The Death of Nature (1980) and The Culture of Nature (1991) offer complementary ways to look at nature

A previous post concerns the concept of the death of nature as outlined by Carolyn Merchant (1980, 1990). In order to picture the death of nature, we need to know how Merchant defines nature. Her 1980 study is well worth reading. Her key point is that whether nature is dead or alive depends on a person’s point of view.

A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website for Caroline Merchant’s 1980 study reads:


An examination of the Scientific Revolution that shows how the mechanistic world view of modern science has sanctioned the exploitation of nature, unrestrained commercial expansion, and a new socioeconomic order that subordinates women.

The Death of Nature (1980, 1990)

This post concerns the culture of nature and the death of nature.

I can add that the post also concerns the nature of the universe. That is because the larger narrative, within which discussions of nature can be situated, concerns what we know about the the nature of the universe, regarding which an overview is available in a recent biography (which I have found of much interest to read) of Peter Higgs.

A June 24, 2022 Scientific American article, entitled “How the Higgs Boson Ruined Peter Higgs’s Life: A new biography of the physicist and the particle he predicted reveals his disdain for the spotlight,” provides background regarding this biography.

In her 1980 study, Merchant refers (pp. 143-44) to a state of affairs which positions culture as above nature in status. She notes (p. 143) that a nature-culture dualism is a key factor in Western civilization’s advance at the expense of nature. Over 40 years since the 1980 study, we can say that the current climate crisis is the outcome of such a civilization’s advance at the expense of nature meaning the topic we are discussing is pertinent [1].

Merchant adds (p. 144) that much of American literature is founded on the presumed superiority of culture to nature. She notes that, in order to free nature, women, Indigenous peoples, and Blacks from the strictures of an ideology that posits the superiority of culture to nature, what Merchant refers to as a ‘radical critique’ of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ is required.

I would say that some small measure of progress has been attained, in close to a half-century since Merchant’s study, in the development of such a critique. I refer to a critique; I do not refer to a radical critique. The word ‘radical’ has a connotation that does not appeal to me for which reason I refer to just a critique.

The Culture of Nature (1991)

Alexander Wilson’s The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez (1991) refers to culture specifically as it refers to nature. Wilson refers (p. 61) to Merchant’s view that since the sixteenth century a particular scientific discourse has referred to the natural world as, in “Carolyn Merchant’s words, ‘a machine built and repaired by men.'”

One author speaks of the death of nature; the other speaks of the culture of nature. There is no contradiction here. Each author defines their terms; each explains the context in which they speak of nature.

As a visitor to this website may or may not have noticed, since 2010 I have had an interest in land use decision making in all contexts within which it occurs.

I will close with an excerpt (p. 232; I have corrected a spelling error and have capitalized “Aboriginal”) from Wilson’s study:

The events surrounding the creation of South Moresby National Park in the southern portion of the Queen Charlotte Islands, or Haida Gwaii, in 1987, provide a good example of the conflict inherent in such a policy. The Haida nation disputes Canadian authority over the islands, which are off the north­west coast of British Columbia. Despite this conflict, transnational timber com­panies have extensively logged the old-growth forests of the islands over much of this century. In recent years the methods of logging have become even more destructive and wasteful than ever. When the Haida prepared a court case to remove the logging companies from their ancestral lands, they formed an uneasy alliance with local environmental groups, who helped set up roadblocks.

The Haida proposed establishing an autonomous and living “tribal park.” The environmental position, however – insofar as it can be spoken of in a uni­tary way – favoured the creation of a national park. The conflict gained inter­national attention, not least because of the high status of Haida culture among Western anthropologists and art historians. When the Haida lost their legal bid to halt logging, the federal government – whose policy since the early Trudeau years has been to extinguish [A]boriginal rights wherever possible – stepped in with its solution of a national park on the most scenic of the disputed lands.

Such a solution does more than ignore [A]boriginal rights. It narrows the terms of the relationship between human livelihood and the physical world. The integrity of Haida society depends, in the words of its constitution, on “culti­vating a respect for and intimacy with the land and sea.” That intimacy has been gained from living in one place for a very long time, developing local and traditional knowledge about the land. Reconciliation with the First Nations of this continent will not take place until settler societies open themselves to that possibility. None of this is to say that [A]boriginal land stewardship will necessar­ily meet the approval of the environmental movement.

1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 1

    An Oct. 26, 2022 New York Times article, which I’ve accessed through the Toronto Public Library website, is entitled: Climate Pledges Are Falling Short, and a Chaotic Future Looks More Like Reality: With an annual summit next month, the United Nations assessed progress on countries’ past emissions commitments. Severe disruption would be hard to avoid on the current trajectory.”

    An excerpt reads:

    Countries around the world are failing to live up to their commitments to fight climate change, pointing Earth toward a future marked by more intense flooding, wildfires, drought, heat waves and species extinction, according to a report issued Wednesday by the United Nations.

    Just 26 of 193 countries that agreed last year to step up their climate actions have followed through with more ambitious plans. The world’s top two polluters, China and the United States, have taken some action but have not pledged more this year, and climate negotiations between the two have been frozen for months.

    Without drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the report said, the planet is on track to warm by an average of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels, by 2100.

    That’s far higher than the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) set by the landmark Paris agreement in 2015, and it crosses the threshold beyond which scientists say the likelihood of catastrophic climate impacts significantly increases.


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