Tribute to Carolyn Merchant: Is there a turning point for the death of nature?

The Death of Nature
Cover of The Death of Nature by Carolyn Merchant

In 1980, Carolyn Merchant published a book that has never rang more true, I think, than today. The Death of Nature challenged the logic of scientific ‘progressivism’ that, since the so called Scientific ‘Revolution’ has been a hidden yet all-present part of our lives. Today, caused by this exact mindset, we face a climate crisis like never before – we have less than 12 years to totally clean up our act or else we’re pretty much doomed.

This is a stark reality, a realisation which, when it first dawns on your, can drive one into depression – as a friend recently told me it has someone in her family…

Yet, last night I went to see Naomi Klein at the Southbank Centre, and her talk was filled with hope. Yes, she talked about the climate emergency very openly – it’s an undeniable reality in her life, as her work is concerned with it; but she also talked about the recent global shifts in the environmental movement which fill her – and me, listening to her – with real hope: led by the rise of a new, young (very young in fact – school age!) generation of climate justice activists.

Most importantly, in the feminist context, she talked about the undeniable connections between the feminist and the climate justice movement, and the recent shift that (finally!) is allowing for the heightened appreciation of these connections in social justice movements throughout the world. If – and only if – those movements accept and take on board those connections, can we have real hope of addressing climate change. Naomi and Carolyn are very much on the same page on this. They both know that the root cause of the problem is the patriarchal culture of domination.

She did not, unfortunately (although I do appreciate that pressures of time in a 1.5-hour talk do not allow to mention everything!) talk about Carolyn Merchant and her incredible contribution to this important shift in thinking. And that’s exactly why I wanted to do this here. At the end of the day, I believe, if we don’t appreciate women’s history, how can we have any hope of eradicating this culture of patriarchal domination, of nature or women, let alone in 12 years…

Just like Naomi does in her work now, in The Death of Nature, Merchant made links between patriarchal and scientific domination of women and nature, capitalism, technology and climate change, while at the same time debunking the essentialism myth still all too commonly associated with ecofeminism. At the heart of the problem is the logic of domination or ‘power over’, as Merchant refers to it – whether it’s women or nature – it is still the same system of thought that has been the prevailing one since the Scientific Revolution.

In her own words:

“The subjugation of nature as female, I argued, was thus integral to the scientific method as power over nature: “As woman’s womb had symbolically yielded to the forceps, so nature’s womb harbored secrets that through technology could be wrested from her grasp for use in the improvement of the human condition.”

Merchant, 2006

And both argue that only wholistic, systemic change, including a reversal of this abusive relationship to nature, as well as women, and other oppressed peoples, can bring a truly transformative outcome on which the future of our planet – or rather, us on this planet – rests. I, for one, found the optimism of Klein’s position highly surprising, considering how close we’ve already come to the edge, and the huge job at hand. I often feel overwhelmed by just thinking about it. And yet, despite it all, I managed to find comfort in her arguments – she thinks strategically and is able to give numerous examples of the changes and the consciousness shift already in the making, when asked questions seemingly without answer.

At the end of the night with Naomi Klein, I felt inspired and lifted – for the first time in a while, I felt like we were, perhaps, not yet doomed after all… That remains to be seen. But what I was completely sure about was that I couldn’t go without is writing this tribute to Carolyn Merchant, as I felt like she was sadly (although somewhat understandably perhaps) missing from last night’s conversation.

To me, this is a reflection of the exact problem that we’ve talked about here – but it’s much more deep seated than we often care to admit. The abuses against women (and nature) include not just ‘obvious’ things like physical violence, but also those less prominent, like our erasure from history books and the headlines. Naomi talked about this also being reflected on the frontlines of the climate movements – women frequently leading the protests, yet often non-existent in the coverage. And if we’re going to change this whole system of patriarchal domination, we need to put a stop to this still-persistent tendency, as well as the violence.


To read more about Naomi Klein, please visit her website here

To join the resurging climate movement, you can sign up to the ongoing climate emergency call for action here, or find out more about the issues at hand and how you can help here




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