Living with the Earth: Mastery to Mutuality

An excerpt from the preface of Living with the Earth: Mastery to Mutuality by Rod Giblett, 2004 Salt Publishing. Reproduced here with permission.

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Contemporary debates around conservation and the environment are locked largely into what could be called ‘sanctuarism’ in which the preservation of species and ecosystems is the main priority. Whilst this is certainly important in the face of declining biodiversity and degraded habitats, a richer appreciation of the world we live in is necessary to make the earth a more habitable place for all living beings. To this end Living with the Earth proposes sacrality as the counter and complement to sanctuarism, and argues for a shift in emphasis from the latter to the former. Sacrality embraces a broader sense of local and global space and place imbued with significance 1 whose boundary is the ecosphere rather than just the biosphere. The ecosphere includes bioregions and home as well as cities and communications in the electromagnetosphere (or ‘spectrum’) and orbital extra-terrestrial space.2

The relationship between humans and the earth, people and place, culture and nature with which this book is concerned has been couched not only in terms of sanctuarism or sacrality but also in a host of others. In Living with the Earth I argue that the concepts and categories of natural history, scientific ecology, landscape aesthetics and their associated practices in conservation landscapes and industrial land use work-over (if not overwork) nature (land, living beings, air and water). By contrast, Australian Aboriginal Country, conservation counter-aesthetics and symbiotic livelihood in a bioregion work (with) the earth as living being.

Instead of the discourses3 of nature: natural history that objectivizes nature in taxonomic grids; scientific ecology that colonises nature and relegates the machinations of the earth household to a secluded feminine sphere; political economy that treats nature as a common source of free goods; nature aesthetics (beauty, picturesqueness and sublimity) that aestheticises nature in the surface of landscape and that valorises the sense of sight and denigrates the others; monumentalism and sanctuarism that preserve bits of nature in national parks or wilderness zones, and exploit the rest; and resource extraction that commodifies nature wherever it can, this book argues that we need new ways of thinking about, and living and being with, nature.

Instead of nature aesthetics and conservation landscapes that privilege some sites over others, and the sense of sight over the others, we need a conservation counter-aesthetic that appreciates and values all places and senses. In place of modern, scientific ecology and political economy separated from each other on either side of the nature/culture divide, we need a participatory, postmodern political ecology that promotes ecological sustainability in the earth-household of the ecosphere. Instead of ways of seeing, saying and doing in relation to nature we need a way of being exemplified in Aboriginal Country.

In Living with the Earth I trace a conceptual and temporal circle from nature as living organism through nature as dead matter back to the living earth; from the discourses (scientific and aesthetic) and economics (agricultural and industrial capitalist) of mastery to the practices of mutuality; from oral and anal sadism to bio- and psycho-symbiosis; from the cultural construction and discourse of nature as a way of seeing, saying and doing to Aboriginal Country as a way of being; from the rural, colonial, national and industrial to the indigenous, bioregional and ecospherical; from European city to Aboriginal Country; from history to pre-history; from timeline to time-circle; from Mother Nature to the Great Goddess; from sanctuarism to sacrality; from cultural nature to living earth; from landscape to land symbiotics; from mastery to mutuality.4

Nature is a problematic term and there is a number of competing definitions and discourses of it. I argue that nature has been split between the first nature of indigenous cultures and the second nature of ‘agri-urban’ cultures. Whilst the latter constructs a subject-object distinction and relationship between people and the earth, the former is predicated on an inter-subjective, even mutually abjective, relationship.5 The subject-object relationship is evident in natural history, modern scientific ecology, nature aesthetics and landscape gardening as well as in nature conservationism in national parks and wilderness areas and nature exploitation in industrial land-use. Abjects are to be found in Aboriginal Country and in bioregional and symbiotic livelihood.

This split between first and second nature is gendered; nature has a gendered construction. Not only has nature been feminised, but it has been feminised in two contradictory ways: as the life-giving and death-dealing Great Mother, or Great Goddess, associated with the swamps, and as the benign and malign Mother Earth or Mother Nature affiliated with the fields. Culture likewise has been split between matrifocal and gylanic cultures in which the sexes were equal, and patriarchal and hierarchical ones in which men are dominant. Both of these splits have been mapped over each other. Split culture equates with split nature: matrifocal and gylanic cultures are associated with the Great Mother, or Great Goddess, whereas hierarchical and patriarchal cultures are aligned with the Mother Earth or Mother Nature. Split culture and nature cut across and deconstruct a simplistic distinction and unresolved binary opposition between culture and nature.

The benign and malign Mother Earth or Mother Nature is also affiliated and aligned with the European landscape aesthetic in which the surface of the land is an object of visual consumption and the depths of the land are either an object of exploitation in production or an abject of repression (as has occurred with wetlands as I argued in Postmodern Wetlands,(Edinburgh University Press, 1996)). The European landscape aesthetic, in turn, produced the ways in which Europeans and their settler diaspora saw and shaped the land through the percepts and practices of the gentleman’s park (and suburban enclave) estate, national parks and wilderness, mining and pastoralism, and the ‘Bush’ of Australian mateship. I critique these culturally constructed, consumed and/or conserved ‘natural’ landscapes for their will to mastery over the earth culminating in the oral and anal sadism of industrial landuse.

In addition, I undertake an ecological psychoanalysis of the oral and anal sadism of industrial land use in mining and pastoralism in order to promote eco-mental health. I argue for a move away from an emphasis on resource-exploitation, or greed and gluttony, to a relationship of generosity and gratitude, of reciprocity and restoration. I choose to conclude by celebrating a desire for dialogue and mutuality with the earth in bio- and psycho-symbiosis. The psychoanalytic ecology, participatory ecology and postmodern ecology developed throughout the book address the personal, political, cultural and historical dimensions – the psychodynamics, economics and semiotics – of our relationship with the earth. Working together they provide a platform for ecological sustainability and social justice.


I am grateful to Kim Satchell for drawing my attention to Deborah Bird Rose’s ‘The Ecological Humanities in Action: An Invitation’ and to Deborah for inviting me to contribute to the ongoing discussion.


1. Julia Kristeva’s term for embodied, nonsensical and playful processes of cultural production. See her Revolution in Poetic Language, M. Waller (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p.17.

2. The electromagnetosphere and orbital extra-terrestrial space are excluded from consideration here as I am writing a book on these topics entitled Carrying Information Aloft: Sublime Communication Technologies.

3. I define discourse as an institutionalized way of seeing, saying and doing.

4. The Asian wisdom traditions pertinent here are not only excluded for reasons of space but also because I am writing a book on Taoist ecology, the Taoist body and Tai Chi entitled The Body of the Earth, the Text of the Body: Body Culture and Eco-Health Communication.

5. Abject is Julia Kristeva’s term for the mediating category between subject and object that makes both possible. See her Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, L. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp.1-2.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]