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Mother Earth

Some environmentalists like to argue that we should imitate certain hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies* in thinking of nature as a parent -- "Mother Earth." But what it means to see nature as Mother Earth depends critically on how we relate to our human elders.

Most modern environmentalists have a sort of "Medicare" version of Mother Earth. She has given us much, but now she is fragile and in need of care. It's our responsibility, as the young and strong children, to nurse her back to health. This, of course, parallels our society's view of our human elderly.

Hunter-gatherers who think of nature as a parent take a very different view. The modern trajectory -- from cared-for child, to independent adult, to care-giver in the parent's old age -- does not characterize hunter-gatherer life. Rather, the original parent-child relationship persists in some form throughout life**. So Mother Nature is like a village elder, taking care of her juniors. The respect shown toward nature is on the model of the gratitude shown to the powerful and benevolent, not on the model of the care given to the fragile and powerless.

* Often they lump all "primitive" groups together, assuming that they all had a similar pro-environment ideology. But there is great diversity in how such peoples conceive of their environment and their relationship to it -- for example, some tribes see it as fearsome, while others expect it to be infinitely resilient.

** Note that saying that someone has not progressed as far in a developmental cycle is not to say that they are doing something wrong. The idea that comparative "immaturity" is automatically a bad thing is part of the anti-youth side of our ageist culture.


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