February 2023: History of Relating to Earth

Hello, lovely potatoes!!! We hope you’ve had an auspicious start to your year!

We’re starting this year by talking about how we as humans relate to earth, how we compare ourselves to other beings, why we (often) view ourselves as separate, and how this relates to environmentalism. This is very subjective, of course, but we hope it gives you some things to think about in your environmentalism!

In western cultures, humans are often placed separate from and above the rest of the world — a view that is now spreading globally. Several cultural factors, such as religion and literature, contribute. While nature-based religions (which we’ll talk about shortly!) view humans as interdependent with the Earth, and are ecocentric instead of anthropocentric, other religions (like Abrahamic religions) have a different outlook. 

According to this article, Christianity rejects the Pagan belief that nature is spiritual, and establishes a hierarchy that puts God at the top of the chain, followed by angels, humans, and finally nonhuman animals and plants. This suggests that humans are closer to the divine than nonhuman life. In Genesis 1:26, God gives man dominion over fish, birds, livestock, and “every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” While respecting Creation as a reflection of God has become more common in Christianity, encouraging action on climate change, subtle assumptions about humans’ superiority are usually preserved. For example, heaven is usually depicted as being in the sky, inhabited primarily by humans and angels (it’s unclear what happens to nonhuman beings’ souls), completely separate from Earth. Christianity has been elaborately intertwined with the formation of western society, and, as such, has had a huge impact on it, contributing to the belief that humans are separate and above the earth and its other creatures. With the west’s emphasis on developing and producing more, religion was in turn used to justify environmental exploitation and even colonization, further associating these beliefs with Christianity.

While the western world seeks to exert control over land, considering it “unproductive” if it does not have agricultural or development potential, many cultures take a different view. There are many nuances in the ways we separate or unite ourselves with Earth and ecosystems, that we hope you consider! For some examples of nature-based religions and cultures: many Native American cultures feel grateful and indebted to the Earth, “obliging us to to behave as if we are related.” They typically do not believe that land can be privately owned, any more than can air, water or sunlight  — while they (in this case, the Lenape, who performed land trade with the Dutch) would sell usage rights temporarily, they did not view land as a commodity. A nice example of the incorporation of gratitude to nature in the way of life of the Salmon People is how they celebrate salmon during the seasonal return of the fish, thanking them for their nutrition and propagation of various ecosystems during their migration, instead of viewing them solely as food. 

In Hindu culture, Mother Earth (or Bhumi Devi) is worshiped and thanked for sustaining life. Hindus believe that humans are but extensions of the earth; we emerge from it, need food (obtained from it), and other elements (such as water and air) for survival, and finally become one with the earth upon death. The Hindu philosophy “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam,” which translates to, “The World is One Family,” tells us that all creatures have an equal right to live; indeed, according to the Dashavatara, man evolved from fish to amphibian to boar to lion before attaining human form, meaning all creatures are intrinsically linked and of equal worth. In practice, Hindus worship animals (for example, Ganesha and Hanuman) and plants (such as Tulsi and Banyan trees), and their ancient medicinal system, Ayurveda, is extremely sustainable. 

Shinto, an ancient polytheistic Japanese nature religion that is still practiced by around 69% of the Japanese population, propagates the belief that kami (supernatural beings) inhabit animate and inanimate objects, including trees, rivers, mountains, rocks, seas, the sun, the moon, the North Star and important landscape locations; even the wind and thunder are kami! These kami are worshiped at shrines, and Shintoists believe in living in harmony with nature. They practice giving thanks to nature and the land; indeed, Japanese scientists perform annual ireisai (memorial ceremonies!) for the animals they experimented on that year. 

Other cultures, such as Chinese culture, also hold reverential views towards nature. However, it’s also important to note that even in nature-based religions, there are still humans seen as superior or entitled to resources in some ways; for example, according to the Hindu belief of reincarnation, the soul takes both animal and human births before it attains moksha, or freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. While this inspires many Hindus to treat animals well, as they could be distant relatives, it’s upsetting that human births are considered the higher life form, and one could lapse into a lower life form (i.e., take an animal birth) if one performs bad deeds in life. So while it’s commendable that nature-based religions emphasize the interdependence between all the creatures of the world more than do others, in any society, there’s always room for improvement!

To varying degrees based on culture, religion, and worldview, humans view ourselves as separate; we think we’re the only ones who are sentient and conscious, the only ones who are capable of reason, morality, language, and so on. But we’re learning about more and more things nonhuman animals have in common with us — this article has interesting examples! And also, we share so many of the most important things in life, like caring about our families and friends, and wanting to survive and be happy. So really, what makes humans different? And why does it matter? This article makes some good points!

In addition to religion and culture, smaller aspects of society such as media, language, and philosophy contribute to our views of the environment. In the media, humans are often portrayed as the main characters of existence and everyone else as merely scenery. This, in turn, influences our perceptions and we believe ourselves to be that way. This is more true with some languages, cultures, etc. than others. As a small example, in fantasy stories in which human characters can talk to plants or nonhuman animals, the nonhuman beings automatically do whatever they ask of them, basically functioning as a mindless army instead of having autonomy. At the same time, art and media are a powerful way to share your perspective and create empathy for the environment and nonhuman creatures.

Language can also reflect how we view things, individually and as a culture. For example, in English, we usually use it, that/which, something, etc. (instead of they/he/she, who, someone, etc.) to refer to anything/anyone who isn’t human (sometimes with the exception of pets). We also often refer to categories instead of individuals, which takes away the empathy that more personal language can give. For example, just saying “What is outside?” “A bird is outside”  makes us just think of the concept of a bird, whereas asking “Who is outside?” “Chickadee is!” refers more directly to the individual, and you can get to know them better. This is a good concept for plants as well; learning who plants, “shrubbery” or “swampland” (and, depending on the context, “nature”) are and referring to them that way creates unhierarchical language and thinking, and you can focus on the beings that comprise them. Additionally, common phrases in English (such as “land use”) reflect the view of taking over land as development or progress. (Although, some languages take a more ecocentric view — like, animate words in Potawatomi.) Changing your language to better reflect how you want to see the world is a good way to challenge harmful assumptions.

The emphasis on reason in western philosophy also overlooks the importance of our relationship to the world, since the ability for reason has traditionally been seen as uniquely human. (Though it actually isn’t!) Kantian ethics, one of the most well-known moral frameworks, relies entirely on reason on the basis that reason can’t be deceived the way senses can. Other moral frameworks, such as libertarianism, are usually interpreted as only applying to humans, and logic and reason are usually emphasized over the physical world and empirical facts (for example, Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”).

Similarly, the scientific method — while useful!! — is sometimes seen as the only basis for knowledge, overlooking traditional knowledge in various cultures, personal experience, and intuition. For some food for thought, this article shows a different way of gaining knowledge, as well as relating to plants and the environment in ways that can’t fully be captured by the traditional scientific method.

As a result, we’ve ended up placing the world and its creatures within our systems of government and economy. Many humans make land claims, taking “ownership” over certain land, but the land has existed for much longer than us, will continue to exist after us, and belongs to lots of us who share it. By saying it’s ours, we’re negating the fact that animals, plants, water, etc. all share the land and all need to work together to keep it harmonious and balanced. This became true through colonization, and it’s hard to change anything because of the society we’ve created. (But we can change!!!!!!!!!) In the process of “claiming” land, we also assert the right to “use” it — to extract as much value as we can from it, treating it like a possession. This is often reflected in how we talk about things, such as saying we’re “developing” or “cultivating” the land when clearing it and creating buildings or farms, and otherwise referring to it as “empty land” — but how can it be empty when so many beings call it home? It’s a step in the notion of “progress” — that taking over land for human purposes is a good thing, the inevitable path to the future. (An example is the status of “developed nation” — usually meaning industrialized — being considered a good thing, when more traditional/undeveloped societies are usually more environmentally sustainable, and whose associated worse living conditions are in large part due to exploitation from wealthier countries.) An unfortunate result is the commodification of land, living beings, and the environment. When they are viewed only in terms of the profit they can give, we stop living harmoniously with them, leading to unsustainable practices.

We’re not saying that all aspects of this worldview are wrong, but we also think that challenging such beliefs is an important step to take, as is recognizing the harm these beliefs can indirectly cause to the environment. Believing that Earth is ours to use overlooks our duties as citizens of the planet and ecosystems, which leads us to extract resources at an unsustainable rate. Instead, when we’re grateful to and in harmony with Earth and its earthlings for playing a role in our survival, we’ll be more inclined to respect and take care of them!

We hope this has given you things to think about and explore this month, and we wish you luck if you continue researching or contemplating! And here is our checklist of some concrete things you can do this month as well as some further reading/watching/listening!

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