Recycled holy texts will not save the earth

Faith and Reason v

Richard D. North, author of Life on a Modern Planet (Manchester University Press), says that the Bible cannot be read as a user's manual for the planet.

A conference on world religions and the environment opens today in the grounds of Windsor Castle. Can it be any more than an agreeable and meaningless freebie?

In the recent Berlin negotiations on global warming, the Opec countries seemed to be voting to continue to treat the oil under their deserts as a purely useful resource which the world should continue to burn unfettered, in the the teeth of worried Western opinion. Most such countries are formally at least followers of the Koran. Their leaders could probably argue that continued economic growth is a more important tangible gain for humanity and a fulfilment of man's submission to God than would be the alternative of risking the imposition of poverty - and hence probably accelerated environmental degradation - on the world. .

Of course cheque-books may have been speaking louder than holy texts in the Arab world's negotiating position. Still, it is not casuistical to point out that the great "religions of the book" hold out an extrordinarily rich, but confusing, set of images about mankind's role on earth.

The Middle East religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - share central propositions. They accept that God made man as some sort of very special project: at the very least, man is primus inter pares. But they accept also that man was given an onerous relationship with the rest of God's creation.

Years ago, much green thinking railed about the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and especially the words about "dominion" in Genesis. This was natural enough: the greens were and are troubled about Western civilisation (in particular its supposed materialism), and thought they saw in Genesis the ur-text which had led to exploitative behaviour.

Green thinkers such as Ian Bradley, especially with his popular God is Green (1990) have done a good deal to disabuse us of earlier simplistic thinking. They point out that "dominion" is like kingship: it conveys the responsibilities of power. They have then gone on to suggest that it is not the texts, but our interpetation of them, which has been damaging.

I don't think this second bit is terribly good history. Keith Thomas, in his Man and the Natural World (1983), shows us that within individuals, and certainly within historic periods, views about nature are and always were complex. Throughout history, Nature has been used to describe both the violent and the harmonious, the lovely and the grim. Crucially, it has always been The Other: but we sometimes see Nature as evidence of the part of creation which is without sin, and at others we see it as the part which is without soul.

It is hardly surprising that religious people should explore man's perennial anxieties about his relations with nature within a context of the original intentions of the prophets. Perhaps it is natural that greens should be embarrassed that early European Christian prosletysers ripped up the sacred groves of the pagans they sought to convert. What is less clear is whether it is right that religious greens should assume that their general admiration of pantheistic pimitive peoples and their tremendous, and sometimes almost pantheistic, admiration of nature, give them a stick to beat their civilisation or a flail with which to flagellate their own backs.

Christian theology supposes that not merely man, but the whole of creation with him, is subject to the Fall. But it seems a wide open matter quite what can be done to put the awful business right. If I read it correctly, one can as easily hope and work for some preferable state here on earth, as suppose that the wrong will be righted in heaven. Either way, religious texts and traditions do not lay out unambiguous paths for people who would like to follow God's purpose for man and the rest of creation.

In part, the modern green religious argument is quite like the older socialist religious argument: do the holy texts legitimate man's exploitation of the planet any more than they legitimate man's exploitation of his fellows? But they differ in one thing. The right-wing Christian can easily (or uneasily, according to temperament) argue that man's "exploitation" of his fellows is part of a process which enriches all, eventually. Others, of course, are entitled to take the view that any exploitation of people is wrong. It is, however, perfectly clear that all the great texts place on man the stewardship of his world.

It is clearly inevitable that we must exploit the planet. The problem is to explore the spiritual and technical problems we encounter as we do so. These may test modern people more than previous generations, but it is quite wrong to imagine that our forebears did not recognise the same difficulties, or contrariwise to suppose that the gnomic utterances of 2000 years ago can make much of a management manual.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album