I have mentioned Lynn Townsend White several times in this blog without, I am sorry to say, having read his 1966 article (see comments re Buddhism and re Christianity). It is available online and I recommend it The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis Lynn White, Jr. As a historian, he is in the same league as Lewis Mumford and Sigfried Giedion but is field of view is wider, because he is a historian of ideas with an interest in the environment, rather than the other way about. Here is the famous passage from White’s paper, in bold, with the sentences which precede dnd follow it in italics:
To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.
What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship. More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one. The beatniks, who are the basic revolutionaries of our t ime, show a sound instinct in their affinity for Zen Buddhism, which conceives of the man-nature relationship as very nearly the mirror image of the Christian view. Zen, however, is as deeply conditioned by Asian history as Christianity is by the experience of the West, and I am dubious of its viability among us.
Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi. The prime miracle of Saint Francis is the fact that he did not end at the stake, as many of his left-wing followers did. He was so clearly heretical that a General of the Franciscan Order, Saint Bonavlentura, a great and perceptive Christian, tried to suppress the early accounts of Franciscanism. The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility–not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.
With this in mind, it is heartening that the new Pope has taken the name Francis. Pope Francis and St Francis of Assisi are the best hopes for Environmental Christianity – and possibly for the world environment. If Lynn White is correct that Christian beliefs underlie the attitude to the environment of Post-Christians and Non-Christians around the world, then a re-orientation of Christianity around St Francis could contribute much to ‘saving the planet’. Let’s hope this will include a new attitude to birth control. If the catholic church does not want to use modern technology for this purpose then, as in old Tibet, it could be done by having a very large population of non-breeding monks and nuns. Like St Francis, they could love animals. White went on to write that
Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature
may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.