In 1967 Professor Lynn White, Jr., a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a paper he had presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, entitled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." It struck a sensitive chord, soon evoked a flurry of responses, pro and con, and started a nationwide debate over religion and ecology. Since that time scores of articles and comments have been written. Here I will try to summarize the debate.

In his paper, White states flatly that the world faces an environmental crisis of growing proportions, and he reflects that present-day proposals for action are too superficial. A more basic approach is needed: "Unless we think about fundamentals, our specific measures may produce new backlashes more serious than those they are designed to remedy."1 The present-day environmental problems arose with the 19th-century fusion of science and technology. Both are products of the Western tradition, which led in both, starting with the 13th or 14th century. The roots of the Western uniqueness are directly traceable to Christianity.

The Judeo-Christian creation story in Genesis told of a loving and all-powerful God who created the heavenly bodies, the earth, plants and animals, all out of nothing. Unlike the creation stories in many other religions, Genesis states that nature is not of the same substance as God, nor composed of God Himself. God was outside of nature, apart from it. Next God created man: "Then God said, `Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'" (Genesis 1:26, RSV). G od spoke to Adam: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (v. 28). Adam's first job was to name the animals--thus establishing his dominance over them.

The message of this passage is that God planned all of creation explicitly for man's benefit and rule; no portion of the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes. Man is clearly told that he is not part of the animal kingdom, but rather is separate and created in the image of God.

Earlier reli gions, including those in Antiquity, saw every tree, stream and hill as having its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. Before anyone dared to cut a tree or dam a brook he had to placate the spirit in charge. Nature was filled with spirits. Christianity battled pagan animism, ridding nature of its spirits and its sacredness; as Christianity triumphed, the older inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.

White states that later history introduced additional factors; for example, by the 13th century the Greek East differed from the Latin West, even though both read the same Bible. In the West, natural science gradually developed as an extension of natural theology--seeing science as a realm of further revelation. This never happened in Eastern Orthodoxy , for reasons which White does not discuss. Thus, more than the Book of Genesis is crucial to later history.

Modern Christians, neo-Christians and post-Christians in the West all share the Western attitudes toward nature--that humans are not part of the natural process, but are superior to nature, which is for human use.

There are many complications in the centuries-long historical development, partly since the Christian heritage contains diverse strands. White describes St. Francis of Assisi , calling him "the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ." Francis tried to depose humanity from its dominion over nature and to set up a democracy of all God's creatures, a heresy, punishable by death. In today's ecological crisis Francis' views are badly needed, and White closes his speech by proposing Francis "as a patron saint for ecologists."


Dissenting views were soon put forth. I will discuss four main types. First, critics asked if it is empirically true that Judeo-Chr istian people have despoiled the earth more than anyone else. After all, environmental damage has occurred in specific places since the beginning of recorded times. The Greeks cleared forests off the hills to get timber; the Egyptians totally changed the Nile Valley from swampland to high-intensity cropland: neither was influenced by the Judeo-Christian teachings.2

In a later article White responded by clarifying his contention about the uniqueness of Latin Christianity. In contrast to medieval Greeks, the Latins affirmed technology as God-given and helpful to Christian spirituality. Whereas the Greek church disallowed the new technology in religious rituals, the Latins embraced it--for example, by including the new mechanical clocks and pipe organs in their churches.3 And Latin Christianity generally encouraged new technology. White states:

Men commit their lives to what they consider good. Because Western Christianity developed strong moral approval of technological innovation, more men of talent in the West put more resources, energy and imagination into the advancement of technology than was the case among Greek Christians, or indeed in any other society, including the Chinese. The result was an unprecedented technological dynamism (p. 60).

This is a shorthand analysis of a complex problem, and White does not claim to have done a thorough job. He simply asserts that the modern West had greater dynamism unconstrained by concerns for nature than had any other culture, hence the West stands in the first place as a despoiler of nature. This implies that modern technology permits faster and greater damage per year than was possible earlier, hence even if Western man's doctrines of nature were the same, he possessed the tools to wreak more havoc more quickly. Thus the growth of technology is itself distinguishable as a factor, apart from the Judeo-Christian teachings about dominion over nature.

Second, there are visible variations across time and place in Western history as regards the rate of environmental degradation. The last two centuries have seen the worst, due to more powerful technology and wider private ownership of the means of production--especially private ownership of land. Also, in the United States, attitudes toward the wilderness were somewhat unique. The vastness of the American wilderness caused the belief that it was endless and inexhaustible, also that it stood in the way of human progress and needed to be "tamed." Thus for years no one felt doubts when they cut down thousands of trees to create cropland or killed off large herds of wild animals for no good reason. The movement for conservation of natural resources in the United States came only after about 1890, when the American frontier had largely disappeared and the myth of endless wilderness was no longer tenable. In short, specific attitudes toward nature depend on short-term and local factors which could easily outweigh the Old Testament in their practical effects on behavior. The Book of Genesis, 3000 years old and common to all of Western civilization, cannot explain variations in behavior toward nature within Western civilization.

Third, envi ronmental degradation has been seen as a by-product of wealt h. In this view, poor people demand less of their environment and they can do it less harm. The Western nations, because of their high standards of living, do the most damage--even independent of their worldviews. If non-Judeo-Christian nations were as wealthy, they would be just as bad. In fact, today's technology and life-styles are being borrowed from nation to nation irrespective of underlying views about God, man and nature. "Thus, all Wh ite can defensibly argue is that the West developed modern science and technology first. This says nothing about the origin or existence of a particular ethic toward our environment."4 According to Jean M ayer, a food scientist:

It might be bad in C hina with 700 million poor people, but 700 million rich Chinese would wreck China in no time. . . . It's the rich who wreck the environment, occupy more space, consume more of each natural resource, disturb ecology more, litter the landscape . . . and create more pollution.5

The fourth response to White is more theological. Biblical scholars have investigated the Genesis account and its Old Testament context. They have argued that Genesis has more than one doctrine of man and nature, and if one includes the totality of the Old Testament there is still more diversity. These scholars have not asserted that the principal worldview motivating Judeo-Christian life has been different from the one White emphasizes; there is seemingly no strong argument possible to charge that White distorted history. Rather, these writers have made a the ological argument that the tradition offers resources for another approach to nature now, and in the future Jews and Christians will be able to draw from the less-utilized Biblical resources in fashioning a different life ethic--one just as true to the tradition.

Let us scrutinize the crucial passages. In Genesis 1:28, God told Adam to "subdue" the earth and to "rule" over the fish, birds, and animals. Some have wondered if the translation into English had hardened these verbs from the Hebrew original, but this does not seem to be the case. The Hebrew words (ka bash and r adah) are stronger, if anything. Kabash is drawn from a Hebrew word meaning to tread down or bring into bondage, and conveys the image of a conqueror placing his foot on the neck of the conquered; in one passage the word even means "rape." The other verb, radah, comes from a word meaning to trample or to prevail against and conveys the image of one treading grapes in a winepress. These words express superiority in the strongest terms.6 So the fault does not lie in the translation.

A complication arises in Genesis 2, which has a second creation story awkwardly placed next to that in Genesis 1, and usually conflated with it. Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a is from the "Priestly" or P tradition; the other interpretation of the creation study, from the "Jahweh" or J tradition, begins in Chapter 2, verse 4b. In the second story there is no schedule of creation into six days, and there is no mention of man's being in the image of God . Rather, there is a description of the Garden of Ed en and the act of God putting Adam into the garden "to till it and keep it" (v. 15). Here the Hebrew verbs are abad and shamar. The former is often translated "till" or "work" or "serve." S hamar is variously translated "keep," "watch," or "preserve." Here Adam is commissioned to be a gardener to tend and preserve the garden.7

The Genesis text makes no attempt to reconcile these differing charges given by God to Adam. There is no explanation of the difference in the directives they contain. Scholars agree that Genesis was pieced together from smaller pieces of oral tradition, and here two pieces are juxtaposed which do not happen to agree very well. One cannot conclude that God's will was a kind of "average" of the two commissions, or some sort of sophisticated combination which linked the two to produce a unique meaning.

The second directive of God--that Adam was supposed to till the garden and keep it--has the additional difficulty that Adam was later expelled from the garden due to his disobedience. "Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken" (3:22) (referring to Adam's having been created out of dust). God also cursed the ground and told Adam that it would bring forth thorns and thistles, so that raising food would be difficult for him. Therefore the task of Ad am is still to till the ground, but no longer is it to nurture and preserve a beautiful garden.

The argument is made by some theologians today that humans were indeed to be stew ards of the earth, just as God told Adam to be a steward of the garden. In biblical times the role of a steward was to manage the estate for pr ofit while also ensuring its long-term viability. Short-term desires for profit were tempered by the need for long-term survival. That Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden did not change their charge--their job was still to till the soil and (by implication) to preserve it. Thus several theologians have developed theologies of stewardship of the earth as correctives to the overly domination-oriented theology of the past.8

These understandings of nature are from the Old Testament. The New Testament, by contrast, has little to say about the natural environment. Its concerns are elsewhere, and the scattered fragments on nature or land do not add up to much. Thus there is little reason for distinguishing Judaism from Christianity in terms of teachings about the earth.

It is also interesting that several scholars have wondered if the modern Marxist societies have different views toward nature than the Western Christian nations. The prevailing view is that no difference exists, because M arx said little about nature and took over directly the bourgeoi s assumptions about nature found in Germany, France and England at his time.


The Christianity-ecology debate stems from practical concerns, not scholarly curiosity. It is an urgent problem due to the threatening environmental situation of the world. For this reason the ties with earlier scholarly debates are not emphasized. Yet this debate is clearly an outgrowth of the debate over Prote stantism and the rise of cap italism stimulated by Max We ber's book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.9 Weber asserted that the Cal vinistic portion of the Reformation spawned a religious psychology which strongly encouraged capitalistic business enterprise, and this is important in understanding the rise of capitalist culture in England and the U.S.A. Dozens of books have been written pro and con, and no closure is in sight since the thesis depends on subtle causal links not easy to estimate or verify convincingly.

One difference is that the Wh ite argument speaks of Western Christianity, not just Calvinistic Protestantism. This difference is mitigated by the work of San tmire,10 which points to the Pur itans as crucial to the development of technocracy and thus to the greatest ravage of the earth. Weber also stressed the Puritans, and other scholars have confirmed the importance of the Puritans in the rise of science and technology in England.

White stated that he had read Max Weber's work and had been influenced by it. Weber had done extensive comparative studies of religion to assess their tendencies to encourage or discourage the growth of cap italism, and had written of the "disenchantment" of nature (meaning the removal of sacredness from natural objects) by the Hebrew prophets battling local gods in favor of Jahweh as a God of the covenant. White stated a conclusion arrived at earlier by Weber--that when historians look for underlying causation in the development of entire societies they are ultimately driven to the underlying assumptions of religion. White's views are similar to Weber's.

A second parallel is the subtlety of the historical connection. Weber stated that the link between religion and economic life was not in the direct religious teachings about work but in the psychological motivations produced directly or indirectly by the religious worldview. Exegesis of religious texts alone is not enough; information is needed on how the texts encourage or discourage different behaviors by the adherents. Also Weber stated that once capitalism was fully developed it took on a dynamic of its own and no longer depended on religious underpinnings. Modern capitalists, he asserted, are often non-religious but motivated by baser motives of desire for wealth or even a sense of sport. Wh ite hinted that the same may be true of technology, that today it is borrowed wholesale from society to society, and that its effects may be equally bad regardless of the religion of the society in which it does its damage.

A third parallel is the pessimism of Web er and Wh ite. Weber did not glory in the rise of Western capit alism, but rather saw it as dehumanizing and even out of control. He did not expect it to produce a new heaven and new earth; rather, it has produced an "iron cage" which imprisons the human spirit and demands asceticism and compulsive work from anyone wishing to compete. White is also pessimistic, saying that Western culture is out of control and that pollution cannot be stopped, even though we all know it is killing us.


I have found five empirical studies testing these theories, and I will report their findings briefly. First, We igel surveyed citizens in a New England town and found the environmentally conscious persons to be younger, more educated, higher in social class, and less religious--measured by church involvement and belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.11 Second, Han d and Van Liere (in the most extensive and convincing study) carried out a mail survey of a random sample of the population of Washington state.12 The survey asked various questions about pollution control, population control and conservation. It found that non-Christians (mainly those saying "no belief in God," "agnostic," or "atheist") were more supportive of environmental protection than all the Christians; the least supportive were Baptists, Mormons and conservative Christian sects. In all the groups greater frequency of church attendance was associated with a mastery-over-nature viewpoint.

Third, Rh odes analyzed a nationwide survey done repeatedly between 1974 and 1983, asking if the U.S. government is spending enough money on (among other things) protection of the environment.13 He found that persons without a relig ious preference were the most supportive of more government spending to protect the environment; liberal or mainline Christians were somewhat less supportive, and fundamentalists were the least. In addition, age was a strong predictor, with young people more supportive of environmental protection than older people. Education, church attendance, and region were weaker predictors. A high level of education, a low rate of church attendance, and residence in the Northeast were associated with more support for environmental protection.

Fourth, S haiko analyzed a survey of members of five American environmental groups and found them much less religiously involved than the overall population.14 Whereas 6% of the total American population say they have no religious preference, 42% of these members of environmental groups said this. The survey included questions asking about agreement or disagreement with a mastery-over-nature orientation toward the environment. Groups with greatest disagreement were the Jews and the no-preference people. Those with greatest agreement were the Catholics, followed by the Protestants. This study has a built-in limitation in that it included only members of major environmental groups, hence comparisons of subgroups within it must be accepted cautiously.

Fifth, Ec kberg and Blo cker made a survey of the Tulsa, Oklahoma area in which they asked about four different environmental concerns. They found that non-Judeo-Christians in the sample had more environmental concerns than Judeo-Christians; the non-Judeo-Christians were mostly secularists. Also beliefs about the Bible predicted environmental concerns, in that believers in Biblical liberalism had lower levels of concern.15 The strongest predictors of environmental beliefs were not religion, however; they were higher level of education and younger age.

In summary, all existing empirical research generally supports the W hite thesis. But the research has limitations. The most credible test of the White thesis would compare Christians with non-Christians today; for example, a good study would compare Christians from diverse denominations, J ews, Mu slims, H indus, Bud dhists, devotees of tribal religions such as those of American Indians, and secularists. The research should look at both general and specific environmental attitudes, and it should study people's attitudes toward Biblical teachings while controlling other possible sources of bias. Yet the existing research has been unable to do this, so we have only subgroup comparisons within American society, a society which is strongly informed by the Biblical worldview.

The research studies provide only indirect tests of White's thesis, and they leave crucial questions unanswered. For example, the Hand-Van Liere study found that non-Christians were more supportive of the environment, but we lack information on exactly who these people are and why they are different. Are these persons influenced by Eastern religions, or are they former Christians turned agnostic, or what? If they have turned away from Christianity, why?

What causes the relatively stronger mastery-over-nature attitudes in today's conservative Christian denominations? Surely more than the Genesis text is behind the variations in views found by the researchers, since Genesis is common to all Christians and Jews, and it cannot explain variations between Christians and Jews or variations among Christian denominations. Probably factors such as medieval theology are of only minor importance, since medieval thought is common to all Christians (even though rejected by some during the Reformation). The factors most likely to have caused the divergences in American attitudes are teachings in specific denominations in the last century or two. Apparently the mastery-over-nature view is associated with a literal interpretation of the Bible and an eschatological vision of history, while the stewardship-of-nature view is associated with a more scientifically-informed worldview, internationalism, and a longer view of history.


No one disputes that the ecological crisis is upon us. Also no one disputes that a religious factor is somehow involved. The dispute is mainly over what kind of factor it is, how strong it is and where it occurs.

The argument that the Old Testament tradition is diverse seems to me beyond doubt. There are more elements in the tradition than Wh ite points to, and possibly they can sustain the fashioning of a more responsible ethic. This would appear to be a hopeful endeavor, since it would clarify the issues for the benefit of Christians today and make their views more articulate and informed. An ethic of stewardship rather than domination can, I believe, be fashioned. At the theological level, this is an important agenda.

At the sociological level, empirical research is needed to assess if specific religious factors played an important role or failed to play any role in actual behaviors of Christian persons in recent times. Empirical studies may help clarify the theological task.

The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C.


1. Lynn Wh ite, Jr. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Science, 155 (1967), 1203-1207. Quote on p. 1204.

2. Lewis W. Mon crief, "The Cultural Basis of Our Environmental Crisis," in Western Man and Environmental Ethics, ed. Ian G. Ba rbour (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1973), pp. 31-42. Rene Dub os, "A Theology of Earth," in Barbour, ibid., pp. 43-54.

3. Lynn White, Jr., "Continuing the Conversation," in Western Man and Environmental Ethics, ed. Ian G. Barbour, pp. 55-65, especially p. 59.

4. Moncrief, op. cit., p. 40.

5. Cited in ibid., p. 41.

6. Loren Wilk inson, ed., Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 209.

7. Ibid., p. 209. Also see Richard H. Hi ers, "Ecology, Biblical Theology, and Methodology: Biblical Perspectives on the Environment," Zygon, 19 (1984), 43-59.

8. E.g., Gabried Fac kre, "Ecology and Theology" in Ian G. Barbour, ed., op. cit., pp. 116-131; Robert L. Shi nn, "Science and Ethical Decision: Some New Issues; Earth Might Be Fair, ed. Ian G. Barbour (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), pp. 123-45.

9. Max We ber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribners, [1905]1958)

10. H. Paul Sant mire, "Historical Dimensions of the American Crisis," Western Man and Environmental Ethics, ed. Ian G. Bar bour, pp. 66-92.

11.Russell H. We lgel, "Ideological and Demographic Correlates of Proecology Behavior," Journal of Social Psychology, 103 (1977), 39-47.

12. Carl M. H and and Kent D. Van Liere, "Religion, Mastery-Over-Nature, and Environmental Concern," Social Forces, 63 (1984), 555-70.

13. A. Lewis Rh odes, "Religion and Environmental Concern." Unpublished paper presented to the Society for the Study of Social Problems, 1985.

14. Ronald G. S haiko, "Religion, Politics, and Environmental Concern: A Powerful Mix of Passions," Social Science Quarterly, 68 (1987), 244-62.

15. Douglas Lee Ec kberg and T. Jean Blo cker, "Varieties of Religious Involvement and Environmental Concerns: Elucidating and Testing the Lynn Wh ite Thesis." Unpublished paper, Winthrop College, SC, 1989.