The Rise Of Scientific And Technological Thinking

Underpinning the evolving capitalist system one finds scientific and technological assumptions about the world that encourage the exploitation of nature. The Enlightenment period saw nature as a dead and mechanical world, a view that permits people to think of ecosystems and their inhabitants as mere resources for human use. Scientists like Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton and philosophers like René Descartes, John Locke, and David Hume supported a "scientific method" according to which living ecosystems become objects of detached analysis, observation, and experimentation.

Technological manipulation becomes central in the process of removing minerals, plants, and animals from their habitat in order to better understand the "laws" governing their behavior.11 The ultimate purpose of this mode of thinking is absolute control over both living beings and material nature.

Francis Bacon, for example, hoped to conquer and subdue nature and "to shake her to her foundations." What was needed was an all-out mobilization against what he referred to as "this common harlot." For Descartes, animals were "soulless automata" and their screams in death the mere clatter of gears and mechanisms. Indeed, in this view, nature itself is nothing but a machine. Newton saw the world as a giant clockwork, wound up by God, where the entrepreneur, merchant, industrialist, and scientist become God's counterparts - skilled technicians who use the same mechanical laws and principles that operate in the universe to assemble the stuff of nature and set in motion the industrial production of the modern age.12

It is critically important not to forget here that all these constellations of ideas and practices originally emerge out of a capitalist context. Within that framework, the institution of private property in land and nature becomes defined and institutionalized as a "natural and inalienable human right." Not only do people now regard their own bodies as "theirs," but they also define labor as "their own." By logical extension, that which is being appropriated through the use of people's labor becomes a private commodity. As philosopher John Locke put it, nature was given to "the industrious and rational." Locke viewed the whole of nature as a mere resource for commercial exploitation, arguing that "land that is left wholly to nature is called as indeed it is, waste."13 The sanctification of private property in the hands of liberal thinkers has played a crucial part in the emergence of global capitalism. At its very core, the prevailing capitalist ethos and liberal world view of the modern industrial era remained expansionary and imperial, involving a calculated form of indifference to the social and ecological order.14

Indeed, the scale and nature of social and ecological transformations since 1500 ce are without historical precedent. It is incontestable that economic growth since the Industrial Revolution has been achieved at enormous costs both to the natural environment and to the autonomy of communities. The rise of the modern age has been described in the critical sociological literature as the making of a "runaway world," or a "juggernaut."15 Demographically, the juggernaut nature of modernity is reflected in an explosive increase of world population. Militarily, the juggernaut becomes manifest in the increasingly deadly marriage of commerce and warfare, culminating in the destructive global configuration of modern industrialized war. Economically, the juggernaut generates massive global social inequality.16 The ecological implications of these processes find their expression in the acceleration of environmental degradation and the unprecedented scope and pace of worldwide ecocidal activities.

As pointed out in Chapters 1 and 2, the social and ecological depredations associated with modernity are not unique or new. They are part of a larger historical movement that has continued for millennia. But capitalist social relations speed up ecocide and environmental degradation in two important ways: first, they push previously regional environmental catastrophes to a planetary level. Second, in reducing nature to the status of a mere commodity to be bought and sold on the free market, capitalism makes ecological exploitation universal.


Capitalism is an evolving economic system that produces a complex culture. The latter consists of a core set of values and assumptions that provides continuing stability for the system. Environmental historian Donald Worster has summarized the ecological values contained in the capitalist ethos: first, nature must be seen as capital. It is a set of economic assets that can become a source of profit and advantage, a means to make more wealth. Trees, wildlife, minerals, water, and the soil are all commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Thus, the natural world is desanctified and demystified. Functional interdependencies barely figure in the capitalist economic calculus. Second, humans have a right, even an obligation, to use nature and its products for constant self-advancement. Capitalism is an intensely maximizing culture, always seeking to get more out of the natural resources of the world that it did the day before. It is a system that must expand lest it destroy the conditions of its own existence.17 The highest economic rewards go to those who make the best effort to extract from nature all they can. Private acquisitiveness and accumulation are elusive ideals, impossible to satisfy once and for all.18 Third, capitalism generates an image of the self as an economic accumulating being. The pursuit of private vice, in the classical utilitarian formulation, is to render public benefits. The community exists merely to help individuals and economic corporations. Consequently, profits are privatized and the ecological and social costs are externalized.19

There are a couple of points relating to the capitalist ethos that deserve further critical attention. One relates to the systemic nature of exponential growth. Today there is every reason to believe that the kind of rapid economic growth that the system has demanded in order to sustain its very existence is no longer ecologically sustainable.20 Many ecological critics would agree that, of all its core features, the systemic growth imperative is perhaps the most destructive dimension of the capitalist ethos. Another point that warrants further discussion concerns the centrality of autonomy in the capitalist ethos. It suggests that we are sovereign creatures, independent of the environmental restraints that plague other species. But, as Worster points out, this remarkable disregard for the interdependence of all beings has not been the view of most people in world history.21 There have been few more important changes in human history than the abandonment of the last few seeds of the sense of intimate dependence on nature to the exaggerated feeling of absolute free will and human autonomy. "It is not too much to say," notes Worster, "that our entire industrial world was made possible by that change in outlook."22

Overall, capitalism contains a well-organized and rationalistic ethos, expressing supreme confidence in unending progress. It is unashamedly materialistic and utilitarian, critical of those who fail in the race for profits, and incredibly wasteful. In short, the capitalist ethos with regard to nature is both imperial and commercial.23 None of its cardinal values include environmental humility, reverence for the diversity of life, or restraint. The desire for accumulation of wealth is the cultural impetus that originally drove Europeans into the New World, and then corporations into all corners of the earth in search of new markets and resources.24


"If I were required to pick a calendar date to mark the birth of the modern world," noted political economist Samir Amin, on the occasion of the American celebrations of the fifth centenary of Columbus, "I should choose 1492, the year in which the Europeans began their conquest of the planet -militarily, economic, political, ideological, cultural/ecological, and even in a certain sense ethnically." Sociologically, for Amin the world in question is also already the world of early capitalism.25

In the centuries that followed, thousands of miles of coastline were identified on European maps, oceans were named, the Americas were divided up by the European conquerors. Known as the "Columbian Exchange," the ensuing cultural and ecological interactions are of critical importance for the making of the ecological juggernaut of modernity. The apparent benefit of these exchanges was a worldwide improvement of dietary choices. It provided, in the worlds of ecological historian Alfred Crosby, "a second miracle of the loaves and fishes."26 But while Columbus' voyage provided the starting basis for a veritable global revolution in dietary habits, its problematic social and ecological consequences involved an unprecedented disruption of native populations and ecosystems.

The events of 1492 put into motion the erosion of cultural and ecological diversity, whose importance would later be considerably amplified by the progressive subjection of all regions of the planet to industrial capitalism. For example, the genocide and ecocide that subsequently occurred in the Americas is unparalleled on a world scale. As Mark Twain wrote of the European conquerors, "first they fell on their knees, then on the Amerindians."27 Indeed, one conservative estimate suggests that the number of indigenous peoples in the Americas was 112 million in 1492. In 1980, it had fallen to 28 million.28 In retrospect, however, one might expand the remark in the following way: "First they fell on their knees, then on the Indians, and then on the continents' ecosystems and species."

The success of European imperialism often resided in the germs Europeans brought with them. Germs were the conquistadors' most devastating weapons; local populations were so racked by illness that they could offer little resistance to the European conquest. Europeans spread crowd diseases, which developed only within the past 10,000 years, such as smallpox, chicken pox, and measles, and treponemal diseases such as tuberculosis, syphilis, and typhoid. In Crosby's persuasively dark portrayal, European imperial conquest of the New World consisted of a series of violent biological exchanges.29 European expansion, as he shows, consisted of a form of "ecological imperialism."30 For example, smallpox and influenza arrived in Mesoamerica with the Europeans and swept across the land, killing millions of indigenous people.

In addition to deadly germs, other introduced European species proved to have ecologically devastating unintended consequences. Alien species began to transform the local ecosystems in profound ways. Within a century after the Spanish arrival in the Americas, hundreds of thousands of horses competed for grassland with herds of introduced cattle and European goats, sheep, and pigs. Since Native American plants had not evolved to live with these new grazing animals, the landscape never recovered. The ecological impact on Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania was comparable. Indigenous flora was largely replaced by plants from the Old World that evolved over thousands of years with grazing animals. To this day, most of the weed species in the United States are of European origin.31

Moreover, the reintroduction of the horse signaled the beginning of a profound transformation of Amerindian life. Certain tribes such as the Cheyenne had been agriculturist village dwellers at one time. But when the horse came along, they quit farming. Horses and guns made Amerindians much more efficient hunters of the surviving megafauna, particularly the North American bison. Today, many people believe that horses and Amerindians have always belonged together. But this naive conception of the Amerindian on horseback constitutes only a very recent phenomenon. For example, the heyday of the buffalo-hunting Plains Indians lasted only about half a century, roughly from 1780 to 1830.32

Without the Columbian Exchange and its social and ecological consequences, the Industrial Revolution would have been impossible. Industrialization provided a greatly diversified and expanded food base, laying the requisite basis of staple foods for an unprecedentedly rapid worldwide demographic expansion.

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