Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Torturing Nature

Francis Bacon, the same guy who coined the pugilistic "knowledge is power" slogan, was a 17th century cheerleader for the subjugation of nature in the service of humankind. Although not a particularly religious man, Bacon wasn't above doing some sloppy exegesis to press home the claim that God gave humans sovereignty over the natural order. But he also more brutally--and revealingly--insisted that nature was like an wilely, artificially coy trollop who promises pleasure but ultimately must be seized by the forelock, thrown on her back, and dealt with forcefully. Nature is perverse and insolent, and requires being "bound into service..., put in constraint, molded and made as it were new by art and the hand of man." Nature must learn to "take orders from man and work under his authority." (Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature is a brilliant study of the way that Bacon used gender domination images in reference to nature.)

Bacon's perverse declaration of war against nature, along with its misogynist tempo, became the standard metaphor through the Enlightenment period up to the present day. Science (what Bacon meant by the "art" that constrains, molds, and remakes nature) is the instrumental reason that properly objectifies, dissects, conquers, and utilizes the natural world. Minerals, plants, water, nonhuman animals, the elements and atmosphere themselves: all are subordinate to instrumental reason and the will of humans. It's the right and the duty of humanity to subdue nature.
All this sounds remarkably like the language of torture, doesn't it?
Some torture is spontaneous and ill-conceived, but effective torture is methodical, premeditated, and semi-scientific (after all, you don't want to kill the victim before you've achieved your goal). The purposes of torture are to derive something you want, to break the will of the victim, and to assert total dominion over her. An adversarial relationship in which the victim is totally passive and the torturer totally active is established from the get-go. Yet despite this belligerence, there can also be elements of a perverse eroticism in torture that usually displays as sexual sadism. The torture victim becomes the torturer's "bitch."
Torture survivors are marked for life by their ordeal. They tend to be disfunctional, ridden with anxieties and fears, unable to adapt themselves to social situations, uneasy with intimacy, prone to intense mood swings, alternately explosive and withdrawn. It can take years for them to begin to regain some sort of equilibrium, and even then they need the help of trained therapists and a loving, compassionate support network.
I know that the word "torture" is over-used these days (I recently ran across a blog post in which the author referred to the "Abu Ghraib-like" nature of his quarterly visit to his dentist!). But I wonder if "torture" might not be appropriate, or at least worth thinking about, when it comes to describing the on-going devastation of our environment. Our scientific hubris as well as our self-indulgent lifestyles have turned the planet into our bitch (there's a strange "misogaiaism" going on here). We're confident that the planet still has something of value to cough up for us if we only tighten the screws a bit more. We don't care how much we abuse and humiliate the ecosphere. In fact, abuse and humiliation only symbolize our dominion over the natural order and trumpet the breaking of its will. And if we're called on our torture, we trash both the whistle-blower--"tree-hugger! alarmist! Al Gore dumbass!" and the victim--"just a fucking snail darter!"--or we deny that the torture is going on--"science has yet to establish that human actions contribute to global warming." At the same time, there's a curious and creepy pseudo-eroticism running throughout our torture of Gaia. We drive our gas-guzzling SUVs out to national parks so that we can be sentimentally gush about how much we love nature and how close we feel to nature.
And the planet, our torture victim? Well, she's doing exactly what torture victims do. Because of her trauma, her wounds, her humiliation and degradation and fragmentation, she's exhibiting anxiety and downright panic attacks, erratic behavior, mood swings, and inability to cope. She's breaking down, and is badly in need of patient therapy and a support network.
Global warming isn't merely about "things getting hotter." Global warming is about the shattering of the delicate eco-balance such that climate change becomes violent and erratic. It's about the breaking of the ecosystem's will to such an extent that it spins out of control. And global warming is also about destruction. Just as the torturer destroys himself in tormenting his victim, so we're destroying ourselves in our torture of nature.
(Hat tip to a discussion at Father Jake Stops the World for inspiring this post.)