3.3.1 Lynn White Jr’s argument

Back to 3.2.7

Unit 3 Contents



Section 1 of this unit has already suggested a clear answer to the question of what has caused ecological crisis.  That section outlined a historical narrative, from the shift to a mechanistic world-view in the seventeenth century, through the application of this to human beings in the new discipline of economics, to the inevitable outcome of combining these with seeing the rest of nature as a neutral resource to be used for human ‘utility maximization’.  It has taken about 200 years to become evident, but that post-Christian way of seeing and acting in the world made ecological crisis an inevitable outcome.

Here I call that way of seeing the world ‘post-Christian’.  I use this label because that world-view emerged, as Unit 2 brought out, in reaction against orthodox Christianity.  But notice that that label doesn’t entail that the Christian churches bear no responsibility for what occurred.  While we always need to be cautious in speculating about historical possibilities that in fact did not occur, we can wonder how events in Western history might have been different if there had not been Church division and then war between rival Christian groups during that period.  In particular, could it be that, without such conflict, the anti-Christian reaction among intellectuals that led to the new search for knowledge – and all that then followed – would not have occurred?

This is both a very challenging question and an answerable one. The reason for raising it here is that it can introduce a further perspective on what has caused the ecological crisis.  This view is not easy for Christians to digest, because its main point is: Christianity itself is the reason for ecological crisis.  In 1967, a historian of science, Lynn White Jr (a man), published a short but explosive article called ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis’.  He argued that these roots lay, not in a reaction against the Church, but in what Christianity had actually taught for 2000 years about the relationship of humanity to the rest of nature.

White argued that,

Christianity, in absolute contrast to [both] ancient paganism and Asia’s religions…, not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends… We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man (quoted in McCarthy, ed., p. 185).

Now, just because Lynn White – himself a church-goer – argued this does not mean he was right.  Since his article, many have responded to his charge, arguing that, in some major respects, he was giving an inaccurate account of Christianity.  Nevertheless, paying some attention to his article is necessary in any study of the subject of this unit.

In McCarthy’s book, The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, the final chapter addresses ecological issues.  The author is Brian Henning and he discusses Lynn White’s article in its opening pages.


Reading (3pp)

Henning, ‘From Despot to Steward’, in McCarthy, ed., The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, pp. 183-85 (to end of last full para.)


This reading stops at the end of Henning’s exposition of Lynn White’s argument.  In reading these pages you might well have had a reaction roughly as follows: ‘Hang on a minute.  There’s something wrong here.  What White said about Christianity isn’t right.  He is misrepresenting Christianity, because its teachings include things that should lead to people recognizing they have real ecological responsibility….’




Get hold of a Bible.  From your own knowledge of Christianity, especially of the Bible, what texts in Scripture and other Christian sources can you think of which might give grounds for challenging Lynn White’s view?

Spend at least 15 minutes trying to identify such passages in the Bible.

While it will be much easier to do this exercise with a printed Bible, if you don’t one to hand, here are links for the two versions recommended in Unit 1:

NAB: www.usccb.org/bible/books-of-the-bible/index.cfm

NRSV: bible.oremus.org/

Then look at the Response.







End of 3.3.1

Go to 3.3.2 A patron saint for ecology


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