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Nature's Economy

Coalbrookdale by Night
'Frontispiece to Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden, II. The Loves of The Plants. 1791 by Henry Fuseli. The pastoral ease and cooperation of this picture (including the plant-decked figure rising from the ground) suggests the kind of mutually supportive image of nature's parts often invoked in conceptions of nature's economy.
Although "Ecology" did come into its own as a field until the Victorian Era, it was anticipated by developments in natural science and philosophy, particularly in the concept of nature's economy. In nature's economy, the various beings that inhabit nature do so in a "system of complex interdependencies comprising 'an interacting whole'" (Hutchings 177). It was first introduced with Linneaus's 1749 work Oeconomia Naturae (or, on the economy of nature) and informed the thinking of Romantic poets like Coleridge as well as natural philosophers like Erasmus Darwin. In 1791 the latter published The Botanic Garden, a collection of two long poems serving to popularize Botany under a Linnaean classification system (in the second poem The Loves of The Plants) and science (and technology) more generally (in the first poem The Economy of Vegetation), both sections advocating an evolutionary worldview that stresses the complex connections between the various inhabitants of the earth. Darwin's work expressed both an enlightenment faith in progress and a romantic stress on organic unity, and it is in the context of an interdependent and progressive understanding of mankind and nature that Darwin approves of the French Revolution and calls for the abolition of slavery.

There is, of course, no necessary connection between organicist conceptions (like Nature's economy) and progressive or radical politics. Burke's defense of constitutional monarchy rests in so small part on an understanding of society in which traditions arise organically and cannot be suddenly changed without violent results to the various roots (in the clergy, government, etc.) that sustain and uphold the commonwealth. Romantic poets reflect this political ambiguity inherent within the idea of Nature's economy. Blake's poetry stresses the connections between all beings of the earth (focusing on a wide range of non-human animals in many poems), and this seems to go hand in hand with his radical politics. The young Coleridge also found a communitarian potential for universal brotherhood in his understanding of nature's economy (coupled with an ideal of a return to an adamic existence). But this same commitment to a vision of an interdependent social organism also underwrote Coleridge's later conservative turn and his advocacy for a natural clerisy, an elite group of educated individuals, who would distribute knowledge throughout the nation and uphold the social order. Conceiving of Nature as a vast economy suggests that interdependence characterizes the organization of both the human world and the world in which humans are part of a larger whole. As such, the concept of nature’s economy can be used to rule out radical transformation, as something which would disrupt the careful balances that sustain society and nature. But this concept can also be used to stress a communal political vision, in which all members of a community are bound to one another in fact and duty.

Andrew Lallier






Select Bibliography

King-Hele, Desmond. Erasmus Darwin and the Romantic Poets. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986. Print.

Hutchings, Kevin. “Ecocriticism in British Romantic Studies.” Literature Compass 4.1 (2007): 172-202. Web. 9 Feb.
     2012.

McKusik, James. “Coleridge and the Economy of Nature.” Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. New York: St.
     Martin's Press, 2000. 35-52. Print.