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Example 4: Human mastery over nature—Climate change

Mastery over nature is one of the implications of the invention of nature and separating human and nonhuman. Watch Matthew Kearnes explain more.
So if we can accept for a moment that it’s difficult to disentangle nature itself from the array of cultural, moral, and even theological notions that have moulded ideas about the natural, a question we might ask then is, how does this mode of thinking continue to influence contemporary environmental politics? What I’d Like to work through here is an example taken from the area of climate change. Issues like global warming are right at the centre of a major political debate that concerns the relationship between human activities and natural climatic change and variability. Traditionally the line between the human and the non-human is drawn mathematically, or quantitatively.
It’s about a qualitative assessment of how much greenhouse gases humans have emitted, and evidence that the rate of climatic change outstrips natural climatic fluctuation. Much of the public commentary on global warming has really been devoted to detecting a unique human signal, a signal that human interference with the climate has pushed atmospheric systems beyond their natural limits. However, if we think more broadly for a minute, we can see that climate and weather are deeply interwoven with a web of cultural sensibilities, questions of moral and ethical value.
In his recent book, Why We Disagree About Climate change, the prominent geographer and climate scientist Mike Hulme argues that the idea of climate has been changing as much, if not more than, the physical climate itself. He argues that climate has been as much a carrier of ideologies in the past as it continues to be in the present. What Hulme suggests is that the notion of human mastery, of environmental and climatic systems, has been one of the touchstones of a modernist conception of nature. The notion of mastery works in at least two ways. It’s symptomatic of the ways that humans have attempted to control, divert, and even manipulate environmental systems.
We might think here of the large-scale transformations of landscapes associated with the development of modern agriculture, or even the current proposals to directly manipulate climatic systems as a response to global warming, a set of technologies termed geoengineering. Notions of human mastery also appear in grand visions of scientific and technological ingenuity— the construction of the Hoover Dam, for example, or the invention of irrigated agriculture. But environmental mastery takes on much more mundane forms also. Think, for example, of the ways in which everyday environments are controlled for temperature and for humidity. In addition to the physical manipulation of environmental systems, the concept of human mastery has also been critical to the ways in which the history of human-environmental relations has been written.
For example, it’s been really common to argue that human relations with nature are characterised by an almost inexorable desire to control and master environmental systems, to remove ourselves from dependence on nature. A really famous paper in 1967 by Lyn White captures something of the spirit or the meaning of environmental mastery. Opening with the claim that all forms of life modify their contexts, White reflects on the relationship between agriculture and the human manipulation of the environment. He argues that while man had formerly been part of nature, he has now become an exploiter of nature.
In this narrative we see an insistence that humans and non-humans are fundamentally distinct, while positing that humans are naturally expansive and destructive and even colonial in their attitudes towards the environment. To the modern reader the notion of environmental mastery might seem strikingly anachronistic. Implicit in these mastery stories are three central narratives— a story of the gradual achievement of human dominance over the environment, a narrative of masculine dominance over the feminine, and the naturalisation of a colonial dominance of northern European peoples over other human civilisations. What we see then is that the dualism between humans and non-humans or between nature and culture, goes hand in hand, is wrapped up with, really powerful social and political distinctions.
In the above video, Matthew Kearnes describes different examples of human mastery over environmental and climatic systems — from grand visions of scientific and technological ingenuity, such as geoengineering and the construction of the Hoover Dam, to everyday mundane forms of mastery, such as the use of air conditioners to control temperature.
As Matthew suggests, it is important to consider ways in which implicit versions of the nature-culture dualism and notions of mastery are perpetuated in environmental practices and politics (for some more examples of this, see the references below).

What do you think?

  • In what ways do notions of human mastery and/or the nature-culture dualism implicitly appear in discussions of climate change?
  • Can you think of other environmental issues that have been shaped by ideas of human mastery?


  1. Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
  2. Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967): 1203-07
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Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

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