Water harnessing associated with the Neolithic agricultural revolution some 12,500 years ago permitted humanity to flourish and expand. The Industrial Revolution of the mid 1700s to late 1800s birthed the age of commodification. Commodification – of land, water and even people – lay at the heart of a monumental paradigm shift that would irrevocably change the way we view and treat ourselves, our world, and our life-giving water. The Industrial Revolution – itself a function of a shifting philosophical hegemony during the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution – precipitated the world’s second increase in economic productivity. (The first, during the Neolithic agricultural revolution, occurred when small communities abandoned their nomadic lifestyle to form organized sedentary societies and adopt animal husbandry and agriculture.) Development of steam power, turbine pumps, and the harnessing of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) helped to shift our capacity for productivity, particularly in agriculture and the resource industry. Prior to industrialization, communities relied on wave and wind power and solar energy for the production of food and goods. Even our definition of productivity changed.
Industrialization ultimately shifted our definition of ourselves. New dialectics and ideologies emerged to suit the changes in our worldview. It gave birth to urbanization and materialism, free-market capitalism, socialism and Marxism, utilitarianism and consumerism. The Industrial Revolution altered medicine and living standards. It contributed to and was in turn affected by a population explosion through increased longevity and more successful births.
A natural expansion of industrialized nations followed, accompanied by massive diversions, dam-building and aggressive mining of surface and groundwater. Over sixty percent of the world’s wetlands (Nature’s best water filtration system) were destroyed in the past hundred years. Together with freshwater depletion and pollution, humanity is currently mining groundwater faster than it can recharge. Archaeologists studying the ancient city of Ubar (of the fabled Atlantis of the sands), in Southern Oman (Arabia), discovered that Ubar had sunk into the desert sands from groundwater pumping. Current examples of unsustainable and detrimental groundwater mining with devastating effects, such as sinkholes or entire watershed collapse, include Winter Park, Florida; San Joaquin Valley, California; and Mexico City, Mexico. These are only a few examples.
“We now pump approximately 30 billion gallons of groundwater every day,” says Robert Glennon, author of Water Follies. From the ingenious aqueducts of the Romans to the massive pipe-diversions of Mexico City or Los Angeles, humanity has found ways to divert massive amounts of water out of a given watershed.
Eric McLamb of the Ecology Global Network, writes that, “The Industrial Revolution marked a major turning point in Earth’s ecology and humans’ relationship with their environment.” Devastating impacts to our environment from industrialization were recorded as early as Punch’s first cartoon depicting a polluted Thames in 1858 and as recently as the Great London Smog of December 1952 (a hundred years later but just sixty-three years ago) that killed some 4,000 people.
Increased extraction of natural resources, land use, and waste generation has followed our increasing population. By the time Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, terms like “sustainable production” and “sustainable development” were being debated among ecologists, economists and social scientists. California suffers multi-year droughts and a greatly diminished water supply. Yet, users maintain a myopic air of entitlement without knowledge or consideration of sustainability. Farmers, for instance, continue to demand full allocations of irrigation water at heavily subsidized prices, illustrating how little people truly understand the functionality and ecological value – and limited sustainability – of their watershed.
Maude Barlow suggests that the latest step toward global water commodification emerged in the 1980s. That was the era of Margaret Thatcher’s water privatization in Great Britain, of a growing multi-nationalization of bottled water companies, and of the United Nation’s growing view of water as a commodity. This commodification culminated in the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development on January 31, 1992, in which water was defined as an “economic good.”
The essential philosophy behind the idea of Nature’s exploitation and commodification is a worldview of separateness. It is a view that incorporates what we in the science fiction genre refer to as “the other.” Nature is the alien. The unknown. The monster to be subdued, controlled and – in some cases – exterminated.
Some philosophers and historians suggest that the Industrial Revolution was not the beginning, but the culmination of a shifting hegemony spearheaded by the Scientific Revolution, which began in the late 1500s (with the Copernican revolution) and spread to the early 1800s. Under the emerging worldview of the Age of Reason (1650s to 1780s), Nature – and the Universe – were viewed dispassionately as mechanized entities to be studied objectively: dissected into its component parts to tease out her mysteries “under constraint and vexed” because, according to Francis Bacon, “the nature of things betrays itself more readily under the vexations of art than in its natural freedom.” French philosopher Rene Descartes strongly believed that he had the answer: “I have described this Earth, and indeed this whole visible world, as a machine.” His thesis contrasted with Plato’s view that the universe is “a single living creature that contains all living creatures within it.” The emerging mechanistic view created a new image of human nature: as rational spectators.
As consumers, we are taught to see the world as a collection of objects to be transformed, sold, used, and ultimately thrown away, writes David Fideler in the Spring/Summer 2015 Issue of Kosmos Journal. Fideler contrasts this view with that of the ancient Greeks, who saw the world as a living expression of life, beauty, and harmony. The constant motion of the world and the heavens were perceived as possessing inherent and connected intelligence. An intelligence reflected in the proportional harmonies that give rise to beauty; a kind of aesthetic fitness seen in the shapes of flowers, spiral galaxies, and the human hand. Plato described the universe as “one Whole of wholes.” This would later be described by quantum physicist David Bohm in his theory of “Implicate Order”. Plato’s “World Soul” or Anima mundi harmonizes Sameness and Difference through proportion in a living universe; a concept later expanded upon by Stoic philosophers, Goethe, Ficino, Hegal, Spinoza and others. Ficino wrote: “There is nothing to be found in this whole living world so deformed … that a gift of soul is not in it.” According to Ficino and other philosophers, “humanity was entrusted with a divine task to understand the creative, lifegiving powers of nature so that we could work together with nature, in collaboration, to bring the entire world – ourselves, society, and nature’s garden – into a state of creative fruition,” writes Fideler.
Cultural historian Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind (1991) traces a major paradigm shift in the western worldview from Copernicus’ radical displacement of the human being with his mechanized model of the Universe to the epistemologies of Kepler, Galileo and Newton, who described the Universe as a divine machine. This shift in cosmological perspective was expressed intellectually in Descartes’ Cartesian premise, leading to the empiricisms of
Locke, Berkeley and Hume and culminating in the epistemological crisis expressed by Kant. This inevitably led to a bias toward a more mechanistic worldview and a distrust of non-rational ways of knowing. It also generated a utilitarian outlook, writes Fideler: “To possess real value, things needed to be transformed into something else, and the real measure of value was money.”
“The new mentality and the new perception of the cosmos gave our Western civilization the features that are characteristic of the modern era,” writes Fritjof Capra, author of The Turning Point. “They became the basis of the paradigm that has dominated our culture for the past 300 years.” Capra adds that, “Newtonian physics, the crowning achievement of 17th-century science, provided a consistent mathematical theory of the world that remained the solid foundation of scientific thought well into the 20th century.” Newtonian physics effectively secularized nature and solidified the Cartesian division between spirit and matter.
Writer and professor of environmental history and ethics at UC Berkley Carolyn Merchant challenged the hegemony of mechanistic science as a marker of progress in her 1980 book The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. Merchant implicated seventeenth-century science in the ecological crisis, the domination of Nature, and the devaluation of women. According to Merchant, scientists of the 1600s used metaphor, rhetoric, and myth to develop a new method of interrogating Nature. Their goal “was to use constraint and force to extract truths from Nature [as] part of a larger project to create a new method that would allow humanity to control and dominate the natural world.”
Tarnas posits that the evolution of the Western mind has been driven by a “heroic impulse to forge an autonomous rational human self – a transforming self – by separating it from the primordial unity with nature.” Tarnas suggests that it began four millennia ago, with the great patriarchal nomadic conquests in the Mediterranean. These conquests embraced “the repression of undifferentiated unitary consciousness and the participation mystique with nature; a denial of the anima mundi, of the soul of the world, of the community of being, of the all-pervading, of mystery and ambiguity, of imagination, emotion, instinct, body, nature, woman.” This “heroic impulse” to leave “the fold” on adventure was reflected in the rejection of pre-Hellenic matrifocal mythologies in favour of rationalist philosophy; the Judaeo-Christian denial of the Great Mother Goddess; and Enlightenment’s objectivist science in modern Europe that extolled the self-aware ego separate from an alienated Nature.
Of course, all separation stirs a yearning for reunion. And a return. The question is not whether we are capable of returning “home”, but whether it is already too late for us and whether we will even recognize it when we get there.
This article and those that follow in this series is an excerpt from “Water Is…The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press, 2016) and “The Story of Water” essay that accompanies the fiction story “La natura dell’acqua—The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, 2016). Both books are available on Amazon, Kobo, and quality bookstores near you.
“Water Is…The Meaning of Water”: Part history, part science and part philosophy and spirituality, this biography of water combines personal journey with scientific discovery that explores water’s many identities and ultimately our own. Written by internationally published author, teacher and limnologist Nina Munteanu. Recommended by Margaret Atwood in The New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ for 2016.
“La natura dell’acqua—The Way of Water”: This bilingual short story and essay (English and Italian) is a vision of the near future that explores the implications of corruption and deception of companies and government together with conflicts over resources. Ecologist Nina Munteanu examines humanity in the face of climate change and our changing relationships with technology and nature.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.