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The rape of Mother Earth: Reverberations of violence

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Rain Forest Burning in Talamanca, Costa Rica

Several years ago I was in Costa Rica conducting research on tropical forests. For an ecologist such as I, cloud forests like those in the Monte Verde reserve are as close to Nirvana as it is possible to attain on earth. Each massive spreading, interconnected tree contains what could be a lifetime's worth of biodiversity studies. Every tree certainly harbours as yet undescribed species: living creatures with a lineage of millions of years, with as yet unknown but unique genetic, biological, physiological, behaviour, and ecological qualities. A plant or animal that has dwelled on this planet since before the dawn of human civilization, but whose presence has remained hitherto undetected by the scientific community. Every beetle, every spider, every lichen, every air plant, a unique window on the richness of life, still waiting to be viewed. Each with its own claim to a niche on this blue orb that circles the sun.

Keel-billed ToucanOne day as we were travelling a small road towards Talamanca, a reserve of the Bribri people, inland from the Caribbean coast, we saw the jungle on fire. Howler monkeys howled; small flocks of Keel-billed Toucans squawked and flew through the billowing smoke. This fire had been set deliberately. Acres of pristine jungle were being burned so that bananas could be grown -- a monoculture plantation to raise cheap fruit to send to consumers in el Norte. It was a small area of forest, but even so, the number of creatures that died in this biodiversity holocaust is certainly unaccountably, inestimably vast. There may well have been species that will never be seen by human eyes, even their existence on this planet will not be noted by the designation of "extinct."

Violence on the home front

I don't know a certain Canadian ex-radio host who shall remain nameless here. However, what I do know is that, at least in my circles of friends and acquaintances, I've seldom witnessed such an outpouring of outrage and indignation as I've seen over the past few of days. Some have spoken about the immense frustration that women experience when they feel unable to speak out against what is clearly unacceptable behaviour. At the courage required -- even today, not in the nineteenth century, but in the twenty-first -- to speak openly about violations to human dignity, spirit and body, for fear of shame, stigma and harassment.

Some have wondered about all the enablers, and a culture of sweeping inconvenient facts under a carpet that allow a serial victimizer to continue their activities for years on end. About institutional responsibility. About deluded notions that violence against women can somehow be viewed as a sexual preference. At the levels of verbal harassment that women encounter simply going about their daily business (see: 10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman by Rob Bliss and Shoshana Roberts).

Lucy DeCoutereIt sounds like a logjam of frustration finally breaking; a dam of silence that has been breached; voices long silenced given the freedom to speak.

I don't know the radio host. I haven't anything to add to this particular narrative. There are an ever-growing number women who have courageously stepped forward to tell their stories, one of whom, Lucy DeCouture, is part of my circle of friends in the arts community of Halifax. Another, Reva Seth, emboldened by Lucy's refusal to stay silent or be anonymous, has added her voice to the chorus. I applaud their courage and determination to break the silence, with voices both loud and soft. 

What I wonder about is this: why is this so and how can it change?

There are, of course, an enormous number of ways in which the forces that propel sexism and misogyny can be discerned and dissected. And more broadly, inequality, discrimination and violence targeted at ethnic, religious, gender, class, sexual orientation or other identifiable groups. But, what lies at the core of such attitudes?

The bitter legacy of extractivism

Rain Forest Burning in Talamanca, Costa Rica

In her most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein says the following:

Naomi Klein"Extractivism is a non-reciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and life continue. … It is also the reduction of human beings either into labour to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits, or, alternatively into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked away in prisons or reservations. In an extractivist economy, the interconnections among these various objectified components of life are ignored; the consequences of severing them are of no concern.

"Extractivism is also directly connected to the notion of sacrifice zones -- places that, to their extractors, somehow don't count and therefore can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic progress. This toxic idea has always been intimately tied to imperialism, with disposable peripheries being harnessed to feed a glittering center, and it is bound up too with notions of racial superiority, because in order to have sacrifice zones, you need to have people and cultures who count so little that they are considered deserving of sacrifice."

In other words, at the core of the reigning economic and political paradigm, since at least the Industrial Revolution, is violence. Violence visited upon the land and the sea and the sky -- all the faces of Mother Earth. An ethos that the land, and the people who life on it, and their culture, and all the living creatures in the fields and forests and mountains and seas are disposable for the purported sake of the greater economic good. An economic "good" that we now know, as a result of meticulous analyses by economic historians such as Thomas Piketty (see: Thomas Piketty: Economics Transfigured for further information) has resulted in the richest one per cent owning $110 trillion, half of all the wealth in the world, and of these, 85 hyper-wealthy oligarchs own as much wealth as the poorest 3.56 billion people on the planet, half of the world's population.

When society is governed by an economic and political template that degrades the environment, can we be surprised that degradation extends to those who have been marginalized by society? When virgin forests are cut and the land is pillaged for the extraction of noxious tar sands, can we be surprised that such attitudes also manifest themselves in the treatment of women? Can we wonder that there have been over a thousand missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada in the last 30 years?

Vicina Clearwing Butterfly - Oleria vicinaIf species that have taken millions of years to evolve can be seen as disposable and dispensable, can we wonder that cultures that have thousands of years of knowledge and oral traditions can also be consigned to the scrap heaps of history? If whole zones of the earth can be sacrificed to commerce, is it any surprise that the poor, the weak and the dispossessed can also be broken on the wheel of corporate greed?

If violent notions that debase and demean the earth and fabric of life itself lie at the heart of our political and economic model, can it be a surprise that such patterns of behaviour also manifest themselves in people?

Thankfully, not everyone succumbs. Cooperation, kindness, community, consensus building, and stewardship are also defining features of the human enterprise.

Changing attitudes: We have too much to gain

Changing sexist, misogynist attitudes is not a simple endeavor. Replacing a violent, extractivist mindset with one of respect and stewardship is a non-trivial undertaking, particularly in view of fact that the forces that profit from continued strife, exploitation, greed and conflict are very wealthy, very powerful and highly motivated to preserve the enormous riches they have accumulated. As long as this paradigm of violence, destruction, and exploitation continue on the global scale, it will continue to reverberate into vulnerable individuals, creating pain, suffering, exploitation, and degradation on the human scale.

Naomi Klein quotes Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network who says: 

Miya Yoshitani"The climate justice fight … is not just a fight against the [biggest] ecological crisis of all time. It is the fight for a new economy, a new energy system, a new democracy, a new relationship to the planet and to each other, for land, water, and food sovereignty, for Indigenous rights, for human rights and dignity for all people. When climate justice wins we win the world we want. We can't sit this one out, not because we have too much to lose but because we have too much to gain …. to transform our economies and rebuild a world we want today."

Scorn for the sanctity of the earth easily transforms into contempt and violence for those who live on it; both represent an identical mindset. We need to stop being exploiters -- of the environment and of one another -- and instead become guardians who care for the welfare of the land and sea and all who dwell on an in it.

We need to work from the ground up; to stop degrading the earth and the basis of life and let respect, compassion, sustainability and stewardship reverberate through our economic and political structures -- and then to let those same attitudes permeate our human societies. By so doing, we indeed have too much to gain. We cannot let this opportunity pass.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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