Letting Go of "Mother Nature"

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Nancy C. Unger is associate professor of history at Santa Clara University. Her new book is “Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History” (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Credit: Flickr/Alice Popkorn.

The notion that people should be stewards of the earth and its resources is popular among many in the modern environmental protection movement. Others in that same movement complain that the concept of stewardship imposes a false value system: as an ethic that embodies responsible planning and management of resources, it suggests that non-human nature needs the guiding hand of humans to thrive. These critics complain that the stewardship model creates an illusion of human’s ability to control both people and nature for the better -- an illusion that was surely shattered by the superstorm named Sandy.

There is no denying that humans contributed to the enormity of the damage caused by this storm. Even those who claim it was an act of God totally unrelated to climate change must acknowledge that much of the devastation it wreaked was due to people’s insistence on building and living along shorelines.

While nature’s impact on people is frequently vivid, people’s impact on nature can often be harder to discern. Environmental understanding and activism would be better served if people perceived their role as nature’s co-participant rather than its steward.

American ideas about the relationship between people and nature have evolved over time. European colonists saw their desire to exploit natural resources for profit as justified by Scripture, such as Genesis 1:28 “God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.’”

This notion of human dominion over the earth wasn’t significantly challenged until the Progressive era at the turn of the last century, when even as celebrated a hunter as president Theodore Roosevelt publicly proclaimed conservation of natural resources to be a national duty.

Most middle-class men, the sole breadwinners for their families, found Roosevelt’s idea that resources should be preserved rather than exploited to be not just wasteful but unpatriotic, even dangerous. They were more aligned with philosopher William James’s 1906 treatise, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” James urged that young American men exploit natural resources as a way to do “their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature.”

The notion of nature as something to protect rather than fight or exploit gained its broadest acceptance far during the modern environmental protection movement that began in the 1960s and 1970s. It was during this period that the notion of environmental stewardship became widely celebrated. Many were motivated to activism not by the declarations in Genesis about dominating the earth, but by biblical passages such as Isaiah 24:5 (“The earth is polluted because of its inhabitants”), Proverbs 29:18 (“Where there is no vision, the people perish”), and Numbers 35:34 (“Do not defile the land on which you live”).

Many religious leaders and followers believed that people were designated by God to be the stewards of the earth, and it was their obligation to remedy environmental problems as well as serve people in need. Nature was frequently characterized in human terms, almost always female. Reverend Dr. Paul Moore described the abuse of nature as a violation of “our loving mother [earth] who gave us birth and faithfully sustains us [and who] as a vulnerable woman ... is ravaged and raped by brutal exploiters ... then discarded as worthless.” According to Moore, “It is my duty to stoop to her weakness, bind her wounds, and heal her hurt.”

Notions of environmental stewardship and the anthropomorphism of nature are today popular in secular as well as religious communities and organizations. Hurricanes, for example, are still given human names, although the insistence that they be designated exclusively female ended in 1979.

Certainly, viewing nature as something worthy of stewardship is preferable over perceiving it as an enemy or something to exploit. But the feminization of nature through terms like “Mother Nature,” “Mother Earth,” and the “rape” of nature, devalues women and works against respecting nature as an agent in its own right: a co-participant rather than a ward.

Humans have undeniably contributed to global warming, but they cannot “steward” a volcano, an earthquake, or a superstorm. Such events are not the result of “Mother Nature getting angry.” Perceiving them as such encourages anthropomorphic perceptions of nature (in this case as vengeful and vindictive), and denies nature its own part in the vast web of life, a separate set of strands, but intrinsically linked to human nature.

The recent superstorm reveals the need for humans to understand their role in climate change. Responsible planning and management of resources is vital, but labeling such actions “stewardship” is problematic. Seeing people as stewards of nature can get in the way of appreciating the true intricacies in the powerful relationship between human beings and the environment. Stewardship suggests a sense of human superiority and control over nature that is, as demonstrated by the superstorm, clearly false.

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