Merchant's Ecological Revolutions
Friday, October 09, 2015 Filed in: Book Reviews
Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender & Science in New England
Carolyn Merchant, 1989
This is a longer-than-usual post, because Merchant is an important figure in the field, so I feel I should address the issues that make her approach less effective for me. Ecological Revolutions followed nine years after Merchant's extremely well-received The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, which focused on the period of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Merchant mentions in the preface that her manuscript was completed before Cronon’s Changes in the Land came out; and that it “pushed me to expand and differentiate my approach from his.” (xiv) She’s much more theoretical, which is a little ironic, since in the early chapters her sympathies seem to be with the more “Dionysian” (she calls them Homeric) natives as opposed to the “Apollonian” (she calls them Platonic) whites, even during the colonial period before the capitalist ecological revolution.
Merchant’s thesis is that “ecological revolutions are major transformations in human relations with nonhuman nature. They arise from changes, tensions, and contradictions that develop between a society’s mode of production and its ecology, and between its modes of production and reproduction. These dynamics in turn support the acceptance of new forms of consciousness, ideas, images, and worldviews.” She posits two major ecological revolutions in the period under study: the first surrounding the change from a native pattern of settlement/agriculture to a colonial style; the second when subsistence agriculture gave way to commerce.
In 1985, presumably while planning or writing Ecological Revolutions, Merchant wrote a review for Isis of Peter Lopston’s edition of Anne Conway’s The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Conway was a friend of Francis Mercury van Helmont (now obscure, but a big name in seventeenth-century cabalistic/alchemical mysticism) and a forerunner of Leibniz. Merchant’s interest in the interplay between holistic mysticism and early modern science is evident in her ideas about the mentalities behind the colonial ecological revolutions.
There are four layers to Merchant’s colonial ecological revolution, ranging through what she calls “ecology, production, reproduction, and consciousness.” Although she describes these at length, and includes a diagram, this is difficult area of Merchant’s discussion. She combines a very general economic discussion, where subsistence production and barter give way to commoditization and markets with a nod to Marx and Engels, with a new “dynamic approach [that] views systems as dialectical interactions.” The implication seems to be that in the later chapters, pre-modern animistic approaches to nature will be reconciled with “open systems” and Ilya Prigogine’s dissipative, chaotic structures, to model radical, rapidly changing, new ecological organizations. Something like this approach has led to controversy in the discipline; one 2001 article charges that “Deep ecologists, in particular, aspire to ground environmental ethics and politics in premodern modes of life and thought. This move fails to account for the myriad important connections between Enlightenment themes and those of contemporary ecophilosophy.” (Hinchman and Hinchman, “Should Environmentalists Reject the Enlightenment?” Review of Politics Autumn 2001, 663-692)
The treatment of ecological change from a cultural/intellectual history perspective is an interesting challenge. While others have focused more on the actual changes in the New England environment, trying to unravel the networks of influences and interactions, Merchant has tried to focus on what she calls “consciousness.” This term seems similar to but not synonymous with mentalities, as it incorporates both the intellectual and emotional attitudes of the people involved, at both a conscious and unconscious level.
Part one is a discussion of Merchant’s theory of ecological revolutions, and of the generalized consciousnesses she attributes to the period and to members of the various groups that populated colonial New England. The first revolution “resulted in the collapse of indigenous Indian ecologies and the incorporation of a European ecological complex of animals, plants, pathogens, and people.” The details of the material, economic, and social changes are thoroughly covered by Cronon and others; Merchant’s interest is on how this revolution “substituted a visual for an oral consciousness and an image of nature as female and subservient to a transcendent male God for the Indians’ animistic fabric of symbolic exchanges between people and nature.” The second, capitalist, ecological revolution, “split human consciousness into a disembodied analytical mind and a romantic emotional sensibility.”
Readers looking for specific evidence of how Indian and British colonial consciousness changed in response to settlement, trade, conflict, disease, missionary work, etc. will be frustrated. Merchant sets up a fascinating analytical structure, but it is too lightly anchored in evidence from the period. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to retrieve traces of the thoughts and attitudes of common people. Merchant’s argument would have benefited from more data about the populations she was describing. Merchant says “ideological frameworks or worldviews ‘secrete’ behavioral norms,” and she goes on to observe that “their related values are not accidental.” This is a profound insight. It would be exciting to see it demonstrated with references to events, records, or writings from the colonial era.
Instead of telling a story of Indians and colonists, based on sources from the period, Merchant narrates a legend of the fall. She describes a native American culture of “mimetic consciousness,” where “the primal gaze of locking eyes between hunter and hunted initiated the moment of ordained killing when the animal gave itself up so that the Indian could survive.” Tragically, in a declension from this state of nature, “the primal gaze of the Indian was submerged by the objectifying scrutiny of fur trader, lumber merchant, and banker who viewed nature as resource and commodity.”
“The rise of an analytic, quantitative consciousness was a feature of the capitalist ecological revolution.” Merchant says this after a discussion of Plato, Homer, and the “imposition of visually oriented consciousness," so it’s unclear whether she’s speaking globally, or about New England colonial experience. Non-Western scholars might dispute the implied inevitable association of Greek rationality with market capitalism. Although Merchant’s discussion of subjects and objects opens interesting doors, she fails to conclusively locate these issues in the minds of colonial New Englanders. “Animals, plants, and rocks were alive [for Indians] and could be communicated with directly. For…farmers, nature was an animate mother carrying out God’s dictates in the mundane world.” Who held these thoughts and beliefs? How did these thoughts inform the rest of their world-view and their actions? Is this difference in myths actually responsible for the history of the Indians and colonists in New England?
Discussing the transition from “Animals into Resources,” Merchant briefly describes the New England habitat and gives a table of tribal populations. But she quickly returns to the intellectual, to focus on the “polar opposites” of “wildness” and “civilization;” “animality” and “humanity.” Her discussion touches briefly on the Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christians, before addressing sexual crime. The “totemic world…of symbiotic participatory consciousness” is set against “Transcendence [which] undermines the epistemological equality of the senses, through its emphasis on the visual.” In their “struggle to set humans apart from nature, Puritans, like Europeans, soon outlawed human sex with animals, making ‘besitality’ (or buggery) a capital crime for males.” She says “the erotic relations between Indians and animals and the lack of sharp distinctions between them reinforced the colonists’ own separation between the human and animal worlds.” There’s a core idea here that makes sense and seems intuitively correct. Unfortunately, Merchant buries it beneath broad generalizations and sensational, minimally documented claims that may confuse gender preference with species preference. I was left wondering whether farmers were really having that much sex with their livestock; and more importantly whether the intuitive sensibility of Merchant’s conclusions is legitimate, or just resonates with our contemporary beliefs and biases?
Land ownership, permanent farmsteads, and disease are a few of the factors that seem to undermine Merchant's focus on consciousness. Epidemics that wiped out from fifty to ninety percent of Indian communities must have affected both the Indians’ ability to resist white intrusion onto their ancestral lands, and their ability to work their farming, hunting and fishing resources well enough to support themselves. Was the Indian way of life already fatally compromised by loss of population, before the objectifying, commoditizing, approach of the whites gained the upper hand? Merchant’s conclusion, that “critical processes at each structural level destroyed the Indians’ productive-reproductive balance and brought about the collapse of Corn Mother cultivation,” may be too general to shed light on the actual changes that shook colonial New England.
Merchant continues her discussion of consciousness by contrasting the “writings of Puritan divines and merchants [which] record ideas about the nature of literate elites,” with “folklore [which] offers clues to the culture of ordinary people.” She alludes to medieval paganism, maypole frolics and Puritan anxiety over witchcraft, concluding that the “patriarchal homes” thrust into the “open, shifting homeland” of the Indians, “were constricted domains mapped onto space as private property.” The colonists brought Calvinism, “Cartesian grids,” and “the legacy of the Platonic mode of thinking and knowing…ultimately transform[ing] American Indian mimetic consciousness.” The long-term effect on consciousness was that “being dragged out of the becoming of story recollection into the being of arithmetic and science, the psyche itself must emerge and clothe itself in new garments.” Again, this conclusion is intuitively appealing, but without evidence that the people involved experienced these thoughts and feelings, the reader has no “reality check” against anachronism.
In a later chapter, Merchant qualifies her argument, saying “Like the consciousness of the Indians, the consciousness of most rural farmers was participatory and mimetic.” Colonial rural consciousness, however, was “a participatory consciousness dominated by vision.” Merchant describes a “hierarchical cosmos” that “ascended” through the great chain of being, to “God the creator.” The alchemical unity of microcosm and macrocosm and “Egyptian and Greek views based on the circular cosmos…mingled with Judaic and Christian schemes” and “informed farmers’ continuing efforts to predict weather” as well as their image of their place in the world.
Merchant’s claim that farmers understood their “macrocosmic role was to mediate between… the heavens and the fertilizing salts produced in the bowels of Mother Earth,” hinges on almanacs. She traces a lineage, from ancient mystic and folk traditions, through Aristotle and Ptolemy, Copernicus and Renaissance neo-Platonists, to the Harvard-educated authors of early almanacs; suggesting that “the planetary influences were not physical causes…but meditative vehicles through which the human spirit merged with God’s spirit in a connective fabric that clothed the soul.” But, as Merchant notes, there were two different types of almanacs: “by the end of the seventeenth century, almanacs containing information specifically for farmers had begun to appear, and by the early eighteenth century they had replaced those of the Harvard scholars.” So, although the almanac may have “served as a set of mediating symbols that connected the individual to the larger cosmos,” it’s extremely unclear to what degree colonial farmers were aware of this intellectual tradition.
Merchant cites the Abbé de Vallemont’s 1707 Curiosities of Nature and Art in Husbandry and Gardening as a source of ideas “representative of the eighteenth-century belief system,” after admitting that the book “may not have found its way to the American colonies.” The New England farmer may have considered himself a “link and mediator between earth and heavens,” but the word of a French Abbé is inconclusive evidence at best. Vallemont was neither a farmer nor an American, and Merchant didn't convince me that his interests, including a fascination with the alchemical properties of “niter,” were shared by rural New Englanders.
Finally, Merchant addresses “The Mechanical Philosophy,” through which “humans increasingly appropriated [Nature’s] restorative functions for the purpose of increasing yields and profits.” Francis Bacon’s view that “the objective of the human race was to recover it’s right to the garden lost in the fall” is an expression of a “modern” movement to purge nature of animism and set men as “masters of its processes.” Descartes, Newton and Boyle contribute to this movement, and it emerges in Calvinist New England, where “the orderly life of the merchant exemplified the logic of market trade.” Merchant briefly mentions New England religious development, saying “the emergence of Unitarianism in Boston was rooted in the primacy of matter over spirit.” In contrast, Jonathan “Edwards’ beneficent universe was infused with light, sun, and spirit, reminiscent of the Neoplatonism of the Renaissance.” In the end, “a literate populace became a calculating populace, nature a calculable order of forces.” This objectification and systematization of what had once been a pure, unmediated experience of nature, is at the heart of Merchant’s theory of New England’s ecological revolutions.
For readers familiar with the shifting boundary between holistic/mystical and reductive/materialist early modern thought, or with eco-feminism, or even with new age paganism, Merchant’s themes will strike familiar chords and seem intuitively right. Merchant has taken a different approach to explaining the causes of ecological change. I found her suggestion that the mentalities of common rural people may have led them to resist the structures of society very compelling, especially in light of the ongoing defection of early colonial people who went off to live with the Indians. But, given the lack of evidence regarding the thoughts and attitudes of the people involved, I was left wondering whether the generalizations can be sustained. Merchant's attribution of changes in New England ecology to a shifting consciousness of humanity’s role in nature is interesting, but could have been more deeply grounded in evidence.