Saturday, February 07, 2009

Attenborough on Genesis

David Attenborough recently used his celebrity to attack the role of the biblical book of Genesis in magnifying the destruction of the environment.

Upon hearing that Attenborough had blamed Genesis for environmental damage, I looked forward to seeing what evidence he would use to support his claim. After all, he wasn't merely interpreting the Bible and saying that a passage or passages intends to teach that mankind should harm the environment. He alleges it as a historical fact.

I'm expecting that he'll have trouble backing up his assertion.

Mike Tydmus had the relevant video snippet (YouTube) posted at his blog. There's your hat tip, Mike.

The statements about Genesis begin at about 3:27.

DA: The influence of the book of Genesis, which says "The Lord God said go forth and multiply" to Adam and Eve, and that the natural world is there for you to dominate. You have dominion over the animals and plants of the world. And that basic notion, that the world is there for us, and that if it doesn't actually serve our purposes it's dispensible--that has produced the devastation of vast areas of the land's surface. Of course, it's a gross oversimplication, but that's why Darwinism, and the fact of evolution is of great import, because it is that attitude which has led to devastation of so much and we are in the situation that we're in.

Is Attenborough correct that the interpretation of the Genesis passage he highlights has led to environmental destruction? Is he even correct in terms of "gross oversimplification"?

William T. Hornaday, one of the progenitors of the conservation movement in the United States, wrote a book advocating conservation, called "Our Vanishing Wild Life." The two chapters he wrote to address the causes of species destruction (6, 7) mention nothing about a doctrine of dominion by man, but instead emphasize economic forces. For example, Malaysians cleared land and planted rubber trees in order to profit from the booming rubber market. Songbirds were endangered because of their use for food.

Is Genesis behind the survival instinct as well as the profit motive?

The various histories of environmentalism offer no apparent support for Attenborough's thesis.

OK, with one exception. Julia Kindlbacher hints at Attenborough's notions with a handful of what appear to be poorly researched essays.

I think it's safe to call Kindlbacher an outlier, and it's fair to meet statements like Attenborough's with outstanding examples of irresponsible environmental exploitation that have no apparent root in Genesis.
Much in the spirit of the American labor leader Samuel Gompers, Khrushchëv's vision of progress was driven chiefly by one idea: more. Communism would prove its superiority over capitalism by outproducing it. Communism would produce more milk, more meat, more wheat, more electricity. Its hydropower stations would be the biggest, and its rockets the heaviest. The idea of demonstrating Communism's qualitative superiority over capitalism had escaped the unimaginative Soviet leader. The closest he came was his belief that the Soviet people were morally superior to those of the West because they were prepared to endure privation in the present to guarantee plenty in the future.
(Douglas R. Weiner, "A Little Corner of Freedom")
The truth, it seems, is that technological advance in conjunction with concern for humanity leads to environmental exploitation. In some cases greed motivates the destruction in spite of a conscious knowledge of the destructive effects, but probably in most cases people simply didn't know any better.

We didn't put mercury in thermometers to subdue the Earth with a poisonous liquid metal, for example. We did it because mercury served the purpose and we didn't know any better.

Mr. Attenborough, please proceed to the nearest emergency room and have that foot removed from your mouth.

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