Unholy Alliances and the End of Taker Culture
When on 6 May 2019 the United Nations published the new Report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the news sent shockwaves around the globe. The independent report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are currently threatened with extinction. This is more than ever before in human history. The report also says that it is not yet too late to change the course of events, but that would need an agreement on immediate “transformative change.” “By transformative change,” the IPBES chair, Sir Robert Watson, explains, “we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”
As a response to the report, as well as to the ongoing “Extinction Rebellion” around the world and the “climate strike” initiated by Greta Thunberg, eight European countries have called for an ambitious strategy to tackle climate change—and to spend 25% of the entire EU budget on fighting it.
If we think about the “paradigms, goals, and values” that have led to the current ecological disaster, religions play an important role. For millennia, many religions have sanctioned the exploitation of natural resources on the basis of the idea that the world is created for the sole use of the human being. In Christian teachings, the doctrine of human domination of nature became particularly influential, along with an anthropocentrism that has legitimized exploitation of the planet for centuries. Even the idea of human “stewardship” for the planet, our obligation to preserve and care well for God’s creation, places humanity at the focal center, reflecting our default anthropocentrism.
The thesis that Christianity is the decisive cause of the current ecological catastrophe is often associated with the American historian Lynn White. The “Lynn White thesis” was first presented in 1967 in White’s Science essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” and to this day it continues to influence political, ecological, and philosophical discussion. What many English readers don’t know, though—and what’s often missing in histories of ecological movements—is that Lynn White’s thesis has a long prehistory.
Particularly in Germany, the critique of Christianity and of “economic progress thinking” was strong at the beginning of the twentieth century. The most prominent thinker in this regard was the philosopher and psychologist Ludwig Klages (1872–1956). Klages’s biocentric ethics emerged from a critique of civilization and a mystical understanding of nature. Klages’s 1913 welcoming address to the Erster Freideutscher Jugendtag (First Free German Youth Day), given on the mountain Hoher Meißner, is a manifesto of environmentalism. Under the title “The Human Being and the Earth,” the philosopher laments the extinction of species, both in Germany and worldwide, which had been triggered by the modern “war of annihilation” waged by religion and “civilization.” “Under the most feeble-minded of all pretexts that innumerable animal species were ‘harmful,’ humans exterminated almost everything” that wasn’t immediately useful in terms of hunting and eating (p.10). And further: “An unparalleled orgy of devastation has seized humankind, the ‘civilization’ bears the traits of unleashed murder, and the abundance of the earth withers from its poisonous breath. So this is what the fruits of ‘progress’ would look like!” (p.16).
Klages identifies Christianity as the cause of this technological and civilizational alienation of humans from nature. According to Klages, it was only in Christian culture that “invention was heaped upon invention, that ‘exact,’ that is to say numerical science, flourished, and that the urge for expansion was ruthlessly stirred, an urge that wants to subjugate the non-Christian races and economically exploit the whole of nature.” Klages argues that Christianity attributes the highest status to human life because it believes “that all nonhuman life is worthless, unless it serves humankind,” and that Christian “love” has not prevented Christianity from waging deadly war against nature religions and the traditions of peoples deemed less than “human” at certain points in history (pp. 29–30).
The anthropocentric philosophy of exploitation that Klages identifies with Christianity is quite similar to what Daniel Quinn, in his fabulous philosophical novel Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (first published in 1992), calls “Taker culture.” “I no longer think of what we’re doing as a blunder,” the main character explains. “We’re not destroying the world because we’re clumsy. We’re destroying the world because we are, in a very literal and deliberate way, at war with it” (p. 130).
This war is legitimized by religious anthropocentrism. “It is holy work, in Taker culture. The more competitors you destroy, the more humans you can bring into the world, and that makes it just about the holiest work there is” (p. 132). But today, “after five hundred generations, they are about to pay the penalty that any other species would pay” (p. 120) for ignoring what Quinn calls the “peace-keeping law”: This law “defines the limits of competition in the community of life. You may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war” (p. 129).
What do Klages’s, White’s, and Quinn’s analyses mean for the “transformative change” the IPBES calls for?
It means that we need to break the unholy alliance between religious anthropocentrism and the political and economic exploitation of the planet. It means that religious organizations have to thoroughly critique their contribution to Taker culture and radically address their responsibility for the planetary—not just the human—future.
On a political level, it means that governments need to terminate their complicity with religious legitimization for exploiting planetary resources. Instead of supporting the Christian (and other religions’) ideology of human reproduction, they need to discourage their citizens from having children, and encourage stabilizing, sustainable population policies (see also Alissa Jones Nelson on this blog); they also need to put a complete stop to subsidizing meat production and dairy industries, both being most damaging to the planet.
This change will not “go hand in hand with prosperity,” as the joint statement of the eight EU countries claims. Particularly the rich countries will prosper less. As Greta Thunberg put it in her speech at the British Parliament on 23 April 2019: “[Our future] was stolen from us every time you said that the sky was the limit, and that you only live once.”
The prosperity gospel is Taker culture. We’ve passed that point.
Kocku von Stuckrad is one of the co-founders and co-directors of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge. As a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Groningen (Netherlands), he works on the cultural history of religion, science, and philosophy in Europe. His forthcoming (German) book is The Soul in the Twentieth Century: A Cultural History.
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