Since its creation, Earth has cared for humanity and created a livable and sustainable environment for us to inhabit. Over the course of our relationship with the planet, we have used personification to better connect with our home.
The Ancient Greeks saw Earth manifested in the goddess Gaia, the mother of all Titans and gods. Norse mythology has an Earth goddess named Jord, pronounced “yurdth,” who is said to be the inspiration for the modern English word Earth.
Calling the planet “Mother Earth” is a helpful and accurate representation of the relationship many people seek or should seek with the environment. Like a mother, Earth provides for us. The planet gives us fresh air to breathe, animals to hunt, plants to eat and much more. Our entire world revolves around the basic fundamental tools that Earth gives us: food, water, energy and beauty.
Whether it’s dinner on the table every night or relaxing vacations on sandy beaches, our lives are positively impacted by Mother Earth’s contributions, or ecosystem functions.
Ecosystem function is the way a natural system operates. For example, trees naturally filter and purify water through their roots and give off oxygen through their leaves. This results in less carbon dioxide in the air and clean air for us to breathe. These benefits that humans receive are called ecosystem services.
Most people are aware of these functions and services, and Mother Earth is used as ethos to remind people to care about them. Unfortunately, over time, people have altered and abused ecosystem functions for unnatural services to make a profit.
For instance, more than 13 million hectares, or 32,123,699 acres, of trees on the planet have been removed or destroyed. This disrupts the environment’s natural function and we will eventually lose the associated ecosystem service.
Part of the separation between humanity and environmentally friendly choices has come from the movement away from the idea of Mother Earth. As we personify the planet less, we celebrate, appreciate and care for it less.
“In his book, ‘A Sand County Almanac,’ Aldo Leopold said, ‘You can’t protect something you don’t understand and love,’” said Lisa Kretz, associate professor of philosophy, “We are creating a world where it is very hard to know Mother Earth.”
Without this connection or respect in our relationship with Earth, people feel more comfortable abusing it. As we have picked up more practices that harm our Earth, the planet has been damaged and as part of those ecosystems, humans are also being impacted.
But for some, the negative effects humanity has on the Earth manifest in a way that makes appreciating nature difficult. Disorders like eco-paralysis and solastalgia are both side effects of the abuse our planet has been taking for years.
Eco-paralysis, and other disorders like ecophobia, include anxiety, depression and a general hopelessness regarding the state of our environment. People who suffer from this disorder feel they are helpless and there is nothing they can do to improve the situation. Solastalgia is similar, causing people to feel hopeless and unfamiliar in their own environments.
Kretz said the hopelessness associated with these disorders is a problem because hope is required for positive ecological change.
“When it comes to action, motivation is really important,” they said. “If you are hopeless, you won’t have the motivation.”
Besides making an effort to be a part of nature, Hargus recommends focusing on community to combat negative feelings. A community can help us feel like we are not alone and therefore can make a bigger impact on environmental issues we care about.
Community gardens are a popular way for cities to try to bring residents together to nature. For students, attending outdoor campus events or bringing friends along for a walk can be enough to make even a small difference.
“If you try and know you are putting effort out, it can improve your own mental health because you aren’t just allowing things to happen,” Hargus said.
Spending time in nature will also benefit our larger ecosystem. Working in a community garden, for example, cultivates a natural habitat in an area that is often urbanized.
“When we care about something and put effort into it, we notice we get something in return,” Hargus said.
In order to be properly cared for by Mother Earth, we must also care for her and ecosystem functions.
“Changing your diet is probably the single most important thing you can do for the environment,” said senior Anna Jean Stratman, Environmental Concerns Organization president.
She said the root of the problem is that many people do not realize where their food comes from. In the U.S., more than half of the fresh fruit and about one-third of fresh vegetables are imported from other countries. The bananas and strawberries we enjoy so much travel hundreds of miles to reach our stores and pantries in the winter.
Kretz said this travel adds greatly to carbon output and pollution levels. They said seasonal eating is more sustainable and can even become a fun experience from shopping at local farmers’ markets to growing food in your own garden.
“Seasonal eating really lessens the ecological impact of getting that food to you,” they said.
Besides these benefits, food that’s in season tastes better. Stratman grew up eating seasonally from her family’s garden and she said she never felt like she was missing out. In college, she has modified her eating habits to limit her meat intake, as the process of preparing meat for consumption can be just as harmful to the environment as flying fruit across the world.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I eat meat once a week and I don’t even miss it,” she said.
Because eating seasonally promotes the local ecosystem, it is often used in conjunction with the movement to preserve native plants. Native plants are an important part of local ecosystems — without them, the entire environment can begin to collapse. The importance of native plants stems from their relationship with local pollinators.
Stratman currently works on the “Monarchs and Milkweed” ChangeLab at UE to raise awareness of threats to native plants and the importance of keeping them alive. The ChangeLab students are using monarch butterflies as a flagship species to draw people’s attention to the danger of invasive non-native plants.
“If we get people interested in thinking about our pollinators using the monarch, we can get them to think about other relationships,” Stratman said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency blog, pollinators are responsible for supplying one-third of the food we eat. Certain pollinators are only evolved to live with and pollinate certain plants native to their ecosystem and when these plants disappear, so does our food.
“Our responsibility is not just eating locally or seasonally, but acting to care for things locally,” said Cris Hochwender, professor of biology.
From seasonal eating to native plants, the lifestyle changes we should make to support Mother Earth are tied directly to our local environments. But Stratman understands this can be an intimidating task for college students, especially those who are not familiar with Evansville’s environment.
“It’s more difficult as students because we have limited funding,” she said. “Eating healthy and seasonally is more expensive than buying spaghetti and mac and cheese.”
Another popular way for people stay connected to Mother Earth is ecotourism. According to ecotourism.org, ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education.”
A lot of people assume ecotourism is something that takes place in an environment like Costa Rica, which is known for its beauty and biodiversity. But beneficial ecotourism opportunities can be found everywhere.
Hochwender said ecotourism to national parks is the first or second largest revenue for most states. Utah is known mainly for its “Big Five” national parks, all a short drive apart. In February, Indiana obtained its first national park, the country’s 61st: Indiana Dunes National Park.
The park runs for 15 miles along Lake Michigan and had 3.6 million visitors in 2018, making it Indiana’s top tourist attraction. National parks are a significant part of our government and culture because they allow natural ecosystem functions to thrive when they would otherwise be disrupted by human influence.
Hochwender said areas of conservation are especially important for large predators who need a larger space than smaller native species like pollinators. He added that studies have shown ecosystems cannot function without their top predators.
“Without large national parks, you don’t have these spaces for the animals,”he said. A list of parks and conservation areas can be found at nps.gov. It is important to visit national parks because they can also help provide the most valuable tool we can use to support Mother Earth — education. Kretz said studies show that people who care about the environment had positive interactions in nature as children. The more children that experience what nature has to offer, the more who will care about the environment.
“Cultivating those direct relationships with nature is so important,” they said.
Kretz emphasized the difference between theoretical and practical knowledge. Even though it is important to know the answers to basic fundamental questions like where our food and energy come from, the positive impact a natural environment can have on our lives can’t be seen unless people are learning in nature.
“If we’re not knowledgeable and invested, we are more willing to accept that the financial benefits gotten from abusing the ecosystem are okay,” Hochwender said.
As far as education on campus, Stratman said students must seek knowledge outside the classroom. Through ECO, her goal is to bring environmental awareness to campus and make people think about the luxuries they take for granted.
“I just want people to be inspired by the Earth and appreciate what it has to offer in any career path,” she said.
It is easier for students to get involved in supporting the planet than many think. Attend community events centered at parks or conservation areas like Wesselman Woods and join ECO or attend events like their Earth Day Birthday celebration that was held on April 22. Most importantly, stay educated and form your own opinions.
Kretz said even the smallest changes in daily routines can help lessen the negative effects we have on Earth. They simply want everyone to get involved and do their part as best they can.
“My hope is that the world is a little better off for my having been here,” they said. “If we all did that, imagine what the world would look like.”