The present ecological crisis is a spiritual problem that cannot just be solved by technology. To understand technologies impact on the environment requires examining fundamental medieval assumptions.
I am often impressed how nature is respected in cultures that have a lunar festival calendar. It is not that simple, of course, as the view that this world dissolves, much like a body cremated, may also minimize peoples long term care for the past.
However, as the Western economics infiltrates the East it is clear that the Western paradigm it is hard to deny Colonial on India’s environment. Large swabs of teak were deforested for Imperial ships, for example.
There are many other factors of course, to a tribal the idea that there is an environment out there, external to us, is preposterous. The Chipko movement of 1973 seemed an environmental beginning in India but as Ramachandra Guha wrote, suffered anti Marxist free market attack on environments, while recommending economic liberalisation concern of global warming and sustainable development have returned. Then there is also Verdana’s Shiva’s theory that a feminine environmentally friendly matristic culture preceded Aryan invasion. Since the Aryan theory was so linked to European science, and accepted by Aryan Brahmin caste, it seems imperative to revisit the Medieval Christian ethos that fueled scientific and technological thought now changing the East.
Afterall, the British had a vested interest in the belief of a superior, monotheistic civilization conquering ‘inferior effeminate’ polytheists. Apparently a Brit named Cunningham traipsed north to south and discovering the pervasive goddess worship saw proof superior masculinity conquered the weaker nature worshiping creative types.
The following is my precise of Lynn Whites,1967 The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis (Science 155: 1203-1207) which expresses my belief that the present ecological crisis is a spiritual problem that cannot just be solved by technology.
White argues that to understand technologies impact on the environment requires examining fundamental Western medieval assumptions. Assumptions that teach that made in the image of God, man separated from nature. These views still grip our psyche: Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim
A radical, whose views on nature, led some to be burned at the stake, was St Francis of Assisi, the name sake of the new Catholic Pope. St Francis proposed a democracy of man with nature.
All life forms modify the environment.
Consider the grassy glades of Britain once controlled by rabbits, they are now overgrown where introduced myxomatosis destroyed them. But then, the rabbit was introduced to England in 1176, perhaps to help feed the peasants. The vast undersea world of the coral polyp has aided other species. Fire-drive hunting may have helped created the great grasslands and possibly helped exterminate Pleistocene mammalian monsters. For millennia the Nile has been irrigated by man, but would have been like the African swamp without him. The Romans and Crusaders irrigated, overgrazed and cut down forests for fighting ships against Carthaginians or the Moors. Medieval agriculture shaped France, but more recently the motorcar reduced great sparrow flocks that ate from horse manure of the French country side. Over hunted, the European aurochs died out as late as 1627.
For a thousand years the Frisians and Hollanders have been pushing back the North Sea, eventually reclaiming the Zuider Zee. What, species of animals, birds, fish, shore life, or plants have died out in the process?
“People, then, have often been a dynamic element in their own environment, but in the present state of historical scholarship we usually do not know exactly when, where, or with what effects man-induced changes came.”
To understand the nature of things, Natural Science flourished in several eras among differing peoples. Similarly there had been an age-old accumulation of technological skills, sometimes growing rapidly, sometimes slowly.
Now, the widespread acceptance of the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge is a means technological power over nature may mark the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as well.
The idea is scarce before 1850, excepting in the 18th century chemical industries. Then, almost at once the concept of ecology developed: the word first appeared in the English language in 1873.
Of course, the 14th century cannons affected ecology by sending workers scrambling to the forests and mountains for more potash, sulphur, iron ore, and charcoal, with some resulting erosion and deforestation. Also in 1285 London had a smog problem arising from the burning of soft coal.
However, our problem is global. Fossil fuels, the population explosion, planless with its now geological deposits of sewage and garbage foul the earth. In response we see two extremes: ban the bomb, tear down the billboards, give the Hindus contraceptives and tell them to eat their sacred cows. Or to romanticized the past: “wilderness area” mentality invariably advocates deep freezing an ecology.
But neither atavism nor prettification will cope with the ecologic crisis of our time. Our specific measures may produce new backlashes more serious than those they are designed to remedy.
Science was traditionally aristocratic, speculative, and intellectual; technology was lower-class, empirical, action-oriented. The quite sudden 19th century fusion of these two, relate to the slightly prior and contemporary democratic revolutions which reduced social barriers and asserted a functional unity of brain and hand.
“Our ecologic crisis is the product of an emerging, entirely novel, democratic culture. The issue is whether a democratized world can survive its own implications. Presumably we cannot unless we rethink our axioms.”
The Western Traditions of Technology and Science
Both modern technology and science are distinctively Occidental. While technology has absorbed elements from all over the world, successful technology is Western but heir to all the sciences of the past, including the great Islamic scientists of the Middle Ages: al-Razi in medicine, for example; or ibn-al-Haytham in optics; or Omar Khayyam in mathematics. Many lost Arabic texts survive only in medieval Latin translations.
Globally, all significant science is Western in style and method. However, the leadership of the West, both in technology and in science, is far older than the 17th century Scientific Revolution and 18th century Industrial Revolution.
There were two long and separate developments, technological and scientific.
By 1000CE at the latest–and perhaps, feebly, 200 years earlier–the West used water power for industrial processes other than milling grain. This was followed in the late 12th century by the harnessing of wind power. From simple beginnings, the West rapidly expanded power machinery, labor-saving devices, and automation including the 14th century weight-driven mechanical clock.
Not in craftsmanship but in basic technological capacity, the Latin West of the later Middle Ages outstripped its elaborate, sophisticated, and esthetically magnificent sister cultures, Byzantium and Islam.
In 1444 the Greek ecclesiastic Bessarion, visiting Italy, was amazed by the superiority of Western ships, arms, textiles, glass. But above all he is astonished by the spectacle of waterwheels sawing timbers and pumping the bellows of blast furnaces.
Clearly, he had seen nothing of the sort in the Near East.
In the 15th century the technological superiority of Europe allowed small, mutually hostile nations to conquer, loot, and colonize the rest of the world. That Portugal, one of the weakest Occidental states, was able to become, and to remain for a century, mistress of the East Indies proves the power of technology. However, the technology of Vasco da Gama and Albuquerque was built by pure empiricism, drawing remarkably little support or inspiration from science.
Modern science is usually dated to Copernicus and Vesalius great works of 1543. However, the structures as the Fabrica and the De revolutionibus do not appear overnight.
By the late 13th century Europe had seized global scientific leadership from the faltering hands of Islam. But the profound originality of Newton, Galileo, or Copernicus was built on the work of 14th century scholastic scientists like Buridan or Oresme.
The distinctive Western tradition of science began in the late 11th century with a massive movement of translation of Arabic and Greek scientific works into Latin. Within 200 years almost the entire corpus of Greek and Muslim science was available in Latin. Debated in universities, from these works arose new observation, speculation, and increasing distrust of ancient authorities.
Before the 11th century, science scarcely existed in the Latin West, even in Roman times. From the 11th century onward, the Occidental science was increased in a steady crescendo.
To understand technologies impact on the environment requires examining fundamental medieval assumptions.
Early plows, drawn by two merely scratched the soil. This required cross- plowing fields tended to be square. While fine for the fairly light soils and semiarid climates of the Near East and Mediterranean, it was unsuited to the wet climate and sticky soils of northern Europe.
By the late 7th century northern peasants were using a plow equipped with a vertical knife to cut the line of the furrow, a horizontal share to slice under the sod, and a moldboard to turn it over. Cross-plowing was not needed, and fields tended to be shaped in long strips. However, it required eight oxen. But no peasant owned eight oxen: to use the new and more efficient plow, peasants pooled their oxen to form large plow-teams, receiving plowed strips in proportion to their contribution.
In the days of the scratch-plow, fields supported a single family, subsistence farm. Technology changed land use from the family to the capacity of a power machine to till the earth. Man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed.
Formerly man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature. Nowhere else in the world did farmers develop any analogous agricultural implement. Is it coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature, has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of northern Europe?
The exploitative change is revealed in the calendar. Before 830 CE older calendars the months were shown as passive personifications. But the new Frankish calendars of the Middle Ages, show men coercing the world around them–plowing, harvesting, chopping trees, butchering pigs. Man and nature are two things, and man is master.
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. Contrast the West to say, India or Ceylon. It is equally true of our selves and of our medieval ancestors.
The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture. While the forms of modern thinking and language have largely ceased to be Christian, but remain amazingly akin to that of the past. Our daily habits are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco- Roman antiquity or to the Orient.
It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo- Christian theology. The fact that Communists share it merely helps to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy.
We continue today to live, as we have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in a context of Christian
What did Christianity tell people about their relations with the environment?
The pre-Christian world had contradictory creation legends. Aristotle and the intellectuals of the ancient West denied the visible world had a beginning, impossible in the framework of their notion of cyclical time.
In contrast, Christianity inherited from Judaism not only a concept of time as non repetitive and linear but in the story of creation, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image.
Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.
In the 2nd century Tertullian and Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature.
In contrast to ancient religions (except Zorastrianism), Christianity established a dualism of man and nature and insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature.
In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated.
By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.
It is often said the Church replaced animism with the cult of saints. However, saints is functionally quite different. A saint is not in natural objects; he may have special shrines, but his citizenship is in heaven. A saint is entirely a man; he can be approached in human terms.
While Christianity had angels and demons, they can move like a saint. The spirits in natural objects, which formerly had protected nature from man, evaporated. In the medieval West, where technology made spectacular advances, man’s effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.
Christianity is a complex faith and its consequences differ in differing contexts.
In the Greek East, a highly civilized realm of equal Christian devotion, seems to have produced no marked technological innovation after the late 7th century invention of Greek fire.
The key to the contrast may be a difference in the tonality of piety and thought between the Greek and the Latin Churches.
The Greeks believed that sin was intellectual blindness, and that salvation was found in illumination, orthodoxy–that is, clear thinking. The Latins, felt that sin was moral evil, and that salvation was to be found in right conduct. Eastern theology has been intellectualist. Western theology has been voluntarist. The Greek saint contemplates; the Western saint acts. The implications of Christianity for the conquest of nature would emerge more easily in the Western atmosphere.
The Christian dogma of creation, found in the first clause of all the Creeds, also influences our comprehension of today’s ecologic crisis. By revelation, God had given man the Bible. But since God had made nature, nature also must reveal the divine mentality.
The religious study of nature to understand God was known as natural theology. In the early Church, and in the Greek East, nature was primarily a symbolic system through which God speaks to men: the ant is a sermon to sluggards; rising flames are the symbol of the soul’s aspiration. The view of nature was essentially artistic.
In the Latin West by the early 13th century natural theology ceased to be the decoding of the physical symbols of God’s communication with man and became the effort to understand God’s mind by discovering how his creation operates.
The rainbow was no longer simply a symbol of hope first sent to Noah after the Deluge: Robert Grosseteste, Friar Roger Bacon, and Theodoric of Freiberg produced startlingly sophisticated work on the optics of the rainbow, but they did it as a venture in religious understanding.
From the 13th century up to and including Leitnitz and Newton, every major scientist explained his motivations in religious terms. Indeed, if Galileo had not been so expert an amateur theologian he would have got into far less trouble: the professionals resented his intrusion.
It was not until the late 18th century that the hypothesis of God became unnecessary to many scientists.
For centuries the task and the reward of the scientist was “to think God’s thoughts after him”.
Francis of Assisi: An Alternative Christian View
Just over a century ago science and technology joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control.
If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.
I personally doubt that disastrous ecologic backlash can be avoided simply by applying to our problems more science and more technology. Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relation to nature which is almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians.
Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.
To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.
So, until we rethink religion, more science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis
Possibly the greatest radical in Christian history is Saint Francis of Assisi.
That he did not end at the stake as many of his left-wing followers did seems miraculous. He was so heretical that a General of the Franciscan Order, Saint Bonavlentura, tried to suppress the early accounts of Franciscanism.
Francis believed in the virtue of humility-not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his.
Later commentators have said that Francis preached to the birds as a rebuke to men whowould not listen. The records do not read so: he urged the little birds to praise God, and in spiritual ecstasy they flapped their wings and chirped rejoicing.
Legends of saints, especially the Irish saints, had long told of their dealings with animals to show their human dominance over creatures. With Francis it is different. The land around Gubbio in the Apennines was ravaged by a fierce wolf. Saint Francis, says the legend, talked to the wolf and persuaded him of the error of his ways. The wolf repented, died in the odor of sanctity, and was buried in consecrated ground.
What Sir Steven Ruciman calls “the Franciscan doctrine of the animal soul” was quickly stamped out. Quite possibly because the belief in reincarnation held by the Cathar heretics teeming Italy and southern France. At the same time, about 1200, traces of metempsychosis are found also in western Judaism, in the Provencal Cabbala.
But Francis held neither to transmigration of souls nor to pantheism. His view of nature and of man rested on a unique sort of panpsychism of all things animate and inanimate, designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator, who, in the ultimate gesture of cosmic humility, assumed flesh, lay helpless in a manger, and hung dying on a scaffold.
The point here is Saint Francis proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it; he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation. He failed.
While, I do not suggest we try and live with wolves, there are no new social values accepted to replace our exploitative view of nature. We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence than to serve man.
Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone.
Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.