PRINT December 1989


Making M/other Nature

“THERE’S NO MORE NATURE,” announces Cloy in Endgame. Such an apocalypse has not yet been organized, of course, but Clov’s vision is nonetheless prophetic, for an external nature—pristine, Edenic, and autonomous from society—is no longer available to us in everyday life, except through acts of poetic imagination. And so in poetic imagination the cliched dualisms of inherited Western ideologies of nature resonate at fever pitch.

Long ago it became established as conventional wisdom in academic geography that no part of the earth’s surface remains unaltered by human activity. But the profundity of this realization remains an unrevealed gestalt, even for geographers, many of whom themselves maintain the myth of an external autonomous nature. It will seem quixotic in the extreme to insist that nature is now socially produced, its externality internalized; nature, after all, is surely defined as exactly that which cannot be produced. But what else are we to make of the greenhouse effect, genetic engineering, intercontinental dispersal of acid rain, in vitro fertilization, airborne pollution so omnipresent that it layers the snow and ice atop Mount Everest? Nature is produced insofar as its form is irrevocably altered: there’s no going back after global warming, no lost harmony to be restored, no pristine landscape to be conserved. The conditions of the relationship with nature have forever changed. The question is not whether but how to make nature.

In January 1973, the volcanic island of Heimaey erupted, threatening to bury the small but important Icelandic fishing village of Vestmannaeyjar under an ooze of red-hot lava. The local population hit upon the idea of pumping seawater onto the advancing lava, halting or diverting its flow by cooling it. Sveinn Eiriksson, who led the operation, came to be known throughout Iceland by the nickname “Patton.”

In the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, when the forests burn and the rains follow, the resulting floods send torrents of “rock porridge” down the canyons to the urban edge where lives are periodically lost, and fortunes in L.A. real estate are consigned to an insurance-company desk to be arbitrated under the category of “acts of god.” Below, in the town of Glendora, on the “front line against nature,” Mike Rubel has picked the rocks from the porridge to build a castle for a home. His suburban battlements boast archery slits, parapets with cannon muzzles poking over the crenels, and six sentry towers.

In the delta country of Louisiana, the Mississippi River continually changes its course, spreading its water through hundreds of braided channels en route to the Gulf. Since the middle of the last century, the “master stream” has been threatening to breach its banks and flow down the Atchafalaya distributary. The social and economic consequences would be grave—entire counties flooded; homes, agriculture, and industry devastated; harbors silted; shipping halted—and so successive generations have contrived a double “Maginot Line” of 30-foot-high levies. More recently the Old River Control Project has been constructed, costing $500 million. In charge of the effort is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “We are fighting Mother Nature,” says one corps engineer. “We harnessed it, straightened it, regularized it, shackled it,” says another. “We try to train natural effects instead of taking them head-on,” suggests a third. “It’s under close surveillance,” asserts the first.

In his latest book, The Control of Nature, from which these stories come, John McPhee paints a vivid picture of one way of “making” nature: Man is pitted against it in an interminable war. In McPhee’s colorful formulations, the imagery of battle—replete with military terminology and strategic command decisions—is invoked quite literally by both author and combatants. It is a noble struggle, as unwinnable as it is unavoidable: heroic men on the one side—scientists, engineers, generals—unpredictable nature on the other, cunningly serene, devastatingly savage, always threatening. With a mix of hubris and awe, yet with no prospect of ultimate victory, Man accepts his fate. To avoid control, he must attempt control. The glory is not in winning but in the struggle itself, a breathless, endless jouissance with nature.

McPhee’s poetic fable about Man and nature is quite familiar. It has a long history and a subtext that is far from innocent, combining romance and rapacity. Much as the Greeks often idolized their enemies even as they slew them, contemporary nature idolatry can function to justify “the war against nature,” in which Hiroshima and Chernobyl, Bhopal and the greenhouse effect, also demarcate the “front lines.” Placing nature on a pedestal as ultimately uncontrollable merely renders “her” a worthy opponent: romancing nature as foreplay for rape. By being so aggressive, by threatening to control, nature is asking for it. Simultaneously woman and other, she is M/other Nature. But however much the productions of nature and of gender are part of the same text, nature is not always engendered as woman. Its masculine form is usually either a mechanical power or a seeding power; it is the mechanical power of the water that makes it Old Man River (not to mention the waving of his distributaries around the delta).

The fever pitch of ideology (exemplified in McPhee’s writing, for instance) is usually devoted to denying human responsibility for sharp differentiation of people’s access to nature and their ability to construct more feasible environments now and in the future. At times, the agenda of denial is driven to extremes of godly invocation that brilliantly expose the political gestalt disguising the production process. For instance, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, the Army Corps of Engineers owns millions of tons of debris and rock porridge, and can’t find a place to put it. No one wants the debris in their community, since it will kill the vegetation, dislocate animals, alter the landform, become an eyesore. Poor communities, the usual targets for waste disposal, have organized against it, as have the wealthy. “That’s right,” says a frustrated Donald Nichols of the Department of Public Works. “But when we’re finished we’ll plant vegetation. The animals will come back. The rest we have to leave to the Big Guy in the Sky, who will finally naturalize these deposits we make.”

The Big Guy directs while M/other Nature does the work, and the prodigal son is forever coming home. Amen for nature as the patriarchal family, where rape and incest, exploitation and oppression, are deemed the norm. But just as gender is politicized by insisting that it is constructed, so the recognition that nature is made and continually remade can retrieve a politics of nature. Unfortunately, this retrieval is not a matter simply of choosing between preservation and conservation, well-intentioned as these strategies might be. Both movements share the utopian assumption that a pristine nature remains to be preserved or conserved, but don’t take us beyond the syndrome of romance and rapacity, and actually abrogate responsibility for rethinking the kind of nature in which we want to live. A new politics of nature has to give us a glimpse of how to construct an environment in such a way that making nature no longer becomes the justification for exploiting people, and in such a way, too, that we avoid deluding ourselves that we actually control nature.

Neil Smith, author of Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space, teaches geography at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.