Sense and Nonsense: The Greening of Eden

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Writing on environmental aberrations in the Washington Times, Alston Chase, a good writer in this thorny field, proposes that the hostility of environmental advocates to human progress goes back to the Garden of Eden, to its suggestion that in the beginning man was good and in complete harmony with nature. To cure subsequent pollution and imbalances, we need to return to the harmony between man and nature symbolized by the Garden.

Modern environmental movements, by implication, claim the knowledge to achieve this restoration. “American society is profoundly influenced by the myths of the Golden Age and Garden of Eden—beliefs that in the beginning the world was perfect but ever since has been going to Hell . . . .” In brief, ecology can save us from this fiery destiny.

Chase speculates that Creation myths serve a political function. They impose political discipline on the people. These myths gain their force, not from their own truth, but from their political efficacy.

Marx, reversing this thesis, placed the Garden, disguised as the classless society, at the end, not the beginning, of history. History was not a decline from the good but a march toward it. The “Green” movement, in Chase’s view, uses the Garden of Eden to imply that man is the cause of our environmental problems and hence must be controlled. This faulty notion “legitimizes” an ecological-political elite. “So long as the public believes greens are needed to `restore pre-settlement conditions,’ their places atop the political pyramid remain secure.” To post-Marxists, the attraction of environmentalism is the rationale it offers to restore power to the state against man’s freedom.


Looked at in this light, many Marxist ideas appear in another form in the environmental movement. The Garden of Eden is returned to the beginning. Evil is not caused by property and family, but by the presence of man himself. Ecology functions as a natural religion, as an explanation of man, god, and earth, in which the settled preservation of the earth down the ages becomes the “good” for which mankind exists, if it has a reason to exist at all.

The protection of species replaces and subordinates the dignity of man as an individual person. Man, god, and earth become fused together in a kind of pantheism wherein what is transcendent is not God as a being who created the world but the earth itself with the universe in which it revolves. Man’s appearance and destiny are not the purpose and climax of creation, but threats against its perfection.

Chase is right to see how the Garden of Eden is used to justify the anti-progressivism of the ecology movement. In the Genesis account, however, man is given a special place in creation. He is given dominion over the other creatures. Moreover, the condition of the world is related to man’s own relation to God. Creation is seen as good; man knows and rules it; it is also incomplete by itself. The world is in need of further development precisely because of man’s pursuit of what he is about.

If we are going to say the Genesis account of the Garden is the cause of opposition to progress, we also have to say that its admonition to “increase, multiply, and subdue the earth” is the cause of progress.

Genesis includes, moreover, an account of The Fall, as if to suggest that the condition of the earth, its potential and what is likely to happen to it, is connected with man’s own relation to himself and to God. Chase might have written a more sophisticated essay if he saw the Garden of Eden in a more complete light, to include both the “increase and multiply” and The Fall, which places the cause of all disorder in the human will, not in nature.

In Chase’s account, the Garden of Eden, in the wrong hands, is a politically dangerous myth. He does not appear to see how, in its fullness, it is a useful account of the truth he is trying to maintain; namely, that on earth man and his intelligence are not aberrations but causes of its improvement and perfection. Moreover, the central drama of man’s existence does not arise between man and nature but between God and man. If this latter relationship is disordered, Genesis teaches, then man’s relation to nature will be distorted.

We can admit a positive relation between human progress and the condition of the earth without at the same time implying that the account of the Garden of Eden itself is the problem. More accurately than other sources, it describes where the real problem lies. The cause of our discontents lies in our wills, not in our gardens.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).