We have a fractured relationship with Mother Earth. I hesitated writing “Mother” Earth because in so doing I acknowledge we are collectively engaged in an abusive relationship. If any children treated his or her mother as we treat Mother Earth it would be considered elder abuse and prosecutable.
I also don’t relish going here, but (I believe) shift to this abusive relationship is first documented in the book of Genesis. Genesis may have been written by someone attempting to provide a mythological explanation for the behavior of the society at the heart of the Western agricultural revolution and how and why they engaged in such an abusive relationship with their Mother Earth. Or it was a directive.
This led to a misogynistic view of our relationship with Mother Earth. She is to be controlled, dominated, and used. Of course, individually most reading this will take offense. I take offense in writing it an accepting that I too am complicit. “Well, I never…” I can hear myself saying in dramatic style. Except we almost always, if not as individuals, then as an aggregate behave in such a manner.
This is evident when looking at the tragedy of the commons. The commons is made up of all the resources that we all use collectively: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we share, and so on. The tragedy of the commons is the aggregated impact of many, seemingly benign (and not) individual (and corporate) actions that deplete or despoil a common resource or space. Protecting the commons entirely through individual action is not possible. Most individuals do not understand the complexity and depth with which all components of our natural world are interconnected, and therefore, that collective global efforts are the only means by which the commons can be maintained.
As it now stands, the commons are predominantly looked at from a privatized, market-based economic perspective. Individual property rights are valued most. Mitchell Thomashow writes:
People think they can best determine what to do with their things and they are hesitant to relinquish property to any collectivity, especially the abstract state. Hence Americans are suspicious of taxes. Without a collective notion of a common good, Americans will only grudgingly and painfully contribute to the state, the town, or any tax-collecting jurisdiction.1
In many ways we are at war with ourselves when it comes to the commons. All life requires it and have a right to the commons. Yet that is not what we see in action today. This brings me to a question raised by Thomashow, “In what way does property ownership convey power? By what process does a person come to own something, and to whose exclusion or exploitation?”2 The destruction of the commons affects those without the power to take “ownership” and the voice to express concern, both non-human life and also those without political and monetary power, first and the most.
I’m not advocating for communism or even socialism. However, the “market” of unfettered (or even partially fettered capitalism) will not preserve the commons or really any aspect of the resources Mother Earth provides for our use and/or survival. The market cannot look far enough ahead, nor does it even have the capacity to look beyond its own profits (thinking of the market as for-profit organizations). That is not what it is designed to do, nor its mission. Its mission is perpetual growth.
Back to my previous analogy of an abusive relationship, I think we have to think of the “market” is a sociopath. That isn’t a criticism. It is what it is. If it were a person, we would see that it cannot look beyond its own needs to consider the needs of others before its own. Corporations are not people, however, they are run by people, the majority of whom are not sociopaths, I presume. Individuals can make decisions with the commons in mind, but “[t]ypically, however, natural resources are perceived as economic investments—not integrated ecosystems—and a clash between economic and environmental interests emerge.”3 Preservation of the commons will require collective action, organized by a self-governed people to facilitate systemic change that impacts individual, societal, and corporate use of the commons. This is difficult because “most people have difficulty reconciling the fact that their materials come from the earth which they are trying to protect.”4
Feeling guilty yet? I do. I’m writing this on a device containing heavy metals and other toxins, probably mined in a manner that caused harm to the worker and to Mother Earth. You are reading this on such a device as well. But reading it on paper might not lessen the impact—just shift it to another ecosystem. I have learned in my years as an educator that guilt and shame are never reliable motivators for deep learning or lasting change of behavior. So, we need to move beyond those emotions to something more productive.
We need a change in our conception of our relationship with Mother Earth from one built on domination (resulting in abuse) to one built on reciprocity and gifts. A commodity-based paradigm does not result in a lasting relationship, only in a temporary transactional one—one that is often adversarial.5 A relationship built on advocacy and mutual reciprocity of gifts can be equal and sustained indefinitely. Mother Earth gives freely the gifts of life; the complexity of the interconnectedness of all life and natural resources then sustain all life. Instead of just managing to reduce our abuse of Mother Earth, how might we give back to help renew Mother Earth?6
I’ll leave you with an exercise to help you to begin shifting toward a reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth. It’s a subtle twist on an old environmental science activity—and it is a minimal and humble beginning at best. Pick an object you own, or a meal you’ve eaten and trace back the origin of all the resources and labor that went into that object or meal. You’ll soon realize that you don’t know, and maybe cannot readily discover, what resources used in bringing this object to you. Therefore, the true impact you have through the consumption of that resource, and then by extension how each action has an impact on the commons. What once seemed benign now can no longer be dismissed as so. Nobody likes to feel shamed and often our natural inclination is to obstinately push back against shame or ignore it completely because it is too painful. As exhibit A, I present climate change denial.
Instead, I’d like you to consider all that went into your object of investigation as a gift from Mother Earth. Part of the reason for this is to recognize that those things we may not think of as “natural” and from an ecosystem, such as plastic and metal, are as natural as the obvious things that are from Mother Earth—products from plants and animals. Give thanks for this gift and in so doing begin a reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth, a relationship built on the giving of gifts and mutual love. This requires an ongoing mutually beneficial relationship, not one built on adversary. Reciprocal relationships are sustainable, while adversarial relationships are only maintained for the minimum amount of time necessary. With that in mind, how might you give of yourself back to Mother Earth in reciprocity to help renew her and rebuild your relationship, or how might you refuse a gift that is asking of her too much sacrifice?
It’s a baby step, but I have come to believe, a crucial first step.
1-4 Thomashow, Mitchell (1995) Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist. MIT Press. Cambridge MA.
5-6 Kimmerer, Robin Wall (2013) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Press. Minneapolis MN.
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