The Historical and Cultural Basis of the Current Environmental Situation

Read this article, which outlines the historical and cultural basis of the current environmental situation, and details the historical roots of the current ecological crisis. Make notes on the three key ideas presented in the text. How do they match with current religious beliefs of the 21st century?

Many think that the modes of life in modern industrialized countries reflects a fundamental shift in attitude towards nature from, to make the case clear, pre-historic people. Further, that this shift in attitude has lead to a pattern of ecologically destructive behaviour that was not present before the shift. Following the recognition of the shift in attitude, the task becomes two-fold: (1) to uncover the roots of the change in attitude towards nature; and (2) to prescribe ways to return to more appropriate attitudes.

Key questions:
  • Is there really this change in attitude towards nature?
  • If so, what are the roots of the change?
  • Does it matter -- i.e., should we work to change the attitude?
  • What changes should be made?

Reading Notes

The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis

Lynn White

White argues that certain attitudes formed as a consequence of acceptance of Judeo-Christian religions has had an important influence on our behaviour towards the environment. Humans through their various actions have dramatically changed the Earth, and White thinks that our attitudes towards Nature -- formed at least in part through acceptance of certain pieces of religious doctrine -- are largely responsible.

White begins by noting that humans are not the only species that alter the environment in which they live. However, human alterations typically are on a far greater scale, and proceed at a far greater rate, than the alterations of any other species. Further, White claims, the emergence of ecological problems on the scale now occurring is a cultural phenomenon. If this is true, then a search for the roots of the cultural attitudes could show us how we might change our culture in order to adequately address these ecological problems. [Other 'fixes' have not been, or likely will not be successful.]

White basis his ideas on several key historical claims:

  1. Science and technology in its current form is typically Western.
  2. Early employment of technology to drive the 'machines' of production is also Western (though obviously not exclusively).

White speculates that the beginnings of the change in attitude came with changes in ways of viewing humans' relationship with the local environment (in particular, their farms) that came with the invention of, for instance, the furrowing plow. This plow, for example, represented much greater power of the land, and allowed the development of an exploitative attitude. This, along with other influences, led to humans distinguishing themselves from nature. The key influence here, is religion -- in particular, Christianity.

Christianity, according to White, has at its foundations certain beliefs that have had a direct impact on our environmental attitudes. The key beliefs are that humans are fundamentally distinct from the rest of nature, and that nature is present merely to serve human ends. This is in stark contrast to pagan animism in which all things possess, or have associated with them, life spirits. In animism, humans actions towards nature is constrained, morally, by obligations to the spirits (and the thing itself). Without animism, however, the grounding of moral constraint is lost. In essence, in destroying animism, Christianity destroyed a working environmental ethic, and replaced it with an ethic of domination.

White is not at all confident in the possibility of a technological fix to our ecological problems. However, it is clear that something needs to change. What he proposes is a change in attitude brought about by a change in religious thinking (or at least our foundational beliefs). In short, we need to go back to something like the way of thinking adopted by pagan animists -- that is, thinking that non-human natural objects possess souls or spirits (and perhaps this merely metaphorically), and to thinking that we are not distinct from nature. The bottom line would be that things in nature now have moral standing, and so there would be moral constraints on our actions affecting the environment.

The Cultural Basis of our Environmental Crisis
Lewis W. Moncrief

Moncrief disagrees with White; he thinks that rather than having a religious basis, our environmental crisis has its roots in the kind of culture that has developed, in particular, over the last few hundred years.

First, even as White notes, humans were radically altering their local environments long before the Judeo-Christian religions developed. Presumably, this shows that there is more to the roots of our attitudes towards nature than adherence to a single class of religions, or likely, any religion.

Second, two key revolutionary changes laid the foundations for modern society: (1) democratic political structures redistributed power and wealth more equitably; and (2) the industrial revolution spawned by scientific and technological development lead to dramatic increases in the production of goods and services. Also, as a consequence of the industrialization of society, people moved from the country into metropolitan centres -- which increased the demand for goods and services, and increased the density of the by-products of human consumption (e.g., pollution) to beyond the capacity of nature to dissolve it.

Second, in USA in particular, the natural resources were seen to be inexhaustible. If people pushed through one 'frontier', they could just move to the next. European settlers saw North America as too vast to 'use up'. As we now know, this idea did not last long, and soon people began to see that conservation was needed.

Moncrief sees the current situation as characterized by three key features:

  1. absence of moral concern for the environment -- self-interest seems to reign when it comes to governing our actions that have significant environmental consequences. Often we just seem to be blind to the environmental costs of an action.
  2. inability of our social institutions to allow for the required changes. Air and water, for instance, move beyond property boundaries and national borders, so must be viewed as 'common'. However, common areas and resources get almost no protection under our exiting social and economic institutions. "Tragedy of the Commons" issues are widespread.
  3. faith in the so-called 'technological fix'. There is no guarantee that there will be a technological solution to environmental problems.

The fundamental individualistic nature of most modern societies seems also to contribute. Social, political, and economic institutions are structured to make the individual the primary unit of concern. In addition, there is a persistent drive to have individuals increase their wealth so as to increase their consumption of goods and services. This, of course, is a fundamental feature of capitalism, but it has the consequence of increasing the by-products of consumption -- e.g., pollution and resource depletion. Couple this with increases in population, and the environmental consequences look very serious.

The Judeo-Christian Stewardship Attitude to Nature
Patrick Dobel

Dobel disagrees with White for different reasons than Moncrief. He thinks that the basic idea of Christian Stewardship should not be understood in such a way that it necessarily leads to us follow an inevitable path of environmental degradation. In fact, an environmental ethic based on Stewardship could be developed so that if followed, it would provide adequate protection for the environment.

We need not focus on the details of Christianity, or the details of Dobel's defence of Christianity, but as Dobel points out, there is a widespread belief that certain religious beliefs have played a crucial role in the roots of the environmental crisis. Our analysis becomes important not so much to uncover the proper history, but to learn something about the causes of our attitudes so that the attitudes can be modified -- assuming that modification is required -- and how we might go about producing the modification. Also, Dobel's discussion leads us to asks several key questions.

One issue is whether cultures not grounded in Judeo-Christian religions are somehow necessarily 'environmentally friendly'. More to the point, are so-called 'Eastern' religions, or the various religions of certain indigenous peoples, inherently ecological? There is likely no single answer here. [we may discuss this in class.]

Second: Is there a religious basis to the apparent separation of humans from Nature? And, does this have an important influence on how we behave towards the environment?

Connected with this is the issue of whether there is a religious basis to the idea that there is a hierarchy in Nature, with humans at the top. And again, does this have an important influence on how we behave towards the environment?

Third, does the notion of Stewardship necessarily lead to lack of concern for the environment? Dobel thinks not, in no small part due to the fact that Stewardship implies that the Earth is "bestowed" to all humans, including future humans. (We will return again to the moral issue of concern for future generations later in the course.)

One obvious problem for the Stewardship model of environmental concern is that we seem to have a grossly incomplete understanding of ecological processes. Without complete knowledge, it's not at all clear how we can be good stewards. Dobel thinks that Christianity gets around this by imposing a pervasive humility. At best, this might work most of the time -- e.g., with a "let nature takes its course" approach -- but it's hard to see that it would work all of the time, and seems to undermine the idea of stewardship at least to some extent.

Source: Capilano University
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Last modified: Tuesday, July 7, 2020, 4:43 PM