How the Black Plague changed our view of nature

The Black Plague burned an indelible fear of nature into the collective memory of Western culture

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QUATHIASKI COVE, BC, May 29, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Western civilization has had a difficult relationship with nature, traceable to the earliest roots of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

The eviction of our cultural ancestors from the Garden of Eden in biblical literature was, in all probability, an actual event resulting from the ecological degradation of agricultural lands in the area of ancient Mesopotamia. The details of the event were mythologized, but the story retains the essential truth.

These displaced people then went searching for the “land of milk and honey” they had lost because of their “disobedience.”

Their long quest to find the Promised Land took place in an environment much depreciated from that of their ancestors. The productive forests and grasslands of the Near East were seriously compromised by centuries of unsustainable farming practices: depleted fertility, erosion, salinization and over-grazing.

The wholesale loss of vegetation subsequently changed the region’s climate, making the area hotter, drier and less habitable. The place of promise they sought was a remnant of the lush fertility they remembered and cherished.

Nature became suspect after the Black Plague

The attitude to nature in Western culture, therefore, began with a feeling of displacement and punishment. Nature may have been loved in the abstract, as an ideal and a promise, but was doubted and suspect in reality.

black plague
The Black Plague killed an estimated 225 million people

This apprehension about nature was dramatically confirmed in 1348 when the Black Plague struck Marseille and Pisa. After travelling the Silk Road from its origin somewhere in Central Asia, the disease, known as Yersinia pestis, probably arrived in Sicily in 1347 on a ship from the Black Sea. The contagion had killed an estimated 200 million people en route, especially in China and India. Within five years of its arrival in Europe, it is estimated to have claimed another 25 million lives.

Death rates in Europe averaged 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the total population; the highest were in France and Spain at 75 per cent to 80 per cent. Entire communities disappeared. Then a second pandemic arrived in 1360 for three more years of death, with intermittent outbreaks during the following centuries. France lost another million to the plague between 1628 and 1631, and as late as 1771 an estimated 100,000 Russians died of the Black Plague.

The cause of the plague, of course, was unknown in the 14th century. In a wholly Christian culture, suspicion fell on Jews, Romani, beggars, lepers, pilgrims and anyone foreign. God’s anger became the de facto theological explanation. But why? Without a clear answer, this question had two principle effects: It increased religious zealotry and it vastly magnified the mythological apprehension about nature.

Black Plague’s trauma changed our view

Until the plague, nature was generally considered a necessary but tolerable burden to be borne by humanity. And to compensate for the loss of Eden, Christianity offered believers the redemptive promise of salvation. So nature wasn’t considered particularly dangerous. But the magnitude of the social trauma inflicted by the plague radically altered this perception, burning an indelible fear of nature into the collective memory of Western culture.

The later outbreaks of plague in the 17th and 18th centuries happened to coincide with the beginnings of modern science, entrenching in this new discipline the notion that a dangerous and hostile nature must be understood, controlled and subdued in the service of human aspirations and security.

Ever since, science and its application in technology have been busily engaged in this task – with disastrous environmental consequences.

We are now as a culture trying to replace this dysfunctional mythos with a more sophisticated ecological one. Unfortunately, our deeply rooted attitude of apprehension about nature is extremely difficult to dislodge and reshape.

Ray Grigg is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism.

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