In 1967 a history professor from the University of California delivered a paper in which he argued the world’s environmental degradation had its roots in the Judeo-Christian notion of dominion. When the biblical text declared that humankind was to “rule” and “subdue” the earth it was mandating a view that creation exists to serve our interests.
Lyn White was surely correct that this was the way most theologians interpreted the text, but in Living with Other Creatures, Richard Baulkham points out that this interpretation owes more to Aristotle than Jesus. Aristotle and many after him imagined the universe as a great chain of being, with the gods at the top, humankind below them, animals below humans, and plants below animals. Each part existed to serve those above it. Early Christian theologians were schooled in Greek philosophy, accepted the Aristotelian paradigm, and used it as the lens by which they read the bible.
But this lens is not the lens of the biblical story. In the biblical tradition leadership is focused on service. In the book of Proverbs, for example, a king by the name Lemuel is advised against using his power self indulgently. His responsibility is rather to secure the rights of his most vulnerable subjects (proverbs 31.1-9). Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah castigated king Shallum for his self-aggrandising ways, when he could have served the interests of the poor like his father Josiah did. Then there is Jesus who taught that leadership is about serving rather than being served.
Read Genesis 1 through this lens and the mandate to rule and subdue is not a call to be served by the creation and the nonhuman animals, but to serve them. It is God’s world and our responsibility is to ensure it flourishes.
So I reckon it’s time to say goodbye to the Aristotelian paradigm and embrace the biblical.