Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) Oil Spill, one of the worst environmental tragedies in U.S. history.* A question that keeps coming up in all of the retrospectives in the news media is has the Gulf Coast recovered. I find it really interesting how this question is defined. The answer almost always seems to be in regards to Gulf Coast’s economic recovery. Is the tourism industry picking up? Is it safe to eat shrimp harvested from the Gulf?
Beyond the economic side, the question still remains as to whether the Gulf Coast has recovered ecologically. A recent article on the Huffington Post cites certain environmental scientists’ claim that the Gulf has nearly returned to a pre-spill level: that in a survey of three dozen ecologists, the Gulf averaged a grade of 68 on 100 point scale. (The pre-spill score was 71.) (It seems kind of reductive to place a numerical score on such a complex, rich ecosystem.) One of my concerns about the reporting on the DWH Oil Spill is that there is a rush to declare disaster avoided and the Gulf restored. I think that much of the reporting looks to reassure that it is within our ability to save the environment from our carelessness. That through technology we can “restore” the natural world, correct our mistake. In, “The Big Lie: Human Restoration of Nature,” environmental ethicist Eric Katz challenges the belief that humanity can ever recover a pristine Nature after having polluted it: “[W]e must not misunderstand what we humans are doing when we attempt to restore nature . . . We are not restoring nature; we are not making it whole and healthy again.” The danger, for Katz, is that it will just become accepted that we can always clean up our environment mistakes with technology, in a way sanctioning our recklessness. For example, turning back to the DWH Oil Spill, consider the use of chemical dispersants. It was not that Corexit EC9500A and EC9527A actually got rid of the oil but sank it below the waves and out of our sight. I highly recommend reading Dr. Samatha Joye’s testimony to Congress and Charles W. Schmidt’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico,” both of which offer detailed accounts of what chemical dispersants actually do and the potential environmental warm that they can inflict.
So what does the debate among environmentalists about the DWH Oil Spill have to do with the Renaissance? Well, quite a bit. In her reporting on the disaster for The Nation, Naomi Klein cites Francis Bacon in her analysis of the arrogance exhibited on the part of British Petroleum:
In 1623 Sir Francis Bacon best encapsulated the new ethos when he wrote in De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientarium that nature is to be “put in constraint, molded, and made as it were new by art and the hand of man.” Those words may as well have been BP’s corporate mission statement.
Holding Bacon, the founder of what we’ve come to know as the scientific method, accountable for our modern environmental disasters is a contentious point among scholars. Before getting into that debated, let me give some background here on Bacon and what he envisioned.
When biographers deal with Bacon, they often have to contend with nearly two different personae. First there was the career lawyer/politician, who rose in James I’s government to be named Lord Chancellor only to fall from grace havig been convicted of bribery. Second, there is the philosopher whose work formed the foundation for modern scientific thought. In The Great Instauration, his opus in which he lays out his scientific philosophy, Bacon calls for an entire renewal of all learning:
That the sciences are in an unhappy state, and have made no great progress; and that a path must be opened to man’s understanding entirely different from that known to men before us, and other means of assistance provided, so that the mind can exercise its rightful authority over the nature of things.
If anything, I have always admired the grandiosity of Bacon’s project, rejecting all of Western philosophy up to that point and starting anew. Knowledge, for Bacon, would now come through systematically and inductively investigating the natural world, and by discovering Nature’s hidden processes humanity could begin to control its environment. Bacon thought that ultimately knowledge should be about meeting our physical needs. He writes in the preface to The Great Instauration, that knowledge is not about personal “intellectual satisfaction” but must be directed towards “the benefit and use of life.”
So should, as Klein suggests, Bacon be seen as creating a mindset that has led to our modern environmental crises? On the one side are environmental scholars, such as Carolyn Merchant, who find in Bacon a voice sanctioning the unethical treatment of Nature. Here the fundamental argument is that Bacon transformed the way the West looked at Nature, from seeing it a as mother-earth figure to an inanimate source of raw material available for our industrial consumption. Bacon does in his scientific writings discuss Nature in very violent, misogynist terms and demands that Nature be tortured into serving humanity’s needs. On the other side of this debate are modern defenders of Bacon who deem it unfairly anachronistic to lay our environmental disasters on Bacon’s door step. Pere Zagorin, I find, makes the most compelling argument on this side in noting that from the early 17th- century perspective Nature was something to be fear and was not susceptible to being victimized by humanity.
Now here’s where I see the connection between Bacon’s thought and the DWH Oil Spill. Bacon sees modern science as a project of restoration: it was not necessarily that science was about gaining new power over our environment but rather about recovering the authority that Adam in the Garden of Eden had over Nature. A popular understanding of the Fall that was circulating during Bacon’s time was that due to Adam and Eve having disobeyed God Nature now was in state of disharmony and decline. (You might think of Adam and Eve as having “polluted” Nature with their sin.) In Novum Organum (The New Tool) (1620), which is the first part of his Great Instauration, Bacon describes the goal for the new science as this: “Let the human race only recover its God-given right over Nature, and be given the necessary power.” For Bacon, humanity could intervene into Nature through science and recover the state of Nature that once existed before Adam and Eve’s Fall. So in other words, technology/science allows for humanity to remedy its original transgression and restore Edenic harmony to the natural world. Though secularized, this same belief motivated the use of chemical dispersants in the Gulf – that it is within our power to restore Nature to an earlier, pristine condition through technology. However, I wonder if we should begin to question this belief that technology offers a path towards salvation.
*Poignantly, Transocean, the company who was in charge of operating the oil rig, is planning to fly the families of the eleven workers lost in the tragedy over the site of the rig, now lying on the ocean floor. However, I am sure those who lost loved ones due to, let’s be honest, corporate malfeasance don’t need to be reminded. Nor, I suppose, have the Gulf Coast residents and clean-up workers forgot that nearly 174 million gallons of crude oil spilled into an environment they rely intimately on. (As reported by Agence France-Presse, 415 cases of oil-related health problems have been diagnosed in the Gulf Coast area.)