Friday, July 13, 2012

"Mother Earth" is No Mere Metaphor: Relation, Personification, and Survival

The polytheist/animist act of personifying phenomena is perhaps the hardest thing for many modern people to understand, and is thus often misunderstood in a simplistically literal way. I want to examine one such act that has great resonance across world cultures: the act of personifying the earth as a mother goddess. My hope is that if the rationale for seeing the earth as a goddess can be understood, this understanding could then be extended to illuminate the reasons for the personified forms of other gods and spirits.  I also hope to demonstrate how personification probably aided, and may yet still aid, in the survival of our species by comparing the consequences of personified vs. objectified relationships with the earth.
Hal wes þu folde, fira modor!
"Health and wholeness to you, earth, mother of men!"
(Anglo-Saxon Land Ceremonies Charm, early 11th century.)
Thus no clear criteria of evidence, logic, or certainty separate religion even from its supposed antithesis, science. Instead, they are separated most sharply by their attitude toward anthropomorphism: science tries to avoid it, while religions take it as foundation. (Guthrie 196.)

Earth as Mother

Gaia, the Greek Earth Goddess

"Mother Earth" is an expression that is common in modern times and also has an ancient history. Naming earth as a mother, for instance, can be traced back through the various Indo-European languages. West has identified various forms of the expression in the oldest linguistic forms of Hittite, Greek, Asia Minor, Armenian, Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic cultures. Variations of the idea can also be found in ancient non-Indo-European cultures on every continent. (Though many ancient religions have an earth mother goddess, it should also be noted there are many other gods and spirits connected with the earth in various ways, and that the theology of the earth is always more complex than just positing a single goddess. I will, however, be setting these complexities aside in this essay for the sake of the clarity of this example of personification.)

Most people in the modern west consider the expression "Mother Earth" to be only figurative: a metaphor expressing a poetic understanding that should not be taken literally. What I hope to show here is that this concept is in fact also very literal, and that the ancient sense of the poetic was not about dressing up reality in some sort of flowery fancy, but rather a method for drawing one's attention to the reality and meaning of human lived experience.

The earth is, of course, the source of all of our sustenance. Our food is grown from it or derived from animals who inhabit a food chain that traces back to the earth. The earth embraces us with a gravitational force which also holds the atmosphere we breathe. Water, the essential stuff of life, is drawn from the earth's surface and subsurface.

But the earth not only sustains us; it also provided the environment in which our species evolved. We are, in two senses, of the earth. Our physical being is not only constructed of and maintained by the fruits of the earth, but its form and functions were shaped by its interactions with the earth's environment.

From our essential relationship to the earth outlined above, it is obvious how the earth can be considered to be a mother. Though we are nurtured in the womb and born out of a human mother, the ultimate source of sustenance for both our human mothers and ourselves is the earth. Just as we take shape in the womb, the earth also shaped our species, including the process of growth in the womb. In this way the earth can be seen as the mother behind all mothers, not just of human beings, but of all life on earth. As we grow older, our reliance on our human mothers for supplying physical sustenance grows less and less, but our dependency on the sustenance of the earth remains unchanged. Thus the earth remains essential to our existence long after our dependency on our human mothers wanes.

It is perhaps becoming more and more apparent why it is quite rational to assert that the expression "Mother Earth" it is not only apt metaphor, but literal truth. Some, however, will still balk on the grounds that only living things can be considered true "mothers" and that to call the earth "mother" is still merely a metaphor comparing the common traits of two distinct phenomena.

This brings us to what I feel is the core misunderstanding modern people have in their ideas about the ancient habit of personifying non-human creatures and natural forces, which is to assume that it is a sort of categorical mistake where one object or entity is confused with another, or more specifically, a non-human or nonliving phenomenon is assumed to have a human-like mind and then rituals and prayers are created in devotion to this illusionary entity.

The distinction which is critical here is that between confusing phenomena for human-like beings vs. relating to them as persons.

The Process of Personification

In modern western cultures we like to think that we approach phenomena through a rational and empirical process of categorization. The logic of this approach demands that we consider a phenomenon a "true" instance of one sort of category and not a "false" instance of another. Operating under this assumption, when one encounters people speaking with the earth, showing it gratitude, asking it favors, offering gifts in the form of sacrifice, etc, one notices that this is behavior which appears to be modeled on behavior one would expect from one human being toward another. One then asks if the earth is a "true" instance of a human-like agent that can hear prayers and respond by granting favors, and finding this to be "false," the assumption is that the behavior is based on a categorical error where either the earth itself has been mistaken for a human-like agent, or there is an erroneous belief in some sort of invisible human-like agent dwelling within the earth. Since this behavior is based on error, it is then concluded, the behavior is itself erroneous and without practical value.

This assumption, that personification occurs when there is first an error of category, followed by erroneous behavior, underlies most of the theoretical models for trying to understand how the error of category occurs in the first place. One of these models of explanation which is popular right now is hypersensitive agent detection theory.
The idea makes a lot of sense: we see faces in the clouds, but never clouds in faces, because we have special cognitive modules for face detection. The face detector is on a hair trigger, and it makes almost all of its mistakes in one direction--false positives (seeing a face when no real face is present, e.g., :) ) rather than false negatives (failing to see a face that is really present.) Similarly, most animals confront the challenge of distinguishing events that are caused by the presence of another animal (an agent that can move under its own power) from those that are caused by the wind, or a pinecone falling, or anything that lacks agency.

The solution to this challenge is an agency detection module, and like the face detector, it's on a hair trigger. It makes almost all of its mistakes in one direction--false positives (detecting an agent where none is present), rather than false negatives (failing to detect the presence of a real agent). ... If you want to know why it is on a hair trigger, just think about what kind of error would be more costly the next time you are walking alone at night in a deep forest or a dark alley. The hypersensitive agency detection device is finely tuned to maximize survival, not accuracy.

But suppose that early humans, equipped with a hypersensitive agency detector, a new ability to engage in shared intentionality, and a love of stories, begins to talk about their many misperceptions. Suppose they begin attributing agency to the weather. (Thunder and lightning sure make it seem as though somebody up in the sky is angry at us.) Suppose a group of humans begins jointly creating a pantheon of invisible agents who cause the weather, and other assorted cases of good or bad fortune. Voila--the birth of supernatural agents, not as an adaption for anything, but as a by-product of a cognitive module that is otherwise highly adaptive. (Haidt, 252-253.)
In this theory, personification arose as an error of category in a particular sequence: first, phenomena is mistaken for an agent modeled on a human being, then erroneous behavior occurs when phenomena is treated like a human being.

This theory sounds very reasonable, but its assumption about how personification actually works, first detecting an agent and then building ritual behavior toward that agent, does not hold up when compared to ethnographic data from traditional cultures or even our own modern experience of personifying, which we do more often than we may notice.

Culturally categorizing something as a person is a much more fluid and subjective process than categorizing something objectively as a human being or a human-like entity. There can be vast differences in what is considered a person in different cultures, whereas there is a lot less room for interpretation when in comes to human beings. In modern western culture, for example, family pets are persons. They are treated like members of the family, spoken to, given treats, sometimes even clothed, and are mourned when they pass on. However, though they are clearly treated as persons, family pets are never mistaken for human beings. We also regularly personify a range of inanimate objects, such as cars and computers, which we encourage and chastise, sometimes vigorously. Yet we do not mistake these objects for human beings, nor do we assume that an invisible human-like entity is hidden within either our pets or our computers.

A native Inuit representation of personification. Clearly this
is not to be taken entirely literally, so why do theorists so
often interpret personification entirely literally?
What I wish to suggest, then, is that rather than an error of category, what is occurring in other cultures when they treat with gods and spirits is that they simply have a greater range of what they relate to as persons, made possible by a more metaphoric and less logical system of classification.  Thinking religiously probably always has the indeterminate quality that Winterbourne points out among the ancient Egyptians. "Indeed, they were capable of a subtlety of thinking that evades precise expression within the framework of our formalized logic systems, wherein there are the categories "true" and "false," with no space whatever between the two--where the logic-gate, in other words, is either open or closed." (Winterbourne, 2004)  Religion mixes literal and metaphoric elements; its assertions are neither entirely "true" nor entirely "false" in the terms of modern, western logic.

Furthermore, and this is the essential difference, the personification of phenomena occurs primarily through the classification of the relationship between humans and phenomena, and not primarily through a system of classification of phenomena as distinct agents or objects. We assume that cultures that personify gods and spirits are making a literal "true" statement about the existence of entities, when, in fact, they are not speaking our language of empirical logic at all, but their language which mixes metaphoric and literal elements to focus on the phenomenological relationship between things, not the things themselves. "When they pick up a relatively changing thing with their relatively changing selves--and, all the more, when it happens in a relatively unusual manner--they regard as devaru [spirit] this particular thing within this particular situation." (Bird-Davis, 74.) This is the critical mistake that is made by modern westerners when they try to explain gods and spirits. They assume that the posited existence of these entities is primary and the relationship is secondary, but "surely, one did not first encounter the divine and then cultivate contact with it." (Assmann, 2001, after Winterbourne, 2004.) I suggest that the relationship is primary, followed by a secondary personification.
We do not first personify other entities and then socialize with them but personify them as, when, and because we socialize with them. Recognizing a 'conversation' with a counter-being--which amounts to accepting it into fellowship rather than recognizing a common essence--makes that being a self in relation with ourselves. (Bird-David, 78, italics in original)
Thus religious beliefs are primarily statements about social relationships, not empirical observations or categorical errors. "For example, faith, often thought the opposite of the scientific attitude, is an attitude primarily toward persons, not toward nature or even culture. It is an aspect of social relation. Because religion is an ostensible social relationship, it tends to be nonempircal, since openly testing a social relationship (unlike a relation to a car or a computer) undermines it." (Guthrie, 202.) You do not violate your tribe's sacred and sustaining relationship with Mother Earth any more than you test the loyalty of your friends by betraying them.

Furthermore, the theory of a categorical error of followed by erroneous behavior seems to assume that humans evolved first to have relationships with other humans and then applied this model to their environments. The reality is, however, that they evolved to have relationships with other humans and the non-human environment simultaneously
We may admit that humans are, indeed, just like other animals; not, however, insofar as they exist as organisms rather than persons, as constituent entities in an objective world of nature presented as a spectacle to detached scientific observation, but by virtue of their mutual involvement, as undivided centres of action and awareness, within a continuous life process. In this process, the relations that human beings have with one another form just one part of the total field of relations embracing all living things. There can, then, be no radical break between social and ecological relations; rather, the former constitute a subset of the latter. (Ingold, 59-60, italics in the original.)

Understanding the simultaneity of the evolution of human relationships to other humans and non-humans casts a new light on our understanding of kinship terms applied to non-human phenomena.
Classically anomalies of this kind have been dealt with by constructing a special category of 'fictive kinship' which is modeled on, but nevertheless fundamentally distinct from, the 'real' kinship founded on genealogical connection. But the people themselves, for whom there is no anomaly, are telling us something quite different. It is that the role of parents is not, as the genealogical model implies, to pass on to their offspring the essential specifications of personhood in advance of their entry into the lifeworld, but rather -- by their presence, their activities and the nururance they provide -- to establish the necessary conditions in the environment for their children's growth and development. This is what kinship is all about. And since the spirit inhabitants of the land contribute to human well-being equally, and on the same footing, as do human forbears, providing both food, guidance and security, they too can be 'big' fathers and mothers. (Ingold, 141.)
Thus, "personhood" arose primarily to classify kinds of relationships, not kinds of entities. To call the earth one's mother is not an anthropomorphic categorical error, mistaking the ground beneath one's feet for a human being to which one is related genealogically, rather it is the recognition of a category of personified relatedness that one has with non-humans as well as other human beings; "it is as entire persons, not as disembodied minds, that human beings engage with one another, and, moreover, with non-human beings as well." (Ingold, 47) To ask whether there is some invisible human-like entity within the earth, or to ask whether the earth itself has a human-like mind and is capable of thought, are questions which assume an objective categorical error and create supernatural assumptions and metaphysical models that may severely misrepresent non-western cultural concepts and unduly complicate the simple, natural and practical human process of personifying nonhuman relationships. Though it is undeniable that native superstitious assumptions regarding agency can and do develop from this basic recognition of personhood, I would suggest that they are not the driving force of its origin, and one must be cautious to make sure that one only asserts the existence of such superstitions when the evidence is explicitly in favor of such an interpretation and not merely assume their presence. There are fine but meaningful lines between cultural convention, metaphor and superstition.

We personify pets and computers because of our interactions with them, and in these cases mistaken agency does not appear to be necessary for personification to occur. We don't confuse them for human-like entities any more than other cultures necessarily confuse the phenomena they call gods and spirits for human-like entities. Though modern western conceptions of deity may focus on the truth or falsity of the existence of objective supernatural entities, this is not the way that other cultures understand gods and spirits. Though I don't rule out either a hypersensitive agent detection module or deny that personification can become highly superstitious, I do think that modern western people make a serious mistake when they assume, first, that gods and spirits result from a mistake in agency followed by a relationship, rather than a relationship that is understood in terms of a cultural category of personhood, and, second, that modern western people do not themselves regularly personify nonhuman phenomena on both the level of the individual and on the level of culture.

Personhood, Ecology, and Survival

In other writings I have discussed the necessity of personification for poetic expression and the preservation of knowledge, as well as the reasons why a person-like relationship is the most complex way humans have of relating to phenomena. Now we will consider how the complexity of a personified relationship affects human interaction with the natural environment and the potential for sustained survival within that environment.

Scott Atran and Douglas Medin decided to test how the spiritual beliefs of native peoples affected their conceptions of, and relations with, the ecosystem. What they discovered in their studies of the Itza' Maya, a South American native people, was that the Itza' personification of natural phenomena in the form of forest spirits directed their attention to natural phenomena in a way which created a better understanding of the inter-relatedness of local ecologies than other local cultural groups that personified less, and that these beliefs encouraged the Itza' to employ more sustainable and less competitive ways of exploiting these ecologies than those other groups.
To date, rational-decision and game-theoretic accounts involving human use of nonhuman resources generally have not considered nonhuman resources (e.g. the forest) and humans both as "players" in the same game, presumably because natural resources are assumed not to have motives, desires, beliefs, or strategies for cooperation or deception that would be sensitive, and systematically responsive to corresponding aspects of human intention. Money, trees, fish, and other resources are treated as inert objects in a game, not interacting agents. ... Our point is about practice, not possibility. People's conceptualization of resources may make a difference in how they play the game. For example, people's agroforestry behavior may differ as a function of whether they consider the forest to be an inert object or an actor that intentionally responds to their actions. Indeed, one claim for "animistic" and "anthropomorphic" interpretations of species in many small-scale societies is that the "intention gap" between humans and species is thus bridged (at least to human satisfaction) with outcomes mutually beneficial to the survival of species and of the human groups that live off of those species. ... This has intriguing implications for ecological decision theory and game theory in that individual Itza' may be basing their cognitive and behavioral strategies for sustaining the forest more by playing a game (i.e. negotiating costs and benefits of mutual cooperation) with spirits than by playing a game with other people. (Atran and Medin, 198-199.)
Again, the essence of this personification is relational. A belief in forest spirits arises in precisely the place where the Itza's livelihood is sustained, and it is conceived of as an social interaction.
Our tentative line of reasoning is that Itza', and perhaps other native peoples with a long history of ecological maintenance, might not treat resources as traditional decision and game theory suggests--that is as objects of a payoff matrix (extensional items substitutable along some metric, such as one that assigns monetary value to every object.) Instead, some people may treat resources, such as species, as intentional, relational entities, like friends or enemies. (Atran and Medin, 195-196)
The Itza' belief in forest spirits causes them to conceive of the forest and its species in terms of persons and not as objects, and this relationship, in turn, has affected the well-being and sustainability of the environment. The beliefs of the Itza' "not only predict behavioral tendencies and stated values, but also correlate reliably with the measurable consequences of those behaviors and values--even down to the level of soil composition and the number and variety of trees found on people's land." (Atran and Medin, 208.) Personification is thus not just a way that people relate to the land; it also creates the kind of land to which people relate.

If the fact that people naturally personify can help them survive, this would suggest that, rather than an evolutionary mechanism gone awry, such as a hypersensitive agent detection module, personification of nonhuman phenomena may actually have been a trait that was selected for itself instead of a side-effect or "spandrel" of another selected trait. Personification is certainly something that all humans do, as amply demonstrated by the existence of gods and spirits in every single ancient culture and our own relationship with our pets, cars and computers, and it appears to be done with or without recourse to concepts of agency.  Personification may not be so much a quirk as a critical survival trait.
Our indigenous ancestors, after all, had to survive and flourish without any of the technologies upon which we moderns have come to depend.  It seems unlikely that our ancestral lineages could have survived if the animistic sensibility were purely an illusion, if this experience of the sensible surroundings as sensitive and even sentient were a callow fantasy utterly at odds with the actual character of those surroundings.  The long survival of our species suggests that the instinctive expectation of animateness, of an interior spontaneity proper to all things, was a very practical way to encounter our environment--indeed, perhaps the most effective way to align our human organism with the shifting vicissitudes of a difficult, dangerous and capricious cosmos.  (Abram 43-44.)
 But is this sense of a living  world still important in modern times, or is it merely vestigial? How fares Mother Nature in the modern era?

I think even a cursory look at the modern relationship humans have with the earth shows the effects of abandoning personification for objectification. To make a very long story very short: from the rise of monotheisms which devalued the feminine, declared all relationships with local polytheistic gods and spirits false and/or evil, and changed the focus of meaningful interaction from the natural world to a supernatural otherworld; through the Age of Reason which valued disembodied theories and models of the natural world over the lived and embodied experience with and relationship to the living landscape; to modern day capitalism which commodifies all resources and often values short-term profit over long-term sustainability, Mother Nature, once seen as the Mother of Us All, has been whittled down to a dead metaphor referring to a natural resource which can be competed for, instead of a relationship with the cultural, nonhuman person who nurtures all life.  Bird-David points out how this change in status of Mother Earth is apparent when you compare how the Nayaka, hunter-gatherers in South India, personify the landscape, with conceptions of "Mother Earth" during the Renaissance when
[n]ature generally and earth particularly were personified as a woman and, furthermore, as a mother, but "mother" was used as a symbol, dissociated from interactive, dynamic social relationships. "Mother" was associated with attributes such as giving life and nurturing, which themselves were thought of in a social and historical vacuum, as consistent qualities transcending time, space and the dynamics of actual relationships. In the Nayaka case, hills were personified as grandparents. But "grandparents" were beings one socially interacted with, arguing, negotiating, etc. In the first case, "mother" was used as a metaphor, and the animistic project involved "a system of correspondences," parallels between humans and nonhumans, and therefore a heightened awareness of their separation. In the second case, "grandparent" was used as a synechdoche; the animistic project involved--and heightened--interconnectedness between humans and their environment. (Bird-David, 89.)
I disagree with Bird-David that metaphor, which understands one phenomena in light of the understanding of another, is a tool of separation as opposed to synecdoche, where the part stands for the whole, since metaphor, like synecdoche, is clearly a tool for highlighting the similarities between entities, not their differences, and synecdoche is usually considered a subclass of metaphor and not a completely distinct form of imagery.  However, this does not detract from her main point about how the Renaissance personification of Mother Earth, which is essentially the same as our own modern view, comes from a very different perspective from its ancient usage, and that the difference is essentially one of relationship. Keeping this in mind, it is interesting to note that the otherworldly focus of monotheism initially took root in cities, where the people no longer had a close relationship with the land. The last to covert were those living in the countryside, who were labeled pagani or "pagans" or haithno, "heathens." (Dowden, 3-4.)
Like the Itza', the way we relate to the land creates the land (and, in our case, entire planet) we relate to. Pollution, soil erosion, landfills, radioactive waste, climate change, strip mining, fraking, overfishing, deforestation, drillings and excavations of all kinds are done with an eye for profit and often with a disregard of consequences, much less a concern for a sacred and sustaining relationship with the land.

If the Itza' honor their forest spirits, what non-human persons do modern western cultures pay homage to through personification?
In 1886...the chief justice of the Supreme Court declared in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad that a private corporation is a natural person under the U.S. Constitution--although...the Constitution makes no mention of corporations. Subsequent court decisions interpreted this to mean that corporations are entitled to the full protections of the Bill of Rights, including free speech and other constitutional protections extended to individuals. (Korten, 65-66.)
Since corporations supply both the means by which many of us earn our living and the products we purchase for our survival, comfort, entertainment, and convenience, it seems natural that we would personify the complex relationship we have with corporations in the same way that the Itza' personify their complex relationship with the source of their livelihood. However, there is one crucial difference. The Itza' personify the fundamental source of their sustenance, whereas we personify only the human institutional aspect of our survival while objectifying the fundamental source. In this way we bear some similarity to "cargo cults" which worship the means of material acquisition rather than its true source. Moreover, corporations often degrade the amount, variety, and sustainability of the natural resources they exploit. Despite many of the things they do which sustain and enrich our lives, they are changing the planet in ways that make it less habitable for all life, even human life, and that trade-off is not examined often or closely enough in the boardrooms, which are commonly at a great distance from where the ecological consequences of decisions will play out, and where immediate profit, and not long-term sustainability or survival, is always the primary consideration.

Pachamama, "Mother World"
Yet, some have indeed realized the necessity of a different sort of conception of the earth and have asked the question
Does Mother Nature deserve the same protection as your own mother?

Lawmakers in Bolivia think so. The South American country's leaders are on the brink of passing a revolutionary set of rules that would grant nature equal rights to humans--a first of its kind.

Known as the Law of Mother Earth ("Ley de Derechos de La Madre Tierra" in Spanish), the legislation will create 11 distinguished rights for the environment, as The Guardian outlines:
"They include: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered."
Bolivians have long revered the Pachamama, Andean goddess of Mother Earth, and the law is said to be greatly inspired by a resurgence in the indigenous belief that the deity is central to all life. As Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said when describing the measure, "Earth is the mother of all...the harmony [between man and nature] must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration." (The Huffington Post)
What is fascinating about this legislation, which was passed in December 2010, is that it not only grants rights, but also personhood to the earth, and does so not only using the ancient Mother Earth metaphor, but the specific indigenous understanding of that metaphor: the goddess Pachamama, whose name literally means "Mother World". What this implies is exactly what I feel Atran and Medin's study of the Itza' implies, that an intellectual understanding is sufficient to comprehend the consequences of our relationship to the environment, but it may only be personification--granting status and rights at the same level as that of human beings--which can actually change our behavior toward the environment. We simply do not pay as much attention to, or value as highly, inert objects or nonhuman organisms as we do to phenomena we accept culturally as persons.
The familiar discourse of "objects" and objective processes, for example, resolutely holds us aloof from the sustaining earth.  It forces us to disengage from our bodily senses and view this wild-flourishing world as though we were spectators coolly observing it from outside.  When we uncritically allude to material nature as a set of inert objects, or even as a clutch of determinate, mechanical processes, we block the perceptual interplay between ourselves and our surroundings. (Abram, 63.)
The empirical perspective leads us to objective understanding, but in doing so disembodies us and disconnects us from the feelings of (child-like) connection and dependence that might inspire in us a more appreciative and respectful attitude toward our daily personal consumption of resources. Once culture has personified such a relationship, however, empirical science will be an invaluable tool to help show us how to pay proper homage to our relationship to the land and the planet.

Gods and spirits, if conceived of not as some otherworldly entities, but as personified relationships to nonhuman phenomena, are not necessarily merely superstitious or romantic; reconceived with a modern understanding, as was done in Bolivia, they may be the key to our continued health, well-being, and survival. It is quite clear that knowledge alone cannot save our planet, only changes in our day-to-day living behavior can. Ancient peoples who lived sustainability over vast stretches of time found it useful and natural to personify their relationships with the ecologies that nourished them. These ancient cultures did not posses some mystic sense that we have lost, rather they simply granted the species and ecologies they depended upon a status similar to human beings, creating a respectful caution and reciprocity in their exploitation of resources. On the other hand, in a comparably very short amount of time the modern habit of objectifying nonhuman phenomena has done great, and in many cases irreparable, damage to our planet and its inhabitants, including ourselves. I believe any culture which allows human institutions which exploit natural resources, such as corporations, the status of persons, but denies this status and the rights that go with it to the natural resources which are the ultimate foundation of human existence, is on a road to self-destruction.

Just as ancient personification was not merely, or even essentially, superstitious, modern personification need not be grounded in the supernatural.  As a matter of fact, our understanding of the complexity of our inter-relatedness with the planet has only grown as our empirical understanding has grown, giving us more ways to see our kinship with nonhuman life and life processes.  Yet our cultural and legal institutions have not kept pace with this understanding or the urgency of its implications.  Furthermore, if corporations can be granted legal personhood and rights without recourse to the supernatural, then so can the natural environment.  It is past time we re-examine our cultural conceptions of personhood and formally accept our very real kinship and shared fate with the nonhuman persons of this living world, the Mother of Us All.
Sculpture in Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall, England


Abrams, David, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, 2010

Atran, Scott and Medin, Douglas, The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature, 2008.

Bird-David, Nurit, "'Animism' Revisted: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistimology" in Current Anthropology, Vol. 40, Feb. 1999

Dowden, Ken, European Paganism, The Realities of Cult from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, 2000

Guthrie, Stewart, Faces in the Clouds: a New Theory of Religion, 1993

Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, 2012

The Huffington Post,"Bolivia's Law Of Mother Earth Would Give Nature And Humans Equal Protection," May, 13, 2011

Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, 2000

Korten, Daivd C., When Corporations Rule the World, 2001

West, M. L., Indo-European Poetry and Myth, 2007

Winterbourne, Anthony, When the Norns Have Spoken, Time and Fate in Germanic Paganism, 2004

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