History of Humanity's Relationship with Nature

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Taken from a four-part essay by Ross Wolfe:

"At some points, nature was viewed as an adversary to be feared, bringing plague, catastrophe, and famine to ravage mankind. Often these elemental forces were either animistically, naturalistically, or totemistically embodied as divine powers in themselves,or anthropomorphized as gods who commanded these forces as they saw fit. When cataclysms occurred, it was because the gods or spirits had somehow been enraged by the misdeeds of men, and thus they unleashed their fury upon the mass of fear-stricken mortals. In Christian times, this same logic persisted, with periods of plenty seen as signs of God’s providence and grace, while periods of blight were viewed as God’s wrath, brought on by the sinfulness and iniquity of men.

Later, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, nature was reenvisioned as dead matter, abiding by a set of mechanical but unknown laws, which could be discovered and mastered through careful study and observation under controlled conditions. As the Baconian dictum went, contra Aristotle: “the secrets of nature reveal themselves better through harassments applied by the arts [torture] than when they go on in their own way.” Thus began the “conquest” of nature, the quest to harness its forces so that they may serve the ends of mankind. Robbed of their mysterious properties, natural objects therefore became “disenchanted,” in the Weberian sense. With the arrival of the Enlightenment, as Hegel recognized, “the intellect will cognize what is intuited as a mere thing, reducing the sacred grove to mere timber.”

Romanticism responded to this alienation from nature with a sense of tragic loss, and sought to regain what they saw as the fractured unity of man and nature. The Romantics exalted the primitive, celebrating the charming naïveté of the ancient Greeks or their modern-day counterparts, who appeared in the form of “noble savages.” The playwright Friedrich Schiller even dedicated an essay to the distinction between the “naïve”and “sentimental” in poetry. For modern man, he asserted, “nature has disappeared from our humanity, and we can reencounter it in its genuineness only outside of humanity in the inanimate world. Not our greater naturalness [Naturmäßigkeit], but the very opposite, the unnaturalness [Naturwidrigkeit] of our relationships, conditions, and mores forces us to fashion a satisfaction in the physical world that is not to be hoped for in the moral world.” The Romantics thus preferred the bucolic simplicity of the small old village to the sprawling chaos of the modern city. Vitalistic explanations of nature, like Goethe’s and Schelling’s, were offered as alternatives to the Democritean-Newtonian vision of the universe as composed of dead matter and obeying a changeless set of mechanical laws.

Despite its nostalgia for a bygone simplicity of life and man’s unity with nature, the Romantic worldview was gradually overtaken by that belonging to the modern industrialist. To the industrialist, nature presented itself as a wealth of raw materials waiting to be exploited. Through the application of human labor, these natural resources could be transformed into social products, valuable commodities to be distributed to the whole of society. “Man when producing wealth acts upon the things which Nature supplies,” wrote Alfred Marshall, the famous British economist. “The gifts of Nature to man are firstly materials such as iron, stone, wood, etc., and secondly, forces such as the power of the wind, and the heat of the sun, the source whence all other powers are derived.” Wealth, Marshall claimed, could only be generated through the action of men on these natural materials, whose worthiness could only be evaluated according to their potential utility.

He continued:

- The agents of production are then Nature’s forces, and Man’s force; man’s force being generally most efficient when it is so applied as to control and direct nature’s forces, rather than to counteract them. And the wealth of a country depends upon the manner in which nature’s forces and man’s force work together in the production of wealth.

One might note how much the modern industrialist’s perspective on nature mirrors that of the Enlightenment man of science. For both, nature is conceived as nothing more than the sum of dead matter and the mechanical forces that compel it. The difference is that, while a Bacon or Descartes might be interested in natural products insofar as they might understand them, a Rockefeller or a Carnegie would be more interested in the way they might be exploited so as to generate value.

Though Romanticism took a “dark” and urbanistic turn toward the middle of the century (think Baudelaire and the Symbolists) all the way up to the fin-de-siècle, many of the sentiments it originally possessed toward nature survived alongside Europe’s rapid industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century. The American Transcendentalists are only one of the more notable movements confirming this fact. In the twentieth century, however, the various currents stemming from early nineteenth-century Romanticism began to reemerge, tying themselves to a number of different political tendencies. Preservationists, environmentalists, vegetarians, and nudists joined in with groups from all shades of the political spectrum: Teddy Roosevelt-style big-game conservationism in America, NSDAP fascism in Germany, the pseudo-left Front Populaire in interwar France. Following the end of the war, these tendencies joined in with sections of the international New Left and later the nebulous “post-ideological” Left in the second half of the century.

For most of these groups, the environmentalists tended to view any exploitation of nature by man as invasive, as a transgression of its inherent sanctity. Nature for them became something of a Kantian Ding-an-Sich, something inviolable and essentially unknowable. Its continued “natural” existence, uncorrupted by the malign influence of society, came to be considered a kind of virtue in itself. Untouched wilderness was thought to constitute some sort of pristine, prelapsarian paradise existing in perfect harmony with itself. It was thus to be set apart from any considerations of its utility to society. Faced with the reality of the increased industrial exploitation of natural sites, however, environmental activists blamed the rapid destruction of the environment on the expansion of global capitalism and corporate greed run amok. And so they marched in protest of the further exploitation of the environment, spouting apocalyptic rhetoric and predicting ecological catastrophe. All of humanity is doomed, they say, should mankind not mend its ways. In some sense, this almost marks a return to the primitive belief that the sinfulness of humanity will be met with wrath, and it is almost ironic that the rising sea levels resulting from the melting of the ice caps should recapitulate the biblical Flood. Modern society for the environmentalists constitutes a sort of capitalist Sodom and Gomorrah, which will soon be punished by Mother Nature. This is the sort of environmentalism one often encounters today, the dispensationalist hysteria almost eclipsing the sound scientific evidence on which the theory of global warming is based. These are the times in which we live.

Returning to the original purpose of this outline, however, what should all these various historical conceptions of nature tell us? First of all, it should tell us that the conception of nature is in large part dependent on the society for which it is an object of contemplation. Nature, though it probably does operate according to an unchanging set of uniform physical laws, has a significance beyond its mere existence in itself. The concept of “nature” also carries with it a great deal of ideological baggage, and reflects the superstructures of thought in any given age. The problem, going forward, is thus not merely to find some sort of solution to the prospect of a potential ecological collapse, but to formulate nature as a social problem. The question of humanity’s relationship to nature goes far beyond “saving the planet” or any such platitude; it involves at its core the disalienation of man from nature, and their reconciliation thereby. No amount of recycling, collecting of litter, or “going Green” will solve this fundamental issue. The resolution of the problem of man and nature can only be reached through radical social transformation, and not by the aggregate sum of superficial actions that only treat mere symptoms rather than the underlying problem." (http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/man-and-nature-parts-i-iv-complete/)

More Information

  1. Part 1 at http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/2011/03/22/man-and-nature-part-i-the-shifting-historical-conceptions-of-nature/
  2. Part 2: Marxism and Nature, http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/2011/03/23/man-and-nature-part-ii-the-marxist-theory-of-man%e2%80%99s-alienation-from-nature/
  3. Part 3: the structuralist opposition of nature and culture, http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/2011/03/24/man-and-nature-part-iii-an-excursus-into-the-structuralist-opposition-of-nature-and-culture/
  4. Part 4: radical critique of the false antinomies of the green movement, http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/man-and-nature-parts-i-iv-complete/