Editor’s note: John Biewen discussed his thought process behind ‘The Age of Dominion’ in the exclusive minisode above.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. On the sixth day He got around to man. “And God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”
The creation story in Genesis chapter 1 was a new thing under the sun. In it, God seems to precede nature and to exist separately from it. His creation complete, God gives humanity dominion over it. This was “revolutionary,” says Bina Nir, an Israeli scholar of Western civilization. In all known religions in the prebiblical world, “people lived in harmony with nature, and the gods were part of nature, and everything was in nature.”
So, did Genesis mark the dawn of the Age of Dominion? Is that where I’m going with this essay? Well, no. There’s little reason to believe that the writers of Genesis intended to turn humans loose to wantonly exploit the earth and its creatures. Scholars believe that ancient Hebrews pieced together the book of Genesis from multiple sources roughly five hundred years before Christ, either during or shortly after the Jews’ exile in Babylon. In that context, the creation story in Genesis 1 may have served as an anticolonial response to the Babylonians’ hierarchical theocracy, which held that only the king was created in the image of the gods. Our God, declares Genesis, Yahweh, created every human being in His image, and is such a loving God that He created the world for us. This was a “radically egalitarian” statement, says Kate Rigby, a scholar of environmental humanities at Bath Spa University in the UK.
In any case, “rule over” does not mean “destroy.” It’s an old debate: was the God of Genesis inviting his people to exploit creation as they saw fit, or putting them in charge as stewards? Neither the Hebrews nor anyone else in the ancient world began tearing up the planet in response to this scriptural text. True, humans had not yet invented powerful tools of extraction and pollution, and would not for many more centuries, but perhaps in cultures concerned above all with piety, they were not in a hurry to do so.
The question—the only question, really—is whether enough of us can mobilize, now, to force the dramatic societal change required to save ourselves.
It was Christianity, of course, that spread the Genesis Creation story across continents. Still, the most influential early Christian leaders, such as Augustine and, in eastern Christendom, Basil of Caesarea, expressed deep love and respect for the nonhuman natural world, says Rigby. Writing and preaching almost a millennium after Genesis, they parsed its six-day Creation story at length but largely ignored the bits about ruling over and subduing.
The real Age of Dominion would come much later. After the Crusades, in which Christians first unleashed large-scale violence against non-Christians. After the adoption of mercantilist conquest and slave-based racial capitalism. After the emergence of the scientific revolution. In other words, after the West had constructed a dominant and dominating culture, devoted above all to extracting and accumulating: Land. Power. Wealth. All of this conquest and extraction justified by patriarchy, white supremacy, an arrogated license to conquer or kill the infidel. And, eventually, by scriptural passages that seemed to give humans ownership of the natural world.
Descartes wrote in 1637 that humans should use science to make ourselves “the masters and possessors of nature.” The enormously influential English philosopher John Locke made the appeal to Genesis clear when he wrote in 1690, “God . . . hath given the world to men . . . to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience.” Locke maintained that land unexploited by humans was wasted.
I’ve come to think of those words in Genesis as a permission slip that was probably never intended as such but that made itself available to opportunistic (even if sincere) thinkers some two thousand years on. We are roughly four hundred years into the Age of Dominion. Since its tragic dawning, the West’s culture of violent, extractive capitalism has only accelerated to the point where today, led by the rich Global North, humanity is rushing toward the ecological abyss. The question—the only question, really—is whether enough of us can mobilize, now, to force the dramatic societal change required to save ourselves. Whether we will demand the restoration of a culture that recognizes we are not the source—and that when it comes to nature’s gifts, our rights and privileges are vastly outweighed by our responsibilities.
Orion’s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.
John Biewen is audio program director at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and host of the center’s audio documentary podcast, Scene on Radio.