The mastery of nature and the concept oflimits

Raymond Williams has commented on the ideological employment -'mystique', he calls it - of the concept of the 'mastery of nature'.21 Developing Williams's argument, in what senses should the mastery ofnature be

20. Benton, 'Marxism and Natural Limits', p. 161.

21. Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope (London: Verso, 1989), p. 214.

regarded as ideological.? First, mastery suggests that humanity is not part of nature: in a triumph of alienation, humanity is against nature rather than being both in and against nature. Second, the impression is given that humanity has knowledge of nature which is conformable and suitable to such mastery: epistemic triumphalism. Third, mastery advocates that humanity has the full capacity to judge errors in its attempts at mastery: a self-reflexive triumphalism. Fourth, it proposes that human beings do have, as practical agents, the capacities - what Marx would call the 'instruments of labour' - to master nature: technological triumphalism. At this point, the gendered aspect of the metaphor comes into focus: for what is required as operative presuppositions of the metaphor, in its ideological capacities to make a meaning stick, is disembodied, self-correcting rationality which can both properly determine the needs of humanity and respond to new circumstances: the abstract and triumphalist rationality ofliberal capitalism.22

The social aspect of this metaphor of the mastery of nature is manifest. The social project of a certain sort of society, the political project of a certain type of polity, and the economic project of a certain way of producing nature is summarised - accurately yet untruthfully - under the rubric of the 'mastery of nature'. However, to offer a critique of the metaphor is not to attend properly to the difficult matter that the metaphor conceals: the limits ofnature.

Much of the ecological literature, including ecotheology, trades upon a somewhat diffuse account oflimits. There is a limit to the number ofpeo-ple the earth can support; alimit to the amount of pollution and waste that natural ecosystems can absorb; a limit to the destruction of natural habitats; a limit to the reduction in species diversity beyond which the complexity of ecosystems, and thereby their fragile capacity to support life, is threatened. (This reading of limit is concerned with the preservation of species, etc.) In other areas, a different concept of limits is operative: with regard to the extraction of resources for the supply of energy, the finitude of oil and gas supplies is noted - hence limit in the sense of a finite amount. The term 'non-renewable' has, as part of its meaning, precisely such a sense of limit. (Here limit is concerned with the conservation of resources.)

What is less clear in the literature is precisely how these limits are constituted and, furthermore, how such limits apply to knowledge of nature.

22. We should here, in advance of a full discussion in chapter 8, note the analogies between the mastery of nature and the reinterpretation of dominion as stewardship.

What is striking in the deep ecological literature reviewed in chapter 3 is - not least given the range of disciplines on which such arguments draw - the sheer confidence by which claims are made.23 If ecological thought provides us with such sophisticated yet general knowledge regarding the relations of humanity with nature, why does the notion of limits lack specification.? Is there not a strange mismatch between, on the one hand, the wide-ranging prescriptions on the greening of the world and, on the other, the vagueness regarding the discussion oflimits.

On account of such vagueness, the appeal to the mastery of nature is at least intelligible, if not persuasive. The appeal to mastery, in other words, raises questions against the positing of limits. Defending such mastery, Reiner Grundmann argues that Marx maintains the modern attitude to nature: human beings seek, and should seek, to dominate nature; human beings are both in and against nature and enact their domination of nature through the construction of a 'second nature'.24 From such a position Grundmann argues that if a society encounters ecological problems, this is clear evidence of a failure in the mastery of nature. Ecological difficulties are social irrationalities which require practical resolution. In a sense, then, such problems require more domination, not less.

This affirmation connects directly to the consideration of limits. For Grundmann, failure to attend to the domination of nature is thereby to admit to naturalism. To go with biocentrism and ascribe value to nature in the attempt to reduce its exploitation is to engage in naturalistic 'mysticism'. In good Marxist fashion, he connects such mysticism to religion: 'But, unless one adopts a mystical or religious standpoint, there is always a human interest behind the attitude that nature should be left out there "for itself'.'25 To travel this way is to posit natural laws to which human beings are asked to conform, and so to naturalise scarcity. To take this 'mystical' way, Grundmann argues, is to fall back behind the modern treatmentof nature to which the theme of mastery is central. The outcome of such 'scarcity' is an alienated projection of the fixity oflaws on to nature so as to protect the interests of the rich and powerful - after all, is it not the West that would benefit most if, in accordance with 'nature's laws', the target of zero economic growth was adopted? How do we guard against an

23. Cf. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, 'A Critique of Political Ecology', in Benton (ed.), The

24. Reiner Grundmann, 'The Ecological Challenge to Marxism', New Left Review 187 (1991),


overreaching naturalism which lays out a set of laws - nature knows best, to use Barry Commoner's formulation - to which human beings must conform.?

The matter of the limits of nature is complex. It is possible, as in some forms ofnaturalism, to set out the limits ofnature yet in abstraction from the ways in which nature is produced in a capitalist economy. Alternatively, it is tempting to try to avoid the issue by reference to the mastery of nature. Neither approach is theologically congenial: one construes the common realm in favour ofnature, the other in favour ofhumanity.

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    How the man and the dog represent the concepts of mastery of nature versus harmony with nature?
    8 months ago

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