A tragic epic saga between Nature and Culture


Laura Poiret

Laura Poiret

“Human culture and environmental crisis are intimately and causally interrelated.” These are the words used by Joseph Meeker in his introduction to The Comedy of Survival. Precursor of the ecocriticism – a literary field that is interested in the way environment is represented in literature – Meeker says here something that we had already recorded and accepted for a few years now: the environmental crisis that we are living is connected with, if not directly caused by, human activities. However, he is more precise than that and he points out a particular characteristic of Humanity that is not enough re-evaluated in the current scientific and political debates: the culture. 

So what, the environmental crisis is not only caused by overproduction and heavy exploitation of the resources?! Well, yes, inevitably it is, but not only; and the problem is both more complex and older than that. On its own, science cannot bring all the answers we need, it is necessary to look for them elsewhere. Human behaviour, shaped in the culture in which we live, is one of the most important keys for the understanding of our situation.  

We could go back in forgotten times, at the beginnings of the settled humanity or at the birth of agriculture; but it seems more logical to start in the occidental Antiquity, the birthplace of the tragedy. What is thus the problem with tragedy? Joseph Meeker underlines the characteristics of the tragic Man, who is often portrayed as proud, transcendent, dignified and heroic, and by whom everyone should be inspired. Spread in the whole Occident over the centuries, this vision of humanity has established itself as the norm. And it’s precisely here that the problem lays: “the proud vision affirmed by literary tragedy have not led to tragic transcendence but to ecological catastrophe”. The tragic Man is superior – superior to the rest of the world and everything that lives in it. This is as good as justifying an oblivious and violent behaviour towards the environment: since Man is superior to everything else, he can as well control it and take advantage of it. However, for Joseph Meeker, this vision of humanity is erroneous, because it granted to the individual the utmost importance, allowing every person to think that his or her “personal greatness” could, and thus should, be accomplished, even “at the cost of great destruction”.

Photo taken here

However, it is important to precise that tragedy obviously is not the only cultural element that tends to portray Man as a mortal god. In fact, it is probably not even the first one that comes to mind. It is often said that the occidental culture is the result of two main bases: on the one hand, the Greco-Roman roots and on the other hand the Judaeo-Christian roots. Therefore, religion also has its share of responsibility in the upcoming environmental crisis. 

Lynn White is one of the first thinkers to maintain that the Judaeo-Christianism has paved the way to a (wrong) concept of the world and of the place of Man within it. In the speech he gave in front of the AAAS during a meeting in Washington in 1657, White condemns, among other things, privileged status that God granted to Man in the tales of the Creation. Upset by one particular extract from the Genesis, Lynn believes that  Christianism would thus have created a Humanity master of its world and of life on Earth. In other words, Christianism has authorised and justified any action of control and master perpetrated by Men on the living world, be it fauna or flora. Since it responds to God’s will, it is in the order of things to exploit endlessly the world’s resources; in fact, it is even precisely Man’s mission on Earth. White underlines it: “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them”. Therefore, the indirect but long-term consequences of Christianism are none others than the environmental crisis in which we are now stuck – and that Lynn White already forecasted more than half a century ago. 

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Johann Wenzel-Peter, 1829, Pinacoteca Vaticana

Nevertheless, White’s theory is not unanimously subscribed and not everyone welcomed it whole-heartily. Many say that his interpretation of the Bible is wrong: in their opinion, Man has the great responsibility of taking care of the planet. Thus, the Genesis would recommend to Man to master it not despotically, but rather wisely, controlling it as a shepherd does with his sheep to protect them. A text can be interpreted in different manners and of course Lynn White does not have the monopoly on reason. However, his argument has the merit of underlining negative aspects of a culture based on an ambiguous religion which place Man on the top of the divine Creation and, thus, outside the Nature.


Photo by Laura Poiret

In the end, either through art or through religion, it seems obvious that the Occident has defined Humanity as something apart from Nature, as if it did not depend on it; thus authorising its massive exploitation. This good old opposition between Nature and Culture goes hand in hand with the Judaeo-Christian dualism of soul and matter. Besides this, the mere existence of the notion of Nature, a pure occidental concept still defined today in modern dictionaries as the whole of the living things on Earth but the fruit of human construction, is already very revealing. 

Fortunately, things are changing nowadays and the most recent scientific and philosophical analysis tend to refute this old dualism, highlighting a Man-animal who calls into question his or her place and behaviour on Earth. In spite of everything, we still have a lot of questions, and so few answers. We keep harbouring relentlessly the hope of resolving everything thanks to the evolution of our scientific-technical knowledge; but shouldn’t we look elsewhere as well? As Lynn White specifies it, “What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship. More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one”. Beyond any religious thought, I would add that it is necessary to rethink our whole culture. As long as our way of thinking will remain the same (anthropocentric, materialist, and probably also capitalist), it seems difficult to consider a life-saving turnaround. However, let us not lose hope: the world is waking up through the youth’s commitment to environment; it is therefore not too late yet to start changing our perception of the world and of our place within it.

Laura Poiret

[1]  Meeker, Joseph, The Comedy of Survival, New-York, Charles Scribners Sons, p.xx (1974)
[2]  Ibid., p.57
[3] Ibid., p.51
[4] American Association for the Advancement of Science
[5] “[27] So God created man in his own image in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. [28] And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’.” , Genesis, 1 :27-28. English Standard Version, www.bible.com
[6] “God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. […] Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”, White L., « The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis », 1967
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.


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