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From White’s article list a few examples where humans have changed their
According to White what is the greatest event in human history since the
invention of agriculture?3.
According to White what was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of
our culture and what are the implications of that revolution?4.
What is animism and how does Christianity’s defeat of it result in an
ecological crisis?5.
White’s concluding remark is “Hence 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 [sic].” Do you feel White is correct
in his conclusion? Why?

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March 1967, Volume 155, Number 3767
The Historical Roots of
Our Ecologic Crisis
Lynn White, Jr.
A conversation with Aldous Huxley
not infrequently put one at the receiving end of an unforgettable monologue.
About a year before his lamented
death he was discoursing on a favorite
topic: Man’s unnatural treatment of nature and its sad results. To illustrate
his point he told how, during the previous summer, he had returned to a
little valley in England where he had
spent many happy months as a child.
Once it had been composed of delightful grassy ‘glades; now it was becomming overgrown with unsightly brush
because the rabbits that formerly kept
such growth under control had largely
succumbed to a disease, myxomatosis,
that was deliberately introduced by the
local farmers to reduce the rabbits’
destruction of crops. Being something
of a Philistine, I could be silent no
longer, even in the interests of great
rhetoric. I interrupted to point out that
the rabbit itself had been brought as
a domestic animal to England in 1176,
presumably to improve the protein diet
of the peasantry.
All forms of life modify their contexts. The most spectacular and benign
instance is doubtless the coral polyp.
By serving its own ends, it has created
a vast undersea world favorable to
thousands of other kinds of animals
and plants. Ever since man became a
numerous species he has affected his
environment notably. The hypothesis
that his fire-drive method of hunting
created the world’s great grasslands and
The author is professor
of history at the Uni.
versity of California,
Los Angeles.
This is the
text of a lecture delivered
26 December
1966 at
the Washington
of the AAAS.
helped to exterminate; the monster
mammals of the Pleistocene from
much of the globe is plausible, if not
proved., For 6 millennia at least, the
banks of the lower Nile have been
a human artifact rather than the
swampy African jungle which nature,
apart from man, would have made
it. The Aswan Dam, flooding 5000
square miles, is only the latest stage
in a long process. In many regions
terracing or irrigation, overgrazing, the
cutting of forests by Romans to build
ships to fight Carthaginians or by Crusaders to solve the logistics problems
of their expeditions, have profoundly
changed some ecologies.
Observation that the French landscape falls
into two basic types, the open fields
of the north and the bocage of the
south and west, inspired Marc Bloch
to undertake his classic study of medieval agricultural methods. Quite unintentionally, changes in human ways
often affect nonhuman nature. It has
been noted, for example, that the
advent of the automobile eliminated
huge flocks of sparrows that once fed
on the horse manure littering every
The history of ecologic change is
still so rudimentary that we know little
about what really happened, or what
the results were. The extinction of the
European aurochs as late as 1627
would seem to have been a simple case
of overenthusiastic hunting. On more
intricate matters it often is impossible
to find solid information. For a thousand years or more the Frisians and
Hollanders have been pushing back the
North Sea, and the process is culmi-
nating in our own time in the reclamation of the Zuider Zee. What, if any,
species of animals, birds, fish, shore
life, or plants have died out in the
process? In their epic combat with Neptune have the Netherlanders overlooked
ecological values in such a way that
the quality of human life in the Netherlands has suffered? I cannot discover
that the questions have ever been
asked, much less answered.
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. As
we enter the last third of the 20th century, however, concern for the problem of ecologic backlash is mounting
feverishly. Natural science, conceived
as the effort to understand the nature
of things, had flourished in several eras
and among several peoples. Similarly
there had been an age-old accumulation of technological skills, sometimes
growing rapidly, sometimes slowly. But
it was not until about four generations ago that Western Europe and
North America arranged a marriage
between science and technology, a
union of the theoretical and the empirical approaches to our natural environment. The emergence in widespread
practice of the Baconian creed that
scientific knowledge means technological power over nature can scarcely be
dated before about 1850, save in the
chemical industries, where it is anticipated in the 18th century. Its acceptanceas a normal pattern of action may
mark the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture,
and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial
history as well.
Almost at once the new situation
forced the crystallization of the novel
concept of ecology; indeed, the word
ecology first appeared in the English
language in 1873. Today, less than a
century later, the impact of our race
upon the environment has so increased
in force that it has changed in essence. When the first cannons were
fired, in the early 14th century, they
affected ecology by sending workers
scrambling to the forests and moun1203
tains for more potash, sulfur, iron ore,
and charcoal, with some resulting eroand deforestation.
bombs are of a different order: a war
fought with them might alter the genetics of all life on this planet. By 1285
London had a smog problem arising
from the burning of soft coal, but our
present combustion of fossil fuels
threatens to change the chemistry of
the globe’s atmosphere as a whole,
with consequences which we are only
beginning to guess. With the population explosion, the carcinoma of planless urbanism, the now geological
deposits of sewage and garbage, surely
no creature other than man has ever
managed to foul its nest in such short
There are many calls to action, but
specific proposals, however worthy as
individual items, seem too partial, palliative, negative: ban the bomb, tear
down the billboards, give the Hindus
contraceptives and tell them to eat their
sacred cows. The simplest solution to
any suspect change is, of course, to
stop it, or, better yet, to revert to a
romanticized past: make those ugly
gasoline stations look like Anne Hathaway’s cottage or (in the Far West) like
ghost-town saloons. The “wilderness
area” mentality invariably advocates
deep-freezing an ecology, whether San
Gimignano or the High Sierra, as it
was before the first Kleenex was dropped. But neither atavism nor prettification will cope with the ecologic crisis
of our time.
What shall we do? No one yet
knows. Unless we think about fundamentals, our specific measures may
produce new backlashes more serious
than those they are designed to remedy.
As a beginning we should try to
clarify our thinking by looking, in
some historical depth, at the presuppositions that underlie modern technology and science. Science was traditionally aristocratic, speculative, intellectual in intent; technology was lowerclass, empirical, action-oriented. The
quite sudden fusion of these two,
towards the middle of the 19th century, is surely related to the slightly
prior and contemporary democratic
revolutions which, by reducing social
barriers, tended to assert 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
gone to Italy, wrote a letter to a
prince in Greece. He is amazed by
the superiority of Western ships, arms,
One thing is so certain that it seems
textiles, glass. But above all he is
stupid to verbalize it: both modern
astonished by the spectacle of watertechnology and modern science are dis- wheels sawing timbers and pumping the
bellows of blast furnaces. Clearly, he
tinctively Occidental. Our technology
has absorbed elements from all over had seen nothing of the sort in the
the world, notably from China; yet Near East.
By the end of the 15th century the
everywhere today, whether in Japan
technological superiority of Europe was
or in Nigeria, successful technology
is Western. Our science is the heir such that its small, mutually hostile
to all the sciences of the past, nations could spill out over all the rest
especially perhaps to the work of the of the world, conquering, looting, and
colonizing. The symbol of this technogreat Islamic scientists of the Middle
logical superiority is the fact that
Ages, who so often outdid the ancient
Greeks in skill and perspicacity: al- Portugal, one of the weakest states of
Raizi in medicine, for example; or ibn- the Occident, was able to become, and
to remain for a century, mistress of
al-Haytham in optics; or Omar Khaythe East Indies. And we must rememyam in mathematics. Indeed, not a few
ber that the technology of Vasco da
works of such geniuses seem to have
vanished in the original Arabic and to Gama and Albuquerque was built by
survive only in medieval Latin transla- pure empiricism, drawing remarkably
little support or inspiration from science.
tions that helped to lay the foundaIn the present-day vernacular underlater
tions for
Today, around the globe, all significant standing, modern science is supposed
to have begun in 1543, when both
science is Western in style and method,
whatever the pigmentation or language Copernicus and Vesalius published
their great works. It is no derogation
of the scientists.
A second pair of facts is less well of their accomplishments, however, to
point out that such structures as the
recognized because they result from
quite recent historical scholarship. The Fabrica and the De revolutionibus do
not appear overnight. The distinctive
leadership of the West, both in technology and in science, is far older Western tradition of science, in fact,
began in the late 11th century with a
than the so-called Scientific Revolution
massive movement of translation of
of the 17th century or the so-called
Arabic and Greek scientific works into
Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. These terms are in fact out- Latin. A few notable books-Theophrastus, for example-escaped
moded and obscure the true nature of
West’s avid new appetite for science,
what they try to describe-significant
but within less than 200 years effecstages in two long and separate developments. By A.D. 1000 at the latest tively the entire corpus of Greek and
Muslim science was available in Latin,
-and perhaps, feebly, as much as 200
years earlier-the West began to apply and was being eagerly read and criticized in the new European universiwater power to industrial processes
ties. Out of criticism arose new obother than milling grain. This was followed in the late 12th century by the servation, speculation, and increasing
harnessing of wind power. From simple distrust of ancient authorities. By the
beginnings, but with remarkable conlate 13th century Europe had seized
sistency of style, the West rapidly ex- global scientific leadership from the falpanded its skills in the development
tering hands of Islam. It would be as
of power machinery,
absurd to deny the profound originality
devices, and automation. Those who
of Newton, Galileo, or Copernicus as
doubt should contemplate that most
to deny that of the 14th century scbomonumental achievement in the history lastic scientists like Buridan or Oresme
of automation: the weight-driven me- on whose work they built. Before the
11th century, science scarcely existed
chanical clock, which appeared in two
in the Latin West, even in Roman
forms in the early 14th century. Not
in craftsmanship but in basic techano- times. From the 11th century onward,
logical capacity, the Latin West of the the scientific sector of Occidental cullater Middle Ages far outstripped its ture has increased in a steady crescendo.
elaborate, sophisticated, and esthetically magnificent sister cultures, BySince both our technological and our
zanltiumn and Islam. In 1444 a great scientific movements got their start,
Greek ecclesiastic, Bessarion, who h~ad acquired their character, and achieved
Technology and Science
world dominance in the Middle Ages, it
would seem that we cannot understand
their nature or their present impact
upon ecology without examining fundamental medieval
Medieval View of Man and Nature
Until recently, agriculture has been
the chief occupation even in “advanced” societies; hence, any change
in methods of tillage has much importance. Early plows, drawn by two
oxen, did not normally turn the sod
but merely scratched it. Thus, crossplowing was needed and fields tended
to be squarish. In the fairly light soils
and semiarid climates of the Near East
and Mediterranean, this worked well.
But such a plow was inappropriate to
the wet climate and often sticky soils
of northern Europe. By the latter part
of the 7th century after Christ, however, following obscure beginnings, certain northern peasants were using an
entirely new kind of 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. The friction of this plow
with the soil was so great that it
normally required not two but eight
oxen. It attacked the land with such
violence that cross-plowing was not
needed, and fields tended to be shaped
in long strips.
In the days of the scratch-plow,
fields were distributed generally in units
capable of supporting a single family.
Subsistence farming was the presupposition. But no peasant owned eight oxen:
to use the new and more efficient plow,
peasants pooled their oxen to form large
plow-teams, originally receiving (it
would appear) plowed strips in proportion to their contribution. Thus, distribution of land was based no longer
on the needs of a family but, rather,
on 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 northernEurope?t
This same exploitive attitude ame
pears slightly before A.D. 830 in Western illustrated’calendars. In older calen10 MARCH 1967
dars the’ months were shown as passive personifications. The new Frankish
calendars, which set the style for the
Middle Ages, are very different: they
show men coercing the world around
harvesting, chopping
trees, butchering pigs. Man and nature
are two things, and man is master.
These novelties seem to be in harmony with larger intellectual patterns.
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. To Western
eyes this is very evident in, say, India
or Ceylon. It is equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors.
The victory of Christianity over
paganism was the greatest psychic
revolution in the history of our culture. It has become fashionable today
to say that, for better or worse, we
live in “the post-Christian age.” Certainly the forms of our thinking and
language have largely ceased to be
Christian, but to my eye the substance
often remains amazingly akin to that
of the past. Our daily habits of action,
for example, are dominated by an
implicit faith in perpetual progress
which was unknown either to GrecoRoman antiquity or to the Orient. It
is rooted in, and is indefensible apart
from, Judeo-Christian teleology. 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?
While many of the world’s mythologies provide stories of creation, GrecoRoman mythology was singularly incoherent in this respect. Like Aristotle,
the intellectuals of the ancient West
denied that the visible world had had- a
beginning. Indeed, the idea of a beginning was impossible in the framework of their cyclical notion of time.
In sharp contrast, Christianity inherited
from Judaism not only a concept of
time as nonrepetitive and linear but
also a striking story of creation. By
gradual stages a loving and all-powerful God’ had created light and darkness, the heavenly boodies, the earth
and all its plants, animals, birds, and
fishes. Finally, God had created Adam
and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep
man from being lonely. Man named all
the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of
this explicitly for man’s benefit and
rule: no item in the physical creation
had any purpose save to serve man’s
purposes. And, 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. As
early as the 2nd century both Tertullian and Saint 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. Christianity,
in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions
perhaps, Zoroastrianism), 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.
At the level of the common people
this worked out in an interesting way.
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 that for animism the
Church substituted the cult of saints.
True; but the cult of saints is functionally quite different from animism.
The saint is not in natural objects; he
may have special shrines, but his citizenship is in heaven. Moreover, a saint
is entirely a man; he can be approached
in human terms. In addition to saints,
Christianity of course also had angels
and demons inherited from Judaism
and perhaps, at one remove, from
Zoroastrianism. But these were all as
mobile as the saints themselves. The
spirits in natural objects, which formerly had protected nature from man,
evaporated. Man’s effective monopoly
on spirit in -this world was confirmed,
and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.
When one speaks in such sweeping
terms, a note of caution is in order.
Christianity is a complex faith, and its berg produced startlingly sophisticated
work on the optics of the rainbow, but
consequences differ in differing contexts. What I have said may well apply they did it as a venture in religious
to the medieval West, where in fact understanding. From the 13th century
technology made spectacular advances.
onward, up to and including Leibnitz
and Newton, every major scientist, in
But the Greek East, a highly civilized
effect, explained his motivations in-relirealm of equal Christian devotion,
gious terms. Indeed, if Galileo had not
seems to have produced no marked
technol …
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