Recycled holy texts will not save the earth

Faith and Reason v
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The Independent Online
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.