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The American West as Judeo-Christian Artifact

Storm over the Madison Range, Montana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I.

It is fair to say that most people in the modern world regard nature as a collection of “resources” that exist solely for our aggrandizement. Even the foremost putative “progressives” now on the national stage (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, et al.) argue that we should continue to exploit resources to keep the capitalist growth machine humming, but that we must do it more gently, more ”sustainably,” with more intensive application of advanced technology, with “green” production of energy from wind, solar, hydro, and the like.

The central problem of our time, I’ve come to conclude, is that humanity now consists predominantly of “resourcists” — which is to say, humanists. I mean humanists in the ugliest and most benighted sense of that word: that man is the center and measure of all things, and all other life is subordinate, reduced to a resource.

Too much of Earth, as we know, has been subjugated by techno-industrial Homo sapiens, and that we regard this collectively not with the horror it merits is a testament to our complacent self-regard as vaunted humanists. Maybe in this late hour of modernity, when our dominance is leading to suicide via capitalogenic climate upheaval, it is time to imbibe a dose of anti-humanism.

Toward that end, I would suggest a strenuous interrogation of the anthropocentric principles at the core of Western civilization, which is fundamentally a Judeo-Christian civilization. This sounds like an odd place to start for the establishment of a truly progressive view of the natural world. Bear with me.

In 1966, a professor of medieval history named Lynn White Jr., attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, presented a lecture that would go on to live in infamy. Later published in Science, it was titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Ending the ecological crisis was White’s primary concern. White singled out Judeo-Christian religion as the historical villain, calling it “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”

He argued that the Judeo-Christian conception of a planet made solely for man’s exploitation, as laid out in the book of Genesis, freed humankind to lay waste to the environment. The message of Judeo-Christianity is that man alone is infused with the spirit of the one true God while everything else is soulless matter relegated to human use.

Pause a moment to recall the words of Genesis:

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

It was this worldview, White argued, that replaced pagan animism, with profound consequences. In pagan animism, “every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit,” wrote White. “Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” With this disenchantment “man’s effective monopoly on spirit [was] confirmed” — and the inhibitions that held back the total pillage of the natural world crumbled.

Then White made a fascinating leap:

The present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which [originated] in the Western medieval world [and which] cannot be understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma. The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as Christian is irrelevant. No new set of basic values has been accepted in our society to displace those of Christianity. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.

This was the claim which earned him infamy: that the ideology of techno-scientific humanism, forged in the crucible of the European Middle Ages and bequeathed to the world by Western civilization — an ideology that now holds sway over every corner of the planet — grew directly out of Judeo-Christian values. Humanism was the secular realization “of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature.”

II.

The subject of This Land, my first book, is the American West, a region that can be understood in part as a Judeo-Christian artifact, as a province whose native people and wildlife have been colonized by a civilization that regards nature, and will never regard it otherwise, as an object to be exploited. Dig beneath the skin of the livestock rancher, the oilman, the coal miner, the logger, the wildlife manager, the Chamber of Commerce official, the tourism booster — you’ll find a dominionist.

The killing of wild predators to protect cattle, the damming of wild rivers for hydro energy and irrigation to feed industrial agriculture, the logging of forests for what the timber industry calls “sustained yield,” the landscape-scale fracking of the public domain, the management of national parks as zoos for mass visitation: they are all expressions of the same urge to use and control, with wild nature as an afterthought, subsidiary to the all-encompassing vision of resourcism.

It’s always about use — and that’s the problem. That’s where we are intellectually defective, unable to grasp what’s at hand, unable to forge a humble, reverent, altruistic relationship with the natural world. Even among those who claim to be environmentalists I see a secularized variant of this same toxic Judeo-Christian anthropocentrism that views the natural world as providing, for example, “ecosystem services” — clean air, clean water. A resource!

But what about the natural world that doesn’t provide any resource for the chosen ones? What about the rich tapestry of useless lovely wild things whose vast intelligence we will never know? Unveiling and celebrating the wild that serves no human end is the unspoken purpose of my book.

A version of this article originally appeared on Powells.com

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Christopher Ketcham is the author of  “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West” (Viking-Penguin).  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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