In 1967, historian Lynn White, Jr. gave a lecture that changed history at The American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington. Four months later, he published his lecture in the journal Science, which sparked controversy among theologians, scientists, and historians. Many responded in the coming years with critiques of White’s thesis. White’s lecture, although multifaceted, primarily spoke on how the current state of our ecological crisis is a direct result of Christianity’s unique take on anthropocentrism. White argues that this central piece of Christian theology caused humanity to view nature as a commodity belonging to us. Books, articles, and studies have been conducted and written to test whether White was indeed correct, but findings have been generally inconsistent (Holland and Carter). Today, discussing the impact that Christianity has had on our modern view of the environment is of paramount importance, especially if we are going to save the earth from the disaster we currently face. Identifying how Christian theology has impacted our world view aids in decolonizing our minds and helps us bring multiple viewpoints out of the margins and into our decision-making processes. While White’s initial view of how Christianity has impacted humanity’s view of the environment is justified, his argument overlooks that Christian theology is not a major assessor in how nations treat the environment today. Instead, Christianity was the vehicle used by capitalism to excuse such destructive behaviors against all non-human life forms on earth.
White’s disputed article, titled “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” takes the reader back to the medieval ages, which is the historian’s area of expertise. White points to the ideological fight between Christianity and paganism. Claiming that Christianity’s ideological win against paganism fueled a new era of how man interacts with nature, White exemplified this in his explanation of the invention and use of the deep plow in northern Europe. White believed the use of the deep plow around CE 600 was “based no longer on the needs of the family, but, rather, on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth. Man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed” (1205). Due to agriculture being the primary occupation for humans until recently, White argued that any change in methods of tillage would greatly affect the way humans interact with nature. As Emily Warde summarized White’s thoughts, “[Humankind] became less a part of nature and more an exploiter of it” (47). Through the invention and use of the deep plow, humanity began to “exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (White). White argues that by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made the exploitation of nature possible. Although a Christian historian, White believed that the theology of his religion inherently lead humankind to exploit the earth. Dale Jamieson, professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy at New York University, aptly explains, “What is so special about Christianity, according to White, is that it is the most ‘anthropocentric’ of world religions. At the center of the traditional Christian story is God becoming man in the figure of Jesus” (21). Jamieson continues to explain that such an idea is inherently blasphemous to other religions such as Judaism and Islam, which are theocentric religions where God is utterly transcendent. The Christian anthropocentric view regards humans as the supreme beings who are above all other life forms on Earth. White continued in his premise that the idea that God gave “dominion” of the earth to humankind in Genesis one led humanity to treating natural resources as a commodity without consideration for other natural beings (47).
Current studies show that White’s premise overemphasized Christian theology’s impact on how humanity treats the earth. In 2016, Emilio Chuvieco, an environmental ethicist at the University of Alcalá, Spain, lead a team of scientists whose mission was to explore whether the anthropocentric theology of Christianity proposed by Lynn White would be upheld by modern environmental indicators. Seeking to eliminate impacts of non-religious variables, Chuvieco calculated a nation’s Environmental Performance Index (EPI) and compare the policies of nations who have Christian religious affiliations with nations of other religious views. According to Chuvieco, “If Christian societies were more aggressive towards Nature, they should have poorer environmental performance than those with different religious traditions” (253). However, Chuvieco found that this was not the case. In contradiction to White’s thesis, EPI scores for Christian nations were found to have a more positive correlation. Thus, if a nation consists of mainly Christian identifying citizens, the EPI score, which primarily measures air quality, trends slightly healthier than nations that consist of citizens claiming non-Christian religious affiliations. However, nations that are primarily made up of Agnostics and Atheists had the greatest positive correlation of EPI score and outperformed Christian countries and provinces. Chuvieco concluded,
“From our analysis, we can conclude that no evidence exists that Christian territories have poorer environmental indicators than other religions, not even compared to those generally considered the most Nature-centric, such as Buddhism and Hinduism” (268).
“From a logical perspective, our results cannot conclude that Christianity is more environmental-friendly than other religions, but we certainly can affirm that is not more aggressive than others” (269).
Thus, Christianity does not play a large role in predicting a nation’s EPI score. No religion seems to be an indicator of the health of a nation’s environment nearly at all. Furthermore, correlation between a nation’s EPI score and religion is difficult to assume, even in Chuvieco’s years long study. The amount of influence a religion has on an individual’s action is greatly dependent on how committed an individual is to believe and act upon the beliefs of their religion. Modern Christianity is often diluted by indifferent members who claim to be followers of the teachings of Jesus Christ yet are not even aware of what the Christian Bible, along with denomination-specific creeds, state concerning the environment. In a survey conducted with members of the Presbyterian Church in Georgia, USA, only 40.5% of respondents were even aware of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America’s (PCUSA) statement of Christian responsibility for the environment. Of the 40.5% aware of the environmental responsibility statement, not a single person could recite what the statement declares. Holland and Carter, the authors of the survey clearly concluded: “…if there is a failure within the Presbyterian Church toward environmental stewardship, it lies not within its creeds but with the actual deeds of church leaders and members” (744). Holland and Carter explain that theology is not as impactful on the environment as is the actual behaviors of individual church members.
Since Christianity’s influence over a nation is a poor indicator of a country’s environmental health, scholars have sought to find true indicators of predicting environmental health in hopes of saving the earth. Scholar Emily Warde, who meticulously synthesized works of ecologists, historians, and theologians all responding to White’s famous speech, supports a different answer. Warde wrote of scholars such as Lewis Moncrief, who confirmed that factors such as a nation’s economics, developments in democracy, and shifts caused by the industrial revolution were the real movers behind humankind’s desensitized relationship to the earth. Likewise, Warde explained that scholars such as James Barr were skeptical of the religious influence that White advanced. Warde explained, “Barr didn’t preclude a Christian influence, but held that White inaccurately exaggerated it since ideology could never be as influential as he supposed.” (56). Both Barr and Moncrief explain that White overemphasized the impact of Christian ideology and instead point to economic factors that progressed capitalism. Holland and Carter, in their study comparing theoretical beliefs to action in the Presbyterian church in Georgia, USA, seem to also agree. Though the Presbyterian creed claims a responsibility to the earth, results of the Holland and Carter survey indicated that “only 12.3 percent of respondents were members of an active environmental group(s)” (747). Likewise, more than half of Presbyterian leaders admitted that they do not teach their congregation about doctrine related to the environment apart from giving congregation members copies of the Presbyterian creed (747). In this case study, there is very little correlation between action and belief statements. Chuvieco and his team also explain that it is not Christian doctrine that is the primary determinant of a nation’s treatment of the environment, but rather the economic status of a colonized world forced into capitalism: “religious affiliation has much less explicative power than other controlling factors, such as HDI [Human Development Index] and GDP [Gross Domestic Product]” (269). Therefore, White misunderstood the lack of influence the Genesis story and the teachings of Jesus Christ has on humanity’s regard for the environment; White failed to understand the potency of economics in predicting a nation’s treatment of the environment.
Though White misunderstood that economic measures are the best indicators on how a person treats the environment, he was correct in arguing that Christian thought led to our modern and exploitive relationship to the earth. Lynn White’s arguments followed in the footsteps of 19th century sociologist Max Weber. One of Weber’s most famous and accepted social theories was his “Protestant work ethic” argument, which, in broader form, was also present in White’s lecture. Weber argued that the specific impact of Christian Protestantism, which emphasizes that salvation from eternal damnation is attainable through a “godly and secular vocation,” was the primary force that invented capitalism (Warde). Thomas Sieger Derr, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ who worked for the World Council of Churches in Geneva, agreed with Weber and his “host of followers,” who argued that the “insistence on the spiritual value of hard work and the dignity of manual labor” strongly supports the work ethic implicit in capitalism (42). Capitalism did, in fact, originate in the Protestant countries of northern Europe (Warde). Thus, in agreement with Weber and his myriad of scholarly supporters, capitalism was made possible only by the values of Christian Protestantism. Though White believed the Protestant worth ethic was not the beginning of this spirit of capitalism, and rather that “the tradition goes back a long way in Christian history…to keep the Sabbath: ‘Six days shalt thou labor’” many agree that without Christianity, capitalism would not exist (Derr). Even though environmental health cannot be predicted by a nation, a province or an individual’s religious affiliation, capitalism’s destructive roots did originate in Christianity, which crushes the earth still today under the unrelenting accumulation of exorbitant wealth.
In conclusion, Lynn White’s primary premise that Christianity is more aggressive towards the environment than other religions today is mistaken. Evidence suggests that religious affiliation is not able to accurately predict how a nation, province, or an individual will treat the environment. A more accurate assessment of environmental health is found in the nation, province, or an individual’s economic circumstances. However, Christianity was the vehicle that made capitalism originally possible. Horrifically, centuries of colonization which included missionaries sent to kill Natives who refused to convert to Christianity, boarding schools of the United States seeking to erase Native languages and culture, and wars fought for economic power forced capitalism onto the entire world. The impact that capitalism has had on the earth is one of great detriment. If we are going to be stewards of the earth, we must decolonize ourselves and bring the voices shoved into the margins out into our decision-making processes. After all, the earth needs all the help we can give her.
Chuvieco, E., Burgui, M., & Gallego-Álvarez, I. (2016). Impacts of religious beliefs on environmental indicators. Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture & Ecology, 20(3), 251– 271. https://doi-org.mctproxy.mnpals.net/10.1163/15685357-02003004
Derr, T. S. (january 1975). Religion’s Responsibility for the Ecological Crisis: An Argument Run Amok. Worldview Magazine, 39–45. Retrieved April 6, 2021, from https://carnegiecouncil-media.storage.googleapis.com/files/v18_i001_a013.pdf
Holland, L., & Scott Carter, J. (2005). Words V. Deeds: A comparison of religious belief and environmental action. Sociological Spectrum, 25(6), 739–753. https://doi- org.mctproxy.mnpals.net/10.1080/02732170500260908
Jamieson, D. (2008). Ethics and the Environment: An Introduction. pp. 20–22, Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/mspcc/ detail.action?docID=328907
Warde, Emily. Christianity and the Environment: The Lynn White Controversy. Vol. XX, San Francisco State University, 2011, pp. 45–62, history.sfsu.edu/sites/default/files/EPF/2015/2011_Emily%20Warde.pdf.
White, Jr., L. (1967, March 10). The historical roots of our ecological crisis. Science, 155(3767). Retrieved from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/155/3767/1203