A Historical Enquiry Into Our Ideas of the Human and the Natural

     Climate change presents environmental disasters truly global in scale, and yet at the intergovernmental level, we can come to little workable consensus. The dilemma itself appears defined; the objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is to “achieve […] stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (4), and yet, this objective raises more questions than it answers.

            What is dangerous? Dangerous to whom? Are future generations weighted equally with peoples currently alive?  Are animals included? Ecosystems? Do we privilege the environment under which we have flourished as a species or will any livable environment do? Will technological and economic advancement allow future generations to solve the problem more quickly and at a lower cost than we could today? Are economic considerations of comparable ethical weight to climate considerations? How soon should we start working? Who is responsible for climate change? Who should pay for mitigation and adaptation? Are there other major world dilemmas that are more pressing? Are there solutions to these other problems which could be achieved faster and at a lower cost? Is, say, stopping the spread of communicable diseases a problem of equal weight that is easier and cheaper to solve?

There are many different answers to these questions. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) will answer these questions very differently from the newly formed Mountain Initiative for Climate Change Adaptation in Mountain Regions and for very different reasons. Where low-lying islands face issues of “coastal erosion, flooding, coral bleaching […] [and] more frequent and intense extreme weather events” (AOSIS), mountainous regions face “escalating numbers of landslides, mudslides, catastrophic floods […] reduced water availability and increasing conflicts over dwindling natural resources and supplies […] [caused by] the rapid melting of mountain glaciers and degradation of watersheds” (Mountain Initiative). Other coalitions do not face similarly pressing natural disasters. Parties will disagree on climate issues because “individuals and societies ascribe value to activities, assets, constructs, and resources in many different ways, […] because we believe different things about our duty to others, to Nature and to our deities, […] because we evaluate risks differently, […] because we receive multiple and conflicting messages about climate change and we interpret them in different ways, […] [and] because we understand development differently” (Hulme 112, 144, 181, 215, 251), among other reasons.

This paper will magnify one of these disparities by examining our contradictory notions about man’s relationship with Nature that arise out of Western literary traditions. It is not within the scope of this paper to provide a complete chronology of these notions even in Western literature, but rather this paper will identify important intellectual trending. It is necessary to note my own limitations and biases as a student of Romantic and American nature writing; though this paper will not hide certain traditions while privileging others and will rather reveal a history of competing views on man’s relationship with nature with the intent to reveal our differences in answering some of the most pressing questions of our time.

Perhaps the chief tension in Western views on man’s relationship with nature has arisen out of what Michael Hulme calls the “peculiarly Western separation” of the cultural from the physical – that is, of mankind from Nature (15). The note “peculiarly Western” here is important; anthropologist Julie Cruikshank writes that “the idea that a measurable natural world might be prised from its cultural moorings has continued to insinuate itself in locations and landscapes where local understandings were conventionally framed very differently” (245). Yet if literatures exist in which Society and Nature are inseparable, such as the thirteenth and fourteenth century Icelandic Sagas, and if this enmeshment still persists in traditional non-Western cultures, a dualism between man and Nature pervades Western thought as a tenant of modernism arising out of the Enlightenment in Europe (Hulme 15). This dualism is complex, with various literatures supporting views which favor such disparate ideologies as the dominance of man over nature, the wildness of Nature as sacred, or the stewardship of man over the land.

Mastery of Nature

If our present understanding of climate is statistical, arising out scientific developments including standardization of meteorological instruments in the early nineteenth century, the development of the Köppen–Geiger climate classification system, and the collapsing of worldwide thermometer readings into an average surface temperature, then this statistical understanding is a relatively recent development. Michael Hulme explains that “until the eighteenth century climate was largely […] unquantifiable. Weather and climate were described in qualitative and impressionistic terms, expressing beauty or prosperity, danger or threat” (13). Out of the latter, that is a pervasive fear, a desire for mankind to control Nature has developed and has been supported by early religious ideologies. Later literatures would adopt the desire for mastery and offer prudent evolutionary/societal reasoning to rule the natural world.

For the Greeks as early as the sixth century BC, the frigid and torrid klimata of the North and South respectively inspired fear or death. The Greek classification of climates into five distinct latitudinal zones, from their own inhabitable Mediterranean zone to the unlivable Equator, where “travelers would turn black, or else die,” as commonly believed in the Classical period (38), reveals the tensions between humans and climate at this early period which established a separation in the form of rivalry—climate was either good or bad as judged by the tenability of human habitation, and so zones were divided latitudinally, as based on their livabilty.

“Wilderness,” as a notion still holds these connotations of fear and waste; it is land outside of society—again inferring a separation of man from nature—and its distinction from the word “desert” is only that the latter is uncultivatable. The difference lies solely in the potential utility of wilderness to mankind.

As Lucian Boia writes, “The history of humanity is characterized by an endemic anxiety” (149), that is, an encompassing fear of Nature’s wrath. This anxiety undoubtedly arose because “weather was beyond human control” (Hulme 14), and it is therefore logical that early cultures saw it as “an instrument for the exercise of God’s expressions of favor or disfavor on morally venerable populations” (14). The mode of seeing climate as linked to the will of a deity pervades early culture; Donner writes, “The ancient western mythologies or early religions – e.g., Greek, Egyptian, Sumerian and Hindu – all viewed the sky as the domain of the gods. […] The notion that the sky is the home of [a] supreme being is found in the Old Testament. […] The names of supreme being(s) in traditional cultures reflect this separation of earth and sky: Tulugankul (Inuit) means “he who dwells in the sky,” Ngai (Massai, central-east Africa) means “he who dwells in the sky, behind the clouds” (233). Today the mode still holds some sway; after Hurricane Katrina, a poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post concluded that 23% of polled Americans believed the disaster was “a deliberate act of God,” while 39% attributed it to anthropogenic climate change (Sussman 1). The link between disaster and the revenge of god(s) explains the fear surrounding climate “through the Middle Ages and early modern periods” (Hulme 14). If human history is therefore enmeshed in this fear, it explains other important beliefs Judeo-Christian theology—specifically, a belief in the basic human right to master Nature, if possible.

Out of this fear, “man [began] a divine mission to control the whole creation [under Judeo-Christian theology]. To achieve this, it is God’s intention that mankind multiply itself, spread out of the earth, make its dominion over the creation secure” (Glacken 151). Genesis 1:28 in the King James Bible reads “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” At least into the 18th century, the idea arising out of this Biblical wisdom, that man occupied a position in the Great Chain of Being between angels and beasts, and therefore over the rest of the natural order, remained uncontested. The elementary logic literature Jonathan Swift would have read at Oxford or Cambridge ranged from Burgersdicius to Milton, but would have categorically contained the formula: Homo est animal rationale, or, Man is a rational animal (Crane 850). The formula often appeared “without comment or explanation as the obviously correct formula for man’s distinctive nature, as if no one would ever question that man is, above all, a rational creature” (850).

In the context of the larger purposes of this paper, it is important here to note that the endemic fear of Nature informed the desire to master the natural order and the Biblical statute that man had the innate right to be ruler. It even informed the pretension of logic that man was an animal closer to God’s likeness than the other animals. Yet problematically, we have also noted that the sky persisted as the domain of deities; paradoxically, man had the right to do anything on earth and it could not affect the skies—the climate—as we now know it can. “The notion that humans [could] strongly influence or be in control of the climate, [anthropogenic climate change, for instance], counters thousands of years of religious philosophy and existing traditional belief systems worldwide” (Donner 232). There existed—and still exists in some literatures—a “myth of nature’s exhaustlessness” (Buell 531). In Bill McKibben’s 1989 End of Nature, the book to introduce climate change to a popular audience, the activist proved that the myth still held sway and problematized popular acceptance of climate issues when he wrote,  “We never thought that we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces–the wind, the rain, the sun–were too strong, too elemental” (41). The complex understandings of man’s relationship to Nature created by this endemic fear of natural forces are therefore compound and contradictory—proponents of mastery like Ellsworth Huntington hold that “If [humans] can conquer climate, the whole world will become stronger and nobler” (294)—yet the larger discourse of fear from which the mastery discourse arrived urged the impossibility and ungodliness of climactic control.

By 1776, another discourse strengthened and simultaneously further problematized the fear/mastery/rivalry end of the man vs. nature dichotomy. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire offered the first historic discourse that linked the rise and fall of human fortunes to climactic factors (suggesting Rome’s long decline and eventual fall, in part, was due to climactic influence). Gibbon therefore offered anthropologic evidence for both climatic destruction of civilization and, its corollary, which would be proposed by Huntington in 1915, that “a favorable climate is an essential condition of high civilization” (270). Gibbon’s own account offers similar suggestions, for instance, that “Two strong and natural causes are alleged for the perfection of the model of new Rome [Constantinople] […] Other cities [had] been reared to maturity by accident and time; their beauties […] mingled with disorder and deformity; and the inhabitants, unwilling to remove from their natal spot, [were] incapable of correcting the errors of their ancestors and the original vices of situation or climate” (Vol. 7, 133). A hospitable climate was a necessary for human successes, gods or no gods.

Gibbon’s legacy as a historian surpasses the modeling of similar histories after his own; the discourse here identified as starting with Gibbon continues today and has recently taken on “more sophisticated and nuanced arguments about the role of climate in the collapse of civilizations” since the 1970s with the publication of Bryson and Murray’s Climates of Hunger, which detailed the role of drought in the collapse of Mycenae, the Malian Kingdom, and others (Hulme 30). An inverted (and admittedly minor) literature also arose out of this tradition, which argued that “climate change acts as a stimulus for innovation and societal adaptation” (31), yet importantly, innovation in human mastery of Nature still supports the ultimate control of natural forces. Gibbon’s legacy still persists in works today; Jared Diamond’s 2005 work Collapse, which details the falls of societies from the Easter Islanders to the Mayans, suggested that “deforestation was a or the major factor in all the collapses of past societies [described in Collapse]” (487). An interesting counterpoint from three hundred years earlier comes from the philosopher, Comte de Buffon, who marveled at the possibilities of human mastery, noting that “the addition or removal of a single forest in a country [by humans] is sufficient to change its temperature” (236). Buffon further suggested that man should modify his environment until it suited him. Diamond’s discourse matched against Buffon’s proves to further problematize our notions regarding how humans should interact with Nature; if the endemic fear of Nature, bolstered by both a religious belief in man’s right to dominion and a literature linking the fall of civilizations to an uncontrolled natural world, has created an ubiquitous and unchallenged dichotomy of humans vs. Nature, then the discourse of mastery itself has created a further fear—that humans should not overmodify their contexts—and thus has lent support to a counter-literature which was beginning around the time Buffon was writing.

Tensions begin to arise and proper mediation between the human and the natural becomes necessary. Here the difficult questions begin again: can humans add or subtract forests until they are pleased with their environment? How much of man’s influence is too much? Will it ever be enough to bring societal collapse?

The endemic fear that Nature would dominate humans therefore bleeds into another discourse in the same Western dualist view—the fear that “by taming or mastering Nature, humans are diminishing themselves and maybe something beyond themselves” (Hulme 26). Perhaps a more prudent worry, namely the fear that an overextension of human influence could cause the dangerous anthropogenic change public policy has recently sought to prevent necessitated a view dichotomously opposed to the mastery view—one which might privilege Nature, and support man’s restraint or even removal from natural landscapes.

Nature as Sacred

In the late 1700s, theories of evolution were so contested in large part because of their implications on established Biblical truths. One of these truths, previously described—that man occupied a higher position in the Great Chain of Being than animals—would have been shaken  by the notion that man was natural and held nothing but a pretension to his former, higher position. If man was enmeshed in the natural order, he became displaced from his position in the chain. Therefore how could he hold pretensions to dominion over the rest of creation?

Lynn White Jr.’s controversial 1967 essay pins these pretensions to the causes of our present ecological issues. White wrote that “[under Judeo-Christian beliefs] no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to man’s purposes. And although man’s body [was] made of clay, he [was] not simply part of nature: he [was] made in God’s image […] Not only [did Christianity] establish a dualism of man and nature, but [it] also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (4). The right to this exploitation remained uncontested because the pervasive fear of Nature continued to hold sway; mastery manifested in the rigid geometric landscapes of the Italian Renaissance gardens and those they would inspire—the 16th century gardens à la française and the English gardens of Brown and Repton in the latter half of the 1700s.

Yet if anything, the fear man felt in wilderness still outweighed the sense of connection even the most stalwart evolutionist might have felt to other living creatures, and the right to turn wilderness to man’s uses was a practical consideration of the time that would have been supported, after all, by survival of the fittest. If mastery of Nature was a pervasive view of the time, it was also a necessary one. Gardens, homes, cultivated fields—all man’s uses of land served the practical benefit of man’s survival. Man needed to tame Nature for his own survival; valuation of nature for its own sake served no practical benefit and was therefore difficult to support.

Assertions of nature inherent value—emphasized by Sir William Temple and Alexander Pope’s essays in the mid-to-late 1600s—namely that, natural beauty was preferable to a man-made landscape, were criticized as overly-aesthetic and therefore lacking proper prudence. Indeed, these essays spoke purely in aesthetic terms; Pope is thinking of nothing but artistic merit when he writes: “There is certainly something in the amiable Simplicity of unadorned Nature that spreads over the Mind a more noble sort of Tranquility, and a loftier Sensation of Pleasure, than can be raised from the nicer Scenes of Art” (1). Edmund Burke’s 1794 definition of sublime beauty pushed aestheticism even further; his definition was:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling [fear]” (39).

Burke further called the sublime “the delight derived when danger or pain is viewed from a certain distance […] as we every day experience” (7); my emphasis on delight. That Burke would state in 1794 that distance is every day experienced between man and natural terrors suggests that it was no longer necessary to value mastery of Nature absolutely, though certainly critics of landscapers inspired by Burke would argue that terror in landscape was still imprudent.

That Ruskin’s definition of picturesque beauty was “the external form of the sublime, made visible through its mixture with the familiar” (M. Price 265), and that the major landscape designers of the day sought to achieve picturesque beauty in their designs, renders it easily guessed that a debate raged between landscape designers regarding the proper mediation between an aesthetic, fearful beauty and the practical considerations of the home.

For the first time, a designer like Humphry Repton was criticized for not being Romantic enough, for a “readiness to impose self upon the world about one,” and therefore a “failure of moral sympathy” (M. Price 268). John Byng claimed Repton, “assert[ed] so much and assume[d] so much, as to make [Byng] irritable, for [Repton was] one (of the many) who [was] never wrong; and therefore why debate with him” (9). Cowper related Brown to an “omnipotent magician,” and it is notable that this insult marks an insult on man’s pretension to the influence of a deity, and raises the question: does man have the right to modify his contexts so much? Does he have a right to mastery?

In Repton’s defense, the designer explained that “scenes of horror […] did not suit the comfort of his clients” and moreover “ignored the […] social considerations of a garden” (Blaise Red Book). Repton’s criticism calls to mind Thoreau’s experience on Katahdin; while Thoreau appreciates the natural sublimity of the mountain, he feels that “Nature has got him at a disadvantage” (Maine Woods 15) on its peak. Repton or Brown would have argued that while sublime beauty might be preferable in some circumstances, such a feeling as Thoreau felt on Katahdin was impractical within the landscape of the home.

Yet when we hear Jane Austen’s Mr. Rushworth declare “[he had] never seen a place so altered in [his] life [as a Reptonian landscape],” we begin to see not an appropriate mediation between practical and aesthetic desire, but rather, a total enforcement of man’s dominion over landscape. Alistair Duckworth further suggested that Austen would have seen “in the adoption of Reptonian methods dangerous consequences for the continuity of a culture” (45)—the consequences suggested at the end of my mastery section, that is, that an overextension of human influence would diminish something beyond humanity’s reach.

Thus we begin to see a literature,

“In direct contrast to the claims and goals of mastering and controlling climate, this discourse sees climate as a repository of what is natural, something that is pure and pristine and (should be) beyond the reach of humans. Climate therefore becomes something that is fragile and needs to be protected or ‘saved’, just as much as do natural landscapes or animal species. These are goals which have fuelled the Romantic, wilderness and environmental movements of the Western Enlightenment over two centuries or more” (Hulme 25).

If Romantic nature moved away from an absolute homocentrism, (ie. nature was only beneficial in the ways it could be converted to human use), then it did not move terribly far towards what today might be called ecocentrism, or the valuation of nature for purposes distinctly removed from mankind. Romantic literature was largely taken with the interrelations of man and the natural order, but it was more interested in what these interrelations meant for mankind than what they meant to Nature.

Romantic scientists and poets fuelled one another; science of the time was as much a product of imagination as it was of observation. If Erasmus Darwin anthropomorphized plants by describing their reproduction in strikingly human terms, or Coleridge and Thoreau attributed human speech to the calls of birds, then their suggestion that our species was deeply related to others struck the imaginations of naturalists, who through years of vigilant observation had recognized important general biological principles like, “The conditions necessary to the existence of life are all present in the lowest organizations” (Lamarck 44). The observations of these scientists in turn excited the sensibilities of Romantics, and the interdependent cycle of studying the organization of organic life and imagining ways “to know how this organization, by some sort of change, had succeeded in giving rise to […] gradually increasing complexity observed through the animal scale” (44), eventually led science away from unpersuasive mechanisms of evolution like Lamarck’s laughable idea of the genetic passing of acquired traits to the earth-shaking publication of 1859’s Origin of Species.

And if Charles Darwin fundamentally altered human views on Nature, until Origin the Romantics were, in short, still largely concerned with what Nature could teach them about themselves rather than what they could learn about Nature itself. If their imaginations were tickled by the growing likelihood of their connection to other species, the best the connection suggested was an innate beauty in even the most terrifying creations and the worst it suggested was the nature was “red in tooth and claw” and “dust and darkness all that [was fated for man]” (Tennyson). If Thoreau’s famous story about Wordsworth is true, that “When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, ‘Here is his library, but his study is out of doors’” (Walking 263), then it is also true that Wordsworth’s self-described main haunt was still the mind of man—not the daffodils.

The implications of this connection with Nature, suggested by Romantic science and art, did not therefore make serious progress towards ecocentric views until the publications of Origin and Walden.

If Origin closed the case on man’s dislodged position in the Great Chain of Being and on his enmeshment in the natural order, it did not yet definitively shatter that ever-pervasive Western dichotomy: man versus Nature. Thoreau still waxed Romantic with his pristine visions of Walden as a natural landscape, despite his (and his Concord neighbor’s) knowledge that the forests of the area had been steadily thinned—“reaching an all-time low of little more than 10 percent almost at the moment Thoreau penned [Walden]” (Buell 530). Here the critic Lawrence Buell suggests that “It was emotionally important for [Thoreau] to believe in Walden as a sanctuary, and it was all the easier for him to do so in the face of contrary evidence given the power that the myth of nature’s exhaustlessness continued to hold over the astutest minds of his day” (531). Nature still existed for Thoreau as a Romantic and aesthetic category; the natural beauty that Temple and Pope found sacred was still sacred for the father of American nature writing. The position that Thoreau held by the end of “Spring,” that he should retire to his home rather than frighten off a flock of geese—despite his desire to see them all season—is therefore a notably difficult, ecocentric maneuver in 1854; the myth of nature’s exhaustlessness held strong and even Origin had yet to be published.

Walden’s difficult and minor ideology (something nearing ecocentrism) then increasingly refined itself in the genre of American nature writing, which persists today in the climate discourse.

In the discourse of American nature writing, importance is extended to the non-human; Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic is a noteworthy example: “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts […] the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land” (239). Under this discourse, a truly ecocentric view on man’s relationship to Nature finally evolved, 90 years after Darwin, and some 300 years after Temple and Pope appreciated natural beauty. Conservationists coming out of this literature are therefore the intellectual opposition to the complex mastery discourse from which, as we have seen, the conservation discourse is an offshoot.

By the time climate change entered the popular stage with End of Nature, Silent Spring had already proven the ability of this discourse to create public movement—in this case facilitating the ban of DDT.  Of course the complex interactions of these multifarious discourses created both the support Carson needed to help ban DDT and the vitriolic opposition from supporters of the mastery discourse; environmentalist Peter Matthiessen explains:

“Even before publication, Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a “hysterical woman” unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid–indeed, the whole chemical industry–duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.”

We may therefore begin to have a better understanding regarding the reception of climate change literature—growing numbers of environmental activists, apathists, and even a literature attempting to disprove or minimize climate science.

Our literatures regarding man’s position in Nature are complex and contradictory; strong traditions behind the man versus Nature dichotomy have far-reaching fingers and bleed into one another. It is possible to accept both the notion that it is in man’s interest to dominate Nature and the notion that such power is not within man’s grasp. It is possible to both aspire to and fear human mastery of Nature. Mastery may be our God-given right, the roots of our ecological crisis, or even (according to that minor literature that saw ecological threat as impetus for societal improvement) precisely that which will help us overcome the issues of our changing climate. The ways we come to answer the pressing questions of our time will be complicated by our contradictory views on our relationship to Nature; the question is: will we mediate properly between our biological need to dominate nature and our blossoming need to preserve the environmental conditions under which our dominance is possible?

Works Cited

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    Want more criticism on nature writing? Try my piece on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden!


About Brett Shollenberger

Brett Shollenberger is an sustainability consultant, writer, improviser, and editor specializing in the design of higher ed. programs and holistic communications strategies. He has a B.A. in English from Dickinson College, where he was named Ruth Sellers Maxwell Scholar of Literature for 2011. Brett Shollenberger is currently a sustainability programs analyst for GreenerU and an improv comic with Improv Asylum.
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