The intersections of systems of human oppression and broader ecological devastation.
What happens to the woman who cannot even remember her mother? What kind of mother will she herself be? What happens to the unnurtured fatherless child? What kind of man will he be?
What happens in a culture of unnurtured persons, bereft of the care, the abundance of sustenance, the gratitude that comes from growing up with both love and correction, close to abundance, connected to Earth and to community?
It is my premise that we are a society with a culture of unnurtured children who become unnurtured adults. I surmise that our lack of nurture is deeply connected to our lack of connection to the Earth herself, and that unnurtured adults are in turn aggressively un-nurturing themselves, possessed of a greed and ache, narcissism, collapse, and unfathomable cruelty toward each other and the more than human world. This unnurtured and un-nurturing culture is unable to respond to the suffering of Earth or of others, and instead exhibits a rapaciousness that is devastating the Earth and threatens our own existence.
What man brings himself to forcibly separate a child from his immigrant parents without any word on where that child is going? What woman kills her children, or allows her boyfriend to defile them? How does a young man shoot his classmates while chanting ‘another one hits the dust’? How do corporation leaders lay waste to Earth and to communities abroad in the name of progress and possession? How can congressional leaders pass laws that they know will disenfranchise the poor or deplete our natural resources or poison our water? The news is full of these stories and more. I do not have to tell you them, you already know.
Up until agrarian times, children were still largely among adults, often several adults, aunts, mothers, uncles, fathers and siblings. In Indigenous and hunter gatherer societies children are incorporated, usually among the women but also among men. Land, human, animal, children and adults are interrelated. Abundance in nature was taken for granted. So too is death, when it comes, recognized as part of the cycle of sustenance. In many of these societies life is slow, little work is needed to create food. There was a sense of territory, but it is the commons of the tribe, and folks lived close to Earth.
Nurture in these societies was not mollycoddling- children had expectations, but these were expectations of the group, delivered in relationship. Care and correction go hand in hand. Many of these expectations had to do with how one should interact with the Earth itself. It is also not to say children had easy lives- the concept of easy lives for children may be unique to modern culture. In early societies we know there was both child sacrifice and infanticide. In looking backward at what worked in indigenous or agrarian societies we are encouraged not to see everything with rose colored glasses, but to understand the role of deep connections to the Earth herself in the way that both livelihood and childhood were practiced.
Feudal times in Europe created a new paradigm that disenfranchised people from Earth and children from family. Adults pressed into service, even on the land, created a difference in the way that people saw both the land and their children. Land was hard and must be broken; so too must children. There are stories here of children swaddled and hung up on nails on the wall all day long while their parents worked on feudal land. Care of children became minimal, they were often beaten and sometimes subjected to worse cruelty; their bodily needs seen as shameful, their untamed natures likened to the devil.
Even as peasants were working on the land, nature was increasingly removed in the culture. Abundance was nonexistent, there was not enough to feed everyone- children were seen as unwanted mouths to feed. Feudal lords and kings had laid claim to the commons- land became simply a tool for serving the lord. If you were lucky and loyal, he would give you something. This separated people from a sense of abundance in the Earth- it was no longer the Earth giving to you, but a capricious lord you must serve. The loss of commons created a serfdom that profoundly affected views of nature, as well as the nurture of children.
The rise of capitalism brought with it even more pressure. As more of the commons was lost, and as industrialization grew, workers flooded to cities. The enclosure of the commons was seen by capitalists as necessary to create work, while private appropriation of Earth created vast wealth for those who exploited the resources, and poverty for those who worked for them. Treatises were written actually encouraging poverty so that people would be required to work for money. Indigenous peoples were chastised as too comfortable and happy in their abundant lifestyles, which made them ‘lazy and unwilling to work’. Property was seen as necessary to economic progress- the commons, Earth herself, and eventually all the indigenous peoples and lands exploited by this system in lands far from the capitalists’ homes, became commodified as well.
With workers flooding into cities the question became again, what to do with the children? Children were first seen as a cheap form of labor, and then school was introduced as an instrument to both train children for future work and to keep them separate and managed while their parents were working. Now, the separation from family and from Earth became complete- children were to be ‘socialized’, indoors, grouped in cohorts by age and date, organized and controlled, commodified themselves. In schools, children were removed both from family and from relationship to Earth. Large numbers of children were placed with a single adult. Interaction with nature was increasingly removed from childhood. Instead, manufactured toys, then the television, and now an electronic world serves as distraction.
The relationship between economy, closeness to and appreciation for Earth, and adult relationship to children is very strong. Each of the eras described above represents a movement away from the view of Earth as a primary nurturer, and toward a perspective of nature as inanimate source of raw material. Alongside this is a movement away from community, and for children, away from the nurture of family as well as away from connection to Earth herself. There is a direct correlation between perception of ourselves as nature, the loss of commons, the exploitation of Earth and devastation of ecosystems, and our relationship to children.
In todays society, we are all, to one degree or another, motherless children. We carry with us the wounds of our ancestors. Even as children are perceived as more and more free from responsibility, they are also more removed from community and almost entirely removed from the rest of the more than human world. Generations of unnurtured children have become the adults raising the next generation. Since the 50s we were taught to separate babies from parents, to let them scream until they quieted themselves- those babies became parents, often still children themselves, parking their own children in front of televisions, and then electronic devices, passing on the criticism and the abandonment that they received as children. Those children too became adults, often adults woefully unable to be parents; more and more we hear stories not just of lack of care but of real harm done to children.
School intervenes early and removes children from mothers. For some, those who are in truly un-nurturing circumstances, school is a lifesaver, and offers connection that is nonexistent at home. Teachers are often well-meaning but overworked; the economy dictates the adult to child ratio and the curriculum dictates days filled with preparation for a world of work. Children are massed and grouped, rarely seen as separate beings with intrinsic worth. It is not that teachers are uncaring, or that there are not many educators trying to make a difference, but that the system is institutional, it is mass child care in the service of capitalism. In a society with a commodified commons where adults are valued only for their economic contribution to the system, and children separated from the rest of community and held mostly indoors for 6 or more hours a day, often sitting still, over 12 or more years, the separation from Earth and family and community and even self potential is complete. What is left is a society of unnurtured children as adults.
The unnurtured child as adult may exhibit one, or many, characteristics. He or she may have a weakness toward collapse, an inability to withstand criticism. She may find it difficult to feel compassion, an inability to face her own or the world’s or others’ pain. Vulnerability is then viewed as weakness, ridiculed, mocked, or ignored. How else can we simply walk past the homeless on the streets?
The unnurtured child often carries a substantial sense of needs unfulfilled, that is manifest as an aching desire that cannot be filled. It is as if the indigenous American myth of the Wendigo, that spirit of insatiable cannibalism that destroys both communities and the natural world, has been manifest in our culture. Consumerism is the constant attempt to feed that need and is of course encouraged by the system itself. People with hungry souls attempt to nurture themselves with ever more product or mindless entertainment. It is a culture of greed founded in need and devastating its very source of fulfillment with its rapacious destruction of the environment.
A severely unnurtured child can develop narcissism in the attempt to give himself the love he never had. This man can only think of himself, as his need for love and nurture is so unfulfilled there is no space for anyone else. Every other person, every thing, and every event must be pressed into service to fill the needs unfulfilled in himself. He cannot accept being wrong because it will bring the collapse he so fears. Any lie, even the most outrageous of lies, covers over his faults. Is it any wonder that this culture of un-nurtured children has spawned a grasp for absolute power and crude capitalism in the United States? It is the predictable and observable trajectory of the culture of the unnurtured child.
The unnurtured child may also carry a rage, a sense of injustice and a desire for revenge, a profound distrust of the world that has not cared sufficiently. Fear seems to be everywhere. Or, she may simply dissolve in depression, in opioid addiction, in despair.
Sometimes the unnurtured child becomes aware of the more than human world as a source of solace. She may gaze at the stars, or gravitate to trees, or surround herself with other animals. Sometimes he may also become a hyper-carer, somehow feeling the need to make up for lack of care by caring for everyone else, but often not for himself.
Unnurtured children often become un-nurturing themselves. Their woundedness results in unnurtured offspring. We have created a cycle of erosion- erosion of care, and erosion of gratitude that comes from being cared for and connected to others and to Earth. How do we reverse the erosion process, and recreate a culture of abundance, appreciation, and nurture in our culture? Could relearning to love, include, care for and correct our children change the very nature of our society? Is the cure not, indeed, to find and be nurtured by our true mother? Our lack of nurture is rooted in our separation from Earth, the ultimate mother; the essential nurturer. As we have become more and more separated from nature, we have become less and less nurtured and nurturing- creating a cycle of destructiveness, cruelty, scarcity, and woundedness.
I believe the solution is to allow ourselves to be re-nurtured by Earth herself- she who has never changed and who sustains all of us. It is in understanding our interbeing in and with Earth and each other that we come into true connection, understand abundance, and reverse the culture of scarcity. Simply being in nature, I believe, allows us to develop a connection in interbeing with the more than human world that reminds us how full life is. Learning of deep time instills an understanding and perspective that is healing. Learning to listen to Earth with all our senses can re-develop our intuition and allow Earth to mentor us back to a sense of belonging.
To do this we must first re-wild ourselves, spend ample time enveloping ourselves and our children in the natural world. We must find and develop access to commons, to land, to community gardens, especially in places far removed from wilderness and for those without access to transport.
We must encourage and develop schools that prioritize this and allow children time outside and in the more than human world. We can take our children out of schools entirely, but we must remember that this is not an option for many working people or those who do not have the resources to care for their own children, and thus we must all work to change schools as well. It is a difficult job- schools are implicit in the system that removed the commons in the first place and that instilled the model we must dismantle, but there are many in schools who are aware of the change that needs to take place, and there are good examples of schools becoming Earth aware.
We must develop an understanding of interbeing and eco-literacy in schools that imbues the very nature of how school is done. Adult to child ratio, size of groups, non-dualistic nature and integration of all subjects, interactive and intergenerational and integrated learning and the love of Earth needs to be a part of school at every level. Reconnecting to the wisdom of our ancestors and of indigenous peoples is essential. Small tweaks are no longer enough, what is needed is a revolution in the way we allow children to flourish in their potential on Earth.
To really make this difference in the ways we interact with children, I believe we must revolutionize our entire perception of work for money and of the commodified commons. Tomas Paine, who argued for American independence, also proposed an interesting solution to the loss of commons. Acknowledging that every person has a ‘birthright’ of what he termed ‘natural property’, and that these birthrights were diminished by the enclosure of the commons, he proposed that every person be given compensation for their loss of commons in the form of monetary repayment. Laying aside for a moment the obvious fault in assuming Earth as property or the possibility of repayment for its loss in money, this could nevertheless form an interesting premise for how to move from capitalism toward a universal income that also acknowledges the intrinsic value of Earth herself and of our interbeing with the more than human world. The compensation for loss of commons could form the basis for a basic income that allows people to move out of the world of work, and with the time to do so, into closer connection to Earth for themselves and their children. Schools, no longer obliged to create curriculums that prepare children for work, will be free to emerge as regenerative centers of a new culture. A new generation of children can begin to heal the devastation and help us and future generations to re-remember our interbeing.