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Opinion Column
For the week of September 27 through October 3, 2000

Harmony and control are not interchangeable

It is interesting to contemplate that until 500 years ago the idea of controlling nature did not exist. Between 1500 and 1700 a dramatic shift in the way people thought, and in the way they perceived the world, occurred in conjunction with the rise of mechanistic science in Europe.

Express Staff Writer

The organic world is not a machine, nor is the earth, as some would have it, an engine for transporting mankind to a better life in some other life. To live today in harmony with and contemplation of nature is conceivable; to control nature is not possible and never was and never will be, at least not without serious, long-lasting, destructive and, ultimately, uncontrollable consequences.

It is interesting to contemplate that until 500 years ago the idea of controlling nature did not exist. Between 1500 and 1700 a dramatic shift in the way people thought, and in the way they perceived the world, occurred in conjunction with the rise of mechanistic science in Europe. The brilliant scientific observations of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Descartes caused a radical change in the human perception of the cosmos.

Before then, medieval scientists looked for the purpose within the various natural phenomena, considering ethics, the human soul and man’s relationship with those phenomena to be of crucial significance. Both reason and what the religiously minded called faith played equal roles in understanding nature. The main goal was to understand the meaning and significance of things and the relationships between them, not the arrogant (if ‘reasonable’) conceit of predicting and controlling nature.

The Age of the Scientific Revolution changed that, and no one was more instrumental in this transformation than the Englishman Francis Bacon. The Austrian/American physicist/philosopher Fritjof Capra has written, "Since Bacon, the goal of science has been knowledge that can be used to dominate and control nature, and today both science and technology are used predominately for purposes that are profoundly antiecological."

Bacon was the first to formulate a concise theory of the inductive procedure, and, in his passion for the new methods of scientific experimentation, he attacked the traditional schools of thought. He attacked with a viciousness that is in some ways as revealing as the methods he developed.

Bacon’s thinking was immersed in the patriarchal attitudes that dominated thought in medieval Europe, and, if truth be told, continue their domination in today’s arguably somewhat more enlightened societies.

Bacon, as attorney general for King James VI and I, was intimately abreast of the prosecutions of the witch trials held so frequently in England at that time. There was a common practice of using mechanical devices to torture women into confessions of witchcraft, and Bacon’s advocacy of empirical investigation reflects the patriarchal attitudes that condoned and, indeed, carried out those tortures.

He did not initiate those attitudes, nor the practices they fostered, but he was a product of and believer in them. Capra reports that Bacon’s terminology and imagery when writing about nature, which then and now is usually viewed as female, was violent. Violence as a means of control is not unknown in patriarchal societies. Nature, in Bacon’s view, must be ‘hounded in her wanderings,’ ‘bound into service,’ made ‘a slave’ and ‘put in constraint.’ The aim of the scientist, according to Bacon, was "to torture nature’s secrets from her."

Bounding into servitude, enslaving and torture as a means of control and information gathering are, it could be argued (using the tools of inductive reasoning, no less), indications of sick relationships and a very sick society. Yet, since Bacon and the Age of the Scientific Revolution, such sickness accurately describes mankind’s predominant attitude toward and relationship with the nature that, so far, sustains him. It is a repugnant attitude, and it is a stupid one. It is both because it insists that the natural world is nothing more than a machine composed of individual parts that can be substituted, replaced, manipulated and engineered by man.

It is a repugnant and stupid attitude because it ignores the complex and endless interactions between the myriad systems of the biological world, all the way down to the level of the relationships between subatomic particles. It is a repugnant and stupid attitude because it exemplifies and perpetrates a lie, the fabrication that control and harmony are interchangeable. They are not.

This attitude and relationship with today’s natural world is exemplified in such mega-business projects as industrial agriculture and genetic engineering, both of which are claimed by their proponents to have solved, or to be in the process of solving, the problems of food production for the world. By torturing nature’s secrets from her, these businesses have certainly changed the world.

Torturing confessions from the ‘witches’ of Francis Bacon’s time also changed the world. From the patriarchal point of view, any inconvenience or hardship of a witch’s personality or independent mind, like the inconvenience and economic inefficiency of sustainable agriculture, are best controlled by any means, no matter how destructive, unethical or violent. Harmony is, at best, irrelevant.

Most people today are appalled by the witch trials and the vicious, ignorant superstitions and attitudes that allowed them. In due time, most sane people will be appalled by the patriarchal attitudes and illusion of control that dominate our society’s relationship with the natural world. As the face of any battered wife, overgrazed landscape, clear cut forest, polluted river and farmland made sterile by chemicals attests, patriarchal control has consequences. There is no harmony in the illusion of control, as there is no control in the illusion of harmony, and they are not interchangeable.


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