Martin Hodson reviews “Environmental Thought. A Short History” by Robin Attfield

Dr Martin J Hodson

How did we get where we are?? What is behind the ethical and theological positions we take on the environment? Robin Attfield is a leading environmental philosopher and ethicist, and has been at the forefront of these areas for many years. Here he writes something slightly different, but related, a history of environmental thought. It is a very good book, is easy to read, and fills in a lot of the background to an awful lot of topics. The scope of the book is vast, and it is not a massive tome, so inevitably some topics are given little space, and others are missed out altogether (see below). But where else would you find Empedocles, Charles Darwin, David Bellamy, James Lovelock, Aldo Leopold, Arthur Tansley, Jürgen Moltmann and Gerard Manley Hopkins all in one volume? Rather amazingly, JRI gets its own mention: “Thus, when Lynn White (1967) effectively challenged the Christian world to rediscover the attitudes of St Francis, one central response was to reaffirm the teachings of advocates of stewardship, not least through the inauguration of the John Ray Initiative (founded 1997).” I take this to refer to the thinking of our founders, Professor Sam Berry and Sir John Houghton, who were both strong advocates for Christian stewardship. But this is not primarily a theology book, but a history book, although environmental theology does figure in a number of places.

Quite deliberately, Attfield speeds through his material to begin with, and we only have two chapters before we reach Darwin. What I really liked was that reading the book gave me an overview of a huge amount of topics and linked them together in my mind. As an undergraduate I studied ecology, and I was introduced to concepts like ecosystem, hydrophytes and xerophytes, succession, climax vegetation, plant communities, and population cycles. But I never quite worked out where they came from or who was behind them. Maybe I wasn’t listening that well, but I think the concepts were largely taught divorced from their history. I have actually published academic papers in the journal, New Phytologist, but I never knew its origins- I do now! I have friends who are senior editors of the Journal of Ecology and the Journal of Animal Ecology. Again the history of the journals was unknown to me.

For years now, I have been interested in environmental ethics. I co-led a module on it for Oxford Brookes University with my wife, Margot, and together we wrote the Grove booklet, An Introduction to Environmental Ethics. I have loved getting to grips with this topic, and then linking the ethics with my science and my faith. Attfield, not surprisingly, has the history of environmental ethics at his fingertips. We look at George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau- the American Debate as Attfield has it. And they all kind of led up to Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. We see anthropocentric, biocentric and ecocentric views all competing with each other in some respects. Religion is often involved, but often not.

The later part of the book considers topics such as ecofeminism, environmental justice and green political movements. We end by considering the environmental issues the author considers to be most crucial: pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change.

But what is missing? Attfield has ranged over a huge amount of material, but what would I have added in if there was room?

I found it slightly odd that although Islamic views on the environment get some coverage, Jewish views beyond biblical times are almost entirely absent. Spinoza does get a mention, but he was expelled from the Jewish community because of his controversial ideas, and he is certainly not in the mainstream of Jewish religious thought. But Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) is a towering figure in Jewish religious and philosophical thought, and he rejected anthropocentric views of the world. His work was hugely influential even beyond Judaism, and Thomas Aquinas refers to Maimonides in a number of his works. Perhaps less well known is kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1572) who developed the doctrine of zimzum, a self-limitation of God. This idea has been taken up by a number of Christian theologians, and Jürgen Moltmann has a whole section of his book, God in Creation, on it where he uses it to expand on the idea of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). Rabbinic ideas have had more influence on environmental thinking than is often realised.

One fairly big omission, in my mind, is that there is no mention at all for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or for the preceding Millennium Development Goals. Yet there is plenty on sustainability, and development comes up in a number of places as well. The SDGs are a major plank in the United Nations plans for environmental sustainability, but sadly they just don’t get the attention they deserve even in an academic context like this. I was also surprised that there was no space in the chapter on the environmental crisis for the Planetary Boundaries concept, which certainly is a dominant theme within scientific discourse on this topic.

But the truth is that almost anyone reading this book who has any knowledge of these topics will say “what about this person?” or “what about that idea?” It is just not possible to fit everything in. If I had tried to write this book I would have done far worse. There are whole areas that I had only sketchy ideas about until I read Environmental Thought. Robin Attfield is to be congratulated on his excellent book. It deserves a wide readership.


Dr Martin J. Hodson

Operations Director, JRI

Environmental Thought. A Short History by Robin Attfield is published by Polity Presss (Cambridge, 2021)