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An anthropomorphised mountain as mother earth

Is it time to reassess our relationship with nature?

Western societies tend to see nature and humanity as separate. But are there other ways of relating to the natural world?

An area of deforestation and a healthy forest separated by a road.

Alternative Perspectives to nature

Dr. Eleni Dimou looks at how we have lost our relationality to nature and considers alternative indigenous perspectives that view human beings in connection and complementarity with Mother Earth.

Myanmar Illicit Endangered Wildlife market. Photograph by Dan Bennett

Myanmar Illicit Endangered Wildlife market. Photograph by Dan Bennett

The origin of the current pandemic of COVID-19 that has affected significantly everybody’s life around the world, has been traced to be most likely Wuhan’s live wildlife market in China. A market, which is used from a minority of rich and powerful individuals in China (see Vox, 2020). What happens in this and similar markets around the world is that alive non-human animals are being stacked for human consumption one on top of the other, which increases the possibility for viruses to pass from one species to another. This was allegedly the case with COVID-19, which passed from a bat to a pangolin before infecting humans (see Vox, 2020).

What is important to understand through Wuhan’s example, however, is that not only in China but around the world’s global capitalist economy, non-human animals and nature in its entirety, are considered simply as ‘resources’ to be used, consumed, exploited and destroyed for profit (Escobar, 1995; White, 2013; Acuña, 2015; Blum, 2018; Brisman et al., 2018). Perceiving the Earth and non-human entities as resources is a result of the dominance of Western frameworks of knowledge over the rest of the world due to colonialism and neo-colonialism - among which the economic system of capitalism, which prioritises profit over life (Quijano, 2000; Mignolo, 2011; Vázquez, 2017; Escobar, 2020). Some of the consequences of the dominance of this Western framework is not only COVID-19 but also climate change that threatens life on the planet as a whole.

Deforestation in Maranhao, Brazil, bird's eye view

Ibama and the Federal Police fight a criminal group responsible for illegally extracting and trading timber in Maranhao, Brazil

So how did we come to this? You may have heard of ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am). This quote by Descartes is one of the most important Western philosophical quotes and a key pillar of the Enlightenment, which dawned during the 17th century (Mignolo, 2018). Also called as the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, was associated with European conceptions of science, reason, progress, free-will, order and control (Grosfoguel, 2011; Blum, 2018).   Descartes by privileging the mind came to construct binaries that constituted what it means to be human: human versus nature, reason versus nature (Escobar, 2020). As such, if humankind was distinct from the natural world, then we could in fact treat it as our servant, as a resource to be exploited, as our slave (Blum, 2018). Descartes quote non only marked the beginning of what we term as the modern world in the West but also the Age of the Anthropocene or Anthropocentrism, whereby human life is considered to be the most important form of life; it is superior to nature and other non-human animals, and as such it is seen to be the centre of the world (Klages, 1913; Vázquez, 2017; Mignolo, 2018; Escobar, 2020). The Earth though is not anthropocentric and if we carry on treating it as we have done for the past centuries, it will continue to exist without us, as it has done for billions of years. So could we do something differently?

Berito Cobaria: Spiritual Leader of the U’wa tribe Colombia [(Cidemos, 2016) translation from Spanish by the author]:

The Earth is not only pieces of dust from which we were born. The Earth is history. The Earth is Mother. The Earth is Eternal Father. That is why we are all brothers and sisters: the humans, the animals and things. The Earth is dignity. The Earth is the Spirit of our people and our ancestors. The Earth is Life itself from the indigenous point of view. The Earth is history.

Cobaria’s quote provides the essence of how many indigenous cultures around the world have viewed the relationship of humans with the Earth: as one of coexistence, connection and complementarity (Kusch, 1970; Mignolo, 2018; Escobar, 2020). Mother Earth is a living spirit to which humans are only one part of its interconnected whole (Klages, 1913). That is why for many of these civilizations the Western binary distinction between humans and nature makes no sense, as everything is interconnected (Kusch, 1970; Escobar, 2020). Even though indigenous knowledges have been actively suppressed, silenced, discredited and almost erased in some cases from colonial and neo-colonial power relations over the past centuries’ and the subsequent dominance of Western frameworks of knowledge (Quijano, 2000; Klages, 1913; Mignolo, 2011; Vázquez, 2017; Escobar, 2018); in recent years some positive developments of resurfacing indigenous knowledges have been taking place. Bolivia and Ecuador for example have passed into their constitution laws which grant all nature equal rights to humans (Vidal, 2011). Perhaps then a more global paradigm shift that draws in indigenous ‘nature wisdom’ is needed if we are to reverse the destructive consequences of our practices over the past centuries.

Berito Cobaria: Spiritual Leader of the U’wa tribe Colombia [(Cidemos, 2016) translation from Spanish by the author]:

Meet the OU expert

Dr Eleni Dimou, Lecturer in Criminology at the OU
Dr Eleni DimouLecturer in CriminologyVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Eleni Dimou, Lecturer in Criminology at the OU
Dr Eleni DimouLecturer in Criminology

Dr. Eleni Dimou joined The Open University as a Lecturer in Criminology in January 2018. Before that, she worked as a Research Assistant with Dr. Deanna Dadusc on the project: ‘Contested borders: Refugees’ solidarity structures, networks and social movements in the Netherlands and Greece’, which seeks to draw international comparison between refugees’ experiences and solidarity networks in Athens and Amsterdam. Prior to this she worked as a Lecturer and Assistant Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Kent for eight years.

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