Reply To: Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature Reply To: Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature

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Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche # Posted on April 1, 2014 at 08:43

How does Carolyn Merchant help us understand better environmental history?

Yesterday we had an interesting discussion about Carolyn Merchant’s ideas – discovered when reading “The Death of Nature” (1980) and listening to her online lecture.
Merchant argues that the Scientific Revolution and modernity have brought a new worldview to govern – namely the mechanistic worldview. In pre-modern times, the Earth was considered as a living organism, a nurturing mother that needed to be cared for. But the Scientific Revolution, characterized by close-contained experiments, has instituted the idea that the world is made up of dead matter, like a clock-governed machine. Merchant deplores the fact that the mechanistic worldview and the philosophy of Francis Bacon have ruled the Western world and still rules today, leading us to a global ecological crisis. According to her, this vision of the world allowed men to dominate nature and women by the same thought-process. Merchant argues for a new relationship with the Earth, a partnership ethics that would allow women, minorities, and people of color to make their voice heard.
Reading the book and listening to the lecture, I was under the impression that nothing of what Merchant argues was new to me, as a student of environmental history for the last six months.
The idea of domination is really nothing new, and through the program’s readings and lectures I had encountered it many times before. Still, I think it is interesting that Merchant advances some eco-feminist ideas about the intimate relationship between the domination of women and the domination of nature. I am myself perplex about ecofeminism, for androcentrism is a very interesting and appealing explanation of the world’s troubles but I am not sure how a matriarchal world would have turned out to be. There were women in the worse dictatorships in Western history, in the Nazi regime and the Stalinist one. What would a matriarchal society resemble? It would be interesting to dig more into the history of matriarchy to find out if really a matriarchal society would be free of conflicts and wars as Merchant and other eco-feminist philosophers seem to argue.
I was also sometimes bothered by the lack of precision in Merchant’s argumentation, sometimes her ideas remain in the vague. For example she argues that Renaissance cosmology viewed Nature both as a nurturing mother and as a witch inflicting disorder. There can be found many paradoxes of this kind in her argumentations, and sometimes I felt that her whole theory remains very intellectual and does not have much practical sense. Also, I surely do not agree that the organic worldview was replaced by a mechanistic worldview for there were many philosophers after the Scientific Revolution who still considered the Earth as a living organism.
I do not think reading Carolyn Merchant has considerably changed my understanding of environmental history, however I think reading her has allowed me to learn more in the field of history of science and ideas – a very interesting discipline and surely very useful for environmental historians.