Week 7: nature and the environment

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Lecture 1: The Romance of Nature during the Age of Industry

Lecturer: David Hardiman
Nature is part of human life today. To give you just two examples: We see our connections with nature in anxieties over climate change, with global warming, melting sea ice, rising sea levels, freak storms becoming the norm etc. etc. Is this our new ‘environmental modernity?’
Clearly, we humans are part of nature and subject to it. The food we eat, the pollution we create, our domestic animals are just some of the connections we have with the rest of life on this planet.
The ways in which humans think about and experience nature has changed over time, often in relationship to developments in economics, science, and art, as well as political and social change. Since the emergence of environmental history in the 1970s, historians have paid more attention to changing attitudes towards nature and the various ways in which humans have transformed the environment.
The lectures this week explores different ways of thinking about nature in the modern age, from the eighteenth century to the present day.
The question that informs these lectures – and which you might want to consider in your seminars and essays – is: ‘How did the relationship between humans and nature change in the modern age?’ In other words, how have the political, social, economic, cultural and scientific developments that have unfolded since the Enlightenment transformed the ways in which humans relate to the natural world and how have they changed the material world itself.
A brief digression into what we mean by nature is in order. ‘Nature’ is one of those words that is very difficult to pin down and define. Cultural critic Raymond Williams described it as ‘perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language.’
For centuries, humans have questioned nature and their relationship to it, asking
What is nature? Are humans part of nature? Does nature transcend history? (Is it ahistorical?)

Of course, we are not going to resolve those questions this week!

But it is worth bearing in mind that environmental and other historians have suggested, convincingly in my view, that nature is historical; it has a history.
What do they mean by this?
Firstly, that the physical world changes over time, sometimes due to human activity, sometimes due to nature’s own processes. Developments in ecological science have informed this perspective. For much of the twentieth century, ecologists believed that nature was cyclical and that ecosystems would return to their original (or climax) state. But towards the end of the century, some argued that nature was characterized by disturbance and change; it was historical.

Secondly, nature has a history in the sense that natural events have influenced (if not determined) history.

The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 is one such example.
The earthquake struck mid-morning on 1 November 1755, unleashing fires and a Tsunami. This image, from that year, captures a sense of the chaos and destruction that ensued. As well as causing tens of thousands of deaths, the earthquake had cultural and scientific ramifications as Europeans tried to make sense of it. Enlightenment philosophers Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire all grappled with its meaning. It led Voltaire to question that he was living in the best of all possible worlds, seen clearly in his poem on the disaster.
‘Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!

Affrighted gathering of human kind!

Eternal lingering of useless pain!

Come, ye philosophers, who cry, “All’s well,”

And contemplate this ruin of a world.’
Using vivid animal imagery, the poem presents a bleak view of nature where all being eventually die:
More recently, the 2010 earthquake and Tsunami in Japan posed serious questions about nuclear power and, according to newspaper reports, is having a profound impact of on the mental health of many Japanese citizens.
Earthquakes are therefore vivid and traumatic reminders that nature is part of history.
Another point that historians have made is that nature’s meaning has changed over time and varied from place to place and according to cultural and individual perspectives.
Voltaire’s poem clearly shows how the earthquake influenced ways of thinking about nature.
It is a very different view of nature from contemporary travel photos of beaches in Thailand, such as this one. Here nature is serene, beautiful and calming; a place to relax and recharge.
The meanings of nature are not fixed.
To sum up where we have got to so far, we can say that although nature is sometimes considered as eternal, unchanging and external to humanity, it is arguably deeply historical, changing and intimately bound up with human history; humans are part of nature. In fact, some environmental historians recommend using the term ‘environment’ instead of nature because it stresses human connectedness with the rest of the world and reinforces the idea that nature is not something external to humanity.
This lecture considers two key periods – the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution - when ideas about nature fundamentally changed and when human activity drastically transformed the environment. It will examine:

  • Nature and the scientific revolution

  • Arcadianism

  • Romanticism

  • The Reaction to Industrialisation

The scientific revolution

A new mentality towards nature emerged during the scientific revolution of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This revolution is often described as leading to a ‘disenchantment with nature’. Earlier it was believed that nature was moved by God, or by spirits. Many had pantheistic beliefs that animals, plants, even rocks had a spirit which connected them directly to human affairs.

The scientific revolution sought to shatter such beliefs by proposing in its place a different understanding of nature. The physics associated with Isaac Newton (1642-1727) saw nature as a giant machine, which God had set in motion and which continued running in fixed ways. The new science did not therefore disavow the divine as such, only displace God to a higher realm.
Newton argued that God had formed matter in solid, impenetrable particles, which moved in a mechanical way. Plants and animals were seen to be no more than machines, without any sensibility. Humans were said to be fundamentally separate from the rest of nature. French philosopher René Descartes argued that animals had no self-awareness and were unable to feel pain, as humans do. Animals were mere ‘automata.’ This attitude justified gruesome experiments on animals. Many observers identify Descartes as one of the instigators of the nature/culture split, the assumption that humans are separate from and above nature, including animals. Nature was seen to be like a huge machine that God had set up for the benefit of humanity. Humans had a right to exploit nature as they wished for their own benefit. This all justified the imperialist and colonial exploitation of nature. Slide Scientists and botanists went all over the world investigating nature and new worlds to discover plants and animals which could be exploited.
The Scotsman Adam Smith - who wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776 – thought in such a way. Smith was the philosopher of the emerging capitalist and industrial society in Britain. He argued that the pursuit of self interest by humans created wealth, and this benefited human society as a whole. He saw nature as a storehouse of raw materials to be exploited for the good of humans through human ingenuity.
Coupled with this was the idea of progress. This is such a matter of ‘common sense’ today that it is not often appreciated how recent an idea it is. Older societies had cyclical views of history, or belief in decline from a golden age. Medieval Christendom saw history as a story of decline from the Garden of Eden, never to regained on earth. Renaissance thinkers often saw their age as one very inferior to that of the classical Greek and Roman ones. Only in the 18th century did the idea of a gradual ascent of man towards a more advanced state of being on earth become popular among thinkers. Slide Progress could be measured by advances in science and the manufacture of ever more advanced and ingenious machines. Coupled with this was the belief in unlimited scope for human progress and huge faith in human reason.
These beliefs all dovetailed neatly with the new industrial society which was emerging. Early 19th century writers sometimes compared the world to a factory manufacturing goods for the benefit of humans. It was the mission of civilised Christians to improve the world by covering it with farms, roads, canals, workshops and factories. Wasteland - the wild - was despised as a blot on civilisation, a mark of a lack of progress.
Most of the most prominent thinkers of the 19th C. thought in this way - ranging from John Stuart Mill, to Herbert Spencer, Saint-Simon, and Marx and Engels. In this view, human history was the march of Progress from tribal through feudal, to capitalist societies.
What all of these systems of thought ignore is the problem of resource depletion. They assume that natural resources are inexhaustible, and that if any problems arise, human ingenuity will be able to overcome them. This was tied to an understanding that natural resources do not in themselves have any intrinsic value - the value is created in them by human labour (extraction, transport, manufacture) and is fixed by operation of the market.


The arcadian sensibility involves what Donald Worster, in Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, p.378, has called: `The ideal of a simple rural life in close harmony with nature’. Could be seen in a lot of late eighteenth century art, which showed an ordered, harmonious and gentle landscape. An example was Claude’s poetic evocations of the Roman Campagna. Also Dutch pastoral scenes. Often depict quiet meadows with cows and flocks of sheep and shepherds. They recalled the myth of the Golden Age that had haunted the European imagination since Antiquity. Seen also in Gilbert White. They were given a new significance by the Jean-Jacques Rousseau's pastoral primitivism.

As an environmental vision in modern times, arcadianism has often been a naive surrender to nostalgia, but it has nonetheless contributed to the growth of an ecological ethic of co-existence rather than domination; humility rather than self-assertion; man as a part of, rather than superior to, nature.

The Romantic Reaction

Romanticism had a much more troubled attitude towards nature than did arcadianism. It emerged at the time of the French revolution, and shared its revolutionary spirit. Took a variety of different forms - not a systematic theory - more a spirit or way of feeling, often expressed in literary writings and painting rather than philosophical or scientific thought. Associated with figures such as:


Goethe (1749-1834)

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)


William Blake (1757-1827)

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

John Keats (1795-1821)

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)


Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840)

Joseph Turner (1775-1851)

Romanticism involved an understanding of the darker, less rational side of humanity and nature. Less confidence in the human ability to understand these complexities. Rejected classical ideals of beauty - which stressed harmony and order. A celebration of the wild and seemingly disordered, as seen in wildernesses, the mountains, the wind and the sea. Romantics were often enthusiastic supporters of the French Revolution, as it shattered the hold of the old order allowing the new to be born in often unpredictable ways. Validates the human imagination in its response to nature - observation of nature allows one to understand oneself as well as moral values better. Celebrates, originality, genius, the creative spirit. Emphasises subjective knowledge over and against objective knowledge, e.g. the mystery of the universe is understood more by intuition and experience than through scientific study and classification. The creative imagination is the supreme source of knowledge.
Romanticism did not reject Reason. Rather, sought to put it in its proper place. They wanted to combine the head and the heart, the mind, body and soul. Understanding needed a flash of inspiration, but the understanding then had to be worked out, intellectualised.


Someone who epitomised the new spirit is was Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). An American, who lived at Concord, 20 miles west of Boston, Massachusetts. The area was still rural. He was an important figure in voicing romantic ideas in an American context, in the process giving them a strongly American element. He immersed himself in nature - walked about bare-footed, swam in rivers and lakes, ate berries and nuts. For him, spiritual health came from immersion in nature.

Massachusetts was area that had been already changes profoundly by settler farming from the 17th C. Forests destroyed and fields laid out. Thoreau saw that people had caused great disruption to nature, destroying natural resources. He condemned the insensitive and destructive way in which farming was carried on in the region. He demanded that forest reserves should be maintained by settlers, so that they could appreciate how nature functioned.
Thoreau was influenced also by native American understandings of nature. Like them, saw nature as a single organic being animated by a force of its own. He saw this vital force as governing nature, not God. He did not consider human being to be at the centre of the universe, He condemned this is an egotistical view; humans were just another form of life. A pagan thinker essentially - pantheistic. This valuation of the native American way of life was an important new development - at a time when they were being driven back and exterminated.


In these respects we find that many of the sentiments found in the modern ecological and environmental movements were ones which first found their voice in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They came into being in the context of the development of modern scientific knowledge, Enlightenment views about human liberty and rights, the industrial revolution and the capitalist system of economic organisation. These developments frame the world that we still live in to this day, and therefore the critique of them continues to have force.

Lecture 2: Darwin and a History of Environmentalism

Charles Darwin

Before Darwin, it was believed that species had been created by God or some natural force in a fixed way. Some had disappeared - perhaps due to the Flood. There was no idea that species evolved and changed the whole time. God was seen to have created different species and varieties to suit particular environments. A very static view of nature. It was the task of the naturalist to classify this huge variety - Linnaean approach. Observations about environmental degradation led, however, to ecologists and naturalists developing a more historical view of natural history. This culminated in the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

Between 1831 and 1836 the young Darwin voyaged around the world as naturalist. After his return to England he spent twenty years building up evidence for his theory of evolution. Only published it in 1859, as The Origin of Species. In it, Darwin developed the idea that species were not fixed, but developed and changed over time by a process of selection of the fittest. Life was thus a continuing struggle for survival, with the strongest adapting better to each environment and eventually coming out the victor. God had no place in this scheme - for Darwin the process was entirely amoral.
He argued that the world consisted of a range of different ecological niches. These were colonised by organisms and animal life, but one species would in time give way to stronger and better adapted species. No one species can hold its place forever. However, different species co-existed in all environments - so that co-existence was a fact of life as well as competition. Darwin did not however choose to emphasise this aspect of his theory. In this he was more in accord with the capitalist ethos of the time, which validated the struggle to control the market, with the most efficient and innovative producers coming out on top. The other conclusion that could be reached from his theory - that species evolve within an ecological niche in a way which promotes co-existence, mutual dependence, and harmonious inter-relationship was downplayed.

The doctrine of human progress, which had emerged during the 18th C. Enlightenment, was thus wedded to the idea of an evolution of human races - a history of ‘the ascent of man’ from savagery to civilisation. ‘Civilisation’ rested on scientific discoveries that allowed humans to mould and use natural resources in wholly new ways. The Victorians had, so they believed, risen to a state in which they were able to free themselves from the constraints imposed by nature. It was believed that if humans failed to dominate nature in this way, nature would in turn dominate them. Humans thus had to wage a constant war with nature. Without constant exertion, and new scientific discoveries, humans could return to a state of savagery. All of this provided a justification of a ruthless use of natural resources. Also, provide a rational for western imperialism - the hardiest races had a moral right to dominate the weaker.

A History of Environmentalism

Modern environmentalism can be said to date back to the 1970s, with an awareness that economic development on a global scale was causing profound environmental problems in many parts of the world. Problems such as: pollution of the environment, global warming, threat to the ozone layer, extinction of many species of animals, destruction of forests, excessive growth of human populations with extreme poverty, growth of monster cities, depletion of essential mineral resources.

This has led to strong demands that active steps be taken to control pollution and restore a healthy eco-system. There is, however, nothing new about such demands. Even in the eighteenth century, it was observed that the increasing demand for natural resources was putting severe strains on particular environments, such as forests. This led to the setting up of protected forests in Europe in the early nineteenth century, with strong controls against unchecked cutting of trees. In India, all forests were made government reserves in the second half of the nineteenth century, and anyone who cut wood without sanction was punished harshly. Many people lived in the forests, and they were either relocated or employed as woodcutters. Many suffered badly, and there were a series of revolts by forest-dwellers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all suppressed very harshly.
Thus, initially, the protection of the environment – environmentalism – was associated with harsh and autocratic measures imposed by governments against poor people who earned a living by utilising environmental resources. In many cases, the state gained a monopoly use of the resource for itself.
One resource that environmentalists also sought to preserve was that of wild animals suitable for hunting. Hunting was a major pastime of the ruling classes of Europe and the European colonies. A romantic pastime. Huge numbers of animals were slaughtered in Africa and Asia in the late nineteenth century. In America, a similar slaughter was carried out by hunters and middle class tourists. This all led to calls for controls over hunting, as it was feared that many species would soon become extinct.

John Muir and national parks

John Muir (1838-1914) worked from 1868 as a shepherd in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, taking the sheep into the high pastures as the snows melted in spring. His book, My First Summer in the Sierra, later became famous. It describes his feeling of ecstasy and exaltation in this wilderness. He immersed himself in nature, melting into the environment. Nature is seen as a pantheistic force, with its own spirit. One can learn from nature by surrendering to it.

The Yellowstone National Park had been established in 1872, being the first time anywhere in the world that a wilderness area had ever been set aside for conservation purely so that the public could enjoy nature. (Reserves in the past were for aristocratic hunts, or state forest conservation.) John Muir demanded that his beloved mountains of California be similarly protected. He campaigned tirelessly for this, establishing the Sierra Club for this purpose. As a result of his work, the Yosemite National Park was established.
The new national parks existed in perpetuity - could only be broken up by legislation. Were managed by trustees independent of direct government control. They were self-financing, taking payments for their use by tourists. Did not exist for the benefit of hunters, but for urban tourists to appreciate ‘nature’ as it had supposedly existed before human settlement. Therefore, had to be accessible to city dwellers. They began at the time that the interior of the USA was being opened up by the railroads, but only became really functional in the age of the car, e.g. after 1900.
Here we see an idea that certain ‘wilderness areas’ be set apart as a retreat in which urban dwellers could gain mental relief from industrialization and big city life. It was rooted in a romantic sensibility - ‘nature’ was something outside normal life, but important as a resource that could be used to correct the distortions found in an industrialised society.
The idea was that city-dwellers could refresh themselves by travelling during their vacations to these areas of ‘pristine’ nature. They were ‘pristine’ because the Native Americans who had previously inhabited them had been largely swept out through often-genocidal campaigns of conquest and subjugation. Areas that had been their preserve now became classed as ‘wilderness’ in which permanent habitation was for the most part banned. In many cases, the last remnants of the Native American inhabitants were evicted from the new national parks.

Modern Environmentalism

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the modern environmental movement emerged. In 1962, American writer and ecologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964) published Silent Spring, which raised public awareness about the harmful effects of pesticides, such as DDT, on human health and the environment. If no action was taken, Carson argued, the birds would die away and spring would be silent.

In the United States, protecting the environment became part of the counter-cultural movement. The first Earth Day demonstrations in 1970 reportedly attracted over 20 million participants across the US.
With some justification, one of its organisers, Kathleen Rogers, recently stated that ‘the American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air—and they did so with spectacular exuberance.’
Other developments contributed to the rise of environmentalism as a political and social movement.
In 1972 the Club of Rome published Limits to Growth, which forecasted a collapse in industrial output and widespread human misery as a result of a coming exhaustion of foods and energy supplies. It used computer models to project the future. These were later shown to be inaccurate, but they opened up the debate. The oil crisis of 1973, in which Arab states forced up the price of oil, led to a search for alternative energy sources, as well as better use of existing resources. In fact, there was no immediate resource crisis at that time, as there were still massive reserves of mineral resources.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, the emphasis turned more to the pollution that the use of these mineral resources caused, and such things as global warming, threats to the ozone layer, and pressures on human health.
The huge growth in human population, leading to mass poverty - with emergence of monster cities with populations of 20 million people or more – was also blamed for environmental degradation.
Environmentalism in modern times has not been the sole concern of the rich countries. During the 1980s, it became an important movement in the developing world. This was related to the fact that many developing countries have tried to build their economy by exploiting their forests and mineral resources, or through developing modern forms of agriculture that depend heavily on toxic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. They have also developed industry often without any strong environmental safeguards, so that the cities become highly polluted environments. There have been terrible disasters, such as the Bhopal tragedy of 1984. Thousands died when poisonous fumes escaped from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal – an American-owned corporation that showed a complete lack of concern for safety. This accident caused most suffering to the poor.
The cutting of timber has brought severe deforestation, leading to environmental catastrophes, and the poor cannot gain adequate subsistence or fuel for cooking. Environmentalism in the developing world has also opposed big dam projects that displace the poor. This has created strong protest movements in many developing countries and has had remarkable successes - e.g. in stopping many big dams.

Environmentalism and economic growth
How influential has the environmentalist movement proved?
Modern governments are almost all dedicated to what they call ‘economic progress,’ by which they mean annual economic growth through the operation of market forces and a capitalist economy. In the liberal democracies, elections are fought on the ability of rival politicians to further a programme of ‘economic growth’ with the greatest efficiency. In recent years, with the collapse of socialism as the chief alternative to this model, it has been the environmental movement, and more recently, the anti-globalisation movement, which have provided the chief arguments against this capitalist modernity. They argue that it is the modern global system of production that is at the root of environmental degradation and social inequality.
Environmentalist ideas have gone mainstream but how deeply are they held?
Environmental historian Michael Bess argues that Western societies are now ‘light-green society;’ environmentalist ideas are widespread but shallow; ‘the result is a social order in which virtually every activity is touched by environmentalist concerns – but modestly, moderately, without upsetting the existing state of things too much.’
We see this with efforts to combat climate change and de-carbonize economies and societies. There is the widespread aspiration to be greener, but this has barely challenged our attachment to consumerist lifestyles.
As I hope to have shown in this week’s lectures, ideas about the human place in the environment have been multiple and fluid over the last two hundred years or so. The modern environmentalist movement is the latest chapter in this history. The search, however, for a sustainable way of living continues…

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