As never before in history, common destiny beckons us
to seek a new beginning….This requires a change of mind and heart.
– The Earth Charter
Any recovery of the natural world will require…a conversion experience
deep in the psychic structure of the human.
– Thomas Berry
Today as we celebrate Earth Day 2016 and recommit ourselves to restoring our planetary home, we must also choose a way forward. As the Earth Charter states and Thomas Berry affirms in the quotes above, this choice is a personal and collective one involving a change in both our minds and hearts.
Make no mistake about it. We are in a struggle to redefine what it means to be human. We must throw off centuries, even millennia, of ways of thinking and feeling about ourselves and our relationship to Earth and to Earth’s larger Community of Life.
With all due respect to any Indigenous Peoples for whom it may be a sacred term acknowledging relationship, I want to argue that one of the remedies for our current disastrous behavior toward our Earth is not to be found in our collective adoption of “Mother Earth” as a way of referring to our home planet.
In December of 2010, I was attending a course in northern India on “Gandhi and Globalization” led by the ecofeminist activist Vandana Shiva. One day she told us of the growing movement in Brazil at that time to adopt a “Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.” In speaking about the document, she explained that the term “Mother Earth” is a very ancient human conceptualization recognizing that it is our planet which brings forth and sustains all life. The concept is thought to be one of the earliest human spiritual expressions, later developing into the notion of the “Mother Goddess” and religions surrounding that conception of the divine energies.
Vandana Shiva followed up her defense of the movement to spread worldwide the usage of the term “Mother Earth” with the comment that “Westerners seem to have a problem with the term, but they’ll get over it.”
I was one Westerner in the group who was not about to “get over” the resistance building within me, and at the first opportunity grabbed my travel journal and quickly wrote down five reasons why we should not broadly adopt “Mother Earth” as the way to refer to our planetary home. I promised myself I would write more about it someday, and today is the day.
I will go into each in more detail below, but here, in short, are the five reasons:
- The dangers of a fundamentalist approach, which says that my way of conceptualizing reality is the only right way.
- Making Earth our “Mother” is very problematic when it comes to locating “Father” for several reasons.
- Calling Earth our “Mother” supports patriarchal associations of women with nature, understood by many ecofeminists to be the root cause of the domination and abuse of both.
- Our Universe embodies both “feminine” and “masculine” principles and dynamics – and by extension Earth must also do so (and we do, too).
- Human psychological and spiritual growth to maturity involves the integration of both “feminine” and “masculine” aspects of our being.
The Dangers of Fundamentalism
Even before I went to India for the Gandhi course, I had been reflecting on the growing dangers of fundamentalism affecting our global community. On the course, I asked another of our lecturers, long-time peace activist Satish Kumar, what he thought about this crisis. He surprised me with his response: “Fundamentalism is always a reaction to some other form of fundamentalism.” He said living out of the Gandhian concept of Swadeshi, which views the self always in relationship, is the way not to cause a reaction. So, the first step in wanting to awaken people to a new, caring relationship with Earth is not to put forward a concept which some people find objectionable with the stance that “They’ll get over it.”
The strategy must be to enter into a dialogue which addresses each person’s experience and the common concerns of all parties. We need to reach a new point of synergy that moves us all beyond the divisions that presently exist.
If Earth is Mother Where is Father?
I am not unaware that the spiritual and religious traditions of many Indigenous Peoples place the feminine aspect of the divine on or within Earth, and the masculine dimension in the sky above, using designations like “Mother Earth” and “Father Sky.” I want to respect those traditions.
However, as a student of the ecofeminist agenda, I am aware of how this “Up-Down” depiction of the divine supports a hierarchical valuing of things that are “Up” as having higher value, status, even rightful dominance over what is “Down.” Even in Western society, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) spoke of the nature of the Earth as something female and called it “mother,” while referring to heaven and the sun as “generator” and “father.” He maintained that whatever is superior should be separated as far as possible from what is inferior, thus explaining why the heavens are separate from the lowly Earth.
Furthermore, it seems to me problematic to suggest that Earth’s life-generating and sustaining processes contain nothing of what might be termed “masculine” dynamics. It is as basic today as knowing, perhaps unlike our early human ancestors, that both the sperm and the egg are necessary to generate human life. However, I believe the implications go far beyond that, for both soil and sky make up the ecosystem that sustains our life. We know only too well today that the layers of atmosphere that surround our planet are of vital importance to the stability of that ecosystem. We need a term for Earth that enlivens in our imaginations this reality.
The Association of Women with Nature
The ecofeminist philosopher Karen Warren provides evidence for her argument that the abuse of Earth’s natural environment and the abuse of women are rooted in the same socially constructed conceptual framework known as patriarchy (“rule of the fathers”).
Warren (1993) suggests the abuse of Earth and the abuse of women is fostered by the “feminization of nature” and the “naturalization of women.” She offers startling examples of this patriarchal language pattern in Western European culture. For example, the naturalizing or animalizing of women appears in the use of such terms for women as “pets, cows, sows, foxes, chicks, serpents, bitches, beavers, old bats, old hens, mother hens, pussycats, cats, cheetahs, bird-brains, and hare-brains.” Warren also offers several examples of the feminizing of nature: “ ‘Mother Nature’ is raped, mastered, conquered, mined; her secrets are ‘penetrated,’ and her ‘womb’ is to be put to the service of the ‘man of science’. Virgin [not stud] timber is felled, cut down; fertile soil is tilled and land that lies ‘fallow’ [not impotent] is ‘barren’ and ‘useless’.” Thus, Warren argues, “the exploitation of nature and animals is justified by feminizing them, while the exploitation of women is justified by naturalizing them” (p.12).
Referring to Earth as “Mother” continues to perpetuate the abusive patriarchal pattern of linking women and nature.
Both Feminine and Masculine Dynamics and Principles Pervade Our Universe
The story of the evolution of our Universe emerging through scientific evidence today points to a key thought: our Universe is all one, in its moment of origin and in its unfolding. If we embrace that image of oneness, then we are forced to say, “If it is all one, it is all one.” That means there is no place where the principles, dynamics, energies, and processes of our Universe are not intertwined and ever present, including in us, for we are emergent expressions of those principles, dynamics, energies, and processes.
Thanks to centuries of the dualistic thinking that is another characteristic of the patriarchal conceptual framework, we are accustomed deeply to thinking of “masculine” and “feminine” attributes and behaviors as separate conditions, we do not see them as they truly are: polarities of one reality.
One ancient expression of the polarities is the Chinese system of Yin and Yang. Several years ago, in researching this concept, I learned that originally this system developed from the human experience of various phenomenon found in nature. Yin originally meant “shady, secret, dark, mysterious, cold.” It thus could mean the shaded, north side of a mountain or the shaded, south bank of a river. Yang in turn meant “clear, bright, the sun, heat,” the opposite of yin and so the lit, south side of a mountain or the lit, north bank of a river.
From these basic opposites, a complete system of opposites was elaborated. No one knows when, but Yin eventually became associated with the “feminine” and now represents everything about the world that is dark, hidden, passive, receptive, yielding, cool, and soft. Yang became associated with the “masculine” and now represents everything about the world that is illuminated, evident, active, aggressive, controlling, hot, and hard.
This dualistic line of thinking also lies behind efforts to understand women and men as “complementary” to one another in their gifts and roles, a concept dangerous to women’s full equality.
To call Earth “Mother” is to put forth the notion that only the “feminine” principles, dynamics and processes exist within “her.” It does not create a new vision which fully grasps the reality that both sides of the duality are present here on Earth, within the processes that make up the living ecosystems of our planet, and both are equally necessary for the ecosystem to thrive.
Human Psychological and Spiritual Growth Involves Integration
Decades of research in the field of depth psychology now point to the fact that to be fully human and healthy in one’s approach to life is to integrate the so-called “masculine” and “feminine” energies and attributes. Carl Gustav Jung coined the terms “Anima” and “Animus” for the male energies present within the female, and female energies present within the male.
To call Earth “Mother” and the Sky “Father” continues to perpetuate an illusion damaging to our very psyches. We need an image for our planet that promotes this psychological and spiritual work of integration.
In closing, having offered the above points, I suggest that instead of the problematic term, “Mother Earth,” we begin to consider alternative practices. A simple one for me has become to always use the word “our” instead of “the” preceding the word “Earth.” I find it triggers a subtle but important shift in consciousness. I also offer an image I learned from Satish Kumar: viewing Earth as our “life-sustaining home” (165).
If you have further thoughts to share on this topic, please share them with me.
Kumar, S. (2006) You are therefore I am: A declaration of dependence. New Delhi, India: Viveka Foundation.
Warren, K. (1993) A feminist philosophical perspective on ecofeminist spiritualities. In Adams, C.J. (Ed.) Ecofeminism and the sacred. New York, NY: Continuum.