In love with the land – the real clash of civilizations

What does it mean to love the land? Two very different things, apparently.

Today I was reading Ezra Klein’s column in the New York Times, where he was talking about anti-liberalism. Remember, we have multiple meanings for “liberal,” and this one means, to quote Klein, “the shared assumptions of the West: a belief in human dignity, universal rights, individual flourishing and the consent of the governed.” In general, both the Democrats and Republicans believe in this kind of “liberalism.”

By contrast, anti-liberalism is what we find on the wayyyy far right, with the kinds of thinkers who inspire fascists and who generally reject, for example, Christianity, since after all, it’s about human dignity and all that supposedly weak-minded stuff. What do they believe in, then? As Klein puts it, among other things, anti-liberalism says that “our truest identities are rooted in the land in which we’re born.”

I immediately thought back to a book my friend Doug was telling me about yesterday, Down to Earth, by the French philosopher Bruno Latour. Based on the publisher’s summary, it’s about the importance of rethinking what it means to “belong to a territory,” because being connected with the land is vitally important to being able to address ecological crises effectively.

So, on the one hand, we have identification with land being associated with scary far-right extremists. On the other, we have identification with land being important for the environment. What does this mean?

This actually came up for me a few months ago, listening to a talk by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She’s one of my favorite speakers – I’ve heard her talk at our local university twice before, and this time she visited with us through a virtual link, talking about her book Braiding Sweetgrass, which was this year’s “common reading” for the university.

Kimmerer is amazing. She’s a scientist – a professor of botany – and she’s also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Back in the 1970s or so, many people out here on the West Coast were interested in Native worldviews, but mostly they wanted to mine them in support of New Age mysticism. That’s not what Kimmerer’s about. She shares her common sense Indigenous perspective with the rest of us while still doing solid science. So, as always, I was very much looking forward to hearing what she had to say.

And as always, she was great. But one of her slides really caught my attention, so I took a screenshot. She was listing a bunch of ways to think about land that can be better than reducing it to a resource… “Land as Home,” “Land as Sustainer,” “Land as Moral Responsibility,” and so forth. And right up near the top was “Land as Identity.”

Oh. Hm. Well, that was interesting, because… when Gerard Saucier and I studied the rhetoric that leaders use when they want to convince their public that killing off a whole category of people is a good thing, identifying with land was one of the twenty themes we found.

Now, obviously we are talking about two different things here. The love for and identification with land that the anti-liberalists (at their extreme in ethnonationalist genocide) and the love for and identification with the land that I believe Latour recommends as important (as modeled by the Indigenous people Kimmerer was teaching about) are not the same!

For one thing, it’s pretty clear that nationalism doesn’t necessarily lead to ecologically sound practices. Look at Trump. Or worse, look at Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

But sometimes these two groups of people are using the same language, and I think it’s worth clarifying the situation.

You know how sometimes a guy will say he’s in love with a woman, and he’s all starry-eyed because she’s so beautiful and amazing, and he’s obviously got her on a pedestal? If he wins her over, she becomes a prized possession.

And then other times, a guy will tell you about the woman he loves, and you can tell that he’s fully aware of both the great things about her and the sometimes-annoying things about her. And even though he knows her very well, she’s always surprising him, and he finds her fascinating. And she’s a full partner in his life.

I think that’s basically the difference we’re talking about. One group is romanticizing its land – a beautiful expanse of property with so much history attached – and delighting in ownership. The other group is intimately familiar with its land and all that live on it, and for this group, the delight comes from kinship.

Not the same thing at all.

Of course, the world isn’t divided into these two groups. In America, for example, there are many, many people for whom one place is as good as another, as long as it’s full of friends, maybe also family, and worthwhile things to do. If you’re one of these people, maybe you enjoy the outdoors as a series of pretty landscapes, sometimes associated with special memories, or maybe you mostly tune it out.

If that’s you, may I invite you to connect a bit more with the place where you live?

Here’s your homework – if you can’t answer these questions now, see if you can learn the answers in the coming days.

  • Where does your water come from? That is, after it rains, how does it get to the pipes that bring it to your house?
  • Where does your electricity come from? What percent comes from fossil fuels, and what percent is renewable?
  • If you live in a land colonized by settlers, what did the Indigenous people eat?
  • What are some of the native trees where you live? Can you find any examples?
  • What are some of the native birds where you live?
  • What are some of the native non-human mammals where you live? Have you seen them recently?
  • From where you are right now, which direction is north?

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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2 Responses to In love with the land – the real clash of civilizations

  1. Robin Turner says:

    As always, great observations. I’m not sure that it is always the case, though, that “nationalism doesn’t lead to ecologically sound practices.” There are as many varieties of nationalism as there are of socialism (which itself can be ecologically caring or destructive) and some are fairly benign with regard to both humans and the natural world. Consider, for example, the programme of the Scottish National Party: https://www.snp.org/our-vision/environment/

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