H.H. Shugart, a systems ecologist at the University of Virginia, has written a book using the Book of Job to frame both environmental change over the long period of human history and how we are transforming the planet’s ecology today. Shugart’s major goal is to bring the insights of religious studies to those of science to create a conversation between scholars of religion and scientists. While I’m not totally convinced there is a particularly useful conversation to have there, Shugart has written a very good book explaining both short and long-term ecological change in plain language while placing it all within a valuable historical context.
The Book of Job is well-known, even among the non-religious, for its story of the plight of a good man who God decides to test by taking everything from him. Shugart points out that this story is actually pre-Biblical, probably adapted from earlier religions to the Jewish context. Some of the Book of Job is God speaking to Job through a whirlwind, asserting his superiority to Job through challenging him on the knowledge of the world. Shugart takes a couple of verses from the whirlwind speech to frame each of his chapters explaining global ecological change over the history of humans.
Take for example Chapter 4, which explores how humans have affected species distribution around the globe, from extinctions to intentional introductions of animals that become pests. Shugart starts the chapter with three verses from Job 39:
Who has let the wild ass go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass, to which I have given the steppe for its home, the salt land for its dwelling place It scorns the tumult of the city; it does not hear the shouts of the driver.
The ass of the Book of Job was the onager, a now nearly extinct oversized donkey of the Near East. Shugart explores the archaeological evidence on the animals, showing Syrian paintings of onager-drawn chariots from 3000-2800 BCE to demonstrate they were probably domesticated. But the onager exists only in tiny populations today. The horse, an animal originating in modern-day Kazakhstan, replaced it after what seems to have been a genetic mutation leading to its ability to be bred in captivity and its rapid expansion by 2000 BCE. Onagers began to disappear from Sumerian writings around the same time. Today, most of the prehistoric horse-like creatures are either critically endangered, in decline, or already extinct. This was a choice by humans to favor the horse and humans are the ultimate keystone species, controlling the ecosystem in which they live. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, humans have done this for thousands of years. From rabbits in Australia to starlings in the United States, humans have spread species around in order to fulfill their aesthetic desires, creating major transformations in the animal world and ecology at large. If God asked Job “who has set the wild ass free,” Shugart finds similar questions in “who has set the starling free” in New York or “who has set the smallpox free” in Native America after 1492. Whether done by God or humans, rapid ecological change can certainly have such radical and rapid transformation as to make one thing the gods have turned against you. And more broadly, people are transforming a planet they do not understand.
Shugart supplies similar histories and insights to issues including bird migration, winds, climate change, and oceans. Each of these things have long been observed by humans and most if not all civilizations have attempted to understand them. Like people through history, Polynesians attempted to understand the stars, eventually developing navigation systems based around this. They used their ability to read the stars in order to spread across the Pacific. In doing so, they brought new animals to places that created widespread extinction and transforming the plant ecology of the region. Understanding the planet does not just have long-term or deep time implications, but helped shape recent history as well. Both the English and Germans were developing tide prediction machines in the early twentieth century that influenced World War II. Rommel was so certain that he had prevented an Allied invasion in June 1944 because of his understanding of tides that he was in Berlin celebrating his wife’s birthday when it began, dates decided in large part by Eisenhower because Rommel’s tidal defenses meant the Allies needed a low tide with a late rising moon.
In thinking about weather, Shugart notes “It is no surprise that the power to control the weather is a principal dimension of divine omnipotence.” Peoples throughout history have indeed tried to influence the weather and continue to do so today as we try to figure out ways to deal with climate change. In doing so, he provides succinct descriptions of both historical attempts to control the weather (including Congress actually funding some theory that the battles of the Civil War led to more rain) and the science behind attempting to mitigate climate change today. This is useful stuff, not so much for the specialist or even the religious person interested in environmental issues, but rather its greatest value lies in effectively explaining historical ecological change to a lay audience.
This review has largely focused on some of the scientific and ecological discussion rather than the religious side of proceedings, which often get left behind outside the introduction and conclusion to the chapters. I think it is an open question whether the insights of religion really have that much to say to scientists. Is it useful for scientists to understand that their attempts to understand the world have a long history? Sure. I’m not sure what they then do with that however. Perhaps they could reach out more to religious leaders over issues of wildlife protection and climate change to tap into those theological histories, but then we also know that Christian churches in the United States are going to have a, well, varied perspective on these issues as well. In the Book of Job, God knows that humans don’t understand the world. Humans have acted upon the world without understanding it, despite their attempts to do so. As Shugart says, “We must find better answers than we have. Our future depends on it (255).” This is undoubtedly true. Whether religion can help us answer those questions remains debatable, but Foundations of the Earth is at the very least a good primer to the long history of global ecological change.