Read an excerpt of the fully revised and updated An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature by Jim Mason. It’s been almost 30 years since the first version of this book was released, but it’s very relevant today. How we relate to the other-than-human world is still not widely discussed. An Unnatural Order looks at the big picture about othering of all kinds.
Man’s task,” wrote Sir Keith Thomas in Man and the Natural World, “in the words of Genesis (1:28), [is] to ‘replenish the earth and subdue it’: to level the woods, till the soil, drive off the predators, kill the vermin, plough up the bracken, drain the fens.” Agriculture, he said, stands to land as does “cooking to raw meat”—that is, it makes raw, wild nature able for human use and consumption. It may be defined as the manipulation and control of nature for the benefit of “man,” meaning human beings.
We usually think of agriculture in terms of cornfields, barns, and cows. Sometimes, we think of agriculture as a way of life, and we are prone to romanticize its sanctity and its allure. These aspects of agriculture are the conscious ones, the ones we can easily see and think about.
Beneath them all, however, is an aspect about which we are hardly aware: Agriculture’s effect on the mind and culture. For nearly 10,000 years people of the West have farmed—that is, manipulated nature for human benefit. Ponder for a moment this long human experience and how deeply it influences our thinking and culture. This is a hundred centuries of controlling, shaping, and battling plants, animals, and natural processes—all things of the world around us that we put under the word nature. Controlling nature is second nature to us. Let us begin to figure out how.
Agriculture, of course, needs land. Under agrarian culture, farmers generally, and settlers especially, see and value only the lay of the land and the quality of the soil—things that will make their farms and lives better. Land exists, in their view, strictly for human benefit. As author and conservationist Aldo Leopold said of the founder of the West’s agrarian religion, “Abraham knew exactly what the land was for; it was to drip milk and honey into Abraham’s mouth.”
Besides its practical allure, virgin land has a less conscious, more emotional attraction that wells up from the deep springs of agricultural culture: Virgin land, the agrarian mind thinks, needs to be taken over and cultivated. One has a moral obligation to make it productive. “Uncultivated land meant uncultivated men,” said Keith Thomas, referring to the outlook of early European pilgrims in North America, “and when seventeenth-century Englishmen moved to Massachusetts, part of their case for occupying Indian Territory would be that those who did not themselves subdue and cultivate the land had no right to prevent others from doing so.”
At a fundamental level, then, the West’s agrarian ideals and religion pushed the native peoples of Oklahoma and the Americas from their lands, their food supply, and their culture. The Europeans neither saw nor regarded them as living beings. If they regarded them at all, it was as things—things in the way of the European’s moralized urge to conquer, tame, and cultivate.
Author and philosopher Lewis Mumford pointed out that Europeans’ attitudes toward the New World were contradictory. On the one hand, they were driven by a desire to escape the rot of the Old World along with its fossilized institutions—Christianity and royal power. On the other hand, they were driven by a desire to extend the influence of these institutions into the New World. The contradiction was especially flagrant in North America, where the very colonists who broke with England in the name of freedom, equality, and the right to the pursuit of happiness retained the institution of slavery and relentlessly employed armies and outright fraud to push native peoples from their lands. Equally contradictory was the Old World’s sense of morality in the wilderness to the west. On the one hand, there was the sacred duty to extend Christian morality and civilization into the wild, empty place. On the other hand, there was a feeling among those in the New World of being beyond the law and outside the jurisdiction of Europe’s moral institutions. Mumford said it well in The Pentagon of Power:
As it turned out, the wilderness that Western man had failed to explore was the dark continent of his own soul. . . . Wherever Western man went, slavery, land robbery, lawlessness, culture-wrecking, and the outright extermination of both wild beasts and tame men went with him. . . . Within half a dozen years after Columbus’s landing the Spaniards, a contemporary observer estimated, had killed off one and a half million natives.
America’s native peoples did not fall; they were pushed. Europe’s pilgrims and pioneers went after them with missionary zeal. Their explorations, penetrations, and invasions had, Lewis Mumford said, “from the beginning a touch of defiant pride and demonic frenzy.” But we gave them noble names, like Manifest Destiny and the American Pioneering Spirit. Something in the European agrarian culture allowed, through the magic of words, the cruel business of conquering two continents, their peoples, and their ecosystems to be carried out as a spiritual mission ordained by God.
If the religion of the European invaders had been a genuine, functioning ethical system instead of a self-drawn license to plunder, perhaps the historical record might not be so bloodstained. We ought to ask how all this could have happened. If we want to jumpstart our humanity and keep our juggernaut of materialism from destroying the living world, we had better try to understand how we came to follow this destructive mandate. Where did we get this death-dealing way of thinking about the world?
First, it will help to identify the way of thinking, the outlook on the world, with a name. The word dominionism is most apt. A dictionary says that the word dominion means “a supremacy in determining and directing the actions of others . . . the exercise of such supremacy.” In regard to nature—the world, its living beings, forces, and processes—our culture, our outlook, and our ways of thinking are dominionist.
Buy the book here: https://lanternpm.org/books/an-unnatural-order-2/