on a scaffold.

White, Lynn. 1974. "The historical roots of our ecologic crisis [with
discussion of St Francis; reprint, 1967]," Ecology and religion in history,
(New York :Harper and Row, 1974).
Located at web site

I am not suggesting that many contemporary Americans who are
concerned about our ecologic crisis will be either able or willing to counsel
with wolves or exhort birds. However, the present increasing disruption of
the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science
which were originating in the Western medieval world against which Saint
Francis was rebelling in so original a way. Their growth cannot be
understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which
are deeply grounded in Christian dogma. The fact that most people do not
think of these attitudes as Christian is irrelevant. No new set of basic values
has been accepted in our society to displace those of Christianity. 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.
The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint
Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of
nature and man's relation to it; he tried to substitute the idea of the equality
of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man's limitless rule of
creation. He failed. Both our present science and our present technology are
so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no
solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. 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
refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense
of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature
may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.


GSCI 1020 - Project #3

Name ________________________

Due Date: 3/11/03

Box # ________________________

Ecology continues to be an important political issue in our nation and in the world as a whole. From the
control of pollution by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the impounding of fishing trawlers
by Greenpeace, a wide range of solutions to our ecological crisis are being proposed. As Christians, we
need to develop a Biblical view on how these issues should be resolved. In 1970 Francis Schaeffer, a
Christian philosopher, wrote the book “Pollution and the Death of Man” to do just that. To better
understand the context of Schaeffer’s book I want you to first read an article written by Lynn White Jr. The
next project will give Schaeffer’s response.

From White’s article list a few examples where man has changed his environment.


According to White what is the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture?


According to White what was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture and what
are the implications of that revolution?


What is animism and how does Christianity’s defeat of it result in an ecological crisis?


White’s concluding remark is “Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until
we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.” Do you
feel White is correct in his conclusion? Why?


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