Michael Paul Nelson of Oregon State University, together with Thomas J. Sauer of the US Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Service, reminds us of the prescient words of Lynn White, a historian of medieval science and technology, when he delivered a lecture on the ‘Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ in March 1966 at the 133rd Annual meeting of the AAAS, in Washington DC.
White conveyed a deceptively simple yet profound message. Our current environmental crisis, he argued, is the result, not simply of our technological ability to impact and degrade the environment. Rather, our environmental crisis is first and foremost the product of our Western worldview.
That is, our problem is fundamentally philosophical or ideological: we bring our ideas about the world into existence, ideas about what humans are, what the world is, and how the human and the non-human world ought to interact. To put it simply, and in White’s words, “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them”. Until we “think about fundamentals,” “clarify our thinking,” “rethink our axioms,” White said, we will not adequately address our environmental crisis.
Though White focused his critique on our interpretation of the human/nature relationship as manifest specifically in the Judeo-Christian tradition, his point was more foundational. This was a challenging message in part because it ran so contrary to what so many believed.
If our problems are primarily philosophical, they are not primarily scientific, or technological, or political, or economic. Those societal structures are the secondary artifacts of our deeper Western worldview, they do not touch or change it, they only embody and reinforce it.
Our problems are not going to be solved, therefore, simply by the application of more science and technology. To many scientists this assertion alone was blasphemy, as they reflexively assume the starring role in problem-understanding and -solving.
Our problems are instead, White suggested, the expression of a specific Western, post-Enlightenment worldview that both draws a hard and fast boundary between humans and nature, and prioritized humans over nature at all turns. A failure to alter that worldview is a failure to address the roots of our environmental problems.
To be clear, it is not that technological innovation and scientific understanding are unimportant, not at all. A culture maintaining an appropriate relationship with nature will certainly create and evaluate beautiful and novel technologies consistent with this novel worldview. A society caring about and for the world will seek to understand the conditions of that world as a way to express their care. But without the tether of a new worldview, White agued, our technologies and sciences will simply revolve around the worldview that gave rise to our environmental crisis in the first place.
Powerful voices still seem to believe that we can leave intact the same worldview that created our environmental problems and simply tinker around the edges, working to invent new applications of technologies and politics built on new justifications, but not altering our basic belief structure. As if anticipating a future trend in a dangerous direction, White warned us repeatedly that we are not going to simply technologize our way out of our current environmental crisis. He wrote, “we shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the [Western] axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve [humans]” (1).
And there is White, telling us again and again, that though the “man-nature dualism is deep-rooted in us…[u]ntil it is eradicated not only from our minds but also from our emotions, we shall doubtless be unable to make fundamental changes in our attitudes and actions affecting ecology.”
What we need, White argued, is instead a philosophy that is “a viable equivalent to animism”, a philosophy and corresponding ethic affirming the intrinsic value of nature, and rejecting the human/nature dualism that permits hubris and anthropocentrism to emerge in the first place. White steadfastly warned us away from assuming that an enlightened prudential ethic – where we recognize that our well-being is dependent upon nature – is a suitable replacement for the new philosophy and ethics we so desperately need in the future we face.
Our old worldview created our problems, only a fool would assume a simple reapplication of that same worldview would also solve our problems.
In response to Lynn White’s devastating critique of the impact of the Christian ideology of nature at the service of man, and its translation into the scientific quest to know and conquer and convert for human use, drawing on the Cartesian dualism of man separate from nature; mind separate from body—Christian theologians like Thomas Berry began to articulate a new Christian philosophy of stewardship and the reclaiming of the sacred in our relationship to nature—a relationship that still prevails among First Nations peoples around the world. Berry declared in his writings, The Great Work, Reinventing the Human, that “the historical mission of our times is to reinvent the human – at the species level, with critical reflection, within the community of life-systems, in a time-developmental context, by means of story and shared dream experience.”
In his writings, The Sacred Universe, Berry declared that “the poets and artists can help restore this sense of rapport with the natural world. It is this renewed sense of reciprocity with nature, in all of its complexity and remarkable beauty, that can help provide the psychic and spiritual energies necessary for the work ahead.”
THIS IS THE TASK TO WHICH THE WILD MOUNTAIN COLLECTIVE DEDICATES ITS ENERGIES THROUGH ITS VARIOUS PROJECTS OF CO-CREATION.
As the ravages of the environmental misuse of the Murray-Darling river system in the name of scientific agriculture dependent on irrigation at the expense of environmental flows, combined with the increasing incidence and severity of drought across inland Australia, raging bushfires fuelled by wind and lack of rain, and devastating floods in North Queensland, Australians are beginning to wake up to the fact that our attempts to pursue our high consumption lifestyle to keep the wheels of the economy turning may well cost us our future. So while we might fret about paying our electricity bills as we turn to air condition our homes, the bigger picture of environmental collapse is not going away.