Mother Earth?

What is our relationship to the planet we call home?

We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” So declared Stewart Brand in his Whole Earth Catalog, published in various regular editions from 1968 to 1972—a period he now refers to as “innocent times.” His 2009 book, Whole Earth Discipline, revisits and builds on his “ecopragmatic” approach to environmentalism. Today, he says, it’s time for a new motto: “We are as gods and have to get good at it.”

Perhaps the late U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson had that same sentiment in mind when, in April 1970, he established Earth Day, an annual event meant to advance the cause of environmental concern in the United States. Four decades later, Earth Day has become part of the cultural fabric of not only America but other nations as well. Likely unforeseen by Nelson, however, was the day’s eventual association with one deity in particular: Gaia, the ancient Greek goddess of the earth.

The myth of Gaia, or Gaea, is first recorded in the creation account of the seventh-century-B.C.E. Greek writer Hesiod in his Theogony, a genealogy of the Olympian gods. Gaia was not only the mother goddess but the personification of the earth itself—the Earth Mother, or Mother Earth—and she gave birth to numerous other gods. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Hesiod’s account as “a vast Hollywood-style family history, with envy, rage, love, and lust all playing important parts in the coming-to-be of the world as we know it.” In this mythological domestic turmoil, Gaia entered into various conspiracies that culminated in her grandson Zeus supplanting his father (Gaia’s son Cronus) and acquiring ultimate power.

How did Gaia become associated with environmentalism? People often refer to our planet as Mother Earth and to the biosphere and the forces that control it as Mother Nature, but what is the nature of our relationship with the planet?

What’s in a Name?

Even before Gaia’s connection with Earth Day, her name came to be linked with a theory promulgated by British scientist James Lovelock. According to Lovelock the entire earth, animate and inanimate, is “a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system” that reacts to the stresses placed on it by human and other external forces. He notes that novelist and Nobel laureate William Golding, on learning about his friend Lovelock’s early hypothesis, “thought that such an idea should be named Gaia after the Greek goddess of the Earth.” That was in 1967, three years before the first Earth Day in 1970. Since then, and perhaps because Lovelock’s Gaia theory relates to the very ideas behind Earth Day, the two have become connected in a synergistic way. Yet Lovelock himself expresses reservations about his work’s relationship with what he calls “environmental politics.” Although sympathetic to the environmental cause, he views it as too limited in its scope. “I have never been wholly on the side of environmentalism, feeling that its concern was almost always about people and not about the Earth,” he wrote in his Homage to Gaia.

How can we revere the living world if we can no longer hear the bird song through the noise of traffic, or smell the sweetness of fresh air? How can we wonder about God and the Universe if we never see the stars because of the city lights?” 

James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth

Lovelock talks of the earth as a self-interested, living superorganism, capable of acting to fulfill its interests. He stresses, however, that this self-regulation is not conscious; it’s simply the result of natural systems. Neo-pagans and New Agers nevertheless saw an opportunity to capitalize on his theory in the context of their own religious veneration for a living Mother Earth, or Gaia.

Lovelock was shocked at public reaction to Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (his initial book on the subject, first published in 1979): “I had no inkling that it would be taken as a religious book,” he admitted in his 1988 follow-up, The Ages of Gaia. “Two-thirds of the letters received, and still coming in, are about the meaning of Gaia in the context of religious faith.”

A review of the history of the Gaia theory and Earth Day suggests that some go too far in condemning the annual observance as being rooted in the unabashed celebration of an ancient pagan deity, but the fact that some do make a religious connection is undeniable. That connection prevented many scientists from taking Lovelock’s theory seriously. Eventually, however, he realized that their objections “were less about the science of Gaia than the semantics and the use of metaphor. Neo-Darwinist biologists had had their own difficult times fending off creationists, traditionalists and proponents of group selection.” He recounted that one critic told him “Gaia had seemed at first just another of these false theories: the New Age religious faith in an Earth Mother was anathema to him.”

Now,” wrote Lovelock in the 2000 edition of Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, “most scientists appear to accept Gaia theory and apply it to their research, but they still reject the name Gaia and prefer to talk of Earth System Science, or Geophysiology, instead.”

The Religious Connection

Whether it’s referred to as Gaia or something else, religious interest in the earth and its care has in fact become very broad, as attested by the third Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999. Some 7,000 delegates from most organized religions gathered for the event.

The conference’s sponsoring body, the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR), produced a document in conjunction with the conference, titled “A Call to Our Guiding Institutions.” That paper built on a similar one produced for the council’s 1993 conference in Chicago: “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.” Among other things, these papers called for the major governing institutions of the world to rethink attitudes toward the earth and advocated the adoption of fundamental changes in every sphere of society.

The CPWR describes the 1999 document as “an appeal for active, ongoing dialogue about the creation of a just, peaceful, and sustainable future on behalf of the entire Earth community.” Acknowledging that “the world’s religious and spiritual traditions differ profoundly with respect to various beliefs and practices,” the council nevertheless expresses hope. The paper speaks of “shared moral commitments” and of finding “sustainable ways to peacefully meet the needs of all people while preserving the integrity of the whole community of life on Earth.”

The Earth and the Bible

According to a very different creation narrative than Hesiod’s, humanity does indeed bear a tremendous responsibility to care for the earth and the life forms that inhabit it.

The Hebrew Bible’s account of creation describes much greater harmony than is portrayed in Hesiod’s story of Gaia’s dysfunctional family. Adam, subsequently joined by his wife Eve, was placed in a garden and charged with the God-given duty to “tend and keep” his environment (Genesis 2:15). The two Hebrew words used are instructive. Tend, or till, derives from the same root as the verb to serve, so a relationship of service was intended. The instruction to “keep” comes from the verb to guard, so that humans were charged from the beginning with serving and guarding the environment from which they were made. The predatory concepts that fed the view of a frontier society—whereby the land was there to use in any way that humanity desired, knowing that when it was depleted or ruined, plenty more was available—was not part of the instruction. Nor were ideas of the land being hostile and in need of subjugation. Irrespective of how one reads the account of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, the “use and abuse” concept of land use was not to be part of their thinking.

This view of the land also shaped ancient Israel’s intended use of the Promised Land, which they were to inherit and inhabit. The instructions relating to care of the land, as given in the Torah (the portion of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Law), are based on the same principles of serving and guarding. The Israelites were made to understand that the environment was ultimately the property of an all-powerful and loving God.

As the founder of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson appreciated that society’s cavalier and even abusive approach to the land was destined to destroy us. He believed that we need a moral basis for the use of our environment, which he described as national capital. These sentiments largely echo those of Lovelock, whose primary concern is that humankind accept responsibility for harmony on the earth and behave accordingly. And as noted, Stewart Brand views humanity’s role as a godlike opportunity that we are not only free but duty-bound to exercise.

All of these individuals seem to agree on the problem and challenge of coming together to prevent the destruction of our planet and its interconnected systems. None of them means to imply anything overtly religious, however—unlike the CPWR, which bases its appeal squarely on the idea of the world’s religions coming together to promote a “global ethic” that will make peace and sustainability possible.

But if so many—secular and religious alike—agree on the need for such an ethic, for some moral basis, why is the plundering of our planet still so universal? As the CPWR notes in its “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic,” “we have experienced greater technological progress than ever before, yet we see that world-wide poverty, hunger, . . . misery, and the destruction of nature have not diminished but rather have increased.”

Earth cannot be changed for the better unless the consciousness of individuals is changed first.”

Declaration Toward a Global Ethic,” Statement of the 1993 Parliament of World's Religions

The same document suggests the answer: “On the basis of personal experiences and the burdensome history of our planet we have learned that . . . both the minds and hearts of women and men must be addressed.” It notes that “Earth cannot be changed for the better unless the consciousness of individuals is changed first.”

As the CPWR further points out, “there already exist ancient guidelines for human behavior which are found in the teachings of the religions of the world and which are the condition for a sustainable world order. . . . Of course this ethic provides no direct solution for all the immense problems of the world, but it does supply the moral foundation for a better individual and global order: A vision which can lead women and men away from despair, and society away from chaos.”

This ethic does indeed already exist and is especially evident in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible is claimed as the holy book of more than 2 billion people who identify themselves as Christians, by far the largest of all the world’s religions. And Jews likewise regard what we know as the Old Testament as Scripture. Sadly, however, the record of human conduct shows that harmony with God-given instructions has been noteworthy more in the breach than in the observance. Biblical instructions regarding our duty to the earth have been sorely neglected for millennia.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that, while the Parliament of the World’s Religions represents a wide spectrum of belief systems, many of its conclusions are straight from the pages of the Bible. For example, at its 1993 Chicago conference it put forward four “irrevocable directives” as a basis for their proposed “global ethic”: Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not commit sexual immorality. These, of course, are four of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The 1999 conference report expands on these directives, in a voice that sounds remarkably like that of an Old Testament prophet: “Have respect for life. Deal honestly and fairly. Speak and act truthfully. Respect and love one another.” It further notes: “We must treat others as we wish others to treat us. . . . We must not live for ourselves alone, but should also serve others. . . . We must speak and act truthfully and with compassion, dealing fairly with all, and avoiding prejudice and hatred. We must not steal. We must move beyond the dominance of greed for power, prestige, money, and consumption to make a just and peaceful world.”

We are all interdependent and must relate to each other respectfully and peacefully; . . . we are all responsible for the care of the Earth on which we depend and the well-being of the communities in which we live.”

Declaration Toward a Global Ethic,” Statement of the 1993 Parliament of World's Religions

Let’s return to Brand’s words for a moment: “We are as gods and have to get good at it.” Humans want to play god and shape the environment to their own liking. Success with cleaning environmental disasters of the past has emboldened people, whether individuals or corporations, to think that the planet is theirs to do with as they see fit. Have we not yet learned that we are not the master of the environment, to use as we please, but a servant to care for it in ways established by a higher power? The CPWR envisions a time when “we take individual responsibility for all we do. All our decisions, actions, and failures to act have consequences.” It’s a way of saying that each of us must adopt a way of life—a way of thinking and acting that seeks the best for all we interact with—whether fellow living beings or the earth that sustains us all.

Modern civilized humanity on the whole rejects the concept that we were created in the image of one all-wise and all-powerful God, as portrayed in Genesis 1:26–27. But our only hope for ruling this earth is alongside that real God—after we have learned to be subject to His rules and to nurture our various relationships (with Him, with each other, and with our planet) on the basis of love and respect. It demands first of all that we recognize that there is a creator, and that it’s He who is to be worshiped rather than the creation itself. Without that lesson learned, we are doomed to continue on the road that has so far led us farther away from the goal of a peaceful, sustainable environment.

The problems we face can be overcome only by a life of obedience to and harmony with the true God of heaven and earth—something that has seldom been tried.