Our Exploitation and Subjugation of Nature

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Credit: Mario Sanchez

The first chapter of Genesis seems to indicate that God gave the control of the earth to humans. It reads:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1: 27–28)

Much of human civilization is advanced through science and technology. One very puzzling fact of history is that although the Chinese people have invented many things, they never came up with science. The British scientist and researcher, Joseph Needham, documented a long list of Chinese inventions, starting with the “Great Four” — paper-making, printing, gunpowder and the compass. Yet, science did not emerge from China or Asia. It is a product of the Western mind. Needham asked, “Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo [but] had not developed in Chinese civilization or Indian civilization?” This is sometimes referred to as Needham’s Grand Question. So far, no definitive answer has been found. But it is an interesting and productive question to ponder.

I have attempted to answer this question several time in the past few decades. Each time, I came up with a different answer. As I recall, my last answer is that scientific progress requires a rigorous debate of different theories. There has to be a combative spirit. In each debate, there has to be a winner and a loser. But Chinese culture, which puts a high premium on social harmony, is not conducive to open conflicts and high-stake debates. It is quite possible that the mild and non-combative character of the Chinese people led to China’s falling behind in science.

I recently read Lynn White’s article, originally published in Science Magazine in March 1967. It is titled The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis. Professor White believed that our ecological crisis originated from the Christian attitude towards nature. More specifically, the root lies in the Genesis verse where humans were told to subdue the earth and establish dominion over all lives. It is quite conceivable that this biblical command not only started environmental degradation, but also kicked off scientific development in the West. What are the characteristics of Western science? It has to do with a dualistic attitude between man and nature. The Chinese mind tends to be holistic — it sees man as an integral part of nature. Taoism teaches that man should seek a harmonious relationship with nature. But the Western mind tends to be dualistic, even antagonistic. It is conceivable that Western science started off as a way for man to subdue, conquer and exploit nature, as per the Bible’s instruction. In this sense, China’s lack of science can also be explained by Chinese religious attitudes and worldviews.

We live in an age of environmental consciousness. In the current political climate, various religions make claims that their teachings have always been environmentally-friendly. The defenders of Christianity, for example, have been arguing that, in Genesis, God commissioned humans to be the custodians for His creations, not the abusers. This point is debatable. The fact is that the specific instruction from God is to subdue the earth and to establish dominion over all lives. The use of these strong words suggests an antagonistic and domineering relationship, not a friendly one. There is a built-in hierarchy — the humans are above all other life forms. There is also a built-in anthropocentrism. Man acts as God’s representative in this narrative. Hence, man is the center of all earthly activities.

Many people see religion and science as incompatible and contradictory to each other. But from this perspective suggests that the command from Genesis could have encouraged science. So, the development of Western science can be seen as a way for man to subjugate, manipulate and conquer nature. But when did the human subjugation of nature begin?

Modern science is a relatively recent development which has only a few centuries of history. But man’s subjugation of nature goes back a long time. I have been having a debate with my Christian friend, Tony, on this topic. I told Tony that man’s role is not simply acting as custodian of God’s creations. Rather, it is that of a conqueror. While the Native Americans view the other animals as their siblings, the Western man sees himself as the master of all lives. My suspicion is that humans’ subjugation of nature started when primitive nomadic people domesticated cattle and horses and other animals. It is the first act of exploitation of nature. To the best of my knowledge, the first domestication of cattle happened around 10,500 years ago in central Anatolia (today’s Turkey). It was done by upper Paleolithic hunters in Europe. The domestication of horses came later. It was done some 6,000 years ago on the grassland of Ukraine, southwest Russia and west Kazakhstan. If this theory is right, then the domestication was done by either Indo-Iranians or Indo-Europeans in the Western part of the world. It did not take place in India or China.

Thus, I see the relationship between Western man and nature one of exploitation and abuse. It is not collegial or caring. Tony has a different view. He looks at humans’ domestication of the animals as something of mutual benefit, more like a symbiotic relationship. The animals get food and shelter. He believes that it is a good deal for the animals. I reminded him that some of the animals are domesticated for slaughter or hard labor. If the provision of food and shelter were a fair exchange between humans and animals, then we could use the same argument for slavery. I have wondered why American Christians disagreed and fought a war over the issue of slavery, given that Christianity teaches universal love among people. After some research into American history, I learned that Christians in the South used this “good treatment” argument to justify slavery. A US History website says the following:

Defenders of slavery argued that the institution(slavery) was divine, and that it brought Christianity to the heathen from across the ocean. Slavery was, according to this argument, a good thing for the enslaved. John C. Calhoun said, “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”

Incredible as it may sound, the pro-slavery Christian camp saw the institution of slavery as doing Africans a favor. I also asked Tony to do this thought experiment — imagine that some space aliens of superior intelligence came to Earth. They capture humans to be used as pets or zoo animals. But they would give humans nice shelter, food and quality medical care. Would it be a fair deal for humans? If not, why not?

The falsehood of an argument becomes clear once we turn the table. If we were at the receiving end of a treatment, would we consider it alright? If we are okay with it, then it can be considered as a fair deal. Otherwise, it is not.

All these events and phenomena are intertwined — the domestication of the animals, the subordination of women, the subjugation of “backward” peoples through colonization, the conquest of nature through science and the degradation of the environment. In a sense, this sums up the history of Western civilization. It is a story of victory, won through might. Some think that this is the history of human progress. But we must remember that this “progress” is purchased at a great cost in terms of misery on other lives. To the extent that it involves the depletion of natural resources and the degradation of the planet, it also sows the seeds of human extinction.

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