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by Brian Griffith
Fernwood Publishing, 2001
reviewed by Seth Crook

What happens to cultures when their environment becomes a desert? Griffith’s sweeping history ranges across China, North Africa, and the Middle East. Three conclusions emerge. Women come to be seen as less productive and so are treated badly; means of coercion become more important than means of production; local worldviews become hostile towards the environment. As he notes, this is worrying if you have the gloomy view that sees a likely future expansion of deserts. Griffith isn’t gloomy. Land and cultures can be healed.

Understanding history aids understanding of how things are now. Many reactionary attitudes towards women, often casually associated with Islam, are, he suggests, better seen as indirect products of the desert environment. They belong to ‘the desert tradition’, something frequently opposed by Islamic figures. The chapter, “Women’s Place in the Desert” explains a good deal. Gardens, local plants and small herds allowed women to make a huge contribution whilst also keeping an eye on the children. When dry conditions lessen this source, and when raiding becomes more important, their lot becomes grim.

The third theme, the spread of ideological hostility to the natural world, is the most intriguing. Those with an interest in the long-standing debate about the role of Abrahamic religions in fostering environmentally unfriendly attitudes will profit from reflection on the desert background and some of Griffith’s suggestions. Is it a surprise that a more anthropocentric culture flows from living in an ‘inanimate world’? Might a sharply contrasting environment account for the belief in a paradise and (a hot) hell? Do harsh conditions account for the idea that the world is a mere testing ground?

Then there is the dust driven spread of attitudes. The desert tradition is pictured as shaping the early structures of Christianity, which in turn spread into Europe, defeating cultures that may have been friendlier towards women and the environment. Historian Lynn White famously and controversially argued that the modern ecological crisis flows from a technology and science heavily influenced by a background religious view that saw the world as ‘for us’, a mere resource. Griffith’s book can be counted as an important supplement, a tracing of some relevant religious views back to the desert.

“Religion from the desert became ‘western religion’, as we know it. Out of that heritage, ‘western science and economics’ presumed that the planet is a dead resource, and that only the human community matters.” (p.12)

He concludes with chapters providing a potted cultural history of Europe, from the sand to un-insulated wiring.

But there is too little on a question: why wouldn’t these attitudes be gradually undermined, especially those towards women, when they spread to greener lands? Desert born, perhaps, but their further use and entrenchment may have little to do with the largely desert background of the early Christian figures who put together the Nicene Creed. Successful geographical extensions, rather than attempts or short-runs, require explanation. There is an internal story to be told about what happens in greener lands. The point matters because it raises a doubt about his dramatic idea that there was a “Near Eastern Cultural Conquest of Europe” (p. 285). Cultural influence, but why ‘Conquest’? Early bagpipes may have come to Scotland via the Roman army, but that doesn’t mean we can talk of the bagpipe tradition as a cultural conquest from elsewhere. Why would it be different in the case of desert influenced Christian structures of thought? Or consider his suggestion (p. 54) that the West held a view of “the world as inanimate” as an inheritance from the desert tradition. Imports can be sustained and find new life via other factors. His ‘high priests of the age of reason’, who, he says, merely retained the ‘inanimate’ view, may have had their own good philosophical reasons. We may still.

This article was printed in New Renaissance, Vol. 12, No. 1  Posted on the web on January 10, 2007