El Cumbre Conference report: 2) Should we talk about “Mother Earth”

Conference: People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth

We will be serializing an extraordinarly stimulating report by Massimo de Angelis:

Today, on the use by the climate change conference of the Mother Earth concept:

“Evo Morales was definitively right in saying that the difference between the meetings in Copenhagen and in Cochabamba is that we were debating here the causes of the climate change, and not only the effects, and that the causes have a lot to do with the system of boundless accumulation we know as capitalism. And when boundlessness is acknowledged, it is as easy as 1+1 = 2 to say that finite earth is threatened by such a system. “Either capitalism dies, or mother earth dies” or “either capitalism lives or mother earth lives”, as Evo put it in his speech. No, there is no much room for playing the postmodern game here and denounce the polarity. As the newspaper Opinion titles in its resume at the end of the conference (25 April), “everybody against capitalism” seem to be the clear common ground at this conference, a sentiment so strong, that even the representatives of mainstream NGOs did not dare to question it.

But there is more to this common ground than simply an opposition to capitalism. There is the question of earth conceptualised and discursively constructed as mother, as Mother Earth. I assume this will be a hard thing to digest among many Western activists and, in general, socialists with excessive “scientific” leanings. Or, if not hard to digest, at least easy to avoid dealing with. I am already seeing reports in which the term “Mother Earth” is only left in the title of the conference, while in the discursive description references are made to “nature” or “environment” only. Let us see how many Western socialist newspapers will use the terms substantially like the indigenous here, or how many will try to conceptually translated it. To me, the terms Mother Earth is undoubtedly a very important term, because it constructs a framework within which we can conceive both the opposition and the alternatives to capitalism, while at the same time bringing into revolutionary politics the dimension of the sacred (i.e. of the limit) — with the bonus of not having to deal with a religion, whether hierarchically organised or not! The expression “Mother earth” was apparently chosen instead of Pachamama for better conveying the message to non Andean people, but I was told that the two carry similar meanings. When one French-Indian activist suggested in a meeting to use other expressions such as biodiversity to make it more appealable to other cultures, the objection he received is that the term “Mother Earth” has now been accepted even by the United Nation, that – following the proposal by the Bolivian Government last year — has instituted Mother Earth day on 22 April. Which made me think that perhaps this conference has been on planning more than few months!

Mother Earth is different than expressions such as “earth”, or “environment” for at least three interrelated reasons. First, it defines a common genealogy shared among all living beings (as well as a common telos, in so far as our bodies will all dissolve into earth basic elements and will be re-articulated into its processes when we die). Second, it defines a set of relations and processes (ecologies) that comprise humans and other species, but also water, mountains, seas. In this sense, the slogan often repeated at the conference is well pointed: “the earth does not belong to humans, humans belong to earth.” Third, it defines a relational field and a set of processes at a scale that comprises and bounds pretty much everything, including the human processes that goes under the name of capitalism. If this boundary is not accepted, if we do not socially enforce it, if we do not give it the character of a taboo, than this is it, “mummy gets angry”, and fights back. The planet will exist after us, as it existed for million of years before, but there will be nobody to call it “mother” or anything else. If we needed to find a limit to capitalism, well we didn’t need to look further than our own condition of existence and reproduction, i.e. what is called here Mother Earth! We have now simply to become its voice, as another slogan puts it. [Note: while I am writing this I run against a newspaper article reporting just the opposite view. The Feministas Comunitaris de Bolivia “denounced that the understanding of Pachamama as synonym of Mother Earth is ‘reductionist and machista, and that makes reference only to fertility in order to keep women and Pachamama under patriarchal domination’”. The argument claims this on the basis that instead Pachamama is a “whole that goes much beyond the visible nature . . .and that includes life, the relations established within living beings, its energies, necessities and desires.” But this holistic and relational meaning is precisely the one that I gathered was given to the notion of Mother Earth in pretty much all interventions I heard and references to it, and not, as it is alleged, “as something that can be dominated and manipulated at the service of ‘development’ and of consumption.” (Feministas dicen que concepto de la Madre Tierra es machista, Opinion. 27 April 2010, p13A). If it was the latter, the entire workings of the conference and the final document would not make any sense!]

But Mother Earth does not only serve as a boundary, as a limit to capitalism. Its conception as a living being, as a set of balancing processes and flows, rather than simply as “resources” to be capitalised, also implies that our own activity as humans is constituent part of the balancing processes. Hence, we need to somehow align the type of activities, goals and set of relations we construct in our economic activities, in other words, the modes of our production and reproduction, to the balancing processes of Mother Earth. And this especially now that we have reached a gigantic level of social production. This alignment however is not possible in presence of social injustice, because social injustice is itself both the result and the source of imbalance. This alignment also is not possible through development, since development as we know it is a source of social injustice. Hence the conundrum is generally resolved with the conception of Bien Vivir, a notion that has found its way into the Ecuadorian and Bolivian recent constitutional changes and that frames pretty much the broad horizons of alternatives.”

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