Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

How do we heal Earth?

Is there a connection between the exploitation of Earth – in the guise of her so-called “resources” – and capitalism? And, given the age-old conception of Earth as female, or the “Great Mother” (associated with the Goddess of hunter-gatherer times), is there a link between the rise and dominance of patriarchy and this veritable “assault” (as Heidegger thought of technology’s impact on Earth) on Mother Nature?

The answer to both questions is a resounding “yes”. I was reminded of all this by a comment (by Hope Havemore) on my previous post concerning the demonstrably deleterious effects of capitalism (and of various socialisms at an earlier stage) on nature. She said: “What are the long-term implications of placing a glass ceiling over humankind’s aspiration, by making wealth and status the highest metrics of human achievement. There have been very few attempts to move beyond this and very little support given to endeavours to understand and promote it.”

I have some “good” news for Hope. There have been more attempts to move “beyond this” than she thinks, or that most people know about, mainly because they have happened and are happening in fields that are not conspicuous. In neurology/philosophy, for example, that marvellous writer, Leonard Shlain (who tragically died not too long ago), has worked wonders by revealing just how much the growth of patriarchy, from about 3500 BCE to a position of sustained cultural dominance today, has endeavoured to discredit the Earth-friendly affirmation of femininity.

This has been evident in, among other things, the rise of the three major, patriarchal monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and the social repression of women’s interests across a broad spectrum, from politics and religion through traditional philosophy to psychology and education, to mention only a few manifestations of it.

To be sure, there have been signs of an improvement of women’s position in society, but by and large, it is still pervasively patriarchal, as shown in, among many things, the prioritisation of masculine values and devaluation of feminine ones. The aggressive competitiveness that pervades our culture everywhere – from politics and military enterprises, to sport and professional life in general, to capitalist promotion of the “competitive edge”, our culture is not one of (“feminine”) compassion and sympathy (even less so empathy); it is one of unapologetic promotion of (“masculine” aggressiveness and bellicosity, so subtly and strikingly explored in Godfrey Reggio’s third Qatsi- film, Naqoyqatsi (“A World at War”).

One of the most memorable aspects of Shlain’s book, The Alphabet versus the Goddess (1998), is his exploration of the historical transition from a time when Earth was revered as the great Goddess among our hunter-gatherer ancestors – something that many (no doubt in the grip of patriarchal ideology) would probably derogate as “primitive” – to one where conceptions of the deity (singular) in exclusively masculine terms reigned supreme. Already noticeable here is the exclusive “singularity” of the monotheistic “God” of the three monotheisms, which contrasts sharply with the kind of equilibrium between masculinity and femininity that obtained in hunter-gatherer times – in addition to the Goddess, there were masculine gods (often in the guise of the Goddess’s son, an echo of which is to be found in the otherwise very patriarchal Roman Catholic Church’s focus on the relation between Mother Mary and her son, Jesus).

What does this have to do with eco-destructive capitalist practices today? It is impossible to do justice in a short blog to the extensiveness and intricacy of all the connections, so a brutally condensed account will have to suffice. In a nutshell, neither earth-destructive technologies (from mining-technology to polymer-manufacturing technologies), nor eco-destructive capitalist practices, (intimately tied to technology, of course), could conceivably have become rampant, if the kind of reverence for the Earth that existed during the time when the Goddess was revered and identified with Earth (and all her creatures, including humans) had not been replaced by patriarchal ideology. This ideology is one of domination – domination of women, and concomitantly of the traditionally “feminine” Earth.

It is no exaggeration to claim that this domination has been established through a shameful symbolic “murder” of the (feminine) Earth as something divine. Shlain (1998: 45-52) draws attention to a paradigmatic Akkadian myth in this regard, which records the deliberate murder of the Earth Mother goddess, Tiamat, by the young god, Marduk, who is then credited with creating the universe, along with all its living creatures.

Keeping in mind that myths are barometers of crucial events and developments in a culture’s history, this extremely misogynistic myth symbolically arrogates to the male sex the ability to take over from the female sex what had always been seen as their signature domain – their very ability to create life. Even worse than that, however, has been the incremental abuse of what this god supposedly created, namely the Earth – through technological and economic practices that show no respect for the integrity of planetary ecosystems at all. And this has gone hand in hand with a history of the most brutal abuse, in many forms, of women, ranging from the witch-hunts of the 16th century, through Chinese foot-binding, the definition of women in many legal systems as their husbands’ “property” (to be disposed of as their men saw fit), to the patriarchal control of women’s sexuality, and many more similar manifestations.

So I want to say to Hope – who bears an appropriate name, or pseudonym: “Hope” – that, unless human society can somehow find the will, and the persuasive means, to (re-)introduce on a much larger scale that afforded by esoteric intellectual sources, the feminine principle into the way we live – even to the point of rediscovering the “divine” in women, and the “feminine” in men – I believe that there is not much hope of moving beyond the “glass ceiling” she referred to. In Nietzschean terms, we have to transvaluate the values that govern our society, lest the pervasiveness of aggressive masculinity – as manifested in patriarchy and its embodiments everywhere, including Earth-destructive capitalism – destroy Mother Earth and all her creatures.

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