Destroying God's Creation or Using What He Provided?: Cultural Models of a Mining Project in New Caledonia

Article excerpt

Large-scale surveys have identified a negative association between Christian fundamentalism and environmental concern. In contrast to this broad-brush approach, I used a cultural models framework, informed by political ecology, to examine the statements of a small sample of fundamentalist Kanak villagers about their reactions to a particular instance of potential environmental degradation in New Caledonia (South Pacific) in the form of a multinational mining project. Unlike previous studies, I did not find a clear association between fundamentalist beliefs and a lack of concern about environmental impacts. Instead, people's expectations of ecological degradation were related to their perceptions of the project's potential for changing the distribution of financial well-being and culturally-determined social status within the community. The arguments that they used to support their case, however, relied on cultural models largely informed by global Christian "stewardship" and "exploitation" discourses. Little research has heretofore explored the factors that influence which models individuals choose to adopt and how they adapt these to their needs. This paper's findings suggest that not only can religious beliefs inform environmental attitudes; explanatory cultural models (religious or otherwise) may be influenced by environmental attitudes, which are in turn shaped by socioeconomic concerns.

Key words: Christianity, environmental attitudes, fundamentalism, Melanesia, political ecology


In an essay published in Science in 1967, historian Lynn White, Jr., claims that the current "ecologic crisis" stems from the "exploitive attitude" inherent in the Judéo-Christian belief that other species (which he glosses as "nature") were created solely to serve humans (White 1967:1205). This idea, which he did not originate but certainly popularized, came to be known as the "White thesis." It was, from the start, highly controversial (Shaiko 1987) because it came at a time when the state of the Earth was of growing concern, and it placed the blame for environmental problems-a "huge burden of guilt"-ultimately with "the Christian dogma of man's transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature" (White 1967:1206). Conservative Christians immediately, and for several decades afterwards, objected that the Bible in fact called for stewardship of God's creation (Oelschlaeger 1994; Schaeffer 1970).

Leaving aside the question of the Bible's ecological message per se, it is possible to look for relationships between people's religious beliefs and their environmental attitudes. Although now 40 years old, the debate sparked by the White thesis remains an influential framework as demonstrated by the continuing frequency of its citation in contemporary studies. White provided no empirical data to support his hypothesis, but subsequent researchers have tested it through analyses of large-scale surveys (e.g. Boyd 1999; Eckberg and Blocker 1996; Greeley 1993; Guth et al. 1995; Holland and Carter 2005; Schultz, Zelezny, and Darymple 2000; Shaiko 1987; Wolkomir et al. 1997). These studies use indicators of environmental concern that include a self-reported willingness to spend money in support of environmental issues, perceptions of environmental hazards, as well as self-reported behaviors such as recycling, consumption choices, and reduction in the use of petroleum-dependent vehicles. The results of this research have challenged White's thesis on all but one point. Once other contributing factors, such as lack of education, conservative political views, and an image of God as inflexible and unforgiving were statistically partialled out of the analyses, any negative association between mainstream Christian beliefs and environmentalism tended to disappear. This was particularly the case when the surveys investigated opinions on specific issues rather than general attitudes toward the environment (Shaiko 1987:253-257). …