Eecology, war: Connections
The phrase ‘Mother Nature’ suggests that human beings personify nature as a physical human being. The image of nature as a human entity is very common throughout literature across a variety of cultures. Yet for much of Western civilization, nature has not been treated with great sensitivity or respect. Ever since the birth of modern agriculture, there has always been a tension between human needs and the need to respect the demands of nature. While some societies have striven to remain in balance with nature, not taking any more or less than needed from the land, this has not been the case for much of the history of Western dominance of the known world.
The failure to show respect for the demands of nature can be seen in the failure of the early Jamestown colony in Virginia. A lack of knowledge of sustainable faming practices and a contempt for tilling the soil lead to the deaths of most of the residents. Were it not for the intervention of the native people, the early colonists would likely have starved, given their lack of knowledge of how to make the soil yield food. And even after growing more accustomed to farming, the European colonists always focused on the land’s ability to yield a profit more than its ability to keep them alive: “The European colonists were engaged from the beginning (almost…) in market-oriented farming. Within the first decade, the Virginia colonists were raising tobacco for export rather than food for subsistence. For the first five or more years, the colonists depended upon the resupply shipments from England plus trade with the local Indians for a substantial portion of their food supply” (“Virginia agriculture,” Virginia Places, 2010.).
The fact that many of the native peoples lived in harmony with nature, and respected the needs of the soil was viewed with contempt by the Europeans. Because the natives were more ‘natural’ in their lifestyles they were seen as inferior. The fact that the natives did not view the land as an object to be possessed was seen as justification for acquiring their land by any means necessary. When natives, lacking the resistance to European ailments, began to be decimated by the diseases brought to the Old World, this was seen as further proof of Indian ‘inferiority.’ “Nature to the Europeans – and the Indians detected this – was something of an obstacle, even an enemy. It was also a commodity: A forest was so many board feet of timber, a beaver colony so many pelts, a herd of buffalo so many robes and tongues. Even the Indians themselves were a resource – souls ripe for the Jesuit, Dominican, or Puritan plucking” (“Native Americans,” American West, 2010).
Of course, native societies were not free from war even before the arrival of the Europeans. But the European mentality was distinctive in that it saw the need to colonize the land and make it yield a profit as synonymous with eradicating forests and herds of buffalo and the ways of the people who lived upon it. Colonial power was expressed in the dominance of people and dominance over ecology, a war that the colonists were determined to win. The native resistance was cast as ‘savage’ because the non-Christian natives wished to keep the land wild, rather than appropriately allow the more ‘civilized’ Europeans to dominate. Destroying native control and folk practices, taming the forest and artificially imposing Christianity, European crops, European notions of private property and ownership, and European systems of government were all deemed to be critical parts of the civilization process.
One problem with this type of civilization was that long after the native people had been removed, the land continued to silently protest. The Dust Bowl, the blowing-away of the soil in the Great Plains during the 1930s, was not a freakish act of nature. Rather, it was the result of unsustainable farming practices. “Would-be farmers…had reason to think they could prosper by farming wheat — at the time, prices were good and the area was enjoying a period of relatively wet years. But the land was shortgrass prairie and was best suited for the buffalo that roamed there until they were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. After a few prosperous years of wheat farming, the price of wheat dropped, and it continued dropping for several years, causing the farmers to rip up ever-larger areas of perennial grass for the cultivation of annual crops, until virtually all of the shortgrass prairie had been plowed…the rain pattern in the High Plains shifted. In 1931, an eight-year period of drought began, and the stage was set for catastrophe” (Welch 2010, p.1).
War does not simply destroy lives — it can also destroy entire populations and eradicate cultures. Some of the deepest causes of war — a desire for more territory, food and power — is linked to dominance of the land. Unlike the Europeans of the past, a love of artificiality and imposition upon nature is not longer seen as a positive thing. Yet the routine habits that are the legacy of industrialization still linger in our society, destroying the natural ecology.
While human beings, even buffalo, can be eradicated, the needs of nature do not go away. If humans make war upon nature by treating it cruelly, nature’s response is harsh, as seen in the modern catastrophe of global warming. Pollution has caused nature to retaliate, and rather than conquer nature it seems as if nature has turned against us. Peace with nature will prove elusive unless human beings radically change their lifestyle practices, and seek to truly live in harmony with the needs of their Mother Nature.
The American West. Native Americans. October 20, 2010.
Virginia agriculture. Virginia Places. October 20, 2010.
Welch, Carolyn Review of Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time. September 2, 2010.
October 20, 2010. Mother Earth News.
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