Is it possible to imagine a more well-intentioned but inappropriate metaphor than Mother Earth?
Yes, I get it. We exist in a symbiotic relationship with the planet. Our future depends on its future. But it’s hard to square our life-giving Mother with the Mommy Dearest who delivers death by tornado, drought, flood, fire, earthquake and hurricane on a routine basis. And then there’s that big can of worms lurking just beneath the surface of the bumper-sticker commandment, “Love Your Mother.” Because what is our collective behavior toward Mother Earth, especially as manifest in the oil industry, if not one vast Freudian psychodrama?
The sexual dimension is explicit in the imagery of the gusher—and in oil industry lingo so suffused with sexual connotations it seems to have been lifted from a handbook for aspiring porn stars: deep drilling, fanning the bottom, rate of penetration and dry-hole plug, for starters. In some cases, the sexual undercurrent becomes all but invisible: Think of the laying of oil pipelines—tubes that carry fluids through tunnels in the earth. Sometimes, that undercurrent surfaces in odd places. Think of the 2008 Republican National Convention, and the way the GOP’s demand for domestic oil exploration—Drill, baby, drill!—cast Mother Earth in the role of our bitch, as it were (though the ambiguous identity of “baby” gave the chant a fascinating twist, a subtle masochism that could be heard as a plea by the male Republican base to be roughed up a little: to be not the driller, but the drilled).
It’s the role of driller that we thrive on, though. We’re so adept at it, and our technology is so advanced, that in May we passed a new milestone for carbon levels in the atmosphere, pushing past 400 parts per million. (The environmentalist Bill McKibben has built his organization 350.org around the idea that 350 ppm is the point beyond which our civilization is unsustainable.) In early August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its “State of the Climate” report, which observed that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States. The same week, the American Geophysical Union, representing 60,000 scientists, released a statement saying that “human-induced climate change requires urgent action.”
Well, you don’t say.
Periodically there is a new alarming report, followed by calls for urgent action. Environmentalists wring their hands, as do a few politicians. Scattered murmurings in the media observe that this is a very worrying state of affairs indeed, while conservative media personalities and their GOP lackeys allege the whole thing is a hoax. Then everyone returns to business as usual, and the cycle repeats after the next alarming report. What’s rarely broached is the need for a kind of transformation that would be adequate to the scale of the problem—a fundamental rethinking of our relationship to the planet.
Mother Earth is such a seductive metaphor because it nods toward the necessity of that rethinking, and to the possibility that our species might dwell in harmony with one another and with all things, governed by a love that is so pure and radical that we can wrap our minds around it mainly by assigning it to the divine and holy, and disguising it in myths and legends.
What’s wrong with the metaphor is that it isn’t helpful to frame our relationship to the planet in terms of a love that is pure and holy and unconditional: the love of a mother for a child. The planet doesn’t love us that way—and never will. And we manifestly don’t love the planet that way. The Mother Earth metaphor glosses over the betrayal that lurks within even our deepest commitments and most love-filled relationships. And it’s a sharper awareness of this tragedy, not a utopianism rooted in mother-child love, that might guide us toward a healthier planet.
That tragic sense is embedded in some of the West’s oldest myths and narratives. Think of the biblical account of creation and the fall. The serpent seduces Adam and Eve with the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and presumably this betrayal of God’s trust is the root of our alienation from him. Or think of the way Jesus endured one betrayal after another, first by his disciples and ultimately by his heavenly “father,” pleading as he hung on the cross, as anyone would, for an explanation: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It’s interesting to ponder the connection between love and betrayal in our non-response to climate change.
The image most closely associated with Mother Earth—the “Blue Marble,” from 1972—allowed humanity to see
the Earth from a God’s-eye perspective for the first time, helping us appreciate the beauty of our terrestrial womb. Science gave us those photos, and whatever one believes about the origins of that womb, science is the best tool we have for understanding and improving our situation within it. And just in the past century, the quest for scientific knowledge has yielded benefits that are astonishing: the extension of the average human life span by decades; space exploration; the splitting of the atom; computers and global communications; and the list goes on growing at a more dizzying pace every year. Ever more knowledge; ever more power. The power to bend and shape nature to our will. The power to dominate the planet. To tap its resources. To explore, exploit, frack and—yes—fuck our Mother.
Our collective indifference to the looming catastrophes of climate change has several explanations, all partially true. They include the power of corporate money to warp and choke off debate, the largely abstract and distant nature of the threat for most Americans, the corruption of our political leaders and the cravenness of our media institutions. Whatever else explains it, though, our passivity has much to do with the fact that our ultimate hope of earthly salvation—our true love—is science.
There is something peculiarly American about our worship of scientific progress and our simultaneous betrayal of science through climate-change denial, ignorance and indifference—a betrayal that is mirrored in the pervasiveness of Christianity among Americans and the denial of Jesus’ hard truths by those Americans who believe in him most fervently. Whatever you make of his life in cosmic terms, Jesus of Nazareth always sided with the powerless and oppressed, and he had a fascinating habit of saying insane things: telling people to give away all they owned and forsake their families, and to reject every priority and presumption of the established order, along with every comforting illusion that derives from power, privilege and wealth. That such a subversive misfit is the favorite philosopher and prophet of “family values” traditionalists, and virtually every major American politician, is an irony beyond belief. It is the final betrayal of Jesus by those who claim to love him. Surely he wouldn’t be surprised.
It will be interesting, to say the least, to watch the mounting climate-change crises unfold over the next several decades. Perhaps we will pay little price for our radical violence against Mother Earth. The scientific mastery that has delivered so many benefits might actually spare us from the collective suicide we’re blithely edging toward. Climate engineering might work. That’s one scenario. Another is that the planet will repay our betrayal of basic science. That the drilled will become the driller. That in fucking our Mother, we have fucked ourselves. One could call it both a perversion and a tragedy of biblical proportions.
Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.