In his controversial encyclical on climate change, Pope Francis delivered a scathing critique of environmental degradation and called for “an ecological conversion” among fellow Christians. A century earlier, however, another environmental debate prompted its own version of soul-searching among the faithful.
By the summer of 1915, a year into the cataclysm of the First World War, the combatant nations had settled into a deadlock of industrialized slaughter. Millions of soldiers already had perished in the trenches and barbed wire and mortar fire along the Western Front, with nothing to show for it.
“Injuries were wrought to the structure of human society which a century will not efface” wrote Winston Churchill, “and which may conceivably prove fatal to the present civilization.”
Often neglected in the story, though, is how the Great War destroyed not only countless soldiers and civilians, but also their environment. Across much of Europe, entire forests disappeared; fields and farms were turned into craters.
Describing a scene near Amiens, author Vera Brittain, looking for the grave of her fiancé, found “grotesque trunks of skeleton trees, with their stripped, shattered branches still pointing to heaven in grim protest against man’s ruthless cruelty to nature as well as man.”
World War I produced, in essence, an environmental holocaust.
This aspect of the conflict left a deep impression on two Christian authors and Oxford dons, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Having personally experienced the awful prodigy of modern industry and technology — both men fought in the trenches in France — they enlisted nature itself as a protagonist in their epic stories of good vs. evil.
Even before the war, Tolkien and Lewis had come to resent the encroachment of industrial life into rural England. Tolkien lamented “the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare,” meaning the modern attempt to enhance our control over the world around us, regardless of the consequences.
In “The Lord of the Rings,” Saruman the wizard “has a mind for metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.” The hateful realm of Mordor is sustained by its black engines and factories.
Likewise, Lewis viewed respect for nature as intrinsic to human happiness.
In “The Chronicles of Narnia,” his series of books for children, the various animals play a central role in the story. The smallest of creatures — such as a mouse named Reepicheep — display the greatest of human virtues.
As biographer Alister McGrath observes: “Lewis’ portrayal of animal characters in Narnia is partly a protest against shallow assertions of humanity’s right to do what it pleases with nature.”
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