Let’s begin by taking a look at a map of of the over 2.5 million miles of pipeline coverage here in the United States. Keep in mind that this map was last updated in 2012. Please take a moment to really look at this map; let the implications of this sink in.
Our Earth is sometimes described as a mother, as our mother, yet we are almost never invited to consider the current situation from her perspective. A recent editorial asks an important question: ‘We imagine how it feels to be a character, why can’t we imagine how the land feels?’ This author does not go quite far enough, but he begins to touch upon what is at the root of the environmental emergency we are now living through: the objectification and commodification of the Earth, and a culture that can only view the Earth through a utilitarian lens.
One explanation for why we can call the Earth our mother and yet seem to have trouble mustering empathy towards her plight is the fact that our way of life depends upon the Earth being stripped of spirituality, feeling, agency, rights, or any of the other attributes of personhood. One cannot have a relationship with a thing that is meant to be destroyed and consumed, which is why (with few exceptions) we do not keep cows, chickens and pigs as beloved pets.
When one’s way of life depends upon the exploitation or destruction of another, the one targeted must of course lose their agency, their personhood, and their rights. The period of chattel slavery in both north and south America is one example of how personhood was denied in order to justify institutionalized enslavement, torture, rape and generations of forced labor. The Nazi desire for lebensraum exclusively for “pure” Aryans was used as a justification for the systematic dehumanization, expulsion, enslavement and murder of Poles, Jews, Russians, Roma, and others.
The above mentioned atrocities and many others are almost always framed by the perpetrators as a matter of necessity blessed by divine right or cultural superiority. The atrocities being committed against the Earth fall into the same category. We must have these pipelines, we must mine for coal, we have no choice but to frack for gas and oil. Think of the jobs, think of the economy, think of our geopolitical concerns! And of course the underlying unspoken understanding is that as modern humans we have the absolute entitlement to everything on, above and underneath the Earth. Modern science legitimizes our entitlement, reminding us of our “superior” brains and intelligence.
If the Earth could say “no, stop,” if she could vocalize, if she could scream in pain as she is slashed and penetrated and torn, would that make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. We perceive the Earth as silent, enduring and devoid of emotion, but is she really? The storms, the floods, the heatwaves and wildfires that are increasing all over the planet – do they not contain and convey somewhat of a hint of anger, indignation and fury?
For eons humans both personified and deified nature and the natural forces around us; on the south American continent, in Africa, and in Australia and everywhere in between, the rituals and spiritual practices of so-called primitive people reflected a deep respect and awe for the life sustaining mysteries. For eons we lived in harmony with nature, just one of many other species who call this planet home. Then something happened, something changed. Most likely during a time of hardship and chaos we discovered with our big brains ways of bypassing the rules all species had up until that point lived by. We discovered how to dominate, how to bend the world to our will. We discovered how to make the land do what we wanted it to do, and how to make other animals and other people do what we wanted them to do. We discovered the intoxication of power, the thrill of control, and during this period the land went silent.
As the gods moved up into the sky, or into other dimensions, the Earth became a thing, an inert, voiceless and soulless thing. The land was enslaved, then plants, then animals, then women, then came a new way of living. Towns emerged, then cities, kings and queens, and along with them a new kind of warfare; then came the written word and culture and the whole beautiful and terrible mess of the past ten thousand years. During this time, a relatively short period of time, we as human beings have been actors in a play of our own creation, dancing and singing and fighting and fucking on the voiceless and soulless Earth that only forms the backdrop for our drama. We call the Earth our mother yet treat her with more contempt than the most reviled and hated whore. Perhaps even worse, we both ignore her suffering and rationalize why it must continue.
We tolerate and ignore crimes against our mother, crimes against the Earth, and then wonder why there is a global epidemic of violence against women and a general atmosphere of savagery and selfishness. While we wring our hands and wonder why men can’t stop raping, beating and murdering women, day after day machines penetrate into the Earth’s deepest recesses leaving behind toxic and radioactive sludge, all in the name of accessing cheap oil, coal and natural gas. Our rivers and streams are poisoned and defiled by chemical plants, textile factories and slaughter houses; our oceans are strewn with plastic waste and toxic waste. Thanks to our stupidity and immense sense of entitlement, marine life and many other animals are dying in record numbers during what scientists have named the sixth mass extinction.
Our energy hungry and consumer goods driven way of life depends upon violence, upon murder, upon the misery of others. Those who fly the flag and claim that the military protects our freedoms are half right – the military and the misery it spreads protects our entitlement to stable currency, world markets and cheap consumer goods. Americans in particular benefit from extreme violence perpetrated by our military, diplomacy and economic policies all over the world, but then we wonder why this violence manifests in our day to day interactions. We wonder why Nate Parker, such a seemingly nice fellow who’s always mentioning his wife and five daughters in recent interviews, could have been scummy enough to run a train on an incapacitated acquaintance while in college.
The same forces that have facilitated the rape of the Earth also facilitate the rape, assault and exploitation of women, girls, and some men and boys as well. And so we have an epidemic of rape and sexual assault not only in the United States but all over the world. Of course men know that rape is wrong. Nate Turner knew that taking a drunken woman back to his place and ravaging her body with a friend was the wrong thing to do; and yet it happened anyway. Why? Because Nate Parker is a monster who hates women? Maybe, but it’s more likely that he suffers from the conditioning that almost all men have gone through in our society where men are taught that it’s OK (and manly!) to take what you want, consequences be damned. The need in the moment, the desire that burns bright white and hot supersedes all. Satisfaction must be achieved at all costs; appetites must be fed regardless of the impact on others. And this in a nutshell is the general attitude of most modern humans towards the natural world, towards the Earth, towards our mother. We want what we want, so we take it, and we rationalize or explain away the consequences. Or we claim that we’ll die without taking what we want. Or we say that the Earth exists to fulfill our needs and desires for whatever religious, scientific or philosophical reason.
The tragic life of Nate Parker’s victim reminds us of the consequences of the sort of entitlement we see all around us. After enduring a hellish ordeal, her grades suffered and she dropped out of school. For years she battled PTSD and deep depression with psychotic features, a common occurrence with people who are struggling to process trauma threaded through with feelings of guilt and self-doubt. In 2012 a sleeping pill overdose ended her life at the young age of thirty.
Meanwhile, Nate Parker has gone on to have a successful and distinguished career. He is financially secure. He is happily married with children and is expecting the release of a critically acclaimed film he co-wrote and stars in. Life for him has been good. While his victim struggled to hold onto jobs and moved around constantly (a common problem with people suffering from depression and PTSD), his life blossomed and flourished. He extracted what he needed from his victim and moved on.
In the esoteric world there is a saying: as above, so below. This principle can be seen in the structures of our body and in plants, in the way patterns that form molecules and neurons and flower petals mimic the structures of much larger systems like hurricanes, solar systems and galaxies.
As above, so below is a truism. We are a reflection of the forces that shape us, and we in turn shape those within our sphere of influence. Knowing this, we must ask whether or not a violent and dangerous empire can produce a mentally stable, moral and healthy population.
The Nate Parker revelations should anger us and motivate us to create social change, but they should not shock or surprise us. His assault on that young woman took place at Penn State, a campus now notorious for shielding a child rapist for decades. Campus sexual assaults are common, and there are hardly any mechanisms in place to prevent or deter them. Most rapes and sexual assaults go unreported. When rapists are brought before the court they often receive lenient sentences. The process of seeking justice against a perpetrator is so costly, emotionally devastating and time consuming that many women simply don’t or can’t pursue charges. This state of affairs continues because men feel entitled to women’s bodies, and our institutions protect this entitlement. Keep in mind that not too long ago women were viewed as chattel by mainstream society; they were the property of their husbands and fathers, were subjected to strict codes of conduct and dress requirements, were not allowed to travel alone, vote, attend college, or own land. In essence, women were for many ages denied the full expression of their humanity and were viewed primarily as a resource for producing heirs, keeping a household, and as tools of pleasure.
Changing the cultural landscape and defeating male entitlement will be almost impossible until we begin to question the very foundations of our society. There are alternatives to this sick society we inhabit, and there have always been alternatives, though they were often hidden from us, or unfairly maligned. Rape culture and the cultural debasement of women was rare on this continent before the era of colonization. While European women were being burned at the stake, matriarchal societies were flourishing on this continent.
There is much more to be said about this, as we now see that Native people, especially women, are at the forefront of working to protect what’s left of our natural world from the ravages of industry.
On Black Mesa the traditional elders who are fighting to protect their ancient way of life from the Peabody energy corporation describe coal as the “the liver of the sacred female mountain.” According to them, it must be kept in the ground where it belongs. They are not the only tribe to give female or feminine attributes to the land; the Earth and the land as our sacred mother is a common thread through many indigenous cultures. If we want a template for how we should treat each other and the Earth we depend on for survival, we would be wise to study the life ways of those who lived here before us, those who were so harshly and cruelly pushed aside and branded as savages. Ironically, they may have the answers we desperately need in these turbulent and uncertain times.