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Ecology and religion in history

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1988. Ecology and religion in history. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, March:4–5.

Recently, I came across a book entitled Ecology and Religion in History (David and Eileen Spring, editors; Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1974). This book is a compilation of seven essays on the interrelationships between the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and mankind's ongoing war with the environment, and contains much thought-provoking material.

The underlying thesis of this book was first popularized by Lynn White Jr. (Science #155, 1967). White's thesis was that the biblical pronouncement "Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it" (Genesis i, 28) is the justification that has been used by technological Man for his sins against Nature. Despite many good arguments in favor of this hypothesis, and despite comments along this line by the notorious James Watt (former Secretary of the Interior) in the United States, White's argument has been quite adequately rebutted by other authors.

The most obvious rebuttal is that ecological abuses have been perpetrated by virtually every civilization that history has revealed to us. In short, Man has never needed the injunctions of the book of Genesis to encourage him to ruin his environment. A less obvious rebuttal, and one not mentioned in the book of essays, is the use of the word "replenish" in the Biblical passage. Implicit in this word is the concept of rebuilding, restoring, making good again. In short, by pointing a finger at the Bible and blaming Christianity for the spread of a doctrine of abuse, White has only focused on a symptom of a much more widespread problem.

At worst, one may attempt to fault Christianity for its low profile in the modern discussion of ecology, since organized religion influences the minds of millions of people who could make a difference. But even so, one has only to look at the examples of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Benedict of Nursia for a rebuttal of this assertion. Again, it is not the medium that is the problem, but rather the recipients of the message.

One does not need to be an animist (as were many primitive civilizations) to understand that Nature is abundantly renewable provided only that we treat her with respect. Not necessarily the respect that is owed a superior being, but rather the respect that is due anything that is important to us. It is only common sense to state this, but then, "common sense" is one of the best-known oxymorons. The science of economics (another oxymoron?) proves this point admirably, since only through the impersonal wisdom of economic analysis can we call something like pollution an "externality". Presumably, the same economists who do not include pollution abatement as a necessary cost of production are the same ones who cannot predict the year to year performance of the economy, other than through hindsight.

Aldo Leopold, in his book A Sand County Almanac, decried the modern attitude towards Nature, and advocated the adoption of a "land ethic"... in short, an ethical way of looking at Man's relationship with the natural environment. As one of the fathers of modern ecology, Leopold recognized the truism that Man is a part of Nature and is entitled to use Nature for his purposes (as does every living thing), provided only that care is taken to ensure safe, renewable use. Sadly, this attitude is remarkably lacking in modern society. One has only to look around at the litter in a supermarket parking lot (with the most distant garbage bin less than 100 feet away) to see how true this is. Indeed, one has only to look at one's lunch bag to see the amount of plastic wrap and related products we discard every day as a convenient alternative to using Tupperware containers.

Sitting before me on my desk is a styrofoam coffee cup, which up until the time I began this essay, seemed to me to be a fairly innocuous item. But in retrospect, am I any better than those I am criticizing? Is it truly so difficult to bring a porcelain mug from home and, in so doing, reduce the amount of garbage produced by our civilization? (Simple arithmetic... two cups a day, times the number of days in a year, times the number of years in a life, times the number of lives...) Sit and think about this for a moment, and consider what we take for granted.

[A look back from 2005: Interestingly, the Religious Right in the United States still invokes biblical proclamations to justify its decisions, without seemingly having read the Bible they use to justify their decisions. For some interesting insights into this, see Bill McKibbens' essay The Christian Paradox in the August 2005 issue of Harper's. Jared Diamond's recent Collapse explores the issue of ecological irresponsibility in considerably more depth.—GH]

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