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by Catherine M. Roach (Indiana University Press, 2003); 221 pp; $19.95 paper.--reviewed by Robin Jacobs

Images of and references to "Mother Nature" are not only found in environmentalist circles but are prevalent throughout popular culture. But how apt is this metaphor between motherhood and nature? Is the metaphorical connection beneficial to feminism or environmentalism? Professor Catherine M. Roach delves into these questions in Mother/Nature. Roach offers a valuable and carefully argued feminist perspective. The book provides an alternative analysis to traditional environmental theory by carefully picking apart attitudes about Mother Nature commonly expressed in Western culture.

Roach uses three different approaches--gender studies, psychoanalysis, and theology--in order to penetrate meanings behind the Mother Nature motif. Using these approaches, Roach discovers that Mother Nature motifs reveal three main concepts of mother: good mother, bad mother, and hurt mother. These concepts, Roach finds, are problematic for different reasons because they lead us to complex, ambivalent feelings toward both nature and mother.

The good mother is the "nurturing" and "life-giving" form of motherhood. Its association with the environment is supposed to imply that we unambiguously love our mothers. The problem arises when too much is expected of Mother Nature; both mother and nature are seen as infinite sources of providing, caring, and self-sacrificing to the point where mothers and nature find themselves exhausted and depleted. This is also a false form of motherhood because mothers aren't unambiguously loved.

The bad mother motif may seem less familiar but is prevalent when one looks at gendered references to natural disasters. In order to support her arguments, Roach cites varied examples in popular media culture, literature, and art. To demonstrate the bad mother motif Roach deconstructs an ad for the Nissan Pathfinder (ironically, a sport utility vehicle), which urges the consumer to "control your mother," explaining that the SUV "helps you control just about anything Mother Nature throws your way." The subtext is of the human conquest of nature and, more gendered, the male conquest of females. Throughout Western traditions and history, in fact, women are commonly referred to as evil: from Pandora and Eve to the Salem witch trials and Sigmund Freud's conceptions of morally inferior women, to name a few.

The hurt mother motif offers a repair-based pattern of nature. Roach sets up relational ideas about ethics and the importance of reconnecting to nature. This motif can offer a solution to the problem of Mother Nature motifs, if it avoids several pitfalls. It must avoid idealizations and demonizations, concern itself with more than just human self-interest, be effective in motivating people into action, and be free from the desire for control.

Gender studies help Roach discuss the problematic question regarding whether females are, as often described, "closer to nature." Roach uses feminist thought to reject the dichotomy involved in this question--that "nature" (female) is opposed to "culture" (male) and that "culture" (male) is the more important.

The psychoanalytic approach to environmental problems can be hard to follow at times; familiarity with psychoanalytic theory may be helpful for understanding Roach's argument. She argues that, in the infant stage, mother becomes equated with all of nature because mother is all that the infant knows. Unconscious projection causes us to conflate mother and nature. Roach believes that these problems can be resolved when fathers take a more active role in early childhood parenting.

Some Humanists may find Roach's book too overtly theological. But she uses theological thought to get at the foot causes of Western blindness toward environmental destruction--and finds solutions to the problems of environmentalism within theological concepts. Theology supplies Roach with her support for the idea of human immorality, which she emphasizes as an explanation for our destructiveness toward the environment. She draws heavily on the sin of aseity, the belief that one can rise above God, or--in the environmentalist framework--that one can rise above nature. She also uses theology to support an idea of a tragic, hopeful vision of the environment.

In the end, Roach argues that we need to draw on other imagistic possibilities for nature, including home. She also believes that coupling nature too closely to a gender negatively impacts both feminist and environmental causes, so this coupling should be avoided. These suggestions, as well as the critical framework she provides for investigating cultural imagery, are well argued. Mother/Nature is therefore a valuable addition to the eco-feminist canon.

Robin Jacobs is the development assistant for the American Humanist Association.
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Author:Jacobs, Robin
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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