The Death of Nature

Reading Carolyn Merchant’s touchstone 1980 book The Death of Nature, you realize that the environment crises are not due, at root, to particular human behaviors. The problem is not, in other words, simply that we’re driving cars, eating beef and playing ice hockey in Tampa in June.

The problem, rather, is the entire way we think about the natural world.
Merchant’s book documents the great shift in consciousness that took place in Western societies, mostly between 1500 and 1700. In very broad terms, at the start of this time period, most people viewed nature as an organic entity – a living being, like an animal. By its end, people saw the world as a machine, something that could be taken apart, reassembled and exploited at human pleasure.

When that time period began, nature was a mother, a bountiful giver, the generous source of life. When it ended, she was a coy mistress, a hider of secrets who must be forced to surrender them. (Merchant’s analysis is explicitly feminist.)

In ancient times, when nature was exploited, people did it somewhat apologetically, or at least thankfully (as in Native American propitiation for the hunt); by 1700, as now, nature was exploited boastfully, as in a military conquest.

In documenting this momentous shift, Merchant names many familiar thinkers: Locke, Bacon (a midwife to the modern notion of “progress” through “mastery” of nature); Descartes (who popularized the view of nature as machine); Hobbes; and Newton, who in the 17th century created the intellectual world that we still inhabit, one in which nature consists of dead, mindless atoms animated by God’s laws – a model for how humans are to treat the earth as well.

Of course, prior to 1500, humans did exploit the earth, even to the point where civilizations collapsed. And much of the ravages of the industrial age are due to humanity’s sheer numbers. Would all this be true if those 7 billion just thought differently?

Ah, but those numbers, too, are largely due to the scientific mindset, one whose approach to agriculture, etc., allowed (forced?) humanity to increase its numbers beyond the earth’s carrying capacity.

Moreover, as Merchant incisively notes, it is easy to trace how the intellectuals who were developing this new mindset espoused ideas that dovetailed quite nicely with those of the ruling class – especially the rising proto-capitalist merchants, like the ones who in England enclosed the commons, drained the marshes, and built the trade vessels for whose oaken timbers Britain was stripped of its once-glorious old-growth forests.

The scientific revolution was the ideological water-carrier the nascent global capitalism that would, in a very brief time relative to human history, bully the entire planet to the brink of ecological collapse.

“Living animate nature died, while dead inanimate money was endowed with life,” Merchant writes of the scientific revolution’s fallout. “Increasingly capital and the market would assume the organic attributes of growth, strength, activity, pregnancy, weakness, dcay, and collapse obscuring and mystifying the new underlying social relations of production and reproduction that make economic growth and progress possible.”

When the earth is a machine, one part is as good as another, or as meaningless. And the world is become piecemeal, without any sense of how removing one piece – an ore, a stream, a species – can affect or even destroy the whole.

Modern ecological study and other forms of systemic thinking (to say nothing of quantum physics) still struggle to understand what people whom European philosophers derided as “primitive” knew – no part is the same without the whole, no whole the same without all its parts.

Our attitude toward nature remains stuck in the 17th century. Would that it could be stuck in the 12th.

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