This is an article I wrote after Hurricane Katrina, but ended up not using. It begins with a quotation from the natural theologian John Ray, written in 1692:
If a country thus planted and adorned, thus polished and civilized, thus improved to the Height by all Manner of Culture for the Support and Sustenance, and convenient Entertainment of innumerable Multitudes of People, be not to be preferred before… a rude and unpolished America peopled with slothful and naked Indians, instead of well-built houses, living in pitiful Huts, and Cabbins, made of Poles set endways; then surely the brute Beasts Condition, and Manner of Living, to which, what we have mentioned doth nearly approach, is to be estimated better than Man’s, and wit and reason was in vain bestowed on him.
After Hurricane Katrina, one wonders whether the ‘slothful and naked Indians’ might have understood their environment better. The same point applies more generally to natural disasters.
Ray was not alone in assuming that what was normal in his society was ‘natural’, and therefore God-given. It is a common difficulty for those of us who have spent our lives within a dominant culture to appreciate that many of our values, far from being ‘natural’ or common sense, are socially learned.
Katrina, like the Boxing Day tsunami, was probably worse because of global warming; and so perhaps were the recent storms. Global warming is not the only environmental threat: extinction of species, destruction of habitats and pollution are all reducing the resources available for future life. We need to reassess our attitudes to the natural environment, and to do so we shall need to draw on religious values.
In pre-modern times most societies learned to respect the limitations of their natural environment. If they did not - like the inhabitants of Easter Island who cut down all their trees - they suffered. Usually, social and moral norms were developed to take local environmental constraints into account. Many societies, for example, knew the maximum population which the land could support and took steps not to exceed it. These norms usually derived their authority by being set within stories about the gods. By explaining who made us, for what purpose, and within what limitations, each tradition provided an account of how we should behave.
All this seems alien to the modern mind. The dominant western attitude to the natural environment is instrumental; it is there to be used, for the benefit of humanity. If it doesn’t do what we want, we tell ourselves that we need more technology until it does. Yet environmental philosophers have shown how this instrumental, anthropocentric attitude also has mythological roots.
The Black Death generated negative attitudes to the physical environment. For a few centuries forests were perceived as full of danger, demons abounded, witches performed magic. During the seventeenth century this fear of nature was replaced by the mechanistic paradigm: the world functioned like a clock, every atom obeying laws of nature which humanity would be able to observe, understand and manipulate.
Francis Bacon best exemplifies the transition. Bacon attributed the decadence of nature to the Fall in Genesis. He argued that God gave us science and technology for the purpose of restoring the world to its original state before Adam sinned, and he saw science and technology as the means. (It is an ironic thought, if the Garden of Eden really was the Iraqi marshlands!) He used aggressive language; we should torture nature and rape her, to force her to reveal her secrets. The strength of the language reveals the determination to control nature instead of being controlled by it.
This, of course, is myth, myth with an agenda. Since Bacon’s time, secularization has retained the determination to control nature with technology; but by stripping away the religious elements they changed the picture in two ways. Firstly, the physical environment is seen not as given by God, and therefore to be used as God commands, but as just there, the result of physical laws and evolution, purposeless except for the purposes humans assign to it. Secondly, the idea of returning to an original state before the Fall has been replaced by a notion of unlimited progress, never-ending scientific and technological development for its own sake. Getting away from nature comes to be seen as a virtue in its own right.
Thus our secular society is just as shaped by myth as its predecessors. The most distinctive feature of our modern myth is precisely that it leaves God out. If there are no intending, purposive minds other than human ones, human life and our physical environment have no purposes other than the purposes humans give them. If it is up to us to decide what value to give to our surroundings, we inevitably end up with manipulative, invasive programmes dedicated to short-term human self-indulgence. If our supreme values are new knowledge, new technology and ever-increasing production and consumption, it is not surprising that we are pushing nature to its limits.
Environmental philosophers therefore argue that we need a new worldview, a new account of the universe and the proper place of humans within it. The new worldview will need to re-establish the principle that nature provides limits to what we may do, and we transgress them at our peril. We need to accept many limits as given, and learn to live within them.
But - given by whom? It is difficult to make sense of this notion unless it is accompanied by the idea of an intending, purposing mind with authority over us, a mind which affirms those limits as proper for us. Otherwise we shall only interpret the limits as tragedy, and carry on trying to overcome them. Such an intending, purposing mind is precisely what religious faith offers.
One reason for the widespread resistance to the demands of environmental respect is that they can seem so extreme. If the only alternative to global warming is to go back to the lifestyles of the ‘slothful and naked Indians’, many of us would settle for global warming. Is there not a middle way? Is there not a proper role for human technology?
Although this is only a minor theme of the biblical tradition, it appears often enough. God has given us an environment which is not just good for us, but also provides resources we can use creatively. The affirmation of creativity - and therefore technology - is reaffirmed by Christians at the Eucharist as we turn wheat and grapes into bread and wine and expect God to be pleased with what we have done.
Within the Christian tradition we therefore have the essential tools for understanding how to respond to our present predicament: the fundamental goodness of the natural environment, as given - intentionally - for our well-being; and a place within that goodness for respectful creativity, but not any creativity.
What we should oppose, therefore, is not technology as such, but the cult of technology-as-control-of-nature, and its corollary - a mainsteam view in economics - that nature unaltered by humans has no value. This is the perspective from which we need to distinguish which elements of our highly artificial lifestyles can be retained, and which need to be adapted or abandoned.