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At its finest, the new conception of nature enabled people to appreciate, and wish to safeguard, the natural environment on which life depends. At its worst, this reverence for the natural world gave rise to a mindless sentimentality that regarded all human activity as harmful and exploitive…

I.

The English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once observed that before the industrial revolution human beings had not experienced real change. They knew the vicissitudes of nature and the reversals of fortune that accompanied famine, plague, natural disaster, and war. But for those preindustrial men and women the essential structure and order of life remained always and everywhere the same

Only with the coming of industrialization, Whitehead suggested, did human beings at last discover change. And the changes that they endured were not  uniformly progressive or healthy. In the industrialized world, men and women lost their sense of place. They severed their attachment to humanity. They became disconnected from nature, history, tradition, and,eventually, God. Miserable, alienated, and alone, modern men and women plunged headlong into a world that they could neither comprehend nor master, despite the technological innovations that promised to bring them greater understanding and control.

For a thousand years, maps of Europe registered little evidence of human activity. There were cities and villages, cultivated fields, a few unpaved roads and small canals hewn from the wilderness, but the landscape remained otherwise untouched by human hands. It was industry, as Whitehead asserted, that transformed the face of nature and altered the lives of people. Unlike most political revolutions, which are revolutionary in their immediate consequences but not in their long-term results, the so-called Industrial Revolution had a revolutionary outcome. Evolutionary in process and development, the Industrial Revolution effected fundamental and often irrevocable change, the enormity of which we began to appreciate only in the second half of the twentieth century.

Whitehead’s metaphysics implied the continuity and dependence of human life on the natural environment. Human beings could not manipulate the intricate web of relations that constituted the natural world without upsetting, and perhaps destroying, its complex but always delicate balance. In 1861, the year of Whitehead’s birth, the pollution of the earth that had resulted from human activity was apparent only in a few hellish places, such as the “dark, satanic mills” that William Blake evoked. By the year of his death in 1947, pollution affected millions the world over, and not only in poor neighborhoods and impoverished countries, but also in affluent suburbs and the unspoiled countryside.

One hundred fifty years ago, during the 1870s, the spread of industrialization from England to the continent bettered the lives of a multitude of ordinary persons. Whitehead himself conceded that at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution “the machinery fell, I should say, on the whole into the hands of fairly good people; they exploited the poor, but at least they used it for production.” [1] For the first time in history, increasing numbers of men, women, and children had access to indoor plumbing, electric lights, and central heating. Throughout the Western world, standards of living improved; mortality rates declined; life expectancy increased. The steamship and the railroad, then the automobile and the airplane, became commonplace, as did the telephone, the phonograph, the radio, and finally the television.

Of course, long before industrialization, European attitudes toward nature had varied widely. Medieval thinkers imagined that somewhere in the distant west lay an earthly paradise in which liberty, abundance, and happiness were natural rights. In this land of ease and plenty, no one need work for their keep, or starve, or steal, or struggle to husband limited resources. Nature itself provided all the necessities of life with minimal human effort. Beginning in the late fifteenth century, a host of European thinkers, including the Florentine navigator and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, and the English playwright William Shakespeare, extolled the many virtues of this serene and bountiful land.

By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, European settlers in the New World began to question the regenerative powers of nature. They had relied on their encounter with the wilderness to purify and revitalize them, to free them from corruption, avarice, and want. But the need to impose order on the wilderness, and especially to subdue the native inhabitants, reoriented European perceptions. If the Indians, who lived in intimate contact with nature, were “little otherwise then ye wild beasts,” as William Bradford, the governor of Massachusetts Bay, characterized them, then what prospects did the rendezvous with nature hold for Europeans? [2] Would nature convert decadent Europeans into virtuous men, or would it complete their descent into savagery and barbarism? In 1651, the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes raised doubts about the benefits of nature. The restraints of civilization, Hobbes argued in Leviathan, were indispensable if human beings hoped to live together in peace. In the state of nature men slaughtered one another to satisfy their own needs; they lived in a state of ceaseless warfare. This perpetual “war of all against all” offered no protection for the rights to life, liberty, or property, no reward for industry, and no opportunity for culture. Survival of the fittest was the only law. “No account of time; no arts; no letters; no society,” Hobbes lamented, “and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” [3]

Hobbes’s thesis resonated among educated Europeans for the next century, none more so than the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and the French historian and philosopher, Abbe Guillaume-Thomas-François de Raynal. Influenced by the spirit of rationalism and embracing the scientific world view, the Comte de Buffon and Abbe Raynal, like numerous of their contemporaries, convinced themselves that nature was the foe of humanity. Unless subject to human intelligence, the aimless power of nature would decimate mankind.

So extensive was the intellectual and moral revolt against nature during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that even the landscape was made to glorify reason. The landscape architects who designed seventeenth- and eighteenth-century gardens had but a single purpose: to impose order on chaos by eliminating or concealing the unruly imperfections of nature. An elaborate, geometrical formalism distinguished their creations, all deliberately fashioned to hide the natural aspects of the countryside behind terraces, stone walls, grottos, fountains, urns, and statuary. Engaged in complicated and expensive engineering projects, designers leveled hills, encased ponds and streams in artificial basins, clipped hedges, pruned or cut down trees, and planted flowers in symmetrical patterns. Nature must be subdued, yielding to decoration, ornament, and artifice.

In time, the revolt against nature itself invited rebuttal. As scientists mastered the techniques of biological classification, they began to realize that nature presented an orderly arrangement and an aesthetic splendor of its own, which frequently dwarfed the feeble creations of man. This recognition showed that human beings could, in fact, be elevated by the grace of nature just as readily as they could be denigrated by its anarchy. Even before the end of the eighteenth century, a revolution in intellectual fashion and popular taste once more brought the worship of nature into vogue.

At the core of this revolution in attitude and opinion was the discovery of the beauty of the untamed wilderness. Mountains, for example, which before 1800, had been thought a dangerous impediment afterward became exquisite and magisterial scenery. To experience nature, and to intuit its significance, became the purpose of life. The sentiments of the eighteenth-century Scottish poet James Thomson are indicative:

O Nature! all-sufficient! Over all
Enrich me with the knowledge of thy works.
Snatch me to heaven; Thy rolling wonders there,
World beyond world, in infinite extent
Profusely scattered o’er the blue immense,
Show me; their motions, periods, and their laws
Give me to scan; through the disclosing deep
Light my blind way: the mineral strata there;
Thrust blooming thence the vegetable world;
O’er that rising system, more complex,
Of animals; and higher still, the mind,
The varied scene of quick-compounded thought,
And where the mixing passions endless shift;
These ever open to my ravished eye—
A search, the flight of time can ne’er exhaust! [4]

Thomson died in 1748. By the second half of the eighteenth century, thinkers and artists in all media were paying tribute to nature.

Garden design again illustrated the changed outlook. Landscape architects now banished artificiality and instead attempted to create boundless natural vistas in which nature reigned without impediment or restraint. In nature run riot eighteenth-century Europeans found beauty and goodness rather than terror and evil. No figure did more to inspire the worship of nature than Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Disturbed by the sickness that he believed had infected the modern mind, Rousseau assumed that Europeans would know peace only when they had ceased to lust after property and became unwilling to pay the excessive costs of progress and civilization. He sought to persuade his contemporaries to abandon their quest for worldly goods and material comforts and to embrace the ideals of more primitive societies in which everyone lived in accord with nature and was satisfied with its rewards. For primitive men and women, Rousseau concluded, every luxury had not become a necessity. In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men, published in 1755, Rousseau maintained that jealousy, envy, and violence resulted from the inequitable division of the goods, resources, and wealth of the world. If private property were abolished and if extremes of wealth and poverty overcome, Europeans could at last shed their chains and live in freedom and equality:

The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his own head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this impostor. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!” [5]

The nearer men and women got to nature, the richer their lives and the greater their happiness would be. Rousseau thus embarked on a self-appointed mission to teach Europeans that utopia was within reach. To realize it, they had only to give up the material accouterments of civilized life.

At its finest, the new conception of nature enabled people to appreciate, and wish to safeguard, the natural environment on which life depends. At its worst, this reverence for the natural world gave rise to a mindless sentimentality that regarded all human activity as harmful and exploitive, but that, at the same time, did nothing to halt the insensate destruction of nature. Those who sought to administer nature, just as they sought to manage society, by applying scientific principles and imposing myriad bureaucratic regulations failed to recognize that the desecration of the earth began with the pollution of the mind about which science and government can do nothing. Experience should by now have made it clear that human beings cannot continue to abuse nature with impunity. To do so is to endanger life itself. It is a loss of piety that had led to the scientific and technological rearrangement of nature for profit, which, in turn, has effaced humanity and drawn the world closer to death.

II.

Before the twentieth century, the principal responsibility for the destruction of nature lay with nature itself: fires, floods, storms, earthquakes, and pestilence. Since then the main treat to nature has come from the application of science and technology. The acknowledgement that science and technology offer alike benefits and perils is now rather commonplace. The original assumption that propelled the advance of science and technology was that they would together improve not only the material conditions of life but would expand the capacity of the mind as well. The desire to increase the sum of human knowledge and achievement provided the impetus to scientific and technological development. By the nineteenth century, despite the critique of a few skeptics, the belief in science was becoming more universal than the belief in God. In the United States, the Social Darwinists were the first to popularize the efficacy of science. They made individualism a scientific precept and elevated the survival of the fittest to a natural law of progress.

According to the Social Darwinists, the logic of science proved that individualism would revive the American national life. No one could avoid the struggle for survival, which was inscribed in the very substance of nature. Those who prevailed were, by definition, best suited to further human progress. Outward success revealed inward virtue. If, by the late nineteenth century, those who had come through the competitive struggle could no longer feel assured that they were among God’s elect, they could at least have every confidence that they were naturally superior to those over whom they had triumphed. Their accomplishments were the unmistakable product of natural selection. Those who failed, by contrast, were somehow deficient, whether in body, mind, or soul. “Vice is its own curse,” insisted the sociologist William Graham Sumner in 1883. “If we let nature alone, she cures vices by the most frightful penalties. A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be. Nature is working away at him to get him out of the way, just as she sets up her processes of dissolution to remove whatever is a failure in its line.” [6] Every man should thus be sober, industrious, self-possessed, prudent, and wise. Those who are not will inevitably die out. Their deaths will cleanse and strengthen the genetic composition of the human race, and thereby advance human progress.

By this account, nature imposed standards and laws to govern and evaluate all human conduct. Science was the process by which human beings investigated these standards and laws in an effort to discover the forces directing the operation of the universe. The theologian and philosopher Josiah Royce challenged the view of the Social Darwinists, contending that scientific laws were not objective transcripts of reality but instead were human contrivances used to describe natural phenomena. Science, Royce proclaimed, was “an essentially social affair,” providing a common language with which to discuss what human beings assumed, and what they could say, about nature. [7] Nature itself, he added, was “as a finite reality, something whose very conception we have actually derived from our social relations. . . . Our relations with nature are thus such as involve a more or less social contrast between our life and the life of nature.” [8] He affirmed that “the endless indescribabilities of our experience” were beyond the capacity of science to uncover or even effectively to articulate. [9]

For some Americans, science has now fallen into disrepute. They misrepresent, or at least exaggerate, Royce’s original critique, questioning every avenue of scientific inquiry, especially those subject to public funding. They reject every scientific conclusion, from the efficacy of vaccinations to the reality of climate change. For other Americans, the attack on science constitutes an attack on reality itself. Neither position is tenable.

It is no surprise that popular disillusionment with science began in 1945. Perhaps for the first time in history scientists had created a device that most people wished never came into existence. Some thinkers appreciated that the mass slaughter of the Second World War could not have occurred without the methods and instruments of science. “The roar of the machine is followed by the chorus of violence,” explained Richard M. Weaver, “and the accumulation of riches, to which states dedicated themselves, is lost in a blind fanaticism of destruction.” [10] The intrinsic power of science enabled humanity “to discard ancient fundamentals of ethics and of law,” which enhanced the possibilities of another total war. Weaver discerned that:

The invention of super bombs and of intercontinental guided missiles has advanced warfare so near the absolute stage of indiscrimination that even those observances that carried over into our century have been made completely impossible, and nothing seems in prospect but mass brutality. The kind of “reason” that used to underlie the assertion of armed force now fades out as that force is no longer able to respect any distinctions. War, instead of proving some idea, can now only prove that one side has beaten the other to the unleashing of total extermination. [11]

Lacking even the refinements of cruelty, which at least has the virtue of distinguishing among its victims, modern warfare degenerated into a barbarism so general and unremitting that it has made pacifists of us all.

In the production of nuclear weapons, scientific research was neither impartial nor objective, but yielded to political necessity. The image of physicists celebrating the detonation of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert remains eerily haunting. By the same token, the German scientists who perfected chorine and mustard gas during the First World War, and those who performed vicious and often lethal experiments on the Jewish inmates of the death camps during the Second, became national heroes. Disillusionment with the promise of science to fashion a heaven on earth, as well as the rejection of scientific knowledge itself, originated in such events.

But the present war against science and nature is of equal concern, and carries its own inherent risks. This assault, too, originates from political motives, such as the determination to promote unrestricted economic growth even if doing so ravages the earth. Although Barack Obama moved with caution to limit pollution and to address climate change, Donald Trump has curtailed or eliminated even these modest efforts, all while withdrawing funds to underwrite scientific research. The Affordable Clean Energy Rule eliminates federal limits on the emission of carbon dioxide and methane and confers regulatory authority on the states. Obama’s Clean Power Plan had intended to diminish coal emissions by 2030 to 32 percent below levels in 2005. President Trump’s policy will cut emissions by only 1.5 percent. In addition, the Trump administration has reduced the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah, opening protected land to economic development, has proposed to weaken the Endangered Species of 1973, has lessened fuel emissions, air pollution, and ozone standards, and has abolished the NASA Carbon Monitoring Program.

President Trump embodies the disposition to attack, subdue, and vanquish nature in the name of power and profit. His is a Faustian bargain. “Faustian man,” wrote Richard Weaver, is “a restless striver, a yearner after the infinite, a hater of statis [sic], a man who is unhappy unless he feels that he is making the world over.” [12] With more powerful tools and more destructive weapons at their disposal, human beings are, paradoxically, less capable of judgment, prudence, and self-restraint than their forebears. As a result, they have become impatient with obstacles of any sort. They exhibit what Weaver called “the spoiled-child psychology,” convinced that there is nothing they cannot do and nothing that they cannot have, and that they may obtain their momentary heart’s desire through complaints, insolence, and threats. “The spoiled child,” Weaver elaborated, “has not been made to see the relationship between effort and reward. He wants things, but he regards payment as an imposition or as an expression of malice by those who withhold it. His solution . . . is to abuse those who do not gratify him.” [1]3 Weaver countered by recommending moderation and forbearance and acknowledging the limits of human prerogatives, to say nothing of the tragedy sure to follow when those limits were breached.

Could it be then that Weaver’s intuition of seventy years ago was right? Passing through the gates of the Inferno, have modern men lost all hope? Are they trying anxiously to assert their will to power, which they fear is become irrelevant? Are they trying to fill the emptiness of their souls? Do they nurture a death wish? “When it becomes evident that the world’s rewards are not adequate to the world’s pain, and when the possibility of other reward is denied, simple calculation demands the ending of all. The task,” as Weaver identified it, was “to keep men from feeling desperately unrewarded,” and to teach them how to bear the expense that living requires. For, as Weaver emphasized, restoration always “comes at a price” and “calls for deep reformation.” [14]

If a rebirth, a second renaissance, is still possible, if the contamination of mind and soul, of which the befouling of nature is but one symptom, may still be reversed, we will have to look as much to the future as to the past for inspiration. The humanists of the fifteen and sixteenth centuries sought to revitalize the splendor of antiquity. However essential a connection to the past may be to ensuring individual wellbeing and social vitality, despair arises when people have nothing to look forward to, when they can entertain no affirmative vision of things to come. They may yet “have to learn the truth along some via dolorosa,” but they also need to find hope. [15] If it is a hope chastened by experience and thus more realistic, so much the better; it will be hope still. For life ends when hope evaporates. Without meaning and purpose, there can be only death.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

1 Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead as Recorded by Lucien Price (Boston, 1954), 200.
2 William Bradford, History of Plimouth Plantation (Boston, 1898), 33.
3 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. by Michael Oakeshott (New York, 1962), 100.
4 James Thomson, “The Seasons: Autumn,” in the Complete Poetical Works of James Thomson, ed. by J. Logie Robertson (London, 1908), 181.
5 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, trans. by Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis, IN, 1983), Part II, 140.
6 William Graham Sumner, “The Forgotten Man,” in The Forgotten Man and Other Essays, ed. by Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven, CT., 1918), 480.
7 Josiah Royce, “Natural Law, Ethics, and Evolution,” in Studies in Good and Evil (New York, 1898), 129.
8 Josiah Royce, “Self-Consciousness, Social Consciousness and Nature,” in Ibid., 204-205.
9 Royce, “Natural Law, Ethics, and Evolution,” in Ibid., 129.

10 Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, 1948), 33.
11 Richard M. Weaver, “A Dialectic of Total War,” in Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Wilmington, DE, 1995; originally published in 1964), 110-11.
12 Richard M. Weaver, “The South and the American Union,” in The Lasting South, ed. by Louis D. Rubin Jr. and James J. Kilpatrick (Chicago, 1957), 51. See also The Southern Essays of Richard Weaver, ed. by George M. Curtis III and James J. Thompson Jr. (Indianapolis, IN.,1987), 235.
13 Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 113.
14 Ibid., 185-87.
15 Ibid., 187.

The picture featured was taken in July 1945, and depicts one of the stages in the assembly of the Trinity atomic bomb. The photographer is unidentified.

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2 replies to this post
  1. “to the reality of climate change.”

    This is where the author loses me. Global warming is at best a theory, unproven and perhaps unprovable. And at worst an ideology, imposed on us from above by politicians far more than scientists, people who use it as an excuse to control other people’s lives.

  2. Problems with “the reality of climate change” are the climate models which were exaggerated and based on junk science. Michael Mann’s hockey stick fabrication is an example. The “reality” of the situation seems to be that Hillary Clinton and her ilk wanted redistribution of wealth on a global scale. Of course, the Clintons mainly wanted redistribution of wealth into their coffers; Haiti and the rest of the third world were means to that greedy end.

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