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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

Portrait of Lynn White

Portrait of Lynn White

Lynn White

Christianity and Environmentalism

Michael Turgeon was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

By the mid 20th century in America, environmentalism had progressed under two discordant philosophies, preservation (protecting nature for nature’s sake) and conservation (protecting nature for human purposes), which are best represented, respectively, by spiritual naturalist John Muir and pragmatic president Teddy Roosevelt. By the year 1966, the National Park Service had greatly expanded and conservation of our wild places had political support. However, the nation still remembered the repercussions of unrestrained agriculture from the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, and Rachel Carson stirred new controversy over nuclear testing and careless chemical use in Silent Spring. Despite the expanse of national conservation programs, the sentiment only seemed to apply to tourist attractions. Decades after Muir’s death, the stage was finally set for preservation, instead of conservation, to take root. Enter UCLA professor Lynn White, and his immensely influential paper “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.”

In this seminal work, White reviewed the development of science and technology over the last few millennia and identified medieval Europe as the genesis of profound societal changes that laid the framework both for our modern industrialized world and our alarming ecological crisis [1]. One specific influential element White identifies is the revolutionization of farming technology; when farmers had access to plows that relied on many oxen and could harvest crops with unbridled efficiency, they soon began to pool together resources and till much more expansive plots of land. The days of subsistence farming, where each farmer only had enough land and resources to provide for their own family but not much more, were over. Farmers no longer lived in harmony with the land, but now had the tools to exploit it beyond their personal needs. Similar advancements in fields such as construction, water use, and machinery made lives easier, but disrupted the delicate ecological balance humans had lived in for millennia. White points out that (primarily Western) society never heeded the ecological ramifications of its expansion, and the results are being felt stronger than ever in the modern world. Synthesizing his historical analysis, White’s thesis is this: the reason why the West has so carelessly abused the natural world is because of its grounding in traditional Judeo-Christian values. God made man in his own image and gave him dominion over the Earth; nature has no value apart from what it provides us, and thus we are free to exploit it without consequence.

At the time, White’s thesis was shocking, controversial, and perhaps a bit unexpected considering this man was not known as an environmentalist. In fact, above all else, White was a historian of medieval technology, and had been dedicated to that area of study since his first undergraduate year at Stanford [2]. Even as a child riding a horse, White was intrigued more by the technological origin of the stirrup than the biological origin of the horse [5]. In academia, his thorough research and numerous publications in his field informed the world about medieval technology and the Western cultural context that lead to such advancements, and so it is rather odd that perhaps his most famous work addressed the field of ecology. However, it is precisely White’s background that makes his argument so effective, as few were better equipped to ascribe modern environmental woes to their deep historical roots.

White’s position on the matter is also intriguing because he himself was a practicing Christian. His father was a professor of Presbyterian Christian ethics, and he carried the faith with him throughout his life [2]. One can admire White’s bold dedication to objectivity, as the historical evidence led him to believe his own religion was at fault for the rapid destruction of nature worldwide, and he did not shy away from or try to rationalize his thesis. Instead, not only did White stick to his environmentalist message, but he also championed other progressive causes. Worried that the preparations for global war would try to snuff out the liberal arts he loved so much, he became president of all-female Mills College, and became a prominent national voice for small colleges, education rich in the humanities, and women’s rights [2]. Perhaps his bold environmentalism was actually not out of character.

Even though White should be noted for his dedication to progressive causes, he perhaps makes the historical origins of anthropocentrism and environmental exploitation seem more straightforward than they actually are. While in his landmark paper he does acknowledge the environmentally sensitive philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi, he also emphasizes how Francis’s message was stifled in the Church and White fails to acknowledge the many Christian environmentalists that have come since Francis. An obvious example would be naturalist John Muir; his preservationist attitudes and actions to protect our wild places were steeped in Christian spirituality, as he believed God revealed himself through the pristine natural environments he loved so much. Muir was instrumental in the foundation of the National Park Service as well as many other victories of conservation, and for him, Christianity played deeply into his motivations. Furthermore, when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013, any notion that the teachings of St. Francis have been ignored and forgotten was quickly dispelled. In his encyclical Laudato si, Pope Francis provides an ecological call to action, arguing that, although humankind is created in God’s image and granted dominion over creation, we are still called to a familial relationship with the world God created. In other words, from a Christian perspective preservationism can make perfect sense.

White would certainly be encouraged by Pope Francis’s words, and many would perhaps argue that these words were inspired by White himself, but in reality the words of the Pope do not necessarily reflect the actions of individual Christians in the world. A comprehensive literature review from 2016 suggests that, while White’s words have taken hold to an extent and perhaps Christianity has gotten “greener” over the last few decades, making generalizations about the whole of this expansive religion is a dubious exercise [3]. In fact, despite numerous attempts, sociologists have been largely unable to establish any distinct correlation between most religions and environmental concern [4]. In light of this research, then, it might not be wise to invest in White’s conclusion that, since our ecological crisis is a consequence of religion, its resolution should come from religion as well. Instead, we should acknowledge White’s influence and admire his concern, but move beyond his generalizations and avoid placing the burden of restoration on specific groups. Environmental attitudes are rooted in a heterogeneous cultures, religions, ideologies, and motivations, and no matter the justification, restoring and protecting the environment is above all a human responsibility.


[1] White, Lynn. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." Science 155.3767 (1967): 1203-207.

[2] Hall, Bert S. "Lynn Townsend White, jr. (1907-1987)." (1989): 194-213.

[3]. Taylor, Bron, Gretel Van Wieren, and Bernard Zaleha. "The Greening of Religion Hypothesis (Part Two): Assessing the Data from Lynn White, Jr, to Pope Francis." Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 10.3 (2016): 306-78.

[4] Whitney, Elspeth. "Lynn White Jr.'s ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis’ After 50 Years." History Compass 13.8 (2015): 396-410. 

[5] White, Lynn Jr. Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, introduction.