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The conce p t of the domination of nature can be traced to the 17th-century Scientific Revolution and the subsequent period of the Enlightenment, which was the 18th-century philosophical and social movement that transformed visions of society, science, and nature. Previously, nature and the material world were commonly believed to be a living organism comprised of earth, air, fire, water, and “ether” that formed the stars and planets. Spiritual and religious frameworks that regarded nature as a living being independent of human will provided cultural and moral constraints to the overexploitation of nature.
Seventeenth-century thinkers developed a philosophical commitment to rational science, logical thinking, and mathematical reasoning that allowed nature to be known, managed, mastered, and dominated. According to Francis Bacon (1571-1626), the key conceptual author of the mastery of nature thesis, “nature must be ‘bound into service’ and made a ‘slave’, put ‘in constraint’ and ‘molded’ by the mechanical arts.” Bacon rationalized this mastery using a religious frame of reference, arguing “only let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest, and let power be given it; the exercise thereof will be governed by sound reason and true religion.” Enlightenment thinkers subsequently developed a mechanical view of nature, viewing reality as a machine comprised of discreet and individual parts whose actions could be known, possessed, and mastered for the benefit of humans. No longer part of nature, humans came to depend on the continued development of science and technology to meet human needs and advance social progress.
The domination of nature thesis has been taken up by various social theorists since the period of the Enlightenment. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, German philosophers and founding members of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, critiqued the real results of the Enlightenment as leading to the disenchantment and alienation of humans from nature, arguing, “on the road to modern science, men renounce any claim to meaning.” This alienation is extended to the relationships between humans and even to the self, leading to the objectification and destruction of all human-human and human-nature relationships.
In 1972, philosopher, political scientist, and sociologist William Leiss published the influential work The Domination of Nature. His ideas caught the public interest at a time of increased awareness of environmental degradation. In addition, the effects of environmental pollution on human health-during an era of rapid technological changes-began a response to environmental problems. Leiss suggested that theoretical treatments of the domination or mastery of nature can be divided into two categories: those concerning how the “attitude or concept of mastery over nature arose and developed, and those that deal with the practical outcomes of this ‘attitude’ (what damage has been done in its name, and what we must do to repair it).”
Through the development of an exegesis of the Baconian idea of the domination or mastery of nature, Leiss demonstrates “humanity’s entitlement to mastery over nature is a subterranean theme that runs throughout the collective consciousness of the modern era … framed above all by a thoroughly secular natural science.” Leiss underscored two important points in his exegesis. First, he argued that any attempt to separate humans from nature as analytical categories is misleading. Second, he explored the process by which the domination of nature came to be identified with scientific and technological progress as a broad social task that developed in response to the formation of human needs. He argued that the human urge for self-preservation spurs ongoing efforts to intensively exploit the earth’s resources. But the ongoing creation of new societal wants and needs and the existence of social conflict stimulate the “seemingly endless productive applications of technological innovations” and preclude the setting of limits.
Technology, for Leiss, is the link between the mastery of nature through knowledge and the use of that knowledge to acquire and use more of physical nature in daily life. Leiss demonstrates the contradiction, however, in the growing ability of humanity to produce technological progress and innovation (what he deems operational powers), while failing to control the detrimental effects of this technology for both humans and nature. Leiss then proposes a socialist “counter-ideology” of the liberation of nature through the rational use of technology to eliminate wasteful production and environmental destruction. He draws parallels with other historical propositions for social change that involve both living in harmony with nature and using technology to advance the human condition. He also admonishes against using the notion of the liberation of nature as a mere slogan against the continued advances of modern technology. Instead, he argues that “the idea of the mastery of nature must be reinterpreted in such a way that its principal focus is ethical or moral development rather than scientific or technological innovation…a task that primarily involves the reconstruction of social institutions.”
In 1980, environmental historian and ecofeminist Carolyn Merchant published another important work addressing the historical implications of the Enlightenment’s transition toward a science-based view of nature. In The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, Merchant argues that when pre-Enlightenment visions of nature as feminine were replaced by a mechanistic worldview as part of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, a hierarchical and patriarchal social order emerged that linked the domination of nature to the domination of women.
Merchant demonstrates the way in which notions of ecology, science, and gender were socially and historically constructed to provide the foundations for the social and economic transition to capitalism, and connects the feminization of nature to the capitalist justification of overexploitation of nature’s resources. As a foundational text within eco-feminist thinking, The Death of Nature argues for the re-integration of an organic and feminine worldview into modern scientific and technological treatments of nature and society.
The domination of nature thesis underlies many other discussions of the relationship between society and nature in various disciplines, including critical theory, environmental sociology, ecological philosophy, environmental ethics, ecofeminism, social ecology, and ecological Marxism. Most of these fields seek critical ways of understanding how to overturn the domination of nature within contemporary society. They do this by examining the transformation of individual and collective interpretations and implications of this domination and the potential for alternatives. Murray Bookchin, in The Philosophy of Social Ecology for example, proposes a theory of social ecology that links the domination of nature to class domination and social hierarchy. But he also argues “at no time can we surrender to the ‘inevitability’ of domination in certainty that latent liberatory possibilities do not exist.” More recently, sociologist Damian Finbar White, in his article, “Hierarchy, Domination, Nature,” has followed geographer Henri Lefebvre’s distinction between the domination and appropriation of nature and space. He argues “all human societies have been involved in the dynamic appropriation of their natures (that is, in bringing their relations with nature into conscious rational control to survive),” rather than being destined to dominate nature. These notions of the possibility of exiting the domination-of-nature paradigm provide a foundation for contemporary theories of sustainable development, ecofeminism, and bioregionalism, all of which advocate the development of creative ways of sustainable appropriation of nature that allow the survival of all species and the domination of none.
- Murray Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology (Black Rose Books, 1995);
- Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (Herder and Herder, 1972 );
- William Leiss, The Domination of Nature (George Braziller, 1972);
- Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (Harper Collins, 1980);
- Carolyn Merchant, Radical Ecology (Taylor and Francis, 2005);
- Damian Finbar White, “Hierarchy, Domination, Nature” Organization and Environment (March 2003).