Does gendering the earth help or hurt the environment?
by Sarah Withrow King / illustration by Caitlin Ng
In October 2012, Bolivian President Evo Morales signed what has come to be known as the “Mother Earth Law,” which mandates that public and private entities in Bolivia shift how they conceive of and cooperate to use the earth’s resources. The law addresses an array of human interaction with creation and outlines a legal framework with a holistic view of the physical, emotional, and spiritual well being of created beings as its foundation. The new law was received with mixed reviews both within and beyond Bolivia.
But action to alleviate the climate crisis in Bolivia is imperative. Bolivia is responsible for less than 0.1 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, but the nation bears the full impact of climate change, including water shortages, plagues of biblical proportions, forest fires, crop failures, and wild weather changes.
In 2007 flooding reached a 25-year high at a cost of $400 million, displacing 340,000 people and killing at least 40. Even so, Bolivia is still entrenched in the growth-as-success model of development, which perpetuates and lends credibility to climate-damaging initiatives and industries, such as mining.(1)
Morales and his government hold these present-day economic realities in tension with the traditional indigenous respect for life, or vivir bien (living well). And while most environmental protection laws simply stem the tide of destruction through regulation, Morales’ Mother Earth Law aims to subvert the green economy by placing power in the hands of local communities and reforming organizations, identifying natural resources not as “commodities, but as sacred gifts of Mother Earth,”(2) outlining specific steps requisite to striking a balance between the needs of human inhabitants and the limits of earth’s ability to provide resources, and compelling the state to develop, implement, and monitor systems to ensure the responsible use of resources.
It is a wildly idealistic piece of legislation that outlines a utopian vision for a symbiotic relationship between human and nonhuman creation. It is impossible not to read the law and imagine that this is what God meant by “dominion,” rather the abusive interpretation we have created.
But will it do any good?
Bolivia’s “Mother Earth Law” is an attempt to reverse the centuries-long objectification of the earth.
Earth as mother?
When I was growing up, the concept of earth as “mother” seemed hippie and pagan. But it’s an image found in the Hebrew and Apocryphal scriptures.(3) God forms the first creature out of soil (Genesis 2:7) just as God forms the psalmist in the mother’s womb (Psalm 139:15). Images of the earth as generative are replete in the book of Isaiah: Jesus’ lineage is rooted in shoots and branches (Isaiah 11:1), and on the day God wipes away tears from every face, “the earth will give birth to those long dead” (Isaiah 26:19).
Prior to the scientific revolution, the concept of earth as mother was central to European thought. Earth was feminized both as a provider and nurturer, but the “other side” of nature was also feminized—the wild, unpredictable, devastating side that brought storms and chaos. During the scientific and industrial revolutions, the western world began to move towards dominating and subduing this unpredictable planet and a new ethic of mastery over the elements ruled.(4) The result has been centuries of anthropocentric thought, word, and deed. [White, male] human flourishing is pursued at all costs, with every “other” being un-personified and commodified. And since [white, male] humans are the only living beings made in the image of God (also white, male), we have lost sight of the simple fact that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
Some eco-feminist scholars argue that portraying the earth as mother historically served a protective function that limited the extent of human devastation, since “…one does not readily slay a mother, dig into her entrails for gold or mutilate her body, although commercial mining would soon require that.”(5) This is a naïve and narrow view of mothers’ bodies. One only needs to think of “comfort women” maintained for the Japanese, “joy divisions” for the Nazis, and rape as a way of life for Sudanese and other war refugees to realize that mothers’ bodies, particularly if they are poor or nonwhite, are neither venerated nor protected.
Gender devaluation and “Mother Earth”
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in 2012 women working full-time jobs in the United States earned slightly less than 81 percent of men’s salaries.(6) Though a marked improvement from the 58 cents women made to every dollar made by a man in 1966,(7) it will still take decades to achieve full pay equality at the current rate. This gender gap in wages is attributed to a few phenomena, including the concept of gender devaluation.
Gender devaluation is manifested as: 1] not paying women as much as men for doing the same work; 2] perceiving different levels of prestige in the same position when it is held by a woman versus a man; and 3] not seeing value in work that has been feminized, such as reproductive labor, child-raising, and elder/child/nursing care. The three are also interrelated. Women earn less than men not only because of pay differences in the same job but also because women disproportionately work at jobs that are less valued.(8) Gendered assumptions about work are deeply embedded in organizational structures(9) and transferred from generation to generation through both familial and social channels.10
This phenomenon is not limited to the United States. A survey of nine nations found that in all nine, women were substantially overrepresented in clerical and low-prestige jobs and substantially underrepresented in jobs perceived as medium or high prestige.(11) In other words, the contributions of women to a productive, industrialized society have been significantly and systematically undervalued, underappreciated, and under-rewarded. Women are paid less, respected less, and expected to do jobs that men do not want to do. Women who have children, who carry the mantel of “mother,” pay an extra cost.(12) And we have not even addressed workplace sexual harassment and assault, rape, sex trafficking, and the myriad other ways that women’s bodies are devalued and devastated by men.
The Mother Earth Law, informed by and infused with indigenous knowledge, is one attempt to reverse the centuries-long objectification of the earth. It reverently defines “Mother Earth” in terms reminiscent of a pre-industrialized age, an “undivided community of all living systems and living beings, interrelated, interdependent, and complementary, sharing a common destiny.”(13) It is a lovely thought, but is it going to achieve its goals? Does it not stand to reason that a heavy reliance on imagery of the earth as mother, as a woman, will encourage its human occupants to devalue the planet in the same way that we see women’s labor devalued in the workplace?(14) Sociologists have found that “in the absence of occupational segregation, at least some of the basis for gender-based devaluation would be substantially eroded.”(15) Perhaps if we de-gender this planet, we will view it in a less exploitative light.
Does it not stand to reason that a heavy reliance on imagery of the earth as mother, as a woman, will encourage its human occupants to devalue the planet in the same way that we see women’s labor devalued in the workplace? Perhaps if we de-gender this planet, we will view it in a less exploitative light.
A better way
Humans can see God through the created world (Romans 1:18-20). And the whole creation is groaning, waiting to be set free from bondage (Romans 8:21-22). I wonder if creation is groaning because we humans are so dense. We keep trying to bind God and creation in gendered ways that are sometimes well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful. Creation can be groaning in pain because of human sin and exploitation, but creation might also be doing a bit of a face-palm, asking, “When are these people going to get it?”
Revelation 21 and 22 tell us that God’s “kingdom”(16) is community without pain, violence, killing, or sin. That place is not “up there” in a magical sky world of fluffy clouds and harps. The New Jerusalem will come from God and be “among mortals.” A river will flow through the city, living water, nourishing all life, a gift from the body of God to our bodies and the body of Christ. “The vision of the new Jerusalem depicts an earth in which God, human communities, and nature are reunited. No longer are these dimensions of life split against each other and separated…God is freely accessible to all, and all of the earth is holy.”(17) This vision parallels the vivir bien: “harmonious encounter between all beings, components, and resources of Mother Earth. It means living in complementarity, in harmony and balance with Mother Earth and societies, equity and solidarity and removing inequalities and the mechanisms of domination. Living well is among us, living well with our surroundings and living well himself.”(18)
The vivir bien should be a familiar concept to Christians, because Jesus is the vivir bien. Jesus embodies vivir bien as the bastard child of an unwed, backwoods mother. Jesus embodies vivir bien at the well with a Samaritan woman. Jesus embodies vivir bien at the table with tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus embodies vivir bien in the desert with the devil. Jesus embodies vivir bien at the pool of Bethsaida and in the house of Simon the leper. Jesus embodies vivir bien in the garden with a traitor, cowardly disciples, and Roman soldiers. Jesus embodies vivir bien on a cross next to thieves. Jesus is the living well. Through Jesus, all things are reconciled to each other and to God. Through Jesus, all things are made new. Through Jesus, who embodied God’s creative, life-giving love, God’s creation will be made whole again.
So what should Jesus followers do? Although the gendered language in the Mother Earth Law may do more harm than good, Christians should support the law and other efforts like it to reframe the human relationship with the rest of God’s embodied creation in a symbiotic and cooperative light. Let the cleansing waters of Jesus flow through us, and let streams of mercy connect us to an ocean of love for the Creator and creation.
Sarah Withrow King doesn’t like to be put into boxes, but given her love of wheatgrass, Oregon, justice, and church community she may qualify as a hippie vegan Jesus feminist. She blogs at SarahWithrowKing.com.
1. Vanessa Baird, “To Live…” New Internationalist (2010): 23-4.
2. Ibid., Chapter 2, Section 4, Point 2.
3. Ibid and Karina Martin Hogan, “Mother Earth as a Conceptual Metaphor in 4 Ezra,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011): 72.
4. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980), 2.
5. Merchant, 3.
6. Ariane Hegewisch, Claudia Williams, and Angela Edwards, The Gender Wage Gap: 2012, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, (March 2013), 1.
7. Carmen deNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010, U.S. Census Bureau (September 2011), 50.
8. Philip N. Cohen and Matt L. Huffman, “Occupational Segregation and the Devaluation of Women’s Work across U.S. Labor Markets.” Social Forces vol. 81, no. 3 (2003): 882.
9. Don Tomaskovic-Devey and Sheryl Skaggs, “Sex Segregation, Labor Process Organization, and Gender Earnings Inequality,” American Journal of Sociology 108, no. 1 (2002): 110.
10. See Donald J. Treiman and Patricia A. Roos, “Sex and Earnings in Industrial Society: A Nine-Nation Comparison,” American Journal of Sociology 89, no. 3 (1983): 643 and Paula England, “Emerging Theories of Care Work,” Annual Review of Sociology 31 (2005): 382.
11. Treiman and Roos, 641.
12. Michelle J. Budig and Paula England, “The Wage Penalty for Motherhood,” American Sociological Review 66, no. 2 (2001): 204-225.
13. Law Under the Mother Earth and Comprehensive Development for Living Well, Chapter 2, Article 5.
14. Side note: Bolivians celebrate Mother’s Day on May 27th, the anniversary of a battle against professional Spanish soldiers for the independence of Cochabamba fought entirely by the women of that city, after the men had all been slain.
15. Philip N. Cohen and Matt L. Huffman, “Occupational Segregation and the Devaluation of Women’s Work across U.S. Labor Markets,” Social Forces 81, no. 3 (2003): 901.
16. The late theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz popularized this spelling to subvert the concept of God-as-male and to dissociate God’s work in the world with hierarchical, elitist social systems, which oppress the poor and marginalized.
17. Carol Johnston, “Economics, Eco-Justice, and the Doctrine of God,” in After Nature’s Revolt: Eco-Justice and Theology, ed. Dieter T. Hessel, 154-70 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 165.
18. Plurinational Legislative Assembly, Law Under the Mother Earth and Comprehensive Development for Living Well, Chapter 2, Section 5.