"Mother Nature" is a rather antiquated way of referring to the natural world. It seems ridiculous to anthropomorphize something so huge and diffuse, let alone to assign it a gender.
But new research from China suggests that reviving this image could inspire people to act in more environmentally conscious ways.
"Our results show a robust implicit association between women and nature," writes a research team led by Ting Liu of Nanjing University. "The metaphor 'Mother Earth' builds on this association and leads to increases [in] one's connection with nature, which in turn leads to increases in pro-environmental behavior."
After all, who wants to disappoint their mother?
In the Journal of Environmental Psychology, the researchers describe five studies that reveal this association and its potentially beneficial implications for policy. The key study featured 175 Nanjing University students: 87 women and 88 men.
Participants read one of three versions of a news story about an "environmental crisis." The first used the term "mother nature" in both the headline and text, and reinforced the idea by using feminine pronouns when referring to the natural world. The second referred to "father nature" and used masculine pronouns, while the third used the unadorned term "nature" and impersonal, gender-neutral pronouns.
Afterwards, the students completed a questionnaire in which they indicated their likeliness to engage in a variety of green behaviors, including recycling, conserving water, and doing volunteer work for a pro-environment campaign.
Those who had read about "mother nature" were significantly more likely than those in the other two groups to report that they intended to take action to save the environment. References to "father nature" did not have the same inspiring effect.
A follow-up study found that these results were partly due to the fact that those exposed to the "mother" concept felt a stronger sense of connectedness to nature.
The results suggest that anthropomorphizing nature as a mom "could be a relatively low-cost but useful strategy in environmental promotion." They suggest that ads or public-service announcements promoting green behaviors should consider including elements "such as a female face and body characteristics" to reinforce the connection between nature and femininity.
The researchers acknowledge that the effect they have demonstrated draws its power from an offensive cliché.
"The woman-nature association reminds participants of the need to protect women and nature," they write. "We need to think about how to make a trade-off between promoting pro-environmental behavior and stereotyping females" as weak creatures who must be guarded from harm.
But if misogyny is going to remain with us for a while—as seems highly likely—we'd might as well put it to positive use. It's hard to deny that the biggest problem facing women and nature alike is the conquest mentality of so many men.