Philosopher and Scientist, Belgium
According to some authors Christianity is at the root of the ecological crisis of modern society. Critics refer to a command given by God to man as mentioned in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”. Many ecologists remind us of the history of western culture, which is characterized by a tendency to supremacy and exploitation of nature. They hold the Christian roots of western culture responsible for this misbehaviour. They also refer to the image that western man forms of himself as the ‘crown of creation’, and, as Descartes wrote, ‘master and possessor of nature’.
These reproaches are commonplace today, but aren’t they shocking? In the past - just half a century ago - the very same remarks about the position of man in nature sounded rather as an homage to mankind (in the same way as Descartes meant). Mankind dominates earth indeed, he rules over nature and uses its resources to establish civilisation and realize humane ideals. This has always been considered the necessary and essential role of humankind. Today the understanding is quite different. Mankind is considered to be no more than a part of the complex ecosystem on earth, a small branch of the tree of life, a late appearance in the evolution of life on this planet, and a disturbing one. Modern industrial man is blamed for his rampant behaviour, destroying many of the other species of the biosphere.
The protrayal of man in modern (or rather post-modern) western society has radically been downgraded, and it is, in my mind, essentially incorrect. Of course, it is true that the human species grew out of animal species and participates in a network of ecological relations. This is a scientific fact. But is also true that this species is the de facto ‘master and possessor’ of nature. According to the facts, and taking no notice of recent ideologies, the assertion of Descartes is correct and based on truth. Mankind is the prevailing force on earth, directing the events on the planet, innovating and creating new means and ways of life, and using the resources of nature to realize its own objectives. To deny these facts is pointless. What really matters is to give a meaning to them. And that is exactly what Christianity does.
Let’s first recall the facts discovered by modern science in more detail. Life on earth exists for more than three billion years. Present-day organisms are the product of a long evolution that started from relatively simple organic molecules, which have eventually led to the very complex structures of highly developed plants and animals. The mechanism of this evolutionary process was first revealed by Charles Darwin in the 19th century and later described and explained in more detail by modern neodarwinism. The determining factors are mutations and natural selections. Mutations are arbitrary changes in the genetic material of an organism. Selection is the process of elimination, operating in such a way that all mutations that are unfavourable for survival or reproduction are removed from the species whereas the favourable mutations, those that are advantageous for survival and reproduction, are allowed to flourish. Influenced by this relentless process, the biosphere has produced the many extravagant and astonishingly competent organisms that populate this planet today.
During this long process the living organisms have transformed the earth unrecognizably. They have created an environment that is no longer in physical nor in chemical equilibrium. Let’s consider for example what the plants have done. They have ‘dumped’ so much oxygen in the air that the amount of this highly corrosive gas in the atmosphere has increased from almost zero to 21 procent. As we all know, this situation has created an energy-rich mixture, which is used by animals for their respiration. On the other hand, the very same situation has led to dangerous consequences as well because a situation of organic material in an oxygen-rich atmosphere is highly inflammable. When the summer has been dry and hot, forest fires erupt spontaneously. Notwithstanding these problems - even stimulated by them - plants and animals have survived for about two billion years with ever increasing vigour. Life is characterized by the fact that it creates ways of being that evolve and maintain itself in disequilibrium, in situations that may be risky, but are full of possibilities.
This is what happens, in a more advanced stage, in the so-called Anthropocene, the era that began about 8,000 years ago and is marked by the global impact of human activities on the ecosystems on earth. Mankind creates a new kind of non-equilibrium on earth. In a human society life is not only physically and chemically far off equilibrium, as the plants and the animals are, but also biologically because man distances himself from darwinian nature. A conscious human being rejects natural selection with its merciless elimination of all who is found unfit for survival, and he substitutes it with moral values. Instead of the old ‘survival of the fittest’ and the rule of the jungle, assistance is given to the weak and the sick, social solidarity is organized, justice and responsibility are developed. In doing this, man goes against the long-standing laws of biological nature and creates a tension between human life and the old natural way of life. This is exactly wat mankind should do. The pursuit of ethical ideals, as opposed to respect for biological principles, is what defines humanity. In mankind many forms of empathy and altruism have arisen which are much more advanced than in animal species. True, this new stage in the evolution of life creates its own problems. By transgressing the laws of darwinism, mankind has left the old biological environment, where its roots are, and therefore it has to introduce on earth the tools and laws that make this new kind of life, called human culture, possible. Morality now becomes the main goal of man. The old laws based on physical power and fitness that were useful in the darwinian struggle for life, are to be abandoned and replaced by attitudes of compassion and solidarity.
Science cannot be a source for the new codes of behaviour that are now required. Scientific knowledge is based on actual facts but we have to create new facts, original ways of life which have never before existed on this planet and which have aims that go beyond biology. Religion is directed towards a transcendent reality of total goodness and should be a guiding authority.
Christian ethics proclaims a radical and unconditional love for one’s fellow-man. According to the gospel a Christian should be merciful, help the poor and the sick, and even love his enemy. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”, says Jesus. In its aims and consequences Christian ethics is radically opposed to biological nature. By being compassionate instead of merciless, forgiving instead of revengeful, a human being dissociates itself from nature and creates a more gentle and just way of life, alien to the animal kingdom.
This human way of life, guided by moral and spirital imperatives, is a new stage in the evolution of life in this planet. On a practical level, it can only be realized and sustained if life is organized in an appropriate way and equipped with the necessary means. Therefore a far-reaching adaptation of the environment is unavoidable. Houses and factories must be built, agriculture, medicine and education must be developed, energy and information must be abundant and much more. We need social structures and technological means which have never before existed. As a consequence, the terrestrial surface is undergoing a drastic and irreversible transformation.
This does not mean of course that the natural environment should be destroyed or plundered. Plants and animals have their intrinsic values which must be respected. A beautiful and healthy landscape is an irreplaceable joy for everyone. The present-day concern for the environment is therefore justified, and is in fact a part of mankind’s moral responsibiliy as the dominating species on earth. But ecology should not primarily be aimed at conservation of the old state of the biosphere. Instead it should be aimed at establishing a new and more humane way of living on this planet. Literally, ‘ecology’ means ‘science of the house’ (from the Greek ‘oikos’, house). The house that must be built is a home where human beings live in a human way. It is a house where men and women are in a position to realise their human ideals, which are formulated in a clear and uncompromising way by Christian religion.
Therefore, Christianity is not the enemy of ecology but, on the contrary, the source of it.