Violence against Nature: A Philosophical Perspective

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Abstract

The question of violence against nature is raised philosophically, that is, an ontology of violence against nature is developed in order to provide a conceptual basis for understanding human interactions with other natural entities and systems, and to ask whether human interactions with nature are necessarily violent, or contingently so. The arguments are presented in three sections. The first uses Aristotle's distinction between natural and violent motion to suggest a basis on which practices can be evaluated as violent or non-violent with respect to nature. The second section examines Bacon's and Newton's scientific writings from the 17th century in order to demonstrate the ways in which violence against nature is built into the modern programs of science and technology. It is suggested that scientific objectivity plays a role in policy decisions and practices that are violent towards nature, and that government and corporate interests, particularly the media, are complicit in promoting and sustaining the voraciously destructive tendencies of consumer culture. The paper concludes more optimistically by showing in its third section that alternative possibilities for thinking about and behaving towards nature are already making their way into the scientific and philosophical literature. The central argument of the paper is that nature is teleological, and that non-violence practices respect nature's ends, rather than seeking to control and dominate.

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Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature appeared as a landmark text for the argument that the human manipulation and control of nature is a history of violent practices. Is such violence inherent to these practices, however, or are there other, non-violent ways that human being could interact with nature? In particular, are science and technology intrinsically violent, or would it be possible to engage in non-violent scientific and technological practices towards nature? In order to propose and assess answers to these questions, some sense of what violence means and entails is necessary. Yet a workable definition of violence is hard to articulate, despite the fact that violence is particularly pressing issue in the context of contemporary environmentalism.

For example, many activist groups operate on the understanding that current corporate and governmental policies and practices toward nature are violent, while themselves having explicit policies of non-violence in their mission statements and charters. When pushed to say what "violence" and "non-violence" mean, however, they hedge; and for good reason. Cass Davis, an activist on a variety of issues including labor, Central America, and forest preservation, says, "violence begins at the end of my nose," by which he means that violence is any physical assault perpetrated against a living being (Personal interview, August 2000). Erik Ryberg, an antilogging activist, suggests that environmental activism cannot afford to wait to act until theoretical debates about what constitutes violence are resolved (Personal interview, September 2000). Violence against nature is for him both a source of the need to act, while theoretical analyses of violence are a red herring to forestall action. He says he can't define violence, but that "we all know it when we see it."

Indeed, I have witnessed countless individuals respond to pictures of clear-cutting with feelings of violation and an intuitive horror that what they are seeing is violent, and is wrong. Robert Elliot uses the "genuinely moral horror" he feels at the destruction of the natural in his arguments against restorational justifications for the corporate exploitation of nature (Elliot, 1997: p. 70). The contemporary cultural context values reason over emotion, however. And it does seem, if such intuitions are sound, that reasons in support of them should not be impossible to establish. I propose, then, to articulate a philosophical perspective concerning what violence against nature is in order both to highlight the intellectual substance that is already a component of such gut-responses, and to sort out conceptually the many senses in which "violence" can be understood in the context of nature. …