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

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March 31, 2014 at 11:26 #12154
 Mirabel Joshi

How does Merchant help us understand Global Environmental History?

April 1, 2014 at 08:35 #12172
 berglund_k@hotmail.com

Discussion seminar Carolyn Merchant March 31 – Reflection by Kristina Berglund

How has Merchant helped you in your understanding of environmental history? (Has she?)

Carolyn Merchant’s thought-provoking book ‘The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution’ was in the 1980’s groundbreaking for its thoroughly examination of the connection between women and nature and the exploration of how the view of nature and women have changed throughout history. By focusing on these topics Merchant later gained the epithet ‘Ecofeminist’. The fact that Ecofeminism stems from Merchant’s ideas (amongst others) was new to me, even though I am familiar with the notion of Ecofeminism since before. Ecofeminism as a philosophy and movement has underwent some changes since Merchant’s earliest work is and can be somewhat hard to define. It seems however that it is based on the premise that the oppression of women the domination of nature is fundamentally linked and that this is due to the existence of a patriarchal dualism that places women and the concept of ‘nature’ in the same classification. Despite some relevant criticism that ecofeminism has been exposed to, for example that it holds an essentialist view of women and their affinity to nature, I think it includes some significant points – such as promoting a gender perspective in the environmental debate in general, both in decision making as well as in seeing how women and men are affected by climate change in different ways.

Merchant argues that during the rise of industrialism, when the destruction of the environment worsened the oppression of women also increased in a way never seen before. As the mechanistic world view gained strength, the age old view of the world perceived as a living breathing entity to be nurtured and protected faded away. The before positive perception of women and nature ‘as one’ turned into an obstacle and thus women became more oppressed. As discussed in class though, women have been dominated by men for a very long time, and I am not entirely sure if I see the big difference in female oppression before the scientific revolution and after. In many ways, the situation of women has also improved after the rise of industrialism, and many of the rights I take for granted today I have acquired thanks to the struggle of many women and feminists before my time.

For me, Merchant’s book ‘The Death of Nature’ has added to my understanding of environmental history as a comprehensive review of history of ideas and theory about changing perceptions of women and ecology. Her ideas of a transition from an organic worldview to a mechanistic worldview and the dichotomies of human-nature are not new for us in the global environmental history program. It has been discussed in different ways in the Current Debates course by both Alf Hornborg and Jason Moore as well as in the previous semester. However, I found Merchant’s specific focus on the connection between women and nature and the Ecofeminism theories to be an interesting expansion of my understanding of environmental history, and I am sure it will be possible to continue to discuss it in connection to future themes in the program.

April 1, 2014 at 08:43 #12173
 Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche

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.

April 1, 2014 at 10:14 #12178
 Sabbath Sunday

Seminar 5, Mon 31st March:
Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature.
Reflections by Sabbath Sunday

Carolyn Merchant’s book, ‘The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution.’ is a continuous mainstream approach by history scholars to link natural history to human history in their attempt to strengthen environmental history as a multidisciplinary field of study. Donald Worster who is believed to be the ‘founder’ of environmental history, argued that it entails three categories: natural history or environments of the past, modes of production and ideas, perceptions, values and philosophy. So, it is from this background that I draw my reflection on how relevant is Carolyn Merchant’s book to environmental history.

Carolyn Merchant combines all categories of environmental history, from the point of view of ecological philosophy. She develops her ideas/arguments through a metaphor about a ‘pristine’ nature in a picture of a productive woman who co-creates and sustains life through human ecological reproduction/succession. She identifies a period in which humans interacted harmoniously with nature until such a time when humans started to convert the organic nature into mechanistic nature with the onset of renaissance. This was the period of cultural development in form of political power and technology that unleashed terror to ‘Mother Nature’ by stripping ‘Her’ naked in search of raw materials for industries, thus degrading the global ecological systems. The process did not end on the surface but also ripping of ‘her flesh’ through excavations. The rush for the ‘New World’ wealth was a direct result of industrialization in Europe where natural resources had been exhausted. Mining, extensive agriculture, and deforestation were the main activities that caused nature ‘the productive woman’, to be subordinated by a capitalistic system.

Carolyn Merchant’s philosophy calls for reawakening of women to realize their positions in human ecology in relation to their attitudes towards all environmental systems that form nature. Environmental activism and philosophy like ecofeminism is an attempt to restore/rehabilitate the humiliated ‘Mother Nature’ to an ethical state of harmony and respect. Women should be at the forefront of fighting for nature because both nature and women have been dominated from time immemorial. However, this can only be achieved through a sustainable perspective of development and gender equality, because humans have always depended on the products of nature.

April 1, 2014 at 15:42 #12194
 wytt2002@sina.com

Yesterday we have an excited discussion about Merchant, C’ book< Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution>. To be honest I have to admit that as a philosophy concept I am not familiar with the concept Ecofeminism, I felt it is hard to define it. But is very interesting to find the connection between nature and women. Using the gender theory is a clever way to help me as a student who lacking of background know exactly the relationship between human being with nature. On certain level I agree with Carolyn Merchant that, the mechanistic worldview which ruled our thinking after the scentific revolution made the world became to a dead matter. I have deep impression about comparing the relationship between men and women to the relationship between human being and nature.In a long term men have dominated the nature, set up social rules that more often good for them. Women always be put in the corner, under the power shadow of man. As human being, the successful economic and technical develop have made us believe in that, we could do whatever no matter what the nature would suffer. Like in the past time man used be serviced by women, today we still used to be seviced by nature. But women should not belong to men, they must be treated as same as what men got. The same with nature, look at in historical view, nature never belong to human being, but we human being actually belong to them. We are part of nature, we should always remind ourseleves the point.

April 1, 2014 at 15:51 #12195
 fszys1990@gmail.com

Reflection by Yaqi Fu
Question: How does Merchant help us understand Global Environmental History?

From the book “The death of nature” and her lecture, I have got a clear trail of changes on how human viewed nature in different time among Western countries. From the nurturing mother in ancient time to the witch image in renaissance age, and then to subordinates of human’s control, and last to now the partnership with human, nature’s image is always changing. Though examining these changes, I understand more of the global Environmental history in terms of ideas and thoughts.

Among these changes, what I found most interesting or still confusing me is the change from the nurturing mother to witch. This change is by no means trivial, and indeed a big shift. How did it happen? Merchant explained the disorder of nature happened because “the discoveries of ‘new science’”, “the social upheavals” and the release of people’s vices. Although she also admitted, nature is both virgin and witch like woman, what she wanted to stress in the renaissance is nevertheless the witch portrait of nature. But backing to ancient time, she did by no means present the witch side as a part of nature. Then I wondered how the witch nature could hide so long behind the nurturing mother in ancient time until the Renaissance. In common sense, natural disasters should be serious and untamed which made people suffered more before the age science was developed. Probably Merchant did not admit this side in ancient time or because the ancient writers did not provide her such materials or she partially used the records. Whatever, I may think the lack of evilness in ancient nature would be the part she did not explain clearly. What I hope is that she could if possible provide a more comprehensive view about the image of nature in the ancient time.

April 1, 2014 at 19:33 #12197
 Mirabel Joshi

Fellow students, please accept my apologies for making a late posting.

Reflections on the thoughts of Carolyn Merchant:

The history of ideas regarding how we understand nature and therefore also human identity is from my perspective where one has to begin to at all be able to make any sense of the field of environmental history. Why human-nature relations have looked the way they have through history and that we are in a situation today of a global environmental crisis is more or less incomprehensible if the separation between nature and culture is not explained. In this sense Carolyn Merchant has made a great and valuable contribution to the field of environmental history by making the connection between the exploitation of the earth and our view of nature. Also using a ecofeminist perspective has been groundbreaking.

The division between an organic and mechanic worldview I however perceive as an oversimplification that is not helpful as this type of generalisation is useless in an academic argument. Merchant does give countless examples of thinkers that can be divided in to these two categories and point out their particular differences however my question is if the categories of organic and mechanic should be perceived as different traditions of thought or different ideas of practise. Is it the thought that has given rise to the practise or the other way around. Sometimes when studying text from the field the history of ideas I have been under the impression that the perspective of the scholar is that it is the particular tradition of thought that is the reason for a particular practise. But can this really be the case? This is the impression I at times get when reading and listening to Merchant, that thought precedes action. Maybe this is not what Merchant intends in her argument but when she makes the conclusion that partnership ethics are the way forward I get the impression that she is arguing that the ”revolution” which will ”save” Earth is going to happen in our heads by forming ”new ethics” to act upon. To think before acting, can we do this collectively? Maybe it is more pragmatic to expect us to be able to ”feel” collectively before acting rather then thinking.

The view of thought and action as separated strikes me as symptomatic for a mechanistic worldview and this is my real problem with Merchant. The categories of organic and mechanic strikes me as perhaps reproducing the non-constructive dualistic division between body and mind, nature and culture, woman and man, god and evil, light and darkness and so on. There is an strong awareness in Merchants argument that there is a spectrum over time in history of how these traditions of thought have been represented within Western culture but by using these strong categories of organic and mechanic the nuances somehow get lost.

April 1, 2014 at 19:33 #12198
 Mirabel Joshi

Fellow students, please accept my apologies for making a late posting.

Reflections on the thoughts of Carolyn Merchant:

The history of ideas regarding how we understand nature and therefore also human identity is from my perspective where one has to begin to at all be able to make any sense of the field of environmental history. Why human-nature relations have looked the way they have through history and that we are in a situation today of a global environmental crisis is more or less incomprehensible if the separation between nature and culture is not explained. In this sense Carolyn Merchant has made a great and valuable contribution to the field of environmental history by making the connection between the exploitation of the earth and our view of nature. Also using a ecofeminist perspective has been groundbreaking.

The division between an organic and mechanic worldview I however perceive as an oversimplification that is not helpful as this type of generalisation is useless in an academic argument. Merchant does give countless examples of thinkers that can be divided in to these two categories and point out their particular differences however my question is if the categories of organic and mechanic should be perceived as different traditions of thought or different ideas of practise. Is it the thought that has given rise to the practise or the other way around. Sometimes when studying text from the field the history of ideas I have been under the impression that the perspective of the scholar is that it is the particular tradition of thought that is the reason for a particular practise. But can this really be the case? This is the impression I at times get when reading and listening to Merchant, that thought precedes action. Maybe this is not what Merchant intends in her argument but when she makes the conclusion that partnership ethics are the way forward I get the impression that she is arguing that the ”revolution” which will ”save” Earth is going to happen in our heads by forming ”new ethics” to act upon. To think before acting, can we do this collectively? Maybe it is more pragmatic to expect us to be able to ”feel” collectively before acting rather then thinking.

The view of thought and action as separated strikes me as symptomatic for a mechanistic worldview and this is my real problem with Merchant. The categories of organic and mechanic strikes me as perhaps reproducing the non-constructive dualistic division between body and mind, nature and culture, woman and man, god and evil, light and darkness and so on. There is an strong awareness in Merchants argument that there is a spectrum over time in history of how these traditions of thought have been represented within Western culture but by using these strong categories of organic and mechanic the nuances somehow get lost.

April 1, 2014 at 21:57 #12199
 fszys1990@gmail.com

Response to Kristina Berglund, by Yaqi Fu

I saw the concept of eco-feminism is of your main interest and your reflection mostly spread around it. To me, it’s also a complete new idea from Merchant definition of eco-feminism but unfortunately I did not reflect upon it so much. It’s good to hear you comments on it.

I totally agree with your judgment that eco-feminism brings the light of a gender perspective in environmental debates. The new perspective and such new methods will thus help a lot in discuss of environmental issues. It seems that you tend to suppose the rising of eco-feminism has based on the similar condition of nature and women that they are both oppressed by the force of men. Besides the oppression, I think the similarity between woman and nature can be also seen from nurturing mother perspective as Merchant seemed to depict in the ancient time part that nature nurtures human and mother their children.

In your discussion about the relationship between industrialism and the status of women, what I think this would be a complicated issue and I agree with you that in many ways, women’s situation has improved after the industrialism. On another side, it’s obvious the environment was getting worse during the mechanistic age. Maybe Merchant made a not proper link between the degradation of environment with women’s status. But it would be hard to deny that the morals like women’s obedience to men in patriarchal order was in a sense strengthened in the early modern time as showed in many moral books and more. It would be a question to choose and judge, either based on the writing materials to believe women have suffered in the industrial age, or to deduce from the condition of women today that women’s situation experienced improvement during industrial age. Whatever, it by no means can be drawn to a simple conclusion on the issue of women status during scientific age.

Finally, the connection between woman and nature is a good inspiration to our environmental history. Thanks for you sharing this idea and understanding more of the eco-feminism is what I get from your thoughtful reflection.

April 2, 2014 at 09:00 #12202
 Sabbath Sunday

Reply to Mirabel’s reflections by Sabbath Sunday

I agree with you Mirabel in your introduction that there is still a challenge in linking human/cultural and natural histories in order to strengthen our perceptions in environmental history as a multidisciplinary field. This is perhaps because individual disciplines are still ‘protective’ and conservative of their fields. However, the real issues being raised in environmental history require scholars and learners like us to make compromises and shed off the old thinking. Carolyn Merchant is a good example of this observation because in her book, she balances natural history with human/cultural history. Her philosophy of nature as a organic whole in the metaphor of a productive ‘woman’ who has been subjected to domination and degradation in time and space calls for natural history analysis. Meanwhile, the history of humans/culture is depicted in the intensification of exploitation of ‘Mother Nature’ through power and technology which she calls ‘mechanistic nature’.

I am attracted to your mentioned ‘partnerships ethics’ which I agree with because it brings worthwhile ideas which have been agreed on by everybody and can stand the test of time. This actually brings us very close to sustainability as you may know that in order to restore/rehabilitate the environment some long time programmes must be drawn basing on ethics and respect for ‘Mother nature’. The main issue here is to ‘live and let live’. If all mankind were in a collective ethical partnership in conservation and sustainable development then nature would be in harmony with humans. This takes us again to the issue of ecofeminism which I think is a call for gender balance in the ‘partnership ethics’ to protect nature. Needless to say, Carolyn Merchant’s approach to this discourse is ecofeminist because she develops her perceptions of nature in the picture of a woman who has been dominated and humiliated who needs to liberate ‘herself’. However, the onus is on all mankind (both women and men) if we have to continue surviving in harmony with nature. In fact the ‘partnerships ethics’ should be gender sensitive and also between the rich and the poor.

Finally, until today the unfavourable and exploitative relationship between the organic and the mechanical world still looms, but if environmental activism/idealism were intensified, of course including ecofeminism; decision making and policy formulation would be redirected for positive results. Thank you Mirabel for raising these issues.

April 2, 2014 at 14:41 #12216
 berglund_k@hotmail.com

Response to Sarah’s reflection by Kristina Berglund

Sarah, I agree that a lot of the contents of Merchant’s ideas are not new for us in the global environmental history program but as the quote ironically enough goes “repetition is the mother of knowledge” I however found it quite good to be reminded about these ideas once again. I also agree with you that Merchant provided a relevant input in the field of history of science and ideas.

I too have some trouble in making entirely sense of eco-feminism, I hoover between thinking it is an absolutely relevant and important contribution to being quite skeptical about it, and especially the idea of women’s intrinsic affinity towards ‘nature’. However, at the same time I find it interesting to engage in the discussion about the research arguing that more women in decision-making positions can have positive effects, not only for the obvious sake of equality but also for the possibility that it might be beneficial for sustainable and more thoughtful decisions in for example climate change related industries that today are quite conspicuously dominated by men. Either way, I find it worth exploring and also to open up for a wider range of both women and men from different backgrounds to be heard. As you write, a matriarchal society does certainly not necessarily have to be something to strive for, but an important mission remains to find a balance that is not tilting towards either side.

December 8, 2014 at 11:34 #15685
 anna.shoemaker@arkeologi.uu.se

It is not difficult to see how Caroline Merchant’s The Death of Nature has had such a impact. Merchant tackles the formation of a contemporary world-view that has re-conceptualized nature as a machine, rather than a living organism. I was very interested in how Merchant discusses the decline of an organic world-view and an alliance with mechanism, which has become fundamental to the history of conservation and ecology.
My area of research is the Amboseli basin, in southern Kenya, much of which has been encompassed by a national park since the 1960s, though a protected wildlife area since the 1920s. The research agenda on this landscape has been dominated by responsible management of Amboseli’s resources for long-term benefit and sustained yield (though discourses regarding communities who should be benefiting have shifted over the year). Amboseli is a landscape managed in the name of environmental quality, and researchers have used such methods as ecosystem modeling, manipulation, and prediction of outcomes to influence policy and scientific study.
I was so fascinated to read in Merchant’s chapter “The Management of Nature” that the roots for such a utilitarian approach to ecology (as practiced in Amboseli and many sub-Saharan National Parks) were apparent in the ideas of the natural philosophers of Restoration England, who according to Merchant are John Evelyn (1620-1706), John Ray (1627-1705), William Derham (1614-1687), and Raph Cudworth (1617-1688). Merchant talks about how just like in the seventeenth century, today’s managerial ecology subjects nature to rational analysis for long-term planning. She talks about how by reducing the vegetative community to an ecosystem, the anthropomorphic connotations of group sharing give way to physical descriptions and equations associated with quantitative analysis. I had never before really thought about how the rise of modern science has contributed to the Amboseli landscape being viewed as not an organism, but instead a machine.
Merchant also discusses how the reductionist model of the new ecologists which developed in the 1950s has its limits. It is difficult, if not impossible to successfully program contexts and patterns into a computer. Merchant writes that taking components or abstracting data from the environmental context can alter the whole, distorting its behavior (252). She goes on to criticize systems theorists who claim a holistic perspective, because they wrongly assume that they are taking into account the ways in which all the parts in a given system affect the whole. She points out that the gestalt is not mathematized, and that the ways in which each part in any given instant take their meaning from the whole (291).
I think that a huge part of the failure to meet conservation goals in Amboseli stems from something Merchant discusses: “the more open, adaptive, organic, and complex the system, the less successful is the formalism” (291). The kind of ecology embraced in the 1950s, and the conservation pathos really needs to be applied to a closed, precisely defined, and relatively simple system. Unfortunately, sub-Saharan African savannas have never resembled anything of the kind.
Merchant does believe though that ecology as a discipline can change. She calls for an alternative to the managerial ethic that developed out of seventeenth-century mechanism, she welcomes an organismic small-community approach, which relies on human decision makers and participatory democracy rather than on experts (252). Community based conservation theories which became popular in the mid 1990s have really embraced these ideals, though whether or not it works is still very much open to debate.
This got me thinking some more. Merchant writes that ecologists today must really develop holism as their philosophy of nature, as communities that have succeeded in living in equilibrium with their environments have holistic perspectives. Holism was proposed as an alternative for mechanism by J.C. Smuts in 1926. Merchant quotes Smuts who wrote rather beautifully that “Holism is a process of creative synthesis: the resulting wholes are not static, but dynamic, evolutionary, creative… The explanation of nature can therefore not be purely mechanical; and the mechanistic concept of nature has its place and justification only in the wider concept of holism.” Holism in ecology sees nature as cyclical, but the cycle is dynamic and interactive. The parts of the cycle are interlocking, and no elements can be removed, and each part is defined by and dependent on the total context. I think this is still too simplistic and mechanistic a view of nature.
So that is kind of where Merchant lost me. But in keeping with her thread of new interpretations of the past providing perspectives on the present I thought I would explore how 1950’s style new ecology has embraced to varying degrees resilience theory instead of holism. Unlike Merchant’s discussion of holism, resilience theory works with processes of change and nested hierarchies of individual adaptive cycles. Resilience theory seems to me to be the response to critiques of systems theory in ecology, much like holism. Resilience theory is even more radical in its avoidance of easily conceptualized systems than holism.
Personally I am supremely uninterested in fitting my own research into any sort of theoretical framework structured around systems. I understand that they are important for people who are doing a grand synthesis, and working at the top level managing massive systems like those in government, law, conservation, economics etc. I think it is a noble goal to strive for. However, my research focus, at least at this stage in my life is much more biased towards the massive gaps in our knowledge of how the world functions, or has functioned in the past. I feel more comfortable with gathering data before I attempt to create or evaluate models.
Which is why I really enjoyed Merchants book, because I felt she was calling for ecologists to be less preoccupied with “the parts of the machine”. I also really value the book for illustrating that our world-views are biased and shaped by events such as changes in land tenure in Britain, and the industrial revolution (though I think colonialism could have garnered a chapter as well). These are events which happened centuries before I came into being but have influenced to such a profound degree the way I understand the world, and taking some time to reflect on that is wonderful. Thinking about how these events have impacted the management of a landscape in southern Kenya is also pretty fascinating. I feel I have a much richer appreciation for the history of conservation now, and will no longer trace its origins to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.

December 20, 2014 at 15:22 #15828
 Markus

Complementary task, Markus Nyström, Carolyn Merchant seminar, March 31

How has Merchant helped you in your understanding of environmental history? (has she?)

What metaphor, or metaphors, do we use in order to understand that which we call nature? This is the central question that I see in Merchant’s work. She argues that the people in the rennaissance had a view on nature as feminine and organic. The world was imagined to be as one body, with interconnected organs and circulations. Even things that we today know (or see as) finite, like metals, were pictured as regenerating over time in the bossom of Mother Earth. Then came the early-modern period, from Bacon and Copernicus, to Newton, Marquid de Condorcet and Godwin, who challanged this view and ultimately lead to a metaphor of nature as a machine. God was now the engineer, his language mathematics, and the world was one of mechanics. The experiment – the prime source of knowledge about nature – helped form an understanding of nature, together with the mathematical language, that nature was not for everyone to understand, it was an elite – and men, not women – who were granted access to this knowledge.

Marchant moreover argues that she sees the emerging of a new metaphor in the 20th century, that of relationship and chaos. From chaos theory to ecology, a new metaphor where humanity cannot, or at least should not, dominate nature through a mechanistic, elitist perspective, but work together with nature to acknowledge the relationship human comunities and non-human communities are in has emerged.

I see many similarities between the rennaissance metaphor – nature as organic and feminine – with the modern ecological perspective. Of course, the “gender” of nature is questioned and criticized (hence ecofeminism), but the idea of interconnectedness between parts, and human dependence on nature, are similar. As she, in her lecture, refers to David Abrams’ book The Spell of the Sensuous, she also argues for a new “language” to understand and reestablish the connection with nature apart from the mathematical and instrumental view on nature. The organic view of the rennaissance correspons quite well with the Gaia perspective, of viewing the entire world “system” as one being.

What I find interesting is that we many times today do not think of our way of understanding nature as a metaphor, this despite the contributions from thinkers like Merchant. Ecology is taken from granted, as truth. Chaos theory – describing the world as inherently unpredictable rather then, like in the mechanistic world view, predictable through experimentation – is pictured as an over-arching framework for understanding the universe, coupled with Einsteins’s theory of relativity. Merchant, on the one hand, makes obvious the power and importance of metaphoric thinking in relation to nature at the same time as she is promoting a new metaphoric for our understanding. In the background here lies, I believe, an epistomological assumption, that the Truth (capital T) about nature is unobtainable to us. Thruth will always come to us through language, through metaphors, and we better argue for and work toward a metaphor which will not lead to ecological collapse.

This is of course an assumption that fits neatly with my own perspective, which is based in discourse analysis and narrative theory. Indeed, I have written about “metaphors” so far, but they are really more like narratives: stories, if one will, of how the world works, with characters and types (“Mother Earth”, men, women, “mankind”, the scientist, the engineer, etcetera), with settings (the laboratory, the subterranean, the heaven, the soil, etcetera), and with plots (what can and should we do with/to/in nature, what is our “purpose”, what is nature’s “purpose”). To use terminology from narrative theory, these “metaphors” about nature can be regarded as ontological “masterplots” or “master narratives” fundamental to our world view.

I think it is important to remember that Merchant blazed some new trail with her book, The Death of Nature, ideas that since then has become rather commonplace, at least within environmentalist and enviromentalist history circles. Ecofeminism, though sometimes fuzzy as to exactly what it refers to in detail, is the general idea that the patriarchal domination of women is linked with the (patriarchal) domination of nature. Linking patriarchy with subjugation of women and the mechanistic (subjugating) metaphor of nature, is incredibly important, I believe. If there is anything I would like to criticize in this regard it is that this thinking is rather aloft and perhaps fail to see the more mundane cultaral connections between masculinity, power and machines, on the one hand, and femininity, subjugation and caring on the other. Indeed, I read this criticism in, different forms, in some of my colleagues reflections, including a critique of “vagueness” and her being too generalizing. Think of all the movies, just as an example, where masculinity is coupled with big/fast/powerful machines, and femininity coupled with caring and beauty. A mundane example from the world of politics could be when politicians speak of, for instance, mining offering “real” jobs (men driving big machines destroying/unearthing nature), in comparison to, for instance, reindeer herding (caring about the reindeer, unobtrusive use of nature). In this sense, since mining is the general topic of my thesis, I believe Merchant’s perspective offers me an interesting opportunity to gender (verb) the disocurse concerning mining and reindeer herding. Indeed, mining, which is an example Merchant herself brings up at a mulitude of occassions, is a typical (if not a stereotypical) male occupation, while caring about the environment – emphasizing caring – is cast in a feminine mold.

One way to face this is to criticize the very idea that caring/femininity is necessarily not as “good” as power/masculinity, and/or that caring and femininity, as well as masculinity and power, necessarily has to go together. This is done extensivly in gender studies and feminist political discourses. Another way would be to buy into this cultural divide and more consciously change the vocabulary: speaking about “fighting” for the environment, for instance, instead of “caring” for the environment. Indeed, one could argue that the tendency to “technologize” the solutions to sustainability problems – to regard sustainability problems as problems that can only be solved through mechanistic thinking, engineering, climate technology, more (patriarchal) science, etcetara – is a strategy to male (verb) the female “caring” for nature. Caring for nature is thus made a masculine thing, as long as you care about it in the form of new machinery, new science, and engineering solutions.

To answer the question I started with, yes, Merchant has helped me in my understanding of environmental history. I may not regard her perspective as the only viable one, but it is important and interesting. She is one of many to both shape my field of study and my own thinking. Hers is a framework which seems to have the structure that what we think is constitutive for how we act – that first comes thought, then action, one-way-street-kind-of-thing – which I doubt is that clear-cut. I believe, rather, that what we do influence what we think – that action and thought goes hand in hand and/or alternates to shape ontology. I also think hinging the worldview on the divide between men and women sometimes is rather narrow, that dichotomies like north/south, west/east, civilized/uncivilized, capital/labor has something to add to the analysis as well. How the entire human species behave in relation to nature was not invented by Francis Bacon’s goose pen – he (and his colleagues) should be regarded as a symbol for a way of thinking AND acting in the world, specific in time, space, class and gender.

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