“More and more people began to experience nature as altered and manipulated by machine technology”
Carolyn Merchant (1936-) is a New-York-born philosopher and historian on the eco-feminist wing of the organic radical tradition.
In her best-known work, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (1980), she traced women’s inferior position in contemporary society back to 16th and 17th century mechanistic thought and the beginnings of industrial capitalism.
This “scientific” modern way of thinking gave the philosophical go-ahead for the exploitation of nature and unrestrained commercial expansion, she said.
Instead of regarding nature as a living organic entity to be cherished and respected, as Mother Earth, the cold new philosophies of industrial capitalism saw it as nothing more than an inanimate object, a machine, a “resource” to be exploited.
Merchant identified a parallel with the way that modern male-dominated medicine expropriated women’s control over their own bodies, notably in childbirth.
“As woman’s womb had symbolically yielded to the forceps, so nature’s womb harbored secrets that through technology could be wrested from her grasp for use in the improvement of the human condition”. (1)
She stands alongside the likes of Ferdinand Tönnies in identifying the way that the processes of industrial capitalism have alienated humans from a sense of belonging to an organic entity.
“As European cities grew and forested areas became more remote, as fens were drained and geometric patterns of channels imposed on the landscape, as large powerful waterwheels, furnaces, forges, cranes, and treadmills began increasingly to dominate the work environment, more and more people began to experience nature as altered and manipulated by machine technology.
“A slow but unidirectional alienation from the immediate daily organic relationship that had formed the basis of human experience from earliest times was occurring. Accompanying these changes were alterations in both the theories and experiential bases of social organization which had formed an integral part of the organic cosmos”. (2)
Looking back on the impact of The Death of Nature 25 years after it was first published, Merchant wrote that the somewhat chilly response it received from professional historians was due to the fact that it challenged the pedestal on which they had placed the Scientific Revolution.
She explained: “The book questioned the grand narrative of the Scientific Revolution as progress and undermined the valorization of the most revered fathers of modern science — such as Harvey, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton.
“It argued that seventeenth-century mechanistic science itself contributed to the most pressing ecological and social problems of our day and dared to suggest that women were as much the victims as the beneficiaries of the progress of science.
“The book contributed to a growing body of scholarship that led to the historian of science’s interest in the social construction of nature and authority and the importance of the role of women in science and to the questioning of grand narratives and the ways that science was implicated in ideologies of progress”. (3)
Video link: Carolyn Merchant – Partnership with Nature. Women and the Environment (1hr 6 mins)
1. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), p. 169.
2. Merchant, p. 68.