Carolyn Merchant, from feminism to ecology

Carolyn Merchant, philosopher, science historian and university professor, is the author of a book that founds ecofeminist thinking in 1980: The death of nature. Its analysis shows the importance of gender in the history of modern science and the transformation of the relationship with women and nature with the scientific revolution in Europe, from the 16th century.

Carolyn Merchant, born in Rochester, New York, in 1936, studied History of Science at Madison University in Wisconsin. She taught History of Science at the University of San Francisco and then at the University of Oregon until 1969.

In the preface to the new edition of her major book, Carolyn Merchant recalls the summer of 1975, when, while camping in Bryce Canyon, Utah, with her two sons, she meditates on ” the irony of living stones that science considers dead “, While for a long time in the history of mankind, these rocks were considered alive,” growing and reproducing like animals “. This is where the book she had been working on for several years finds its title: The death of natureThe death of nature.

Ecofeminism or the convergence of struggles

From 1959, Carolyn Merchant took part in the environmental movement. Rachel Carson’s Book Silent spring, published in 1962, which denounces the responsibility of DDT in the disappearance of birds and starts the environmental movement in the United States, is the first pillar of its reflection.

While she is already the mother of a family, the young historian, who suffers from the difficulties of combining a scientific career and family responsibilities, “devours” Betty Friedman’s book. The mystified woman released in 1963.

Then teaching at the University of Berkeley, in California, in the 1970s, she participated in civil rights movements and became aware of the role of science in the American war in Cambodia and Vietnam.

The subtitle of The death of nature is found : women, ecology and the scientific revolution.

In the summer of 1973, Carolyn Merchant wrote the three founding articles of The death of nature and in 1974, in his book Feminism or death, the Frenchwoman Françoise d’Eaubonne invents the word ecofeminism.

The mechanics of nature

Carolyn Merchant’s thesis is based on her study of the history of science, and more specifically the period of the Scientific Revolution from the 16th to the 18th century in Europe, which constitutes a pivotal moment in our relationship to the Earth and to nature.

Carolyn Merchant, works on metaphors, she studies language and texts: in most languages, nature is female, and from antiquity to the Renaissance, the Earth is considered to be alive: ” Not only was nature perceived as being feminine, but the earth was also seen universally as a nourishing mother, sensitive, alive and responsive to human actions (…) She writes. But you can’t do anything to your mother, you respect her.

But the pioneers of modern scientific thought, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, replaced this organic vision of nature with a mechanistic vision: if nature is a machine, why not use it according to our needs, since you can “replace parts”.

The weight of metaphors

Carolyn Merchant works on metaphors. Nature is compared to women, women to nature ” … and these metaphors that link women to nature also say how we should behave with them », Explains the philosopher Catherine Larrère. Now, to go from the conception of Mother Nature to that of nature-machine, ” … Through metaphors that constantly compare women to nature – such as “penetrating the secrets of nature”, “virgin lands” –, it involves other relationships with women too She adds.

Carolyn Merchant demonstrates that this new vision of the man who dominates nature will also apply to women, and that it will lead to the witch trials that will kill tens of thousands of women in Europe from the XVIth century.

Conversely, under the guise of science, nature will also be abused: “ to wrest the truth from him, we can violate nature as we violate a woman (…) it is a way of killing what we find alive in nature », Adds Catherine Larrère.

Capitalism Against Nature

From the 1960s onwards, it was women who were mainly involved in environmental struggles: “ The issues of reproductive health, children’s health (…) the fate of future generations, and technological consequences have led women to take an active part in the fight against nuclear power plants (…) against pesticides and herbicides and join the movement for appropriate technology», Writes Prof. Merchant in Earthcare : Women and the Environment , in 1996.

Carolyn Merchant continues her analysis by demonstrating that while patriarchy leads to the enslavement of women, capitalism is responsible, through the power of economics and technology, for the enslavement of nature and ecological disasters. By treating nature in pieces, technological capitalism has neglected complexity and interconnections. However, this neglect is now leading to global warming and the extinction of biodiversity.

A recalcitrant nature

In his book Autonomous Nature – An autonomous nature – published in 2016, Carolyn Merchant notes that in front of the nature that we master, there is a “recalcitrant” nature. This recalcitrant nature, which escapes us, are the extreme events: floods, torrential rains or fires. However, if these uncontrollable phenomena have always existed, they are today more and more frequent, intense and are the result of human actions.

Through her historical research, Carolyn Merchant re-weaves the relationship of humans with nature since antiquity and stages the opposition between a nature created by man, controlled, and an active, uncontrolled nature.

The historian shows that since the 18th century, if science has added complexity to the description of nature, it never manages to have an exhaustive vision of it, because knowing the elements of a system does not allow us to predict. the whole system. As a result, complex, chaotic phenomena have remained unpredictable.

An ethical partnership

Noting that we are facing a failure, facing a nature that has become uncontrollable, Carolyn Merchant calls today to transform our relationship with her.

She does not defend the isolation of a nature without humans, in closed parks, but, in the spirit of Aldo Leopold (pioneering ecologist of the early twentieth century), she proposes to rebuild a dual relationship. meaning: a new partnership should be created between nature and humans, a partnership based on ethics, respect and equality, which would be useful to the two parties which are inextricably linked “… because the best solution, for human and non-human communities, is to manage to live together, in interdependence“, She explained in 2016 during a conference at the University of Berkeley.

The work of Carolyn Merchant, professor of environmental history, ethics and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley since 1979, author of more than 16 books and 360 lectures at universities around the world, is today a reference in social ecology. Carolyn Merchant brought together the history of science, the social history of nature and the history of women, and this is how ecofeminism was born.

Find out more :

The death of nature, Carolyn Merchant, 1980, Wildproject editions, 2021:

Earthcare : Women and the Environment, Carolyn Merchant, 1996, Routledge editions (not translated into French)

Autonomous Nature, Carolyn Merchant, 2016, Routledge editions (not translated into French)

Complete bibliography of Carolyn Merchant:

Prof. Carolyn Merchant, University of Berkeley:

Prof. Carolyn Merchant, conference at the University of Berkeley in 2016:

Articles by Catherine Larrère on ecofeminism:,

Feminism or death, Françoise d’Eaubonne, 1974, Le Passager Clandestin editions, 2018

The Witches’ Sexocide, Françoise d ‘Eaubonne, 1999, L’Esprit rappeur editions

The mystified woman, Betty Friedman, 1963, Denoël editions, 1978

My thanks for their help on the whole series to :

Lionel Astruc, writer

Constant-Serge Bounda, from UNEP

Elsa Devienne, University of Northumbria

Baptiste Lanaspèze, Wildproject editions

Sophie Patey, from Actes Sud editions

Aurélie Uterzi, from the Living Museum

Wanjira Maathai, du World Resources Institute

Le service Archives du Yosemite National Park

The Aldo Leopold Foundation

RFI’s Internet service

And to all the speakers for their important contribution.

Thanks to Caroline Carl, Hugo Casalinho, Pierre Chaffanjon, Sylvie Koffi, Camille Marigaux, Alice Rouja and Nathanaël Vittrant, for lending their voices.


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