Debunking Mother Nature

(c) 2013, Davd

“Mother Nature” has been personified as such, for much longer than i have been alive. Some would probably contend that the Goddess[es] whose religions are older than even Judaism (making them about twice as old as Christianity—or even older—and perhaps three times as old as Islam) are “Mother Nature” as She should be worshipped.

No, “She” shouldn’t. There’s too much that’s more harm than good, even too much that’s monstrous in “Nature”, for that. The “Mother Nature” image is used to imply nurturant fecundity; the reality of natural processes includes earthquakes, forest fires, hurricanes, pestilences, broken trees by the thousands, and even mass starvation.

Two very recent examples are the winter storms that have blasted three feet of snow onto Northern New-Brunswick this third week of February, making drifts as much as twice that high. Elsewhere in the Atlantic region there was less snow, but “Mother Nature” still closed airports, bridges, schools, some roads, broke power lines, and destroyed a Nova Scotia fishing boat with five good young men. The violent rainstorm that crossed Atlantic Canada at the end of January is another esample: It removed the snow cover at the end of January, so the early-February cold could damage more roads and kill more tender roots; and broke a huge number of trees. That’s not “knowing and doing what’s best”… it’s more like throwing tantrums.

They are not isolated incidents, either; nor are they the worst by any measure: Consider the Richter-9 earthquake and resulting tsunami that wrecked a large area of Japan (of which area Fukushima is most famous), the Haitian earthquake, Katrina, and the hurricane named Sandy that did so much damage to the Northeastern USA last year, for a few of many extreme examples1.

“Mother Nature” seems to have some kind of violent mental illness.

More accurately, of course, nature is not a mother and has no mind to go ill. Personification of nature as a wise mother is common, though; and shows up with various amounts of seriousness—despite being false on the great preponderance of the evidence, from geological and meteorological disasters to Rocky Mountain pine beetles, spruce budworms, white pine blister rust, Boreal Forest fires; lemming and hare population cycles, the disappearance of the dinosaurs; anthrax, bubonic plague, HIV; and even acne, bunions, and psoriasis.

A U.S. Wildlife Management Institute publication, The Farmer and Wildlife, (revised ed. 1969, pp 8-9) shows an overweight, grandmotherly cartoon-woman handing out “Mother Nature’s One Year Plan Production Quotas” to the mice, rabbits, pheasants, skunks and squirrels. On the back cover, the surviving numbers of young are stated for rabbits [8 out of 20], pheasants [6 out of 30], skunks [3 out of 4] and squirrels [4 out of 8]. Were human infant mortality that high, who would call it good mothering?

The Wildlife Management Institute’s purpose in publishing the booklet, was to encourage farmers to provide more and better habitat for wildlife; their reason for using the Mother-Nature image seems to be to give the presentation a “folksy, light touch.” (Other graphics in the booklet are consistent with such a reason2.) The message of that “Mother Nature” cartoon is more about the prolific reproduction of wildlife than about “nature” being motherly; after all, farming itself is human intervention intended to improve on natural processes.

In The Closing Circle (Knopf, 1975), Barry Commoner states four “Laws of Ecology” which are similarly folksy, but in more of an undergraduate dialect. The first law is “Everything is connected to everything else”, the second is “Everything must go somewhere”, the fourth is “There is no such thing as a free lunch;” and the third is “Nature knows best.” None is phrased as formally as a scientific law would properly be; and consistent with the “folksiness”, Commoner’s explanation of “Nature knows best” [pp 41-45] is not absolute but relative and metaphorical.

At the end of the explanation, he says neither “never depart from what you find in nature” nor “let nature take her course without interfering” (which are what one might infer from an absolute reading of “Nature knows best”); but “… man-made organic compounds that are … active biologically ought to be treated as we … should treat [drugs]—prudently, cautiously.”

Though he does not explicate the process of evolution by natural selection, he refers to it implicitly; and that is how i would have stated the basis for his “third law”: After millions of years of evolution, natural organisms and processes are well refined and efficient; so any change is much less likely to improve on biological nature than to damage it. The way Commoner explains his “law” does not disagree—nor does it personify “Nature”. The way he states the “law” might seem to personify, and that merits “debunking”.

Nature, then, is not a mother—not even an abusive one. The “wisdom” in nature results from millions of years of evolution of species and ecosystems. Combined with that “wisdom”, which is more accurately described as organisms and processes which have evolved to be well refined and efficient, is a large random component which is often destructive and sometimes violently so.

So while it’s false to say Mother Nature is mentally-ill; it is less false than saying Nature is motherly or nurturant—because to the extent Nature be treated as a personality, she’s not sane, but rather given to fits, some of them very destructive. By my standards anyway, saying Mother Nature is mentally-ill is not appropriate “out-of-the-blue”; but is fair comment in response to an invalid metaphor, especially if that metaphor be used to imply that females, or Nature in all “her” randomness, know best.


1. There is evidence in Japan, of tsunamis caused by great earthquakes (Richter 9 approx.) along the West Coast of North America, that took place before European contact; and more generally, evidence worldwide of many other great disasters far older than civilization. The notion that natural disasters represent some Goddess’s anger against human civilization, conflicts with the fact that such disasters long precede humanity’s first departures from hunting and gathering.

2. My favorite graphics in this booklet, are a pair of cartoon depictions of a gully, with a farmer (leaner than the cartoon-woman “Mother Nature” but no better looking) looking first at an eroded gully and second, a few years later, at a fish pond with a shrub hedge, a few small trees, and a boy fishing in it. Neither represents natural conditions: The ‘before’ gully probably resulted from plow-cropping too steep a slope; the ‘after’ pond, which is obviously man-made, probably represents higher food production than the same land area would yield “in a wild state.”


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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