Nature: Dark satanic mills

John Burnside's nature column.

Bridgewater Foundry
Bridgewater Foundry in 1840. Image: Getty Images

I am not sure why I do it but, in recent months, I have taken to rereading what I consider the classic texts of ecocriticism, books such as Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, from 1970, an eloquent attack on “the forces of market exploitation and technology [that] cut down democracy, independence and the pursuit of happiness, and fostered instead a new managerial order, a hierarchy of power and privilege that replaced communal values with anti-social ‘success’ and with inhuman values”; or Rudolf Bahro’s Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster: the Politics of World Transformation, published in 1994, in which he points out that “we have humanly defined ourselves, right down into the deepest levels of the psyche, with the materials and tools of domination of nature”.

Go back further and here is John Muir, whose cry “Would not the world suffer by the banishment of a single weed?” is a proto deep ecologist’s echo of John Donne’s “No Man is an Island” sermon, extended to consider not just all humans but all of life as equally valuable; go back further still and Leonardo da Vinci offers a vision of Gaia: “So then we may say that the earth has a spirit of growth; that its flesh is the soil, its bones are the successive strata of the rocks which form the mountains, its muscles are the tufa stone, its blood the springs of its waters. The lake of blood that lies about the heart is the ocean; its breathing is by the increase and decrease of the blood and its pulses, and even so in the earth is the flow and ebb of the sea.”

What emerges from this reading is both an encouraging sense that some human beings have always been capable of a rich vision of “our place in nature” and a dispiriting realisation that, against this vision, what Bahro calls “the industrial system” has tended to prevail. What he means by that term should be clearly understood: “The industrial system is in no way identical with the use of particular tools and machines for making work lighter and shorter. For example the mills of the Middle Ages are classed in England under ‘industry’, and even today the English still sometimes call their factories ‘mills’. A mill serving a couple of villages has a completely different social effect to a modern food industry, which can compel the whole agricultural economy to dance to whatever tune it chooses. The little dam for the mill wheel still let the brook be a brook.

Since ancient times there has been industry in Asia and Europe. But there was no industrial system, no society shaped by industrialism [which is] above all a power complex which affects everything. This power complex is the soul of the whole, with capital as the spider in the web.”

Now, I am not sure why I go back to Bahro and Reich, (or Paul Shepard or Alan Watts or Thomas Merton) but I think it may be in order to gain some hope in the face of that industrial system and the collaboration of a green movement whose “drive for reform and the sharing of power led them to convert their original capital into the small change of daily electoral politics”.

I confess to being quite mystified by that conversion: if we do not understand that mere reform and a slap of greenwash will only help the megamachine to continue its business as usual, then we have only to read these writers to see that respect for all life and social justice cannot be achieved except by drastic change – in short, the dismantling of that industrial system and its inhuman values. “When the forms of an old culture are dying,” Bahro says, “the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” Or, in the words of Ian Suttie, “Necessity is not the mother of invention; play is.”

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