June 28, 2017

In praise of the “seely spider” (short version)

Book Review: Nature’s Web: an exploration of ecological thinking, by Peter Marshall. Simon and Schuster, London 1992, £9.99 (pb) 513pp. ISBN 0-671-71065-6. An extended, unpublished version of this review can be read here.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 23 No. 3, May–June 1993.


Peter Marshall makes an important contribution to the development of a new ecological world view by tracing the history of ecological ideas as expressed in the main religious, philosophical and scientific movements of different historical eras.

“What is wrong is not really our present industrial practices, but industrialism itself . . . what is wrong is nothing less than the way we see and act in the world”.
—Peter Marshall

He begins by determining the ecological content of mainstream religions. Marshall sees Taoism and early Vedic Hinduism as being above all religions of nature and explores similar tendencies in branches of Hellenic religion, such as the Stoics. Conversely he considers that “many of the ecological ills of modern civilisation may be traced to the Judao-Christian tradition” which being anthropocentric and patriarchal, separates “man from nature, spirit from matter and soul from body”.

Nevertheless, there is a strong ecological undercurrent in the Christian tradition, which he traces with considerable skill, accentuating the works of St. Benedict of Murcia, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis of Assisi (who is now the patron saint of Ecology) and Meister Eckhart. He quotes Archbishop William Temple, who at the beginning of this century, tried to formulate a philosophy of religion that did not separate God from the Creation:

“The treatment of the earth by man(sic) the exploiter is not only impudent, it is sacrilegious. We are unlikely to correct our hideous mistakes in this realm unless we recover the mystical sense of our one-ness with nature. Many people think this is fantastic. I think it is fundamental to our sanity.”

Marshall proceeds to the development of scientific and philosophical thought in the West. The influence in this realm of the 16th century Francis Bacon could not have been more anti-ecological. The virtuous man, Bacon thought, should seek “victory over his nature” and “alter and subdue nature” which was “incomplete and corrupt”. He anticipated many of the later scientific developments such as experiments on living animals and genetic engineering. “Bacon’s philosophy has ruin’d England”, thundered Blake. And as Marshall notes, “One might add that it has ruined the earth itself”.

René Descartes’s mechanistic attitude to vivisection is also revealing:

“To nail a dog to a table, like Vesalius, and dissect it alive to study the circulation of the blood is therefore not different from dismantling a clock and it is misguided sentiment to commiserate with the victim. Animals do not belong to our moral community and are not worthy of moral consideration.”

But Marshall also detects a “philosophical counter-revolution” to the mechanistic outlook of Descartes from Giordano Bruno and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, who were both suspicious of attempts to improve Nature. As Montaigne wrote (original spelling),

“We have so much by our inventions surcharged the beauties and riches of her workes that we have altogether overchoaked her. All our endevour or wit cannot so much as reach to represent the nest of the least birdlet, its contecture, beautie, profit and use, no, nor the work of the seely spider.”

The French 16th century potter Bernard Palissy extended the critique:

“If agriculture is carried on without philosophy, it amounts to a daily violation of the earth and the things it produces: and I marvel that the earth and its products do not cry for vengeance on certain murderers, ignorant and ungrateful, who every day do nothing but waste and ruin the trees and plants without any consideration.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau echoed these sentiments some two centuries later: “It was iron and corn which first civilised men, and grew inhumanity”. But his criticism has a social edge:

“The first man, who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘this is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, and crying to his fellows: ‘beware of listening to this impostor. You are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’.”

Rousseau laid the groundwork for the decisive shift in consciousness that occurred in the 19th century, embodied not only in the romantic poets – Marshall singles out Samuel Taylor Coleridge as particularly influential – but also in the Utopian and anarchist traditions from Charles Fourier and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon through to Prince Peter Kropotkin and William Morris.

“Men no longer love the soil” Proudhon wrote. “Landowners sell it, lease it, divide it into shares, prostitute it, bargain with it and treat it as an object of speculation. Farmers torture it, violate it, exhaust it and sacrifice it with their impatient desire for gain. They never become one with it.”

Like Kropotkin and Gandhi and those who followed him, Proudhon saw the ideal society as a federation of self-governing communities, an ideal on which the author himself elaborates in his final chapter: “Nothing short of a fundamental change in consciousness within society can prevent us from careering towards ecocide”.

The solution, he suggests, resides in the development of a “decentralised society of self-managing communities” which he sees as resembling “a web, with interwoven strands” rather than a pyramid.

Even those familiar with this literature will find that this clearly written and highly-documented encyclopaedic work highlights some hitherto neglected strands in the web of ecological thought. The book deserves to be a standard work for use in schools and universities.

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