May 10, 2022
‘We are encircled and enclasped by her — powerless to depart from her, and powerless to find our way more deeply into her being […]. We live in the midst of her, and yet to her we are alien […]. […] to us she does not disclose her secret. We influence her perpetually, and yet we have no power over her.’
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Here, in Ode to Nature, Goethe wonderfully captures humanity’s long, contradictory and alienating relationship with nature. Man is simultaneously a product of nature, yet is also a break from nature. Through civilization, humanity has been able to live an existence not totally subject to the dictates of the natural world, unlike other animals. Nevertheless, the question of climate change—one of the defining motifs of contemporary politics—has provoked the question of what the relationship between humanity and nature ought to be. A relationship that nonetheless has evolved throughout the epochs of human civilization.
In primitive societies, nature was often viewed as a divine power and something to be feared. Common superstitions dictated that when famines and plagues occurred, they were the punishments wreaked on mankind by the vengeful gods for their misdeeds. With the rise of Abrahamic monotheism, this same logic persisted, even if humanity was raised to the summit of creation, with a good harvest being a sign of God’s providence and grace, while periods of famine were viewed as God’s wrath, brought on by the sinfulness of men.
However, with the dawn of modernity, the scientific revolution, and later the Enlightenment, nature was ‘disenchanted’ of its mysterious and deific qualities, its ‘sacred grove’ reduced to ‘mere timber’ in Hegel’s words. It was now dead matter, abiding by a set of mechanical laws, which could be discovered, understood, and mastered through careful study and observation. And through the application of human labor, nature’s abundant resources could be transformed into social products, to be distributed to the whole of society. In other words, the increasing mastery of nature, through the application of science, by human society was the key to its enlightenment, self-enrichment, and liberation.
Romanticism responded to this alienation from nature with a sense of tragic loss and sought to regain what they saw as the fractured unity of man and nature. Thus, the romantics preferred the bucolic simplicity of the small old village to the sprawling chaos of the modern city. Romantics sought to counter the Newtonian vision of the universe as composed of dead matter, beholden to a set of mechanical laws with holistic and magical explanations of nature.
In recent times, the romantic view has been recycled into the environmentalist critique of modern industrial society. Faced with the reality of the industrial exploitation of nature, and man-influenced climate change, the Left has increasingly frowned upon, even abjured the optimistic visions of mankind’s mastery of nature that was a mainstay of progressive and communist movements. Instead, they have adopted an "eco-socialist" and "degrowth" critique of capitalism—a critique more in line with romantic anticapitalism than with Marxism—hostile to industry, growth and plenitude.
Of course, humanity does indeed stand alienated from nature. And yes, humanity has developed a frightening, yet astonishing Faustian power over nature. There is good scientific evidence that supports the theory of global warming. Those on the Right who still deny the fact of climate change are just as delusional as the hysterics on the Left who declare the world is doomed.
Our society’s view of nature currently vacillates between the modern and romantic views. We simultaneously ‘exploit’ nature on a fantastical scale to power our modern, globalized, capitalist civilization. Yet, we frequently bemoan our ‘artificial’, technologized existence, lamen