PETER EVANS PHOTOGRAPHY





Manipulated by the Human Hand

An Essay by Peter Evans

2008



Introduction

My artistic practice is an ecological study of our interaction with and transformation of the natural environment, as influenced by the dominant economic and anthropocentric ideologies of contemporary Western culture. Frederic L. Bender is a key writer on this topic. I will explore how Bender’s writing relates to the ideas of artists dealing with ecological issues.

Our concepts of nature have evolved and adapted in parallel to the cultural and institutional belief systems within which they are undoubtedly embedded. Within the contemporary socio-political climate whereby globalisation, toxic pollution, global warming, ozone depletion, habitat destruction, deforestation, mass extinction and climate change have been widely accepted as the cause of anthrogenic impact, our focus on humanity’s role within the natural environment raises critical ecological concerns. Here I will identify various historical and contemporary views of nature, before focusing on the dominant theological concepts of nature rooted in Christianity. I will then explore scientific implications upon nature and how nature has been documented through the lens of photographers.


Views of Nature

As a concept ‘nature’ has been viewed in various degrees. Such views are relative to the social, historical and political context within the culture that such ideologies are inextricably bound. The great philosophers of the mind, namely Berkeley, Hume, Kant and Hegel teach us that “...mind makes nature; nature is so to speak, a by-product of the autonomous and self-existing activity of the mind” (Collingwood 7). Here we will see various opposing and affirming ideas of how ‘nature’ has been viewed in the past, as well as how these ideas have influenced the concepts we have of nature in the present.

Monistic metaphysical beliefs see nature as one entity within itself. Such beliefs have been widespread in cultures throughout the world. Shamanic practice of American Indians is undertaken with an understanding of the connectivity of all life forms including Homo sapiens (Curtis 18). A hunter gatherer lifestyle was maintained for hundreds of thousands of years by understanding the interconnectedness of all living things, acknowledging the fragility of life whilst recognising a concept of ‘self’ that extends beyond the individual to Earth (nature) at large. Chinese Taoism “...assumes that the underlying reality of all of life is continuity of being, in which all things are part of the same larger whole and thus interrelated and interdependent”(Peterson 92). In Japanese Shinto “The divine ‘Way’ is simply the universe non-dualistically conceived as self creative growth” (Bender 116). Other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are consistent with monistic ideas of nature while rejected by the dualistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. J.E Lovelock's Gaia theory1 proposes that “the Earth System behaves as a single, self regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components” (Lovelock, Revenge of Gaia 25).


“All things are connected...Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself...The old ways teach us that life and death are nondual; each is simply the sacred process sacrificing one part of itself to the rest of itself, in one continuos cyclic give away.”

- Bender (117)


Lovelock's Gaia theory is derived from the concept of Mother Earth or as the Greeks called her long ago, Gaia. The historical attribution of the maternal bond we have with Earth stems from our dependency upon and sustenance provided by a mother. Worship of goddesses is widespread throughout history. The religions of Egypt and Babylonia, like other ancient religions where originally what Bertrand Russell refers to as “fertility cults” (26). The goddess religions were subdued by the eventual rise of patriarchy when men discovered their role in the reproductive process (Bender 144). Males sought to consolidate social dominance by “inventing transcendental religion...based on the idea that men are closer to the gods, while women, children and savage animals are all closer to nature and must be subdued” (French 72).

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestant and Catholic authorities alike “tortured and killed millions of Europeans, mostly women, for supposed witchcraft, which in the vast majority of cases was nothing worse than an attachment to some natural land form...”(Bender 206). Any form of worship of nature became evil, bad, blasphemes and was responded to by punishment in the name of the conceptual ‘gods’. From this simple transition, man effectively separated himself from nature placing him closer to the fabricated ‘gods’, which was supported by mythical scriptures enabling men to dominate both women and nature. Nietzsche, perhaps the first philosopher of deep ecology understood that the abstract concept of God had implicit impact on the environment:


“God was the greatest blasphemy...To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable [i.e., God] higher than the meaning of the earth!”

- Nietzsche (33)


Renaissance views saw nature as a machine. This is of course due to the technological, mechanical advancements in the society at the time.

Leonardo Da Vinci saw the human body as the microcosm of the Earth, and the Earth as a macrocosm of the human body (Lovelock, Revenge of Gaia xi). Such a viewpoint is also explored by Barkan (45) and in science through fractals in chaos theory. In ‘Cosmos’, Carl Sagan calls it “The Great Chain of Being”(319) and Bob Vernosa explains how “The comparison between the atomic unit and our own Solar System is very similar. The electrons revolve around the stabill central proton with approximately the same room as our planets have in their revolution around the Sun…and in turn our Solar System is on an orbital course around its mother constellation which, along with countless divisions and sub divisions of stellar systems, revolves on a vast circuit around the original source and centre…wherever, whatever, or whoever that my be” (19).

It is becoming more widely accepted, particularly in the field of deep ecology that “Humans are presently acting upon this body (Earth) in the same manner as an invasive virus with the result that we are eroding the ecological immune system. A virus kills its host and that is exactly what we are doing with our planet’s life support system. We are killing our host the planet Earth”. (Watson)

According to Lovelock “...in some ways the human species is like a planetary disease...” (Lovelock Revenge of Gaia 10) and New Zealand photographer Wayne Barrar observes how “...subtle cultural inventions can be, even mimicking natural features in much the same way that a virus can disguise itself in the body” (Barrar 74). Such observations of humans behaving as a virus are received with scepticism and even hostility. This is in part due to the dualistic notions we hold of life and death. Virus = death and is therefore bad. Yet viruses are an essential aspect of nature. In a non-dualistic view a virus like all living things is neither good nor bad but simply is. Perhaps we are a virus. Viruses operate by reproducing at an exponential rate like that of our population curve. Viruses attempt to consume every thing its host can enable, humans have aligned themselves as separate from nature and split the world into property and continue to consume every natural ‘resource’ for economic gain. Finally a virus kills its host cell or moves onto a next. What is space travel?

As we can see, there is no simple definition of the term ‘nature’. It is the result of a dispersed conglomeration of concepts and ideologies on mass that have left us confused as a species of our own nature within the entire whole. Such a wide range of conflicting ideas lends us to believe that there must be truth in at least one of them. Christianity is the most worshipped religion in the world. By mid 2005, thirty three percent of people on earth followed Christianity (Britannica Online). The exploitation of Earths ‘resources’ is justified by the scriptures, which a third of the world believe. In order to see how Christianity informs our interaction with and transformation of nature we need to examine these scriptures and form a critical analysis.


Religious Implications upon Society and Nature


“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit”.

-Thomas Paine (Age of Reason 6)


As Ecologist and research scientist Geoff Park observes, seeing nature as scenery hasn’t always been the case. “For nature to become scenery, we first had to have a process of belief that was able to detach us spiritually and emotionally from the rest of life - as Christianity did” (Park 114). Anna Peterson’s essay on ‘Not of the World: Human Exceptionalism in Western Tradition’ (29) and Frederic. L. Benders ‘Human Superiority Argument’ (70) both observe the anthropocentric ideologies posed in the biblical scriptures of Genesis I:26-28:

26 And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”


To give men “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”, to “fill the earth and subdue it” has given men authority through religious doctrine to see themselves separate and more important than everything else, generating a dualistic correlation between humans and nature. It is entirely anthropocentric and even human chauvinistic as it places human beings at the top of a conceptually fabricated pyramid-like idea of what it is to exist within nature. Instead, Bender believes that the biosphere behaves more like an interconnected web of complex relationships amongst species by which our survival is dependent upon other forms of life as opposed to the anthropocentric belief that human beings operate at the apex of a false hierarchal claim of earthly creation (72).

Christianity is a created religion, dominant in the Western world. Like all other monotheistic religions, Christianity took fundamental ideas and motifs from the previous nature worshipping religions before it, for example the Egyptians worship of the Sun and the same dates such as 25th December2 . In his essay ‘On the Origin of Freemasonry’, Thomas Paine sees that “The Christian religion is a parody on the worship of the Sun, in which they put a man called Christ in place of the Sun, and pay him the adoration originally payed to the Sun”.

It seems that making the transition between worshipping the Sun of God to the Son of God was important for religious institutions to create the dualistic human/nature divide. By no longer worshipping the Sun, an aspect of nature, we instead begin to worship Christ, a man.


“Christianity along with all other theistic belief systems is the fraud of the Age. It serves to detach the species from the natural world and likewise each other...It reduces human responsibility to the effect that God controls everything and in turn awful crimes can be justified in the name of divine pursuit...Most importantly it empowers those that know the truth but use the myth to manipulate and control societies. The religious myth is the most powerful device ever created...The social manipulation of fear and division has completely detached humans from their sense of power and reality. Religion, patriotism, wealth, race, class and every other form of arbitrary separatist identification thus conceit has served to create a controlled population. As long as people see themselves as separate from everything else they lend themselves to being completely enslaved.”

-(Zeitgeist)


Applying Science, Mathematics and Technology for the Pursuit of Money

The purpose of Genesis is to affirm mans domination of nature, which is thus instilled conceptually. Here I argue that science provides the conceptual “means” to dominate nature through applying observation and experimentation to form technology that enables the domination of nature physically.

By conducting experiments scientists use observation as a method to record evidence of how natural phenomena behaves. It is a formula that aspires to understand nature in similar ways that religion and philosophy seek to understand nature. The difference however is that science and the application of scientific methods is based in the physical world whereas religion and philosophy operate within conceptual frameworks. It appears that the purpose of religion and application of science have been more or less the same, total domination of nature.

The investigative attitude of studying nature by man can be likened to man studying the behaviour of his enemy. Scheler established the concept of Herrschaftswissen, a term used that proposes acquisition of “knowledge for the sake of domination” (Leiss 105). William Leiss believes that “the conquest of nature by man is achieved by means of science and technology” (101). It is certainly true that the conflict we have with nature (if we are to assume that destruction of the ecosphere is in affect a ‘conflict’) is enabled by the application of mathematical and scientific knowledge of how Earth works. We then use this information to manipulate Earths natural ‘resources’, turning nature into commodities for human consumption. We then justify our behaviour by determining it under the euphemism of ‘progress’.

The application of science is mechanistic in its approach to nature. “Since ore deposits were said to be Earth’s veins, for example, to the Renaissance sensibility commercial mining was tantamount to physical assault on ones own mother! Seen from the mechanistic viewpoint, however, mining enabled humans to utilise dead matter and the human talent for its domination, to improve the human condition” (Bender 214).


“By 2030, in a highly industrialised world of 10 billion people, total greenhouse emissions easily will double today's level, despite improved anti pollution technology. Nonetheless every government on Earth is trying to maximise industrial growth”

-Frederic L. Bender (41)


In contrast to the anxiety Bender holds regarding the future industrial exploitation of nature, according to Eckersley “Marx saw nature as being solely for the gratification of human beings...for Marx, true freedom lies in human subjects freeing themselves from a dependence on external nature and its limitations. They must in effect, ‘master’ it if they are to be free” (Jarvikoski 212). Whilst Marx’s anthropocentric standpoint surprises me somewhat, I think we must view such ideologies within their historical context. During the blossoming stages of the industrial revolution, 19th century sociologists such as Marx and Durkheim saw maximising industry as steps forward, however in the wake of contemporary ecological crises, I wonder whether they would hold the same position. After all Marx identified “large scale industry as the main causes of ecological problems”. (Jarvikoski 213) Nevertheless multinational corporations such as the largest mining company in the world, Rio Tinto, continue to extract natural ‘resources’ on a massive scale.

Every government is trying to maximise industrial growth because doing so increases the economy. Our capitalist system is dependent upon making monetary profits exponentially. All governments of the world are embedded within a capitalist system where economic policies promote environmentally destructive development, continually. All acquisition of money is somewhere dependent upon the manipulation, transformation and outright destruction of the ecosphere. To ‘business-as-usual’ exploiters, that is those who believe that there is nothing wrong with the way we behave as a species upon Earth as well as those who know it is wrong but continue their lifestyle anyway, which is the majority of us, myself included see Earth as nothing more than a trove of resources (Bender 18). Its not that we want to destroy Earths ecosphere consciously, it is how our behaviour operates culturally behind masks of money which are dependent upon the destruction of nature.

As our population increases, so too do our levels of consumption. As our consumption increases, so does the devastation of the natural environment. In the 21st century as world leaders frantically make deals supporting globalisation we come face to face with a dilemma - we have a seemingly infinite abstract concept of money that is dependent upon a planet of finite ‘resources’. We don’t need to have a high level of mathematics to understand that such a model is unsustainable to a healthy planet.


Humans and Nature Through a Lens

The 1975 exhibition ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man Altered Landscape’ was a key moment in American landscape photography. Artists such as Robert Adams, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Frank Gohlke focused on evidence of human activity upon the landscape. This exhibition was a refreshing change to the (albeit beautiful) depiction of untouched nature beforehand. As a member of the Sierra Club, Americas oldest and largest environmental organization, the photographs of Ansel Adams served to show nature in all its romantic glory, separate from man in an attempt to preserve the undeveloped landscapes of the American West (fig.1). The New Topographics exhibition saw the implicit human intervention upon nature, generating a new idea of landscape photography whereby man is undeniably involved (fig.2).



                


fig.1

Ansel Adams, The Tetons, Snake River, 1942

                 


fig.2

Robert Adams, Burning Oil Sludge, North of Denver, Colorado 1973



Today photographers such as John Pfahl and Edward Burtynsky have “a dedication to ideas about nature and the effects of human intervention on nature” (Pfahl 15). Photographing nuclear power stations (fig.3), Pfahl is reluctant to “...push simple opinions or make propagandistic statements”. We can see the enormous environmental effects industry has upon nature in the photographs of Burtynsky (fig.4). However Burtynsky too withholds ecological and political ideas that surround his work understanding that “it is hypocritical to use photographs as an attack on industry as we are all involved in some extent to a part of industry...we are all consumers of natural resources” (Burtynsky Manufactured Landscapes 11). Burtynsky acknowledges that we are all involved within what Bender calls the ‘culture of extinction’, whereby we all partake in the transformation and destruction of nature through industry, as it is the industry upon the landscape that enables us to live in the comfort that we do.



             


fig.3

John Pfahl, Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant, Sacramento, CA, 1983

             


fig.4

Edward Burtynsky, Oil Fields, #13, Taft, California, 2002



This year I have undertaken an ecological study of our interaction with and transformation of the natural environment of New Zealand as influenced by the economic and anthropocentric ideologies prevalent in our contemporary culture. I approached the subject by photographing hydro electric lakes, gold mines, coal fields, power stations and other various industrial sites up and down the country that enable us to live in the comfortable lifestyle which we do. The purpose of this ongoing study is to recognise how we interact with and transform the natural environment to suit our own species. The extent of industry upon on the landscape in New Zealand is nowhere near that of other industrial giants such as the US and China, however I still find it important to document how nature has been manipulated by the human hand (fig.5).




fig.5

Peter Evans, Sluiced Hills #2, St. Bathans, 2008




Conclusion

Frederic L. Benders ‘The Culture of Extinction: Toward a Philosophy of Deep Ecology’ is an influential piece of writing on the subject of how anthropocentric beliefs have separated Homo sapiens from the non-dualistic unity of nature by a process of following cultural concepts of God and money. Religion gave us the belief that we are separate from nature by positioning ourselves dualistically against Earth in its scriptures. Science was employed so that we were able to understand the physicality of nature, giving us the means technologically to make domination of nature a physical reality. Money behaves as a mask. It serves to place value upon nature; it is an arbitrary concept that enables us to be several steps removed from the destruction of nature by which it is dependent. As a photographer, I feel compelled to document our interaction with nature in the twenty first century as we enter an increasingly problematic future were the shifting in the balance of power between man and nature may very well lead us into ecological collapse.






Footnotes

1 Also known as 'Earth System Science'.

2 Christmas (Christ’s Mass) is founded solely on the authority of Catholicism, which picked the day so as to coincide with the Pagan Sun

worshipping observance of the Winter Solstice”. Source: ‘Celebrating The Birth of the Sun’, http://www.aloha.net/~mikesch/xmas.htm




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copyright © Peter Evans 2008