In 1967, Lynn White published an article in the periodical, Science, entitled, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in which he examined the influence of Christianity on humankind’s relationship with nature. White believed that environmental decline was, at its root, a religious problem, specifically a Christian problem. He marked the Industrial Revolution as the fundamental turning point in our ecological history, when our ability to destroy nature grew exponentially. However, for White, the belief that the Earth was a resource for human consumption was much older and could be traced back to the triumph of medieval Christianity over pagan animism, and even further back to the Biblical injunction to humankind to “subdue” the Earth and exercise “dominion” over every living thing. Medieval Christianity, according to White, elevated humankind, who was believed to have been made in God’s image, and denigrated the rest of creation, which was believed to have no soul.
“In antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. … Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of the particular situation, and 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. … Man’s effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.”
White argued that what was needed to avoid environmental catastrophe was a change in religious perspective:
“More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one. … 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.”
White concluded that our problem was to find a “viable equivalent to animism,” and he recommended St. Francis of Assisi’s model of a “democracy of creation” in which all creatures are respected and humankind’s dominion is circumscribed.
In 1972, five years after White published his article, Arnold Toynbee published “The Religious Background of the Present Environmental Crisis.” Similar to White, Toynbee traced the cause of environmental destruction to monotheism, with which he contrasted the ancient pagan attitude toward nature:
“Some of the major maladies of the present-day world—in particular the recklessly extravagant consumption of nature’s irreplaceable treasures and the pollution of those that [humankind] has not already devoured—can be traced back to a religious cause, and that this cause is the rise of monotheism. …
“For the premonotheistic [human] nature was not just a treasure trove of ‘natural resources.’ Nature was, for [them], a goddess, ‘Mother Earth,’ and the vegetation that sprang from the earth, the animals that roamed, like [humankind itself], over the earth’s surface, and the minerals hiding in the earth’s bowels all partook of nature’s divinity. The whole of [their] environment was divine, and [their] sense of nature’s divinity outlasted [their] technological feats of cultivating plants and domesticating animals: wheat and rice were not just ‘cereals,’ they were Ceres herself, the goddess who has allowed [humankind] to cultivate these life-giving plants and had taught [them] the art.
“My observation of the living religion of eastern Asia, and my book knowledge of the extinguished Greek and Roman religion, have made me aware of a startling and disturbing truth: that monotheism, as enunciated in the Book of Genesis, has removed the age-old restraint that was once placed on [humankind’s] greed by [their] awe. [Humankind’s] greedy impulse to exploit nature used to be held in check by [their] pious worship of nature. This primitive inhibition has been removed by the rise and spread of monotheism.”
These articles set off an extended debate about the role of religion in creating and sustaining the West’s exploitation of the natural world. Many writers have followed White and Toynbee in contrasting Judeo-Christianity, which is portrayed as dualistic and anthropocentric, with Asian and indigenous religions, which are portrayed as holistic and eco-centric. Whether or not the White hypothesis is correct, this idea has had a profound influence on Neo-Pagans, who often describe their beliefs in contrast with the Abrahamic religions (as I have done above). It is no coincidence that White’s article was published in 1967, the same year that two of the earliest Neo-Pagan groups, Feraferia and the Church of All Worlds, were incorporated.
The White Hypothesis is a form of what Arne Kalland calls the myth of the “ecologically noble Other.” Whether the Other is the “noble oriental” or the “noble savage,” the myth romanticizes reality. It oversimplifies both the Abrahamic religions, which are vilified, and the Asian and indigenous religions, which are idealized. The truth is that indigenous practices are not necessarily benign to the environment. Indigenous peoples of North America, Polynesia, and Europe have hunted species to extinction. And Europe, China, and North America all experienced massive deforestation long before industrialization. Kalland argues that, while the myth of the “ecologically noble Other” may be useful to the extent that it helps us develop an internal critique of our own cultural practices, it is problematic when it causes us to ignore the complexity of Eastern and indigenous religious traditions or overlook the good in the Abrahamic traditions.
Advocates of the White Hypothesis have tended to be selective in approaching the beliefs and practices of Asian and indigenous religions, ignoring those aspects that are potentially harmful to the environment. Every religion is a complex mixture of ideas that can be used to either rationalize environmental abuse or encourage preservation. For instance, in many Asian religions, there is a world-denying tendency that encourages withdrawal from the world of suffering and escape into a blissful void. This can be used as an excuse for ecologically irresponsible behavior.
On the flip side, the injunction in Genesis to exercise “dominion” has been interpreted by many Judeo-Christian eco-theologians as a mandate to exercise environmental “stewardship.” Episcopal priest and theologian, Matthew Fox, has articulated an eco-theology called “Creation Spirituality” that emphasizes the goodness of creation (which is both chronologically and ontologically prior to the Fall), contrasting what he calls “Original Blessing” (a reference to the Christian God’s statement that creation was good) with “Original Sin.” Fox’s Creation Spirituality—along with the work of others, like Michael Dowd’s “Evolutionary Evangelism,” John Cobb, Jr.’s “Earthist Christianity,” and Sallie McFague’s “Ecological Theology”—demonstrates that there is untapped potential in Christianity and other monotheistic religions to inspire change in our relationship with the Earth.