Have Dominion Over Them (?)

We’ve begun looking at Jim Moran’s three challenges for establishing a basis for a consistent environmental philosophy or, in simpler terms, a holistic view of nature and our place in it as human beings. This sort of standpoint would indeed seem wise to establish before running haphazardly into the business of deciding what should and should not be done in and to the earth. Without a broad vision we will be subject to ad hoc solutions to individual problems, with a solution to one ends up creating many others (stink bugs, anyone?).

In the first part we looked at the idea that the earth is here primarily for us. This is often assumed to be the case in some versions of conservative/fundamentalist Christianity; it is not necessarily a biblically required stance, as some of the comments astutely pointed out. The second of the challenges cited by Moran in “Three Challenges for Environmental Philosophy,” (Philosophy Now, Jan. 10, 2012) is more directly in contact (or possibly conflict, depending on one’s perspective) with Christian assumptions. It has to do with the dominion God gave Adam and Eve in the Genesis 2 account, a dominion over the birds, fish, and earth-bound creatures, and with the image of God in which humanity was created. Presumably, the image provides the basis of the dominion. The challenge is over our place in nature; are we part of it along with everything else, or over it in some way?

In 1967 Lynn White wrote what has become a virtual battle cry of secular environmentalists. In “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” White made the claim that the image/dominion ideas combined to create an attitude of arrogance in the western world toward nature as a whole. When coupled with the expansion of science and its technological capabilities this attitude, according to White’s thesis, became the major culprit in spawning the problems we now experience environmentally. While White’s original thesis was somewhat tempered by acknowledging the existence of a parallel, if quieter line of biblical thinking in the tradition of Francis of Assisi, the major theme was picked up uncritically by a generation of environmentalists who had no interest in hearing what responsible interpretation of the passage actually said. Christianity, it was now assumed, presents a roadblock to environmental responsibility.

Moran’s essay makes note of this tension without necessarily endorsing an anti-Christian approach to the question. Instead, he notes how difficult it is to establish a truly neutral position regarding humans vis-a-vis other animals or organisms. While some participants in this discussion have advocated some form of an egalitarian view of all creatures, this is quite difficult to sustain. Why? If humans are to be part of nature “just like everybody else,” this would, according to the thinking, prevent us from disrupting the habitats of other members of the earth community, whether deer, antelopes, aardvarks, or frogs. But what if what some species “naturally” do already disrupts the habitats of other creatures? How many environmental impact studies do beavers require before they do what beavers do–build dams and disrupt the habitats of countless neighbors? What if, in the same vein, humans doing what humans do naturally also disrupts other habitats? Furthermore, are we not acting in as a special class of beings when we undertake the protection or preservation . By any accounting, the species eliminated “naturally” far outnumber those made extinct or endangered by reputed actions of people.

The more I read in this area of philosophy the more it seems to me unavoidable that humanity is inevitably and unavoidably in the position of dominion. Even when some revolt against the concept, they undertake programs or agendas which presuppose its truth. The question, it seems to me, is how we are to receive and exercise the dominion. My contention is that far from biblical dominion being the problem, it is the only solution to a better environmental philosophy. But we must acknowledge and place ourselves more completely under the One in whose image we were made in order to reap those benefits.

How might we do better, not only at perceiving what the image entails for our care of nature, but for correcting those who have improperly conceived the image and the mandate that accompanies it?

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3 thoughts on “Have Dominion Over Them (?)

  1. I’m not sure what “dominion” would feel like in the context of the ANET world, Israel was unique in that land couldn’t be sold, and couldn’t be owned by the priesthood, neither was it allodial or “fee simple” in our Roman/Common law context.

    White’s historical roots, ignores both the Greek destruction of their soils (and its attendent change from wheat to grape/olives) and Rome’s (see Tainter) well before any influence of either Jewish or Christian theology.

    Chesterton felt that man as the apex of creation (and how we might feel about that) was mitigated by the Fall (and how we might feel about that).

    In that vein we might consider that we have the ability to do things very very poorly despite our august estate. Should we do it, is to be raised not just can we.

    Attending a science/engineering institution, I had to take an ethics course in the philosophy department on “The Moral Status of Animals”, a piece of the bioethics universe. Following that course I was able to construct a piece of my worldview which I have kept these 30 years.

    I think White’s (and others) thesis has less to do with Christianity and much more to do with the adoption of dialectical materialism with assumptions of growth and the unboundedness of mankind by much of the world, including the US. The most pure stream of dialectical materialism is China, and that place is an eco-wreck.

    If there is a Christian problem, it is Kantian, my theology (upperstory) has nothing to do with how I live. There is no sense of applying any of my theology to all the myriad facets of my life.

    • I don’t know what dominion meant back then either; but I don’t think a serious Christian tradition has ever considered that it says what White and Co. want it to mean in order to deconstruct it. Coupled with the “fill and subdue” it can really be made to look anti-environment; problem is, it never was understood that way. Add to your China example the raping of the forests and lakes in places like Albania, and anyone who wants to test the thesis rather than villify anything Christian will find the holes rather quickly. Can you say “Chernobyl”?

      • Max Weber’s thesis that capitalism is an outcome of reformed theology comes to mind here as well, though that is very controversial today, yet still debated. China; however, is probably the perfect refutation of Weber’s thesis by some, I’m less sure at the moment, because their economic engagement is so short compared to Euro or NA economies with market economies. Walter/Howie’s book “Red Capitalism” is a very interesting resource in that area.

        I love history and the contemplation of causality, but many times that is a very speculative business. Herodotus (at least) started us down this path a long time ago.

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