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“The Power of Things: Can We Change Ourselves By Changing Our Environments?”

Ecological Challenges Workshop, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway


At least from the time of Lynn White’s seminal 1967 paper, “The Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” scholars have recognized that the western Christian tradition has often worked against the idea of sustainable ecological civilizations. Yet both western religion and science were similarly rooted in the belief that humans are special because they alone are creatures of spirit and intellect. In this paper, I examine the evolution of these ideas as they have persisted into the present, evident in the assumption common to both humanists and scientists that cultural phenomena—ideas, technology, power—are largely immaterial in their origins. There can be no natural history of ideas and creativity, while power is too often understood primarily solely a social construct. However, neo-materialists and post-humanists have begun to explore the ways in which human culture and society emerge from and with material environment or nature, while a growing body of scientific evidence suggest how the way we think and act are influenced by everything from the microbes in our guts to environmental chemicals in our brains. In sum, science and the humanities are now beginning to converge to offer a more compelling way of understanding the human relationship to the world, thus offering new potentials for creating a more ecological sustainable future.