Lynn Townsend White, Jr

Lynn Townsend White, Jr. (April 29, 1907 – March 30, 1987) was a professor of medieval history at Princeton, Stanford and, for many years, University of California, Los Angeles. He was president of Mills College, Oakland, from 1943 to 1958.

White's main area of research and inquiry was the role of technological invention in the Middle Ages. He believed that the Middle Ages were a decisive period in the genesis of Western technological supremacy, and that the "activist character" of medieval Western Christianity provided the "psychic foundations" of technological inventiveness. He also conjectured that the Christian Middle Ages were the root of ecological crisis in the 20th century. He gave a lecture on December 26, 1966, titled, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" at the Washington meeting of the AAAS, that was later published in the journal Science in 1967.[1]

The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis

White's article was based on the premise that "all forms of life modify their context", that is: we all create change in our environment. He believed man's relationship with the natural environment was always a dynamic and interactive one, even in the Middle Ages, but marked the Industrial Revolution as a fundamental turning point in our ecological history. He suggests that at this point the hypotheses of science were married to the possibilities of technology and our ability to destroy and exploit the environment was vastly increased. Nevertheless, he also suggests that the mentality of the Industrial Revolution, that the earth was a resource for human consumption, was much older than the actuality of machinery, and has its roots in medieval Christianity and attitudes towards nature. He suggests that "what people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things in their environment." He argued that Judeo-Christian theology was fundamentally exploitative of the natural world because:

  1. The Bible asserts man's dominion over nature and establishes a trend of anthropocentrism.
  2. Christianity makes a distinction between man (formed in God's image) and the rest of creation, which has no "soul" or "reason" and is thus inferior.

He posited that these beliefs have led to an indifference towards nature which continues to impact in an industrial, "post-Christian" world. He concludes that applying more science and technology to the problem won't help, that it is humanity's fundamental ideas about nature that must change; we must abandon "superior, contemptuous" attitudes that make us "willing to use it [the earth] for our slightest whim." White suggests adopting St. Francis of Assisi as a model in imagining a "democracy" of creation in which all creatures are respected and man's rule over creation is delimited.

The debate

White's ideas set off an extended debate about the role of religion in creating and sustaining the West's destructive attitude towards the exploitation of the natural world. It also galvanized interest in the relationship between history, nature and the evolution of ideas, thus stimulating new fields of study like environmental history and ecotheology. Equally, however, many saw his argument as a direct attack on Christianity and other commentators think his analysis of the impact of the Bible, and especially Genesis is misguided. They argue that Genesis provides man with a model of "stewardship" rather than dominion, and asks man to take care of the world's environment.

Medieval Technology and Social Change

White was an historian, not a theologian, and despite his suggestion at the end of "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" of St. Francis "as a patron saint for ecologists," his work centered on technology, not theology. From his "Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages" of 1940,[2] through his "Dynamo and Virgin Reconsidered" of 1958,[3] to his Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford University Press, 1962), his work refuted the assumption that the Middle Ages were too preoccupied with theology and/or chivalry to concern themselves with technology, the assumption behind Henry Adams' antitheses of Virgin vs. dynamo, but widespread elsewhere as well.[4] His work tied together that of many predecessors, above all that of Marc Bloch, to whose memory Medieval Technology and Social Change is dedicated. White argued, "Since, until recent centuries, technology was chiefly the concern of groups which wrote little, the role which technological development plays in human affairs has been neglected," and declared, "If historians are to attempt to write the history of mankind, and not simply the history of mankind as it was viewed by the small and specialized segments of our race which have had the habit of scribbling, they must take a fresh view of the records, ask new questions of them, and use all the resources of archaeology, iconography, and etymology to find answers when no answers can be discovered in contemporary writings."[5] So he noted that "the heavy plough and its consequence of distribution of strips in the open fields helped to change the northern peasants' attitude towards nature, and thus our own"; "the standard of land distribution ceased to be the needs of a family and became the ability of a power-engine" (the eight-ox team pulling the plough) "to till the earth. No more fundamental change in the idea of man's relation to the soil can be imagined: once man had been part of nature; now he became her exploiter. We see the emergence of this not only in Charlemagne's effort to re-name the months in terms of human activities...but more particularly in the change which occurs in illustrated calendars beginning shortly before 830." Instead of "the months as passive personifications bearing symbols of attributes," "the new Carolingian calendars...show a coercive attitude towards natural resources" with "scenes of ploughing, harvesting, wood-chopping," etc. "Man and nature are now two things, and man is master," a phrase from Medieval Technology and Social Change which recurs in "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis."[6] Similarly he observed, "Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few have had so catalytic an influence on history." "The Man on Horseback, as we have known him during the past millenium, was made possible by the stirrup, which joined man and steed into a fighting organism. Antiquity imagined the Centaur; the early Middle Ages made him the master of Europe."[7]

See also

References

External links

  • The Dominion of Man - A Tasmanian perspective on the Lynn White debate.

Further reading

  • Lynn Townsend White, Jr, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis", Science, Vol 155 (Number 3767), March 10, 1967, pp 1203–1207.
  • H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology
  • Lynn Townsend White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford: University Press, 1962).
  • Lynn Townsend White, Jr., Medieval Religion and Technology (University of California Press, 1978). Collection of nineteen of his papers published elsewhere between 1940 and 1975.
Academic offices
Preceded by
Aurelia H. Reinhardt
President of Mills College
1943–1958
Succeeded by
C. Easton Rothwell
Preceded by
Thomas C. Cochran
President of American Historical Association
1973
Succeeded by
Lewis Hanke
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