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University of Basel

Exploitation of natural resources – a medieval idea?

Text: Karsten Engel

According to the Bible, human beings are special. Does that, however, give us the right to exploit our planet? Magnus Hundt was grappling with this question back in the late Middle Ages. This is what we can learn from his opinions.

Once again, we find ourselves in a crisis – this time an energy crisis. A new war in Europe, our dependence on fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil and, last but not least, the fast-approaching winter are reopening a debate on an issue long considered resolved: Which energy sources are good, and which are bad?

Everything has been turned on its head. While nuclear power and coal have been viewed as outdated technologies for quite some time – and rightfully so – they may now actually be poised to keep the peace in Europe. After all, natural gas and oil in particular are helping to finance the war.

Although White's theory had already sparked a major debate during his lifetime, the question remains just as topical today. Considerable contemporary historical scholarship is focused on the question of humanity's self-perception in relation to the environment, both in the past and in the present day. That much was evident at the sixth annual Swiss Congress of Historical Sciences held this past summer.

In his influential 2005 book, anthropologist Philippe Descola asserted that our deeply internalized idea of the separation between culture (which he identifies with the human sphere) and nature (its "counterpart") is not an inevitability. Other cultures that do not recognize this separation have lives that are more in harmony with nature. Yet in our culture, at least according to the interpretation of many of Descola's adherents, this idea of separation has continually widened the rift between humans and nature that is grounded in our perception of self. Man no longer sees himself as a part of nature, but rather as something distinct. It is a short leap, then, to the supposition that this idea encourages the exploitative use of natural resources.

Man as an earthly steward

Historians have been hard at work on the issue that humanity no longer views itself as part of nature – and medieval researchers are no exception. So, does the medieval idea of man as ruler over nature hold sway in our minds even today? And have the "dark ages" again become the source of all things evil – even our current ecological crisis?

A very specific image of humanity is inscribed in these formulations: Human beings are not one product among many generated by the act of creation; man is something very special, and he is different from everything else around him. That is why God created man as an earthly "steward" who rules over the other creatures, which are there to serve him.

With regard to humanity's perception of itself as separate from animals and plants, the analyses of Lynn White and Philippe Descola largely align with Hundt's position: A person in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance would have viewed themself as the ruler or overseer of nature and therefore as justified in using God's other creations for their own purposes. Yet according to Magnus Hundt, this image of humanity includes a corollary, one which clearly emerges in certain parts of his writings: As a steward, man cannot enrich himself from nature's bounty without regard to the consequences. Hundt also emphasizes that man would be well advised to recognize his dependence on plants and animals. Without them, he would search for sustenance in vain.

Using Hundt's thoughts for today

Magnus Hundt's example clearly illustrates the true problem with overuse of natural resources: When humans exploit nature without regard for the costs, they are laboring under a false understanding of the meaning of the word dominion and have misunderstood their role as stewards of nature. To act as a "steward" also means to accept certain responsibilities and perform the duty of keeping the system running sustainably over the long term.

Applied to contemporary questions, that means: Particularly now, when we know the risks of overexploiting natural resources, if we are to serve as rulers or overseers of nature, we must adopt sustainable lives and behaviors. This includes refusing to allow short-term economic incentives or conveniences to be our top priorities and instead recalling our own dependence on and humility before nature.

According to Hundt, man can only truly live up to his exalted station in the world if he is able to do this. Although the medieval anthropology seems to separate humans and other creatures, this does not necessary imply that the ideological origins of the current environmental crisis can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

The idea of prioritizing humanity over the rest of nature may no longer seem in line with current thinking. Yet when it comes to the environment, this idea is not problematic per se; it only becomes an issue when humans fail to understand their role as stewards and act irresponsibly. As Hundt's work illustrates, these factors did not necessarily conflate in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As the same rules continue to apply today, Hundt's analysis provides an interesting contribution to contemporary political debates.

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