Volume 31, Issue 1, Spring 2009
Social History, Religion, and Technology
An Interdisciplinary Investigation into Lynn White’s “Roots”
An interdisciplinary reappraisal of Lynn White, Jr.’s “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” reopens several issues, including the suggestion by Peter Harrison that White’s thesis was historical and that it is a mistake to regard it as theological. It also facilitates a comparison between “Roots” and White’s earlier book Medieval Technology and Social Change. In “Roots,” White discarded or de-emphasized numerous qualifications and nuances present in his earlier work so as to heighten the effect of certain rhetorical aphorisms and to generalize their scope and bearing well beyond what the evidence could bear. The meaning of Genesis and other biblical books proves to be just as important in White’s thesis as their historical reception. In “Roots,” White presents, alongside other contentions, the claims that Christian doctrines have all along been both anthropocentric and despotic, especially in the West, and that this is where the real roots of the problems are to be found. These claims, however, conflict with most of the relevant evidence. An adequate reappraisal of White’s work needs to recognize that there is a cultural determinism parallel to the technological determinisms alleged by R. H. Hilton and P. H. Sawyer, to endorse Elspeth Whitney’s “single-cause” critique of links between religion and technological change in the Middle Ages, and to treat sympathetically Whitney’s claim that White and some of his eco-theological critics (despite their disagreements) have in common both their valorizing of individual beliefs and values and their neglect of economic and institutional factors. Nevertheless, our ecological problems need to be understood through explanations turning on beliefs and values as well as on economics and institutions.