08/26/2010 04:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Global Warming: The Christian Solution Is Bad but the Alternatives Are No Better

As we stagger to the end of yet another record-breaking, overheated summer down here in Florida, and as yet more tar balls arrive on our beaches, I find myself thinking increasingly of global warming and its causes. The world is getting hotter and we know why. The carbon-based fuels that we use to drive ourselves and to heat ourselves and more are pouring their wastes into the atmosphere, and this means that there is a "greenhouse effect," with heat arriving from the sun but unable to escape at those earlier rates that allowed for moderate temperatures.

No one seems to know where this will all end. I recently read a book that sees Miami under ten feet of water, with people clinging to the high spots, or, if they are rich enough, fleeing to Colorado. I used to live in Canada and we joked that we were one country that would welcome global warming, but truly it will be a mixed blessing. The horrendous forest fires in Russia this summer suggest that northern countries could have their share of disasters, and this is not to take into account things like new pests now able to live in the warmer climates.

Yet we seem virtually unable individually or collectively to do anything about it. One does not have to be a genius to see that we need to cut down on our fuel use, that we could start to do this more effectively by moving to public transportation. At the same time that we need to look for alternative sources of energy and to promote them, and that already there are some obvious options. I live in Florida, for goodness' sake, where sunshine is part of our state motto, and yet if you try to find any interest in putting solar panels on the roof and at least heating the water that way, good luck!

I have been thinking about why we are in this mess, and as a historian and philosopher of science, I have been led back to UCLA medieval historian Lynn White Jr.'s classic essay of 1967, "The Historical roots of Our Ecological Crisis." He laid the source of our troubles firmly at the feet of Christianity. Simply, he argued that Christians of all kinds take seriously the early chapters of Genesis (this is true, even of those who would interpret them metaphorically), and therein lies the trouble. The message there is that animals and plants -- the world itself -- are not there for their own benefit but for the use of humans. We have "dominion" over things. Moreover, it is made clear that the world is not a user-friendly place. We must rip it apart to make a living, and we are expected to do so. Greek and Roman thought implied that we humans are part of the picture but that ultimately this is a picture without meaning or direction.

In sharp contrast, Christianity inherited from Judaism not only a concept of time as nonrepetitive and linear but also a striking story of creation. By gradual stages a loving and all-powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes. Finally, God had created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes. And, although man's body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God's image.

And so we were set on the slippery slope that leads to today's crisis. We in the West simply think that the world is there to be grabbed by us, and so we grab it. Moreover, since it was all set up by God, there is the underlying assumption that -- like the widow's cruse of oil -- it will go on indefinitely. He's not going to let down hard workers made in his image. And as far as the non-Christian rest of the world is concerned, well, they see what we are doing and simply follow suit. Like us, they want the short-term benefits and forget the long-term problems.

Expectedly, Christians were up in arms about White's thesis, and sermon after sermon was preached on the theme that "dominion" does not mean exploitation but careful tending, and that the world is not inherently something hard and difficult and hostile and hence fair game for our use if we can get it. All of this apparently is a post-Fall perspective and a result of our sin. Really the world is a jolly nice place and we should look after it.

But ultimately White did have a point, and Christians know it. The Christian story does make humans very special and the world is there for our use. The English writer Rupert Brook once wrote a delightful poem about fish and their prospects of heaven:

And under that Almighty Fin,

The littlest fish may enter in.

Oh! never fly conceals a hook,

Fish say, in the Eternal Brook ...

Truly, however, most Christians are pretty sniffy about the immortality prospects for non-humans. God died on the Cross for our salvation, not for theirs. (As one who is English-born, if heaven contains no dogs, then I am not sure I want to go. But realistically, in my case this is no big prospect under the best of circumstances.)

What is the alternative? If you give up the Christian philosophy of ecology (if we might thus characterize it), how else do you approach the non-human world and articulate our (human) relationship to it? What are our rights, and what are our obligations? In recent years, the so-called "deep ecologists" have been at the forefront of non-Christian alternatives. (I know there are others like the ecofeminists and the neo-Pagans, but I think deep ecology provides the best contrast to Christianity and other positions can be fit along the spectrum.) Followers of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naesse, deep ecologists argue that non-human things (animals, plants, the world itself) have value and rights of their own: "The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world, for human purposes."

The problem is with the fine print. What is the justification for all of this? Deep ecologists tend to be a bit fuzzy, but ultimately (and here they are joined by ecofeminists and neo-Pagans and many others) they think the world itself is an organism, probably conscious, and that God or no God, it has equal standing with human beings. If we have rights, then so does the world and its parts. (There are those who would say that because we are part of the world, we only have rights inasmuch as the world has rights.)

This is not a new idea, and it has been very influential, even in Christian America. Probably no one did more for the cause of the environment in the twentieth century than Aldo Leopold, author of the rightly beloved A Sand Country Almanac. A keen Russian esotericist P. D. Ouspenski, Leopold bought right into "hylozoism," as the belief in the Earth as an organism is called:

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

The trouble is that at best, this is a metaphor, unless you take it literally, being a follower of Rudolf Steiner (a biodynamic gardener, perhaps), or a neo-Pagan (and worship the Earth), or a Mormon ("Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am brained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I crest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me?" -- this is the Earth speaking to Enoch and is to be found in the Book of Moses.) Despite all of the hype around the Gaia hypothesis, the brainchild of the English chemist James Lovelock, the Earth is not an organism. Apart from anything else, as Richard Dawkins pointed out decisively, natural selection was not involved in the Earth's origin.
I am beginning to wonder if this all is at least part of our problem. If you are not a Christian, then you will reject the Christian perspective, but even if you are a Christian it is going against the tide to cherish the Earth except as something to be exploited by us. If you argue that as Christians we ought to be looking after the Earth, there is always the sneaking suspicion that God will save us if it comes to the worst. He hardly wants creatures made in his own image to go extinct.

And the alternatives don't seem a lot better. I for one didn't give up my childhood faith to bow down to wood and stone, as the old hymn has it. I like animals, but I simply don't give them the same status as humans, and I am not about to start. And it seems to me to be just silly to argue that cabbages have moral standing. (It is interesting in these discussions how people who want to argue for the moral standing of non-human organisms always focus on panthers and redwoods, and never on dandelions or rats.)

I am old, so in a way the global warming problem is not my problem. But I care about future generations of humans, and I would like to see it tackled. I am not sure it can be solved, but I would like us to try. However, one thing we are going to need is a firm philosophical foundation for what we do. Folk who say that we don't need any such thing are usually folk who already have a foundation and it is false. At the moment, I don't see where we are going to find such a foundation. I really don't. Perhaps there isn't one. There is no guarantee that every problem can be solved. But we have got to search. We do need one, and if we don't search ,we are not going to find one.