I recently had an interview on a Christian radio station; the topic was Christian environmentalism. Before the host introduced me, he told his listening audience that he is against environmentalism. In his opinion, spending money to protect endangered plants and animals is a waste of taxpayer’s money and a hindrance to economic development and human interests.
Unfortunately, when secular environmentalists hear this kind of sentiment from a Christian, it reinforces their belief that the origin of today’s environmental problems can be traced directly to the Judeo/Christian worldview. The most well known advocate of this theory was the late historian, Lynn White, Jr. In an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1966, White presented his thesis that the “historical root” of the modern environmental crisis was the marriage of science and technology in the middle of the 19th century under the umbrella of Christianity. Presumably, the Bible—in particular Genesis 1:28, which instructed Adam to “subdue” the earth and have “dominion over other animals—encourages Christians to exploit nature with little regard for the welfare of other life forms or the land. Although many Christian scholars took issue with White’s assumptions—and refuted them on many different points—his view nevertheless became the default position of academia and non-Christian environmentalists.
The fact is, however, Christianity is not the blame for modern environmental problems—the entire human race is the blame. Every society—and under the banner of every religion—has exploited its natural environments. This began ten thousand years ago, long before Christianity. Ancient hunters in the North America (Paleoindians), for example, contributed to the extinction of many large Pleistocene animals, including the cave bear, mammoth, mastodon, ground sloth, camels, dire wolves, and saber-tooth cats. Over a period of several thousand years, hunting and gathering declined and many cultures turned to herding sheep, goats, and cattle. Shepherds typically overgrazed their livestock and often set fires to large tracks of brush and forest to create open grassland. “Early men,” explained Pulitzer Prize-winner, the late Dr. Rene’ Dubos, “aided especially by the most useful and most noxious of all animals, the Mediterranean goat, were probably responsible for more deforestation and erosion than all the bulldozers of the Judeo-Christian world.”
Farmers followed the shepherds, causing more widespread devastation to the environment. Poor farming practices allowed topsoil to be lost; improper irrigation and drainage lead to the accumulation of salts in the soil, destroying its productivity and forcing farmers to clear ever more land; forests were burnt to provide farmland, exterminating indigenous plants and animals.
The historical fact is that non-Western, non-Christian societies have caused massive environmental damage over vast portions of Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, the Mid East, and Australia. Extensive erosion, widespread deforestation, and the total extermination of plant and animal species have been a byproduct of human societies long before the Christian era.
Besides corporate humanity’s inherent proclivity to exploit his environment with little concern for other living things, there is an even greater factor responsible for today’s environment crisis: unregulated technology. The Industrial Revolution, which began in the eighteenth century, ushered in spectacular advances in technology. By the twentieth century, one man with a bulldozer could do more damage to the environment than hundreds of men with picks and shovels. Ultimately, the root cause of the twentieth century’s environmental crisis was technology running amok without ethical restraints. Unregulated technologic power over nature created environmental pollution and degradation, as we know it today. Christianity did not cause the modern environmental crisis; unbridled technology operating within an emerging secular society is responsible.
In order to see this, it’s important to understand that advances in highly efficient technology occurred simultaneously with the fading authority and influence of the Christian worldview. Beginning in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, Christianity became increasingly rejected as the dominant worldview in western culture—humanity was replacing God as Supreme Being. By the twentieth century, secular humanism had become the dominant worldview in the West, jettisoning many of the moral values that were fundamental to western culture for eighteen centuries. Thus, by the beginning of the mid–twentieth century’s environmental crisis, Christianity was no longer the dominant moral light in the West, and the authority of the Bible outside the church was largely rejected in popular culture. During the interim between the end of the Christian era and the modern environmental crisis, no ethical constraints arose to control—let alone prevent—the crushing technological exploitation of the earth’s natural environments. As French historian and sociologist Jacques Ellul stated, “The technical movement of the West developed in a world which had already withdrawn from the dominant influence of Christianity.”
In sum, Christianity is not the root cause of today’s environmental crisis. Corporate humanity—adhering to its ancient proclivity to “dirty its nest” by exploiting and despoiling natural environments—is responsible. The destructive power of modern technology has enabled societies to accelerate this, with devastating consequences to the land and the wild creatures that share our planet. Ironically, had the human race applied ethical principles set forth in the Bible to environmental stewardship, such abuse would likely have been far less, if not curtailed.
I explore this and many other related topics in my book Should Christians Be Environmentalists? I would enjoy your comments. In my next blog, I’ll explain what the Bible means when it instructs the human race to "subdue" and have “dominion” over nature (Gen. 1:28, KJV) .