I am a human in love with the beauty of the natural world. The Earth, our home, fascinates me. I stroke trees as I walk past them in the forest, I breathe in the crisp mountain air of the Rhodope mountains, and I dig my toes into the sand, watching the waves wash over my feet. “Mother Earth” or “Mother Nature” we call it, but recently I have begun to question this association. Why is it “Mother Earth”? What is the connection between gender and this beautiful planet we call our home? How has the way we think about the Earth influenced the way we treat the Earth?
There is a recognition of Earth as the giver of all life, the Mother. From Norse mythology to the Hindu’s Prithvi, Earth is personified as a goddess who usually embodies the nurturing aspects of nature. Throughout history, there has been an association with women and Earth as providers of life, sustenance, and fertility. The link between Earth and motherhood has led many societies to control, regulate, and politicise fertility, in the same way that we control and regulate fertile lands.
Since the 1970s, several ecofeminist scholars have moved away from arguing that women and the Earth are connected because of fertility or “inherently women’s qualities” and focused more on the similar states of oppression faced by nature and women. Ecofeminists have argued for over 40 years that gender is a significant factor in shaping the way we see (and treat) natural spaces. By creating a hierarchy in the 1500s, which placed men above everything else, this cemented the view that both the Earth and women were possessions to be conquered and controlled. In fact, there are many parallels between the oppression of nature and the oppression of women: both are portrayed as chaotic, irrational and in need of governance, contrasted by the seemingly rational man who is capable of “seamlessly handling” both women and nature.
Associating women with the Earth and nature is no coincidence, rather, it is a product of Western cultural belief in men’s dominance over all other things (and people) on this planet. Oppression, domination, exploitation, and colonisation from Western society has also erased many indigenous ways of conceptualising the relationship between humans and the Earth. Indigenous women often hold the main responsibility of passing down knowledge to the new generation.
In the culture of the Maori people of New Zealand, humans are deeply connected with nature: the two are equal and interdependent. After 140 years of court cases, the Whanganui River in New Zealand finally gained legal status as a person. This is a big step forward in recognising the role indigenous peoples play as custodians of the land, and the knowledge they possess of conservation and sustainability, although there is still quite a lot of work to be done.
This brings me back to the question: why ‘Mother’ Earth?
Parent and child relationships are rarely equal: often, the parent gives and the child receives. You expect your mother to always be there for you, no matter how you treat her. Yet, in today’s age when climate change, pollution, overconsumption, and deforestation pose significant threats to our existence, the last thing we need is to assume that everything will work itself out. If the Earth really is our mother, why are we treating it so poorly? How can it provide for us when we are working tirelessly to destroy it?
A growing body of research links the way we use gendered language to describe the Earth and climate denialism. Swedish scientists have noted that the climate sceptics in Sweden, primarily composed of men, view climate activism as the feminisation of their world. By identifying nature as a woman, men see eco-friendly behaviour as inherently feminine. This thinking is mostly due to prescribing to a form of masculinity that glorifies exploitation and domination, whether that be of women or of nature. Further studies claim that environmentalism and conservationism are seen as mostly feminine traits, and that humanising nature as women even undermines the tendency to support victims of natural disasters.
However, there are many movements working to change the way we think of the Earth. Ecosexuality is such a movement. Ecosexuals even hold weddings where they symbolically marry the earth, the sky, the sea, and other natural elements. They make the same vows to the Earth as one would to a partner. Instead of envisioning the Earth as a mother who will never forsake her children, they see the Earth as a lover who could leave if you don’t treat them right. This kind of thinking encourages a more collaborative relationship with nature, based on kindness, respect, and affection… the kind of relationship you would want with another human(s)!
Whether it be being more careful of how much waste you produce or trying to deconstruct the gendered (and colonial) way we see the Earth, there are many ways in which to honour and practice respect for our planet. The existing conception of the Earth as our ‘mother’ has led us to the current climate crisis. Let go of these outdated notions that have not been working for our planet! And next time you’re outside, run naked in the grass, smell the fresh air, go skinny dipping, enjoy the shining sun, hug a tree, and hopefully see the Earth from a different perspective.