According to Lynn White, author of “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” “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” (3). Since its beginning, Judeo-Christian religion has served as an important lens through which to view the relationships between humans, their environment, and technology. Particularly from 1-1600 CE, religion defined human’s attitude towards their natural surroundings. Judeo-Christian religion’s effect on mankind’s attitude toward the environment has resulted in exploitation and hierarchy of the environment. These results are evident through religion’s notion of stewardship, the social constructs created by religion, and the age of exploration.
The lens of the world created by the religious teachings of stewardship has shaped the way in which humans view their environment. Environmental stewardship is rooted in the relationship between humans and the environment (Berry 1). The Judeo-Christian Scripture teaches that humans were created to rule over the rest of God’s creations, as illustrated in the following passage:
God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (“Origins of Stewardship”).
The idea of stewardship promotes an anthropocentric view of the natural world, in which humans have the ability and right to control God’s other creations, both living and nonliving. This teaching has influenced how humans in early civilizations through the age of exploration have viewed the world. Ehrlich argues that religion, more than any other aspect of culture, actively influences how humans view the world. Ehrlich explains this power of religion:
“Religion is unique in that unlike artistic ability, professions, or literacy, it functions as a lens for interpreting the rest of culture, each other, and especially ourselves. This framework for understanding extends to the environment and our behavior, art and institutions that affect it” (Ehrlich).
Teachings of environmental stewardship have therefore been a dominant force in shaping how humans’ relationship with the environment has developed.
Environmental stewardship has resulted in exploitation and hierarchy. Scripture says that “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” (White 4). Stewardship’s notion that humans have the ability and right to control God’s other creations has been used to justify the exploitation of natural resources.
The ability and right to control God’s other creations has also caused followers of Judeo-Christian religion to develop the attitude that they are superior to their environment, both living and nonliving. Early Christian fathers believed that “the mind and hands of humans gave them a capacity to create their own environment through inventiveness and necessity” (Williams 112). This notion of superiority over their surroundings also resulted in humans’ sense of entitlement over the environment.
Although in some ways, Judeo-Christian belief in a Messiah coming to resolve the world’s problems promotes the neglect of environmental concerns and the depletion of resources, most Judeo-Christian principles do not explicitly promote the destruction of the environment (Berry 2). Widespread belief, though, that each individual is entitled to using the environment as they see fit has resulted in the depletion of natural resources and the destruction of the environment (Berry ix). The collective attitudes shared by many individuals have combined to negatively impact the environment. Therefore, stewardship’s implications about human’s responsibility to use and look after the environment has resulted in exploitation, rather than protection, of natural resources.
In addition to stewardship, the social constructs created by religion in the early civilizations throughout the world also resulted in exploitation and hierarchy. Religion was not necessarily what brought people together in the first place; specialization, made possible by the advent of agriculture, was more so responsible for the shift to community living. However, Judeo-Christian religion provided moral guidelines for people to live by, and adherence to these principles was what allowed communities to function (Ehrlich 226). Judeo-Christian religion greatly impacted the culture of these communities, and it was religion’s effects on the societal dynamics that resulted in exploitation and hierarchy.
Judeo-Christian religion created a system of social hierarchy between humans (Ehrlich 217). This social stratification justified the exploitation of other humans that was often needed in early civilizations to carry out large projects undertaken in the name of religion. Although not Judeo-Christian in origin, the best example of religious exploitation of humans during this time period is in the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. The pyramids had the religious purpose of bringing pharaohs into the afterlife, and required the exploitation of 35,000 human laborers (Bonesteel). Because the pharaohs were superior to the thousands of laborers in the eyes of religion, this treatment of other humans was justified.
The social constructs created by religion also resulted in a human sense of entitlement over the environment. Humans believed that if they were superior to other humans, then they were more entitled to higher standards of life. This higher quality of life could be achieved by the attainment of material things, such as food and comfort. This sense of entitlement to a higher standard of living, resulting from the social constructs created by religion, resulted in the exploitation of natural resources for humans’ benefit (Stalder).
The notion that some humans deserved a better quality of life than others sparked a never-ending pursuit of improvement. White claims that “our daily habits of action… [that] are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress” are “rooted in… Judeo-Christian theology” (3). This pursuit of progress was met through the development of technology geared at advancing society and improving daily life (Stalder). The desire to improve living conditions also resulted in the use of resources for the betterment of humans. Therefore, because of Judeo-Christian’s promotion of an unending need for improvement, resources were overexploited.
Judeo-Christian religion also shaped humans’ attitudes towards their environment and the development of technology through exploration. Christianity provided one of the main motives for early European exploration; Europeans sought to spread Christianity as a means of bettering the world. Early European explorers, even those who were well educated in science and technology, were primarily concerned with spreading their religious views. For example, “Jesuit missionaries valued their astronomical skills and ability to repair mechanical contrivances, such as clocks… as means to gain access to rulers, whom they hoped to convert to Christianity” (Adas). Therefore, although technological advancement was not the primary focus, religion brought upon the advancement of technology required for exploration, such as ships and maps.
Hierarchy was also evident during exploration. Europeans believed that Christianity and the life style that followed Christian religious beliefs was superior to the religions and ways of life of the people European explorers encountered. Therefore, Europeans believed that they were superior to non-European peoples. In Machines as the Measure of Man, Adas supports the claim that religion was the root of this European sense of superiority: “Early European travelers viewed their Christian faith, rather than mastery of the natural world, as their key source of distinctiveness from and superiority to non-Western peoples.” This sense of domination over the non-Western peoples led to Europeans’ sense of entitlement over the land and creatures that they encountered. Because the people previously in control of the land were of lesser value through the lens of religion, Europeans could justify manipulating the environments that they encountered.
Even today, Judeo-Christian religion continues to promote exploitation and hierarchy. Religion creates social stratification by ““justify[ing] poverty and wealth as God’s will” and creating feelings of superiority of people of a certain type of religion over others (Ehrlich 257). In order to change how humans view their environment, White argues that the doctrine of religion cannot be overthrown, but rather must be rethought. Lynn states that he “personally doubts that disastrous ecological backlash can be avoided simply by applying to our problems more science and more technology” (White 5). Therefore, instead of using science to address the issues brought about by our culture, we must change the lens through which we see the world.
Saint Francis of Assisi, an influential Catholic friar and preacher in the early 13th century, is the best example of how changing the lens through which the world is viewed can change attitudes towards the environment. Saint Francis interpreted the Catholic teachings very differently than did his fellow Catholics. Instead of accepting the anthropocentric views, he “tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures” (White 5). For example, in the eyes of Saint Francis, instead of being lazy pests, ants were “Brother Ant and Sister Fire” (White 5). Saint Francis even preached to birds, demonstrating his view that all creatures were equal to mankind (White 4). Saint Francis illustrates that it is possible to address the religious root of environmental problems with religious solutions (White 6).
In addition to the change in hierarchical relationships within nature that Saint Francis promoted, stewardship must also be reinterpreted to address human degradation of the environment. It is not necessary to change the cultural impression that humans have the fate of much of the natural world in their hands. Instead, humans must change how that role is interpreted and used. For example, using our power over nature to establish national parks as a method of conserving land would reduce exploitation. Therefore, shifting to view mankind as the protectors, rather than exploiters, of the environment, can improve humans’ relationship with the natural world.
Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measure of Man: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. New York: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Berry, RJ. Environmental Stewardship. 1st ed. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2006. Amazon Books. T&T Clark. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Bonesteel, Mike. “How Religious Influence Can Lead to Technological Advancement.” Envs 002: Human Nature, Technology, and the Environment. Swarthmore College, 2010. Web. 3 Oct. 2016. http://fubini.swarthmore.edu/~ENVS2/S2008/mbonest1/religion.htm.
Ehrlich, Paul R., “ Ch. 9: The Dominance of Culture” and “Ch.11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy” in “Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect” Island Press, 2000, pp. 203-252 and pp. 253-279.
“Origins of Stewardship.” University of Exeter. University of Exeter Department of Theology and Religion, n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2016. http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/theology/research/projects/beyondstewardship/origins/.
Ponting, Clive. “The Lessons of Easter Island.” A Green History of the World. N.p.: Penguin, 1991. 1-7. Print.
Stalder, Felix. “The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.” Canadian Journal of Communication 4(1998). http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/1072/978
White, Lynn, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” Science 10 Mar. 1967: n. pag. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Web. 3 Oct. 2016. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/155/3767/1203.
Williams, Michael. “The Medieval World.” Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003. 102-142.