Because his article is more often referenced than read, many have missed the subtleties of his argument. White argued that ecological problems grew directly out of the Western world's marriage between science and technology, a marriage that gave birth to power machinery, labor-saving devices, and automation. That is the first point. However, the intellectual origins of this transformation, he said, actually predate both the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century and the scientific revolution of the seventeenth.
It was the Middle Ages, he argued-and, specifically, the medieval view of "man and nature" that brought a decisive shift in attitude: people no longer thought of themselves as part of nature but as having dominion over nature. According to White, this ruthless attitude toward nature later joined forces with a new technology to wreak environmental havoc.
White ultimately traced this exploitative attitude to the triumph of Christianity over paganism-what he called "the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture." Christianity, he insisted, told people that humans had a right to dominate nature, and it was therefore "the most anthropocentric religion in the world." All this contrasted with earlier religious traditions in which every tree, spring, and stream had its own guardian spirit. By eliminating animism, he wrote, "Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference."
White's assessment was more complex than this resume might suggest. He recognized that Western Christianity encompassed a variety of distinctive theological traditions, some of whichnotably that of Saint Francis of Assisi-were quite reverential toward the created order. Nevertheless, he explicitly insisted that, insofar as Christianity undergirded both science and technology in the West, it bore "a huge burden of guilt" for a natural world now seeing increasing degradation.
Since the appearance of White's article, the idea of blaming Christians for the environmental crisis has attracted a wide range of committed defenders. Max Nicholson, for 14 years director-general of the Nature Conservancy in Great Britain, for instance, insisted that organized religion in general and Christianity in particular were ecologically culpable because they taught "man's unqualified right of dominance over nature."
Historian Arnold Toynbee found in biblical monotheism the mainsprings of "Man's improvidence" toward the natural order. To him, the only solution was to revert to pantheism. Similarly, educator and regional planner Ian McHarg claimed that Judeo-Christian theology produced "the tacit Western posture of man versus nature" by asserting "outrageously the separateness and dominance of man over nature."
The prosecution falters
The arguments of White and his defenders have also been widely criticized, of course. There is much about their position that is questionable. In 1970, historian Lewis Moncrief expressed misgivings about looking for single causes for the environmental crisis. Instead of pinning blame for environmental recklessness on Judeo-Christian dogma, he argued for the significance of a range of cultural factors. Two were especially prominent: democratization in the wake of the French Revolution and, in the American context, the frontier experience. On the one hand, such developments led to affluence, changed production and consumption patterns, and problems of waste disposal. On the other hand, the absence of a public and private environmental morality, the inability of social institutions to adjust to the ecological crisis, and an abiding-if misplaced-faith in technology were the ultimate fruits of America's frontier experience.