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Carolyn Merchant (born 1936 in Rochester, New York) is an American ecofeminist philosopher and historian of science most famous for her theory (and book of the same title) on 'The Death of Nature', whereby she identifies the Enlightenment as the period when science began to atomize, objectify and dissect nature, foretelling its eventual conception as inert. Her works were important in the development of environmental history and the history of science. She is Professor of Environmental History, Philosophy, and Ethics at UC Berkeley.
She writes, "The female earth was central to organic cosmology that was undermined by the Scientific Revolution and the rise of a market-oriented culture...for sixteenth-century Europeans the root metaphor binding together the self, society and the cosmos was that of an organism...organismic theory emphasized interdependence among the parts of the human body, subordination of individual to communal purposes in family, community, and state, and vital life permeate the cosmos to the lowliest stone." (Merchant, The Death of Nature, 1980: 278)
Merchant tells us that prior to the Enlightenment, Nature was conceived of as the benevolent mother of all things, albeit sometimes wild. This metaphor was to gradually be replaced by the 'dominion' model as the Scientific Revolution rationalized and dissected nature to show all her secrets. As nature revealed her secrets, so too she was able to be controlled. Both this intention and the metaphor of 'nature unveiled' is still prevalent in scientific language. Conceptions of the Earth as nurturing bringer of life began slowly to change to one of a resource to be exploited as science became more and more confident that human minds could know all there was about the natural world and thereby effect changes on it at will. Merchant cites Francis Bacon's use of female metaphors to describe the exploitation of nature at this time was telling: "she is either free,...or driven out of her ordinary course by the perverseness, insolence and forwardness of matter and violence of impediments...or she is put in constraint, molded and made as it were new by art and the hand of man; as in things artificial...nature takes orders from man and works under his authority" (Bacon in Merchant 1990: 282). Nature must be "bound into service" and made a slave to the human ends of regaining our dominion over nature lost in the 'fall from grace' in Eden.
In combination with increasing industrialization and the rise of capitalism that simultaneously replaced women's work like weaving with machinery, and subsumed their roles as subsistence agriculturists also drove people to live in cities, further removing them from nature and the effects of industrialised production on it. The combined effects of industrialization, scientific exploration of nature and the ascendancy of the dominion/domination metaphor over the nurturing Mother Earth one, according to Merchant, can still be felt in social and political thought, as much as it was evident in the art, philosophy and science of the 16th century.