Religious Ethics and the Environment
Religious Ethics and the Environment
Lalita Kaur 260586484
Religion 270, Assignment 1: Short Essay
As the environment undergoes increasing amounts of change due to harmful human activity, many ecological groups have formed in order to try to identify human behaviours that are deep-rooted within our culture and responsible for these drastic changes. Lynn White was one of these individuals who wrote an article in 1967 entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" which brought up many controversial elements as to why our planet is undergoing a downward spiral. His article sparked the public's interest and the validity of his article is still being analyzed today in various ecological contexts. Following this trend, Andrew Brennan and Yeuk-Sze Lo published a book in 2010 which touches on this subject of understanding and perhaps shedding a new light on the cultural elements responsible for this crisis by commenting on the work of various philosophers and writers including White's work.
At the core of White's article is the bold statement that the Judaeo-Christian narrative of creation is at the heart of the world's ecological problem because it gives us dominion over all that is non-human. He explains that in Genesis God gave man the right to name all animals thus "establishing his dominance over them" and that the creation of the earth and everything in it was "explicitly for man's benefit and rule” (Brennan, 1205). Other elements of Genesis that further emphasizes the human's superiority is the fact that God created man in his own image.
White claims that Christianity "established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends" (White, 1205) allowing us to believe that we are fundamentally different and more valuable than any other entity. He concludes his argument by stating that Christianity leads to an anthropocentric worldview, thus anthropocentrism is the culprit for our disgraceful treatment of the environment. This is because for White “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them" (White, 1205). Therefore, because we do not care for anything that is non-human we act in such ways that destroy our environment.
Among the elements that are recurrent in both texts is the belief that without humanity's great technological advances the ecological crisis would not have had the possibility to become so great. For White, "successful technology is Western" (White, 1204) and Western culture is one that is deeply influenced by the Christian doctrine. He then elaborates further by stating that technology and science are also deeply influenced by Christianity because the vast majority of history's scientists used science as a tool to "understand God's mind by discovering how his creation operates" (White, 1206). Thus, by having God as a primary motivation for scientific work, modern science is "cast in a matrix of Christian theology" (White, 1206) which makes the worldview that emerges from science equally human-centred as the Christian worldview.
For this reason, White states that it is impossible to use more technology in order to avoid "disastrous ecological backlash" and an alternative solution is needed. The only solution to our ecological crisis is either to "find a new religion, or rethink our old one” (White, 1206) because Christianity has moulded the way that we use science, thus making it impossible to eradicate the damage that such theology has brought with more technology.? Brennan and Lo seem to agree with this fact that “The environmental extremes to which we are now exposed would not have been realized” (Brennan, 165) without technology. White's hypothesis that the anthropocentric Judaeo-Christian theology "provides the original deep-seated drive to unlimited exploitation of nature” (Brennan, 165) is one that they identify as plausible because such a theory "plays a part in maintaining structures of thought that make it difficult for us to find a way out of the pattern of dominating and exploiting nature” (Brennan, 167). Since Christianity is responsible for the exploitation of nature by modern technology, more technology cannot stop us from harming it. As we can see, they are not claiming that the Christian mind frame is the deeply rooted cause for our ecological crisis, but simply that such ideas, within numerous other detrimental social structures, may hinder us from uncovering a solution.
However, unlike White, Brennan and Lo state that hypothesizing causes for our current damaging relationship between man and his environment, no matter how philosophically sound the argument may be, is a waste of time and effort unless the hypothesis is put to the test. For them these theories have been developed “Based on the implicit assumption that a recognition of intrinsic value in nature is likely to change people's behaviour" (Brennan, 169). How we think does not necessarily transcend in the way that we act; the anthropocentric worldview presented in the Bible does not make Christianity accountable for the ecological crisis if anthropocentrism turns out not to be the reason behind it. This means that, for them, we are now aiming to determine whether or not "people who believe in anthropocentrism [...] are more likely to be environmentally damaging, whereas people who reject anthropocentrism are more likely to be environmentally protective” (Brennan, 168). Therefore, although anthropocentrism is an idea that permeates Brennan and Lo's article because it is a recurring theme within virtually all problematic attitudes that have been brought forth by ecologists, this does not, once again, confirm that anthropocentrism is, without doubt, the problem to the ecological crisis.
Brennan and Lo definitely have an essential point when stating this. A very basic, but general example is that humans don't always do the right thing even when we know what is the right thing to do. Solving the ecological crisis requires much more than simply replacing the social structure that may be responsible for our severed relationship with nature. Therefore, even though our anthropocentric nature is eradicated this will not translate into saving the environment. White's claim that Christianity is at the root of the ecological problem is unimportant under this light. Personal conflicts, politics, the economy, the growing population and along with it the demand for goods, the available resources and many other factors all play an essential role in maintaining such nasty environmental practices.
White's claim that modern science can't be applied to save our planet because it is "so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance” (White, 1207) is one that is far-fetched. Although the pioneers of modern Western science were Christians and may have used understanding God's creation as motivation for discovering the natural world, this does not make their discoveries a solely Christian product. Are the discoveries of one scientist viewed and used in the same manner generation after generation as the values of our societies are constantly changing? It is highly unlikely. Also, it is important to remember that recent advances in science have marked the separation of religious doctrine and science because science offers alternative explanations for the universe; the presence of religion is diminishing in Western countries. Furthermore, the claim made by White unfair because people study science for a multitude of reasons other than being able to see what God saw when the universe was created. In short, White's argument are poorly supported. It is improbable that science emerges from Christianity and as a result has an anthropocentric characteristic to it. There is no doubt that when it comes to the environment we have not used technology wisely, but if humanity has chosen to use science to exploit nature it is a question of how one relates to the environment and not that it is inherently human-centred.
At the current stage of the global crisis technology can be used to diminish the repercussions resulting from our bad attitudes. It can be used to find renewable sources of energy, to reduce the carbon dioxide emission from transport vehicles or to study in detail the consequences of our detrimental behaviour on nature and to find corresponding solutions. However, White has a point when he states that technology is not a solution to our problems, but merely a tool. This is because of another argument that White makes when he claims that the ecological crisis is linked to anthropocentrism. Although eradicating anthropocentrism does not directly equate in solving the crisis due to the complexity of the issue, anthropocentric world views are definitely hindering humans from searching for possible solutions. It is impossible to establish a hypothetical cause for the ecological crisis and a plan of action when one does not care for the environment. Technology is not the solution to our ecological crisis, like White stated. However, it is hard to see how we will successfully reverse the effects of the environment without it, considering the grandeur of the crisis and the beneficial alternatives that science has to offer. Therefore, if the ecological crisis is to be eradicated, the first step to this would be to eradicate humanity's egoistical attitudes.
The ecological crisis is an overwhelmingly complicated global issue. Both articles bring up very important claims about the crisis and our understanding of it is growing as a result of the work done by these individuals. That being said, the process that humanity has to undergo in hopes of one day being closer to sharing a healthy relationship with nature is a demanding and laborious task that requires patience and a willingness to undergo reform and change.
BRENNAN, Andrew and LO Yeuk-Sze. “Origins.” 163-180 in Understanding Environmental? Philosophy. Durham: Acumen, 2010.
WHITE, Lynn Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" 1203-1207 in Science.? American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1967.
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