Historical roots of the ecological crisis

Image: Eberhard Grossgasteiger


Current science and technology are so associated with orthodox Christian arrogance towards nature that no solution to our ecological crisis can be expected from them alone.

A conversation with Aldous Huxley not infrequently puts one on the receiving end of an unforgettable monologue. About a year before his lamentable death, he was lecturing on a favorite subject: man's unnatural treatment of nature and its sad results. To illustrate his point he related that, during the previous summer, he had returned to a little valley in England, where he had spent many happy months as a child. For a time it had been made up of luscious grassy glades, and instead it was now being overgrown with great ugly weeds because the rabbits that previously kept such growth in check had largely succumbed to a disease, myxomatosis, which was deliberately introduced by local farmers to reduce the destruction of crops by rabbits.

Being something of a philistine, I could no longer remain silent, even in the interests of great rhetoric. I interrupted him to point out that the rabbit itself had been brought as a domestic animal to England in 1176, presumably to improve the peasant's protein diet.

All forms of life modify their contexts. The most spectacular and benign instance is undoubtedly the coral polyp. Serving its own ends, it created a vast undersea world favorable to thousands and other types of animals and plants. Ever since man became a numerous species, he has affected his environment remarkably. The hypothesis that their hunting method created the world's great grasslands and helped to exterminate Pleistocene monster mammals from much of the globe is plausible, if not proven.

For at least six millennia, the banks of the lower Nile have been a human instrument, rather than the swampy African jungle, which nature, without man, would have made it. The Aswan dam, flooding 5.000 square miles, is just the last step in a long process. In many regions, terracing or irrigation, overgrazing, the cutting down of forests by Romans to build ships to fight the Carthaginians or by crusaders to solve the logistical problems of their expeditions, profoundly changed some ecologies.

The 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 carry out his classic study of medieval agricultural methods. Unintentionally, human changes have occurred that often affect non-human nature. It was noted, for example, that the advent of the automobile eliminated huge flocks of sparrows that fed on the horse manure thrown like garbage in all the streets.

The story of ecological change is still so rudimentary that we know little about what actually happened, or what the results were. The extinction of European aurochs at the end of 1627 seems to have been a simple case of over-enthusiastic hunting. On more complex subjects, it is often impossible to find solid information. For a thousand years or more, the Frisians and Dutch have been pushing back the North Sea, and the process is culminating in our own time in the recovery of the Zuiderze. What if there are species of animals, birds, fish, coastal life or plants that ended up dying in the process? In its epic battle with Neptune, did the Netherlands ignore ecological values ​​so that the quality of human life in the Netherlands eventually declined? I can't figure out if these questions have ever been asked, let alone that they've ever been answered.

People, then, have often been a dynamic element in their own environment, but in the current state of historical scholarship we generally do not know exactly when, where, or with what effects human-induced changes came about. As we enter the last third of the twentieth century, however, concern about the problem of ecological reaction is feverishly increasing. Natural science, conceived as the effort to understand the nature of things, flourished at various times and among various peoples. Likewise, there has been an ancient accumulation of technological skills, sometimes growing quickly, sometimes slowly.

But it was only about four generations ago that Western Europe and North America staged a marriage of science and technology, a marriage of theoretical and empirical approaches to our natural environment. The emergence in practice of the large-scale Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means having technological power over nature can hardly be dated earlier than about 1850, except in the chemical industries, where it is predicted in the eighteenth 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 non-human terrestrial history as well.

Almost at once the new situation forced the crystallization of the new concept of ecology; indeed, the word ecology first appeared in the English language in 1873. Today, less than a century later, our race's impact on the environment has increased so much in strength that it has changed in essence. When the first cannons were fired in the early XNUMXth century, they affected the ecology by sending workers into the forests and mountains for more potash, sulfur, iron ore, and charcoal, with resulting erosion and deforestation. Hydrogen bombs are of a different order: a war waged with them could alter the genetics of all life on this planet.

In 1285, London had a pollution problem from burning coal coal, but our current combustion of fossil fuels threatens to change the chemistry of the globe's atmosphere as a whole, with consequences we are just beginning to conjecture. With the population explosion, the carcinoma of urbanism without plans, the now geological deposits of sewage and garbage, that certainly no creature other than man has managed to soil its nest in such a short time.

There are many calls to action, but specific proposals, however worthy individual items may be, seem very partial, palliative, negative: ban the bomb, drop the outdoors, give Hindus contraceptives and tell them to eat their sacred cows. The simplest solution to any suspicious change is, of course, to stop it, or better yet, revert to a romanticized past: make these ugly gas stations look like Anne Hathaway's cabin or (in the Far West) like saloons of ghost town. The “wilderness area” mentality invariably advocates deep-freezing an ecology, be it San Gimignano or the Alta Sierra, as it was before the first Kleenex was scrapped. But neither atavism nor beautification will deal with the ecological crisis of our time.

What do we do? Nobody knows yet. Unless we think about fundamentals, our specific measures may produce further setbacks more severe than those they are designed to remedy.

As a start, we should try to clarify our thinking by looking in some historical depth at the assumptions that underlie modern technology and science. Science was traditionally aristocratic, speculative, intellectual in its aim; technology was low-class, empirical, action-oriented. The rather sudden merging of these two in the mid-nineteenth century is certainly related to the slightly earlier and contemporary democratic revolutions which, by reducing social barriers, tended to assert a functional unity of brain and hand. Our ecological crisis is the product of an emerging, wholly new, democratic culture. The question is whether a democratized world can survive its own implications. Presumably we can't do anything unless we rethink our axioms.

Western traditions of technology and science

One thing is so certain that it seems silly to voice it: both modern technology and modern science are distinctly Western. Our technology has absorbed elements from all over the world, notably from China; however, everywhere today, whether in Japan or Nigeria, successful technology is Western.

Our science is the heir of all past sciences, especially perhaps to the work of the great Islamic scientists of the Middle Ages, who so often surpassed the ancient Greeks in skill and insight: al-Razi in medicine, for example; or ibn-al-Haytham in optics; or Omar Khayyam in mathematics. Indeed, not only do some works by such geniuses seem to have disappeared in the original Arabic and survive only in medieval Latin translations that helped to lay the groundwork for later Western developments. All over the world today, all significant science is Western in style and method, whatever the pigmentation or language of the scientists.

A second group of facts is much less recognized because they result from quite recent historical baggage. Western leadership in both technology and science goes much further back than the so-called Scientific Revolution of the XNUMXth century or the so-called Industrial Revolution of the XNUMXth century. These terms are indeed outdated and obscure the true nature of what they try to describe – significant stages in two long and separate developments.

Around 1000 AD. C. at the latest – and perhaps, loosely, up to 200 years earlier – the West began to apply hydropower to industrial processes other than grain milling. This was followed at the end of the XNUMXth century by harnessing wind power. From not-so-complex beginnings, but with remarkable consistency of style, the West quickly expanded its skills in the development of power machines, labor-saving devices, and automation. Those who doubt it should behold that most monumental achievement in the history of automation: the weight-driven mechanical clock, which appeared in two forms in the early XNUMXth century. Not in craftsmanship, but in basic technological capability, the Latin West of the later Middle Ages far surpassed its elaborate, sophisticated, and aesthetically magnificent sister cultures, Byzantium and Islam.

In 1444, a great Greek churchman, Basil Bessarion, who had gone to Italy, wrote a letter to a prince in Greece. He is amazed at the superiority of Western ships, weapons, textiles, glass. But above all he is surprised by the spectacle of waterwheels sawing wood and pumping the bellows of the blast furnaces. Clearly, he had not seen anything of the kind in the Near East.

 By the end of the fifteenth century, Europe's technological superiority was such that its small, mutually hostile nations could spill over to all of the rest of the world by conquest, plunder, and colonization. The symbol of this technological superiority is the fact that Portugal, one of the weakest states in the West, was able to become, and remain for a century, master of the East Indies. And we must remember that the technology of Vasco da Gama and Albuquerque was built on pure empiricism, attracting remarkably little support or inspiration from science.

In current vernacular understanding, modern science should have started in 1543, when both Copernicus and Vesalius published their great works. It is no derogation from his accomplishments, however, to point out that structures such as the Fabrica and the From revolutionibus they do not appear overnight. The distinctive Western tradition of science actually began in the late eleventh century with a massive movement to translate Arabic and Greek scientific works into Latin. Some 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 critiqued in the new European universities. Out of criticism came new observations, speculation, and growing distrust of ancient authorities.

By the end of the thirteenth century, Europe had taken 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 fourteenth-century scholarly scientists like Buridan or Oresme on whose work they built. Before the XNUMXth century, science was almost non-existent in the Latin West, even in Roman times. From the XNUMXth century onwards, the scientific sector of Western culture rose in steady growth.

Once our technological and scientific movements began, acquired their character and achieved world dominance in the Middle Ages, it seems that we cannot understand their nature or their current impact on ecology without examining fundamental medieval assumptions and developments.

Medieval view of man and nature

Until recently, agriculture has been the main occupation even in "advanced" societies; therefore, any change in farming methods is very important. Early plows, drawn by two oxen, normally did not turn the disk, but only scratched it. Thus, cross-plowing was necessary and the fields tended to be quartered. In the fairly light soils and semi-arid climates of the Near East and Mediterranean this worked well. But such a plow was inappropriate for the wet climate and often sticky soils of northern Europe.

In the latter part of the seventh century AD, however, following obscure beginnings, certain northern peasants were using an entirely new type of plow, equipped with a vertical knife to cut the furrow line, a horizontal part to cut under the disc, and a mold to transform it. The friction of this plow with the ground was so great that it normally required not two, but eight oxen. It assaulted the land so violently that cross-plowing was not necessary, and fields tended to be shaped into long strips.

In the days of the plow, fields were usually distributed in units capable of supporting a single family. Subsistence agriculture was the assumption. But no peasant owned eight oxen: to use the new, more efficient plow, peasants pooled their oxen to form large plow-teams, originally receiving (or what might have seemed) plowed strips in proportion to their contribution.

Thus, the allocation of land was no longer based on the needs of a family, but rather on the ability of a machine to power the land. Man's relationship with the soil has been profoundly altered. Previously, man had been part of nature; now he was the explorer of nature. Nowhere else in the world have farmers developed any analogous agricultural implements. Is it a coincidence that modern technology, with its cruelty to nature, was so largely produced by the descendants of these northern European peasants?

This same exploratory attitude appears slightly before 830 AD. C. in Western illustrated calendars. In older calendars, 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, cutting down 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 the things around them. Human ecology is profoundly conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny – that is, by religion. To Western eyes this is very evident in, say, India or Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It is equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors.

Christianity's victory 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 thought and language have ceased to be Christian, but for me the substance often remains remarkably similar to that of the past. Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress that was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or the East. It is rooted in, and it is indefensible to separate it from, Judeo-Christian theology. The fact that Communists share it only goes to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a heretical Judaism-Christian. We continue to live today, as we have for some 1700 years, very much in a context of Christian axioms.

What did Christianity tell people about their relationship to the environment? While many of the world's mythologies provide creation stories, Greco-Roman mythology was singularly inconsistent in this regard. Like Aristotle, intellectuals in the ancient West denied that the visible world had a beginning. Indeed, the idea of ​​a beginning was impossible within his cyclical notion of time. In sharp contrast, Christianity inherited from Judaism not only a concept of time as non-repetitive and linear, but also a remarkable story of creation.

In 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 fish. Finally, God created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from feeling alone. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominion over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose other than the purpose of serving man's purposes. And although man's body is made of clay, it is not simply part of nature: it is made in the image of God.

Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen. As early as the second century, both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyon insisted that when God fashioned Adam, he was prefiguring the image of Christ incarnate, the Second Adam. . Man shares, to a great extent, the transcendence of God's nature. Christianity, in stark contrast to ancient paganism and the religions of Asia (except, perhaps, Zorastrism), not only established a dualism of man and nature, but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature. for its proper purposes.

At the level of ordinary people this worked out in an interesting way. In antiquity each tree, each spring, each stream, each hill had its own great location, your guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but they were very different from men; centaurs, fauns and sirens show their ambivalence. Before one cut down a tree, mine a mountain, or dam a stream, it was important to appease the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and keep it appeased. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to explore nature in a climate of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.

It is often said that for animism the Church replaced the cult of saints. True; but the cult of saints is functionally quite different from animism. The saint is not in relation to natural objects; he may have special shrines, but his citizenship is in heaven. Furthermore, a saint is entirely a man; it 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 time, from Zoroastrianism. But these were all as mobile as the saints themselves. The spirits in natural objects, which once protected man's nature, evaporated. Man's effective monopoly over spirit in this world was confirmed, and old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature were broken down.

When speaking in such broad terms, a note of caution is in order. Christianity is a complex faith, and its consequences differ in different contexts. What I said may well apply to the medieval West, where technology did indeed make spectacular advances. But Eastern Greece, a highly civilized kingdom of equal Christian devotion, seems to have produced no marked technological innovations after the late seventh century, when Greek Fire was invented. The key to the contrast can perhaps be found in a difference in the tonality of piety and thinking that 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 enlightenment, in orthodoxy – that is, clear thinking. The Latins, on the other hand, thought that sin was moral evil, and that salvation was to be found in right conduct. Eastern theology has been intellectualistic. Western theology has been voluntary. The Greek saint contemplates; the western saint acts. The implications of Christianity for the conquest of nature would most easily emerge in the Western atmosphere.

The Christian dogma of creation, which is found in the first clause of every Creed, has another meaning for our understanding of the current ecological crisis. By revelation, God gave man the Bible, the Book of Scripture. But as God made nature, nature must also reveal the divine mind. The religious study of nature for a better understanding of God was known as natural theology. In the early Church, and always in the Greek East, nature was conceived chiefly as a symbolic system through which God speaks to men: the ant is a sermon for sluggards; Rising flames are the symbol of the soul's aspiration. The vision of nature was essentially artistic and not scientific. While the Byzantines preserved and copied large numbers of ancient Greek scientific texts, science as we understand it could hardly flourish in such an environment.

However, in the Latin West, in the early thirteenth century, natural theology followed a very different trend. It was shifting from decoding the physical symbols of God's communication with man to an effort to understand the mind of God, discovering how his creation operates. The rainbow was no longer simply a symbol of hope first sent to Noah after the Flood: Robert Grosseteste, Friar Roger Bacon, and Theodoric of Freiberg produced surprisingly sophisticated work on rainbow optics, but they did it as an undertaking in religious understanding. From the thirteenth century onwards, including Leibniz and Newton, all the great scientists, in fact, explained their motivations in religious terms. Indeed, if Galileo had not been such an expert in popular theology he would have gotten into far less trouble: professionals resented his intrusion. And Newton seems to have thought of himself more as a theologian than a scientist. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the God hypothesis became unnecessary for many scientists.

It is often difficult 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 scientist's task and reward was "to think of God thoughts after him" suggests that this was his real motivation. If so, then modern Western science has been thrown into 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 seem to be heading towards unpalatable conclusions for many Christians. Since both science and technology are blessed words in our contemporary vocabulary, some may be happy with the notions, first, that viewed historically, modern science is an extrapolation of natural theology and, second, that modern technology it is at least in part explained as a Western and voluntarist realization of the Christian under the dogma of the transcendence of man, and legitimate master over nature. But, as we now recognize, little more than a century ago science and technology – hitherto quite separate activities – came together to give mankind powers that, to judge by many of its ecological effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity carries an enormous burden of guilt.

Personally, I doubt that a disastrous ecological backlash can be avoided simply by applying more science and more technology to our problems. Our science and technology grew out of Christian attitudes toward man's relationship to nature that are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians, but also by those who fondly consider themselves post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, the entire cosmos revolves around our small globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, disdainful, willing to use it for our slightest whim.

The newly elected governor of California, like myself a religious but less restless than I, spoke for Christian tradition when he said (as is alleged), "when you see one redwood tree, you've seen them all." For a Christian a tree cannot be more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is foreign to Christianity and ethos from the West. For almost 2 millennia Christian missionaries have cut down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.

What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the human-nature relationship. More science and more technology will not get us out of the current ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one. You beatniks, who are the basic revolutionaries of our time, show a solid instinct in their affinity with Zen Buddhism, which conceives the man-nature relationship as almost the mirror image of the Christian vision. Zen, however, is as deeply conditioned by Asian history as Christianity is by Western experience, and I am doubtful of its viability among us.

Possibly we should reflect on the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi. San Francisco's main miracle is the fact that it didn't end up at the stake, as many of its left-wing followers did. So clearly was he a heretic that a general of the Franciscan Order, Saint Bonaventure, a great and perceptive Christian, tried to suppress the earliest accounts of Franciscanism. Key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility – not just for the individual, but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and created a democracy of all God's creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a sermon for the lazy, the flame a sign of the soul's impulse towards union with God; now they are Sister Ant and Brother Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his.

Later commentators said Francis preached to the birds as a rebuke to men who would not listen. The records do not read like this: he urged the little birds to praise God, and in spiritual ecstasy they beat their wings and rejoiced. Legends of saints, especially Irish saints, have long told of their dealings with animals, but always, I believe, to show their human mastery over creatures. With Francis it is different. The land around Gubbio in the Apennines has been devastated by a ferocious wolf. St. Francis, legend has it, talked with the wolf and convinced him of the error of his ways. The wolf repented, died in the odor of holiness, and was buried in consecrated ground.

What Sir Steven Ruciman calls the "Franciscan doctrine of the animal soul" was quickly eliminated. Quite possibly it was, in part, inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by the belief in reincarnation held by Qatari heretics who at that time intermarried in Italy and southern France, and which presumably had originated in India. It is significant that, at the same time, around 1200, traces of metempsychosis are also found in Western Judaism, in Provençal Kabbalah. But Francis had not relied either on the transmigration of souls or on pantheism. His view of nature and man rested on a unique kind of panopticism of all things, animate and inanimate, designed for the glorification of their Transcendent Creator, who, in the final gesture of cosmic humility, took on flesh, lay helpless in a manger, and hung dying on a scaffold.

I am not suggesting that many contemporary Americans who are concerned about our ecological crisis are able or willing to counsel with wolves or exhort birds. However, today's increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic and scientific technology that originated in the western medieval world that San Francisco was rebelling against in such an original way. Its growth cannot be understood historically beyond distinct attitudes to nature that are deeply rooted in Christian dogma.

The fact that most people don't think of these attitudes as Christian is irrelevant. No new set of core values ​​has been accepted into our society to displace those of Christianity. So we will continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason to exist except to serve man.

The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, St. Francis, propounded what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man's relationship to it; he tried to substitute the idea of ​​the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of ​​man's unlimited rule of creation. He failed. Current science and technology are so associated with orthodox Christian arrogance towards nature that no solution to our ecological crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our problem are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and feel our nature and destiny. The deeply religious but heretical sense of the early Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point in one direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint of ecologists.

*Lynn White is a retired professor of history at the University of California (UCLA). Author, among other books, of Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays (University of California Press).

Translation: Kelvin Amorim de Melo.

Originally published in the magazine Science, v. 155 in 1967.

The A Terra é Redonda website exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.
Click here and find how

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Chico Buarque, 80 years oldchico 19/06/2024 By ROGÉRIO RUFINO DE OLIVEIRA: The class struggle, universal, is particularized in the refinement of constructive intention, in the tone of proletarian proparoxytones
  • Why are we on strike?statue 50g 20/06/2024 By SERGIO STOCO: We have reached a situation of shortage of federal educational institutions
  • The melancholic end of Estadãoabandoned cars 17/06/2024 By JULIAN RODRIGUES: Bad news: the almost sesquicentennial daily newspaper in São Paulo (and the best Brazilian newspaper) is rapidly declining
  • Return to the path of hopelate afternoon 21/06/2024 By JUAREZ GUIMARÃES & MARILANE TEIXEIRA: Five initiatives that can allow the Brazilian left and center-left to resume dialogue with the majority hope of Brazilians