It is imperative for our human family to undergo a collective shift in our vision of how we interact with and relate to the natural world. Only then will we be able to address the underlying issue that has placed Mother Earth in great peril: humanity’s calculated removal of its kind from the great web of creation.

A prevailing, though subtle assumption among a culturally influential segment of the ‘developed’ world is that the planet was put here for the sole fulfillment of humans. The very fact that we were endowed with the capacity to reason was evidence enough that the Earth was designed to be our domain. It followed that the planet was to be tamed, and its nurturing elements extracted and consumed by humankind. 

The assumption that it is our right to subdue the Earth is reinforced by narrow readings of scripture by religious authorities, and extolled by mainstream scientists wishing to push emerging technologies. Such prevailing narratives place humanity at the centre of creation and relegate the natural world to that of a backdrop for our activity.

This narrative is also bolstered by the work of political, economic and intellectual elites who hail the so-called ‘virtues’ of a consumer culture predicated on the exploitation of nature.

Our societal representatives deceptively package the tenets of this ideology to society at large and call it ‘progress.’ Yet, a persistent question has nagged at various purveyors of this Dominant Culture: Isn’t it possible that humans are merely part and parcel of a cosmic scheme, so intricately woven that it defies our own understanding?

Long-time proponents of this ‘alternative’ mindset, such as the Native Indigenous tribes of North America, contend that human beings are only one among many life forms—no more or less important than the tree, the bee or the mountains, and humans cannot be said to fully know themselves until there is communion with the natural world. It is out in the wilderness where we learn clues about our own being.

From two cultural assumptions come radically distinct visions of our relationship to the natural world. And from each arise two contrasting models of action, both producing indirect and direct consequences for all of humanity and the natural world.

The Takers

trees cut down in forest

Daniel Quinn, the influential author of the eco-spiritual classic, Ishmael: A Novel, coined the terms ‘Takers’ and ‘Leavers’ to refer to the two conflicting visions that arise from the aforementioned assumptions of our relationship to nature.

As their name implies, the Takers are a reference to Western culture’s encroachment on nature. Quinn argues that the dominant Western framework views the natural world as something to be manipulated, conquered and exploited. In this model, humanity is the master and nature the subordinate. This vision stems from a highly egotistical assumption that humankind stands alone, at the front and centre of creation.

Not surprisingly, this Taker philosophy has grave consequences for the Earth. Because it is deemed as a ‘right’ to exploit her resources, little sensitivity is displayed by our society for the issue of sustainability. For such a commitment conflicts with the culture’s guiding vision of unlimited expansion and growth. As one might expect, we find entire systems put into action that not only ignore this concern, but actually exasperate the problem.

The Taker vision is embodied in the consumer-driven economy of today. Consumerism emphasizes unsustainable resource extraction, the reorientation of a focus rooted in nature to that of human activity, and the mentality of conquest. The consequences are there for all to see:

  • The rapid extinction of species
  • Catastrophic nuclear leaks and oil spills
  • The depletion of the rainforests and deforestation
  • The poisoning and over-extraction of water
  • The polluting of the oceans
  • Accelerated climate change

This is all to say nothing of the more hidden, but profound side effects of this vision. We have severed our communion with nature and suffer spiritually as a result.

The Leavers

statue hand holding water

In sharp contrast to that of the Takers is the nature-centred vision of the Leavers. For Quinn, the latter represent the original and long-travelled road of human existence. The Leavers include much of the world’s indigenous populations and those who live in a state of oneness with nature.

Unlike the dominant Taker culture, the Leavers see the natural world as something to honour, worship and care for. Significantly, they seek insight into the existential questions of life through nature. 

The Leavers view humanity as intricately bound to the Green Oasis. While they embrace the joys and wonder of the human form, it is done from a place of great reverence for the planet. The late deep ecology writer, Thomas Berry, best described the Leaver Culture philosophy in this way: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

The Leaver philosophy reflects a genuine concern for the fate of our planet. Many supporters of the Leaver mindset express outrage at the Takers’ careless disregard for Mother Earth.

In the wake of the 2011 nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, a coalition of tribal elders and medicine people from North and South America issued an urgent statement to humanity. These ‘spiritual people of the earth’ (as they appropriately called themselves) reminded our species of the long-forgotten but natural way of living in harmony with nature.

In this statement, the Elders cautioned readers about the destruction of the natural world, if the Taker vision is not discarded:

We must address the Fukushima nuclear crisis and all actions that may violate the Creator’s natural law. We have reached the crossroads of life and the end of our existence.

—Council Statement, October 2013

The Elders go on to explain that the restoration of the Leaver vision will only come about when the participants in Taker culture turn inwards and redefine their relationship with nature:

We are the People of the Earth and are expressing deep concern for our shared future and urge everyone to awaken spiritually. We must work in unity to help Mother Earth heal so that she can bring back balance and harmony for all her children.

—Council Statement, October 2013

In order to make sustainability a part of our everyday life in this society, we will first have to experience a radical shift in our eco-spiritual vision. A good place to start would be to present the vision of the Leaver culture in a fully comprehensible way, to supporters of the dominant path.

The “Universal Declaration Rights of Mother Earth,” a document drafted by environmental activists at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, could be a useful inception point. Drafted in the format of the U.S. Constitution, the preamble to the document begins with these inspiring words:

We, the peoples and nations of Earth: considering that we are all part of Mother Earth, are an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny; We gratefully acknowledge that Mother Earth is the source of life, nourishment and learning and provides everything we need to live well.

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

It is only a matter of time before we celebrate the virtues of this document. Our prospects for a sustainable future depend upon it!

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