by JACE BLUNDEN:
There is a belief that science will be able to save us from our current environmental crisis. This essay posits that science’s foundation in anthropocentrism and environmental exploitation makes it likely to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, this crisis. In order to explain these foundations, the works of Bacon, Descartes and Newton, and their conceptualisation of humanity being distinctly separate from nature, will be analysed. This dualistic framework, coupled with the pursuit of what ‘could be’ not what ‘should be’, will be discussed in relation to how it encouraged the narrative of unfettered scientific progress. Furthermore, this paper will analyse the evolution of industrial agriculture as an example of how reliance on science as a ‘saviour’ contributes more problems than solutions. Finally, the need for a new ontological framework will be explored, one that relies, not on science, but on a recombining of humanity with nature in a non-linear, non-hierarchical relationship.
The current ecological crisis may appear a distinctly modern problem, but it is one born in antiquity. From the 16th and 17th centuries a radical change in thought occurred. This ‘scientific revolution’, particularly the works of Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Isaac Newton, led to the view that humans were apart from nature, rather than embedded within it, and that science could be used to master and control the natural environment (Capra, 1982, p. 56). Bacon believed that science would reveal the workings of God and, with His secrets exposed, nature could be placed into human servitude (Merchant, 2008). Bacon sought nothing less than a return to Eden through science, believing that the control and manipulation of nature could reclaim what had been lost (ibid). This view that nature’s value lay only in what humanity could glean from it was reinforced by René Descartes. Descartes split nature and humans into opposing camps, creating a dualism which underpins Western ontologies to this day (Capra, 1982, p. 63-65). Descartes believed nature was a mathematically explainable mechanical process, and humans, who possessed a soul and rational mind, existed above other beings, who were simply organic machines (Descartes, 2010). This mechanistic view was further compounded by Isaac Newton, who imagined the workings of the universe as that of an enormous machine (Capra, 1982, pp. 53-74). Together, the work of Newton, Bacon and Descartes encouraged the dissection and manipulation of the world using a new scientific method. In removing our connection to nature and positing that science was the dominant source of ‘truth’ a new grand narrative (Merchant, 2008; McKibben, 2006, p. 87), with humanity posted squarely on top, was established.
It would be foolish to argue science has not improved the human condition, however, the separation of nature and culture caused a shift from stewardship to exploitation, a framework that is at the core of our ecological crisis. Binary thinking leads to exploitation and, in separating from nature, science began operating with a belief in its own intrinsic value, the only responsibility was a search for ‘truth’, denying any ethical obligations (Tsekos and Matthopoulos, 2009). In the words of Shiva (1988) “the sanctity of life (has) been substituted for the sanctity of science” (p. xiv). Science gave humanity the knowledge and tools to solve problems, but did not pause to explain why, and, with each solution creating a new problem, the story of humanity became the snowballing narrative of unfettered scientific progress (Rothenburg, 2010, pp. 370-374). Evidence of this disconnect between humans and nature, and the unrestrained use of science, can be seen in the industrialisation of agriculture.
The search for, and production of, food is central to the evolution of human culture and the story of human survival (Lang & Heasman, 2004, p 128; Standage, 2009), therefore, it is not much of a stretch to situate the current ecological crisis within the lens of food production and distribution. In 1798, Thomas Malthus (1982) posited that the human population would soon outstrip its ability to feed itself. A little over a century later, with the need to increase in agricultural yields becoming a real urgency, Fritz Haber, a German chemist, first synthesised ammonia, a technique that was to have an enormous impact on the world, the human population and the environment (Leigh, 2004, pp. 129-134). The ability to artificially fix nitrogen in the soil led to a ‘green revolution’, with the potential to realise Bacon’s wish to reclaim Eden and feed the hungry mouths of the world (Thompson, 1995, p. 4). However, science’s solutions to agricultural issues have further severed human connection to the land and wrought incredible damage to the environment, a process Wright (2004) has labelled a ‘progress trap’ (p. 30).
Progress in agricultural science has not fed the worlds hungry or returned us to Eden, but exacerbated the conditions that may lead to the downfall of the human race. Industrial agriculture has disconnected people from the soil, the very thing that provided their sustenance for many millennia (Thompson, 1995, pp. 1-20). The once intimate relationship is now one of total alienation, the Newtonian conceptualisation of the world as a machine causing a breakdown in the natural feedback cycle of agriculture (Brown, 2003, p. 230). Pressure on the environment caused by industrial agriculture has reached crisis scale (Land & Heasman, 2004, p. 7) as a massive population spike (Brown, 2003, p. 17), the draining of aquifers, monoculture replacing biodiversity, erosion, compaction and over-fertilisation of soil (ibid, pp. 224-253), deforestation, heavy reliance on petroleum inputs (Young, 2012, p. 2) not to mention the leaching of fertiliser, antibiotics and pesticides into the wider ecosystem (Lang & Heasman, 2004, pp. 222-249). All of this is occurring within a global export economy where food has become a commodity, causing a vicious cycle of production and consumption (Young, 2012, pp. 5-24). Science may have successfully unlocked solutions to one crisis, but in doing so has created a Pandora’s Box of new problems. To solve these new crises, most look again to science, increasing the width of the snowball as each new solution presents new problems. One only has to look to such offerings as firing lasers at carbon molecules or frozen ozone into the atmosphere (McKibben, 2006, p. 73), or using nanobots, biotechnology and further mechanisation to improve agricultural yields (Beddington, 2010) to see that science has disconnected with reality and cannot be relied on to solve the environmental crisis.
In the name of scientific progress, the intertwined relationship that existed between humans and nature was broken, it is a re-coupling of nature and culture that is needed to bring about a new era of environmental responsibility and ethical stewardship. By removing these “dogmatic blinders” (Cronon, 1993, p. 15) of binary thinking humans can begin to accommodate the anthropogenic world within the wider conceptualisation of ‘the environment’ (Tsekos & Matthopoulos, 2009). An undeniable barrier exists in establishing a new paradigm as the majority world will have to face huge philosophical, social, political and economic upheavals (Crabtree, 2005). These changes are unlikely to occur from the top down, as vested political, business and individual interests will always resist shifts to sustainability as an attack on their affluence, however, this affluence comes at the expense of the planet and our future generations (Sachs, et al, 1998). Therefore, the dissolution of these artificially constructed binaries has to come from the bottom up. Whether it be human/animal, nature/culture, urban/rural, traditional/modern, consumer/producer or masculine/feminine, these dualisms all contribute to an exploitative framework that must be unwound if we are to reach a sustainable, embedded existence upon this planet (Blay-Palmer, 2008, p.7). Thankfully, we don’t have to write the world anew. Ontologies that encourage an environmental literacy that entwines nature and culture already exist, in the guise of the world’s surviving Indigenous knowledges, local, non-industrial practises, urban gardens, permacultures, agrobiodiversity, and non-capitalist economies (Howlitt, 2000; Wills-Johnson, 2010; Langton, et al, 2014; Pilgrim, et al, 2010; Thompson, 1995; Anderson, 2010; Howard, 2010; Gibson-Graham, 2006; Sachs, et al, 1998). As hopelessly utopian as this may seem, if we, as a species, do not work towards becoming the stewards of nature rather than its exploiters we will face annihilation with no-one but ourselves to blame (Plumwood, 2007, p. 1).
With a narrow focus on ‘truth’, science has systematically ignored the peripheries that encompass wider reality. This essay has argued that science, although responsible for massive increases in human well-being, is still caught in the dualistic thinking of its conception, therefore, cannot be relied upon to fix the current environmental crisis. This paper has discussed how science has focussed on what it ‘can’ do, with little regard to what it ‘should’ and, with reference to the science of agriculture, how each new breakthrough, or solution, creates a whole new list of problems. This essay finds that what is needed is not more science, but a re-intertwining of nature and culture into an environmental ethic. If we fail, the Eden Francis Bacon believed was our destiny to re-inherit will only be feasible long after our extinction.
Jace Blunden is a first-year student stuck in a mature-aged student’s body. He likes cooking, maps and sitting on his hands during tutorials so he doesn’t become ‘that guy’.
Disclaimer: (1) This submission was a finalist in the Opus Magazine 2016 Essay Competition. This essay was written as credit towards the author’s course of study at the University of Newcastle. Copying this essay or resubmitting it as your own work is plagiarism, and harsh penalties apply. More information about academic integrity can be found on the University of Newcastle website. (2) This essay has been subject to stylistic and semantic edits by the editor(s) of Opus Magazine. Care has been taken not to obscure the original tone or content of the essay. (3) The opinions and academic judgments expressed are solely those of the author. Opus Magazine and the Newcastle University Students’ Association (NUSA) take no responsibility for the rigour or accuracy in this essay. Concerns or disputes about this essay can be sent to the NUSA Media Officer at firstname.lastname@example.org
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