“In a tribal society in which ‘everyone knows’ that you need to sacrifice a goat to have a healthy baby, you make sure you sacrifice a goat. Better safe than sorry.” – Daniel Dennett (Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon, 2006)
The world is now well into the third year of Covid and how we have dealt with it is a mixed bag. Scientifically we have ticked quite a few boxes with research and treatment responses being rapid, ongoing and impressive. The political and policy responses, nationally and internationally, are less impressive due to varied approaches, all ostensibly following the same scientific advice. Regardless of this, governments have taken the pandemic and its impacts – health, social and economic – seriously and negatively.
However I will not be going down this rabbit hole here because it would be a distraction from the purpose of this post although, regarding the politics, hints may be drawn from here. What I am wishing to comment on are the frankly reactionary voices that emerged from some sections of the environmentalist and related movements that took an overtly sanguine and/or smug attitude to the implications of the pandemic – the benefit to the planet of the slowdown, the view that Mother Earth is, in effect, striking back.
These romanticised and reactionary attitudes lie behind, and breathe life into, the positive spin placed on the crisis. For example A Pandemic in Retrospect – Looking Back on the Corona Virus by Hazel Henderson and Fritjof Capra is a case in point. Readers may remember the latter’s The Tao of Physics from the mid 1970’s. This article has pretensions of ‘scientific’ expertise, being written by two people with scientific qualifications and experience. In reality it reads like poorly envisaged sci-fi. The Corona Virus is not Mother Nature’s Revenge by Alan Levinovitz provides a counter view, although as the title suggests, there are plenty of views afoot that do see Covid-19 as Mother Nature’s revenge, as this piece in Counterpunch by Evaggelos Villainatos affirms. Its title, ‘Nature’s Revenge: Climate Change and Covid19’ rings the alarm bell and its concluding sentence is as blunt as it is backward looking:
But unless we connect the virus with the horrors of climate change and the anthropogenic impoverishment of the planet, we imperil ourselves and this beautiful Mother Earth, Mother to All.
Now, in terms of what I want this post to be about I couldn’t have put this better as it is this romanticised and backward take on our dear ‘Mother’ that galls and that is reactionary in more than just a contemporary sense. I’ll pick up the Child Protection angle at the foot of the article – if some think it okay to romanticise and deify our dear ‘Mother’ then it is also okay to take the piss out of ‘her’ and those who worship and apologise for ‘her’.
Whether our relationship with nature is seen and expressed metaphorically, the principal mode of expression in the modern world, or in divine or mystical ways as something actual, as it was in premodern times, there are themes that underlie both viewpoints. These are our dependence upon nature, our compliance with nature’s requirements or dictates, the need to maintain a balance between what we want from nature and what nature can give us, and the need for us to respect nature, to have an attitude to it characterised by scientific understanding as opposed to servility and hubris. Of these, our dependency is the most obvious, containing as it does a level of credibility, as we are part of the natural world and are subject to its laws. But we are left with choices as to how we respond to this dependence and this is where the politics really kicks in. A fine line can distinguish being dependent/part of nature and being subservient before nature, being subject to its control and vagaries. It is important to be clear about the difference and I would argue that it is a part of humanity’s nature, and hence part of the natural world, for us to rebel against the constraints of powerlessness and to maximise autonomy. Goethe’s Faust gave expression to this when he said to Mephisto “If I stand fast I shall be a slave”, the practical expression of which is found in science and technology, not to mention a spirit that rebels against servility.
Struggle against the constraints of ‘Mother Nature’
The struggle against these constraints is a very old one that precedes the development of written language. By Ancient Greek times, Archimedes for one, had picked up the gauntlet, advising those around him: “Don’t just live in the lap of the gods. Don’t be dominated by Mother Nature. You, as a man, can take control of your own destiny.” What Archimedes was getting at was that destiny can be something we create, not something that is delivered to us and that we are bonded to. And this process of creation implied a struggle against, and a wrenching from, prevailing forces, be these natural or human made.
Although the term ‘mother nature’ itself heralds from a Greco-Roman heritage, Gaia being the mother of all life in Greek mythology, equivalents are a common feature of human history and mythology. Most of human history, even extending into the medieval period, saw humanity being subject to what must have appeared to be the whims and caprices of the natural world. Being solution-seeking animals, our forebears sought answers. In colloquial vein and employing my favourite acronym of the early 21stC, they wanted to know wtf was going on and wtf they could do about appeasing what were powerful and mysterious forces.
Our ancestors came up with answers that enabled them to survive. Beliefs in spirits, gods and demons of varying powers and persuasions, some good, some bad, but nearly all fickle, the movers and shakers of the natural world, made sense to them. It appeased fears; it gave them sufficiently credible answers and directions that helped them get on with the much more pressing task of survival and to accept the inevitability and propriety of their severely limited agency.
To make these gods and spirits more understandable and potentially accessible to human influence, our ancestors anthropomorphised them. As an inevitable part of this (a devil’s bargain if you will) they accepted personal/communal responsibility for pleasing them and gaining their support or displeasing them and incurring their wrath. The philosopher Daniel Dennett wryly put it this way: “in a tribal society in which ‘everyone knows’ that you need to sacrifice a goat to have a healthy baby, you make sure you sacrifice a goat. Better safe than sorry.” (p160 Breaking the Spell)
While these conclusions are not contentious in the modern world, it is worth reminding ourselves that it was our ancestors who created the spirit world and the divinities that inhabited it; and for those forces they anthropomorphised, our forebears projected much of themselves into their creations. Which brings me back to ‘Mother Nature’. One of the gains we have made in the modern world is, in essence, the jettisoning of the idea of Mother Nature as a sentient, subjective force and the embracing of the natural world (with us being part of it) as something controlled by natural laws that can be understood and applied for humanity’s betterment, of helping us get out from under, develop and improve.
While speaking of mother nature metaphorically is clearly a step or few in advance of divine interpretations, the line between them, as suggested above, can be thin. It can also be easily breached. Henderson and Capra’s piece, ostensibly scientific, employs ambiguous phraseology such as: “our planet taught us”, “our mother star”, “Gaia responded in unexpected ways”, “Earth is our wisest teacher”. This is an ambiguity that stretches credulity to breaking point. Villainatos however takes it further. His language, like that of Henderson and Copra, is certainly deferential but more overtly mystical. As well as the sentence I quoted above he writes:
“The Earth, I think, is still beautiful, fruitful, alive and sacred. The Homeric Hymn to Gaia (Earth) describes the Earth as mother of the gods and wife of heavens, very ancient Mother of All, which nourishes every single plant and animal.”
Both pieces are awash with a smorgasbord of mainstream to extremist environmental concerns, ranging from overpopulation to environmental depredation, and laced with environmental hubris and varying degrees of misanthropy. In this sense they vary little fromthe traditional model of mother nature – the need of obedience or compliance to nature or to the whims of the gods; of understanding and accepting our ‘place’. The subsidiary meanings and implications of this stance, its politics, has always been conservative and as human society developed beyond the limitations and constraints imposed by prehistorical, tribal and medieval conditions, reactionary.
In saying this I am not wishing to sidestep the gendered nature of the creator because our Mother of All had male ‘consorts’ and competitors – Uranus, Zeus, Odin and the Abrahamic God amongst others. Both ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are human creations that their followers, well, follow, seeking to please and to gain succour from; or disobey and suffer the consequences. And the fear of the consequences of disobedience was a very useful tool to wield against those whose behaviour or manner differed too much from those who held the power to do the wielding.
But whether we are speaking of and relating to nature as sentient and emotional, or whether we employ these as metaphors in describing the natural world and our part in it, we cannot be absolved from the politics our stance and our choice of language contains.
But that being said, and meant, I’m going to end this post poking a bit of fun at both ‘mother’ and her contemporary two legged acolytes. I am going to accept these projected fantasies as real and play with them. In doing this I wish to bring no slight upon our ancestors, those we all have to thank for figuring out ways that worked for them in the survival game (we are here because of them). The same cannot be said for today’s advocates and the conceit they embrace.
As mentioned above we are curious and problem solving creatures with a tendency to anthropomorphize things, a perverse form of empathy perhaps, and Mother of All is the gold standard. But the freer we become – especially of constraints that have really boxed us in – the more another human quality emerges from behind the shadows. And that is our capacity for humour, to take the piss out of things, including, especially including, ourselves.
With this in mind I would like to accept Mother Nature as the beautiful ‘Mother to all’, as Villainatos put it, and on this basis ask questions about Mother’s KPIs as a ‘parent’, whether she has met or failed to meet basic parenting responsibilities. Evidence appears overwhelming that Mother Nature has been cruel, capricious and utterly indifferent to the suffering inflicted upon her progeny, including to those who have worshipped her. Countless millions lost to starvation, disease, disasters termed ‘natural’ and occurring with no or little warning and cynically ascribed to human folly (in contemporary jargon this is known as victim blaming). Need I go on? But why is our Mother to All so cruel, indeed viscous in her indifference to human wellbeing? All we can do is hypothesise, but unlike Villainous et al, my hypothesising will be focussed on Mother of All and not ‘her’ victims.
Mother Nature as a ‘dominatrix’?
Could Mother Nature be a dominatrix? Kinky, and depending on one’s proclivities…. But ultimately unsatisfactory, the nature of the SM relationship being too voluntary. Dominatrixes are supposed to elicit sexual pleasure through the infliction of measured physical pain, humiliation or servitude. If that was all it was, Nature’s role would be trivialised beyond measure. Humiliation and servitude are certainly part of the ‘deal’ but the physical pain inflicted has been anything but measured. This hypothesis can therefore be discarded.
Could she be a single divine parent with a tragic history of severe attachment disorder? This is more promising as it may explain why ‘Mother’, and ‘her’ slightly lesser divine male cohorts, flipped between going missing in action, perhaps at some divine haunt getting a skinful, or going troppo when presented by the kids with anything remotely resembling demanding behaviour. (Please [mother] may I have some more?). To my mind this hypothesis is worth consideration and jostles with the one that follows.
Mother Nature is suffering from an uncontained sociopathic personality disorder, aka Mother Nature is a nasty piece of work. This too ticks a few boxes, but it raises the question of wtf was the intergalactic child protection agency doing? It was either missing in action (in a collusive relationship and rubbing shoulders at the above mentioned haunt?) or, heaven and associated divine agencies forbid, it doesn’t exist. Either way we kids are on our own and are forced to shoulder the responsibility for negotiating what has been a difficult and complex developmental pathway. And this is where Faust’s advice comes in, enabled as it was by Mephisto’s Life Coach Facilitation Agency.
My point in taking a swipe at Mother of All and her human cheerleaders, aside from having some fun, is to criticise their profoundly reactionary nature. It is misanthropic too of course but misanthropy is, perhaps, too broad for it allows its essentially class nature to slip through unnoticed. It is not the aspirations of the less well-heeled that is the problem. Where significant environmental or social problems emerge we do not point our fingers at the Oliver Twist brigade – wanting more is not just reasonable, but proper – but at those, or the systems, that stand in the way.
Finally, let us not forget that there are two targets we confront in our ongoing struggle for development and prosperity. One is Nature, the natural world. We have an impressive track record in this struggle, discovering and applying natural laws to our advantage. The other is human made, the reactionary killjoys and misanthropes who, generally from a position of privilege, accuse the less well-heeled of greed, selfishness, of caring more about themselves and their progeny than they do about ‘the planet’. And behind the killjoys? Marx hit the nail on the head.
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