Receiving, Giving, Reciprocating vs. Nonintervention: Two Different Models for Environmental Ethics by Carol P. Christ

“Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, to reciprocate.” –Robin Wall Kimmerer

The notion of a gift economy is at the heart of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer shares a different way of being in the world: one that recognizes the gifts that have been given to us and the necessity to reciprocate. In the modern world we have been taught that nature’s resources are ours for the taking. We have not been taught that nature’s resources are not infinite, that they exist in a web of interdependent relationships in which minerals, plants, animals, and human beings all participate. Everything we do has consequences for other living things.

For many environmentalists, the goal is to leave “wild” nature alone. In this model, the destruction human beings have done to nature is recognized. But what is not understood is that human beings are part of nature too. For hundreds of thousands of years, we and our ancestors have interacted with nature. The model of setting aside spaces for wild nature does not recognize that human beings can interact in positive ways with nature and that we have done so for millennia.

Some years ago, I was shocked to read that native Australians intervened in nature by periodically burning the land. This intervention in nature opened spaces for animals and helped to regenerate certain plant species. The Aboriginals learned to do this from nature: by observing the consequences of fires set by lightning and other natural causes. Why was I shocked? Because I assumed that all human interventions in nature are negative, I imagined and hoped that indigenous people left nature alone. I wanted to view the indigenous people as “innocent” in a way that modern human beings are not–thus denying that intelligence and decision-making governed the Aboriginals’ interactions with nature.

Last summer I was surprised when a forest management expert who is part of the Green Party Greece explained that the thick forests surrounding Athens which create enormous fire hazards have not always been there. He criticized the current human desire to live in the forest in order to be “closer to nature.” Acting on this desire means that the forests are filled with houses and that forest fires lead to destruction of human property and human lives. I could not help thinking of California.

In traditional Greek culture no one wanted to live “in” the forest. People cleared parts of the forest to create spaces where sheep and goats could graze. These open areas where the grasses were kept in check by the animals provided natural fire barriers. People grouped together in villages some distance from the forest. Interventions in nature by people and animals created a sustainable economic and environmental system. The man who spoke to us argued that current laws protecting forests from human intervention must be changed to permit responsible forest management.

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that sweetgrass, used by indigenous peoples to make baskets, is disappearing from places where it used to grow. The basket makers asked for her help as a botanist. They told her that sweetgrass is harvested by some by pulling it up from the roots and by others by pinching off the grass above the roots. In either case only some of the sweetgrass was taken, leaving enough to regenerate the field. The basket weavers wanted to know which method was better for the sweetgrass.

Robin’s graduate student Laurie designed an experiment in which some sweetgrass would be harvested by one method, some by the other, and some fields would not be harvested at all. Laurie expected that one method of harvesting would lead to better results. What she found was that harvesting sweetgrass by either method resulted in healthy fields, while not harvesting at all caused the fields to decline. The experiment showed that human intervention using traditional methods was actually good for sweetgrass.

This of course does not mean that modern farming methods that depend upon pesticides are good. Modern farming methods focus on the product and the price without concern for the web of relationships in which farming occurs.

“I must take from the world in order to live,” Robin Wall Kimmerer tells us. The way forward is to return to the way of the “Honorable Harvest” that all of our ancestors once knew. Robin Wall Kimmerer derives the principles of the Honorable Harvest from the wild strawberry harvest and insists they apply to everything we take, in every aspect of our lives.

The Honorable Harvest

Never take the first one.

Ask permission.

Listen for the answer.

Take only what you need.

Use everything you take.

Minimize harm.

Be grateful.

Share what you have taken.

Reciprocate the gift.

There has been a great debate about whether and how Europeans can and should learn from indigenous cultures. My friend the late Carol Lee Sanchez told me that it is perfectly fine for Europeans and their descendants to learn from the Indians how to love nature. She noted with typical Indian humor, “You have to learn it somewhere.” She added, “What you don’t need to do is to wear feathers or to enact our rituals in our ways and in our languages.”


Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol  has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

12 thoughts on “Receiving, Giving, Reciprocating vs. Nonintervention: Two Different Models for Environmental Ethics by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Carol, I am glad to hear others say some of the things I have been writing about for a long time. I disagree with wildernesses that are seen as somehow separate from humans. What becomes clear when you look more deeply into this is that rich mostly white men think it is perfectly okay for them to go into these wilderness areas and to have them all for themselves. I write about the interaction between the wild and the human in my book Wild Politics: Feminism, Globalisation and Bio/diversity (2002). Your point about the use of fire by Indigenous Australians is one that is now recognised in the mainstream (in Australia). Many other practices are still ignored and we are all paying the price for that including extraordinary fish deaths – millions of fish – in Australia’s largest river system, the Murray Darling. Let alone heatwaves that break records, intensifying cyclones and more.


    1. Greece had a terrible forest fire last summer, the Mati fire, in which hundreds of houses were lost and one hundred people died. The Mati area had been illegally built in forest land several decades ago and the governments had turned a blind eye.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol, in the US we have decimated our forests – In the state of Maine the trees are harvested by the time they are 30 years old – not even old enough to produce fruit and nuts for wild animals who are presently starving. In Maine, once a well forested state only about 16 percent of mature forest remains. “Mature” is defined by a 30 year old tree. Here in New Mexico we have prescribed burns to keep the fire hazard low for humans – decimating wild bird and animal populations and polluting the air so badly that I can’t breathe the air in the summer. This kind of human intervention is Androcentic – it cares nothing about Nature…or about Life on this planet.

    Trees provide humans with the oxygen we need to breathe… Tree sequester carbon – and we are in a carbon crisis – we need to be very careful about supporting human intervention when it comes to trees.

    We need to plant millions of trees…

    Indigenous peoples understood and understand today that mass scale intervention of any kind has disasterous consequences for Nature… to take no more than one needs works for an egalitarian society but not for an economically driven super culture.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Not only Athens and Maine and Australia. Southern California, where I live, is another breath-shattering example of people who want to live in the forests and canyons and other wild areas around Los Angeles (and up the state, too–it’s not just us down south). People build McMansions where coyotes and bears live and then are upset when the coyotes and bears come into their (often gated) neighborhoods looking for food. And the fires up and down the state, one of which totally destroyed a town named Paradise (does anyone else see the irony here?), made the news for days, weeks, months. We have to learn the sweetgrass lesson and follow the good advice of the poem. Every line of the poem.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great post. Looking forward to reading Sweetgrass. In line with your post and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book is an article in a recent issue of Sierra magazine by Kim Stanley Robinson about the anthropocene age. Humans are a part of nature and always have been. At this point, our species has had a huge (arguably disastrous) impact on all life on earth, because of our numbers and no doubt because many humans do not recognize reciprocity as many indigenous cultures have and continue to do. Robinson believes that we have a window of opportunity (small and brief) to recognize that we are part of all that is and choose our part more consciously and wisely–which would mean planting and preserving trees, also finding better ways to grow food ( a lot of hopeful and interesting things happening in that field!) And of course turning away from fossil fuels. Basically being conscious of and taking responsibility for our impact as a species, working to make it beneficial and reciprocal instead of unconscious and destructive.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This is an important post based on a significant understanding from indigenous life and lore. Thanks, Carol. The gift economy is the way of the future and, of course, the way of the past. I will be facilitating a talk in our Spiritual Books Group at First Unitarian on this book in a few months, so beginning to think about it now is useful for me.

    And thank you, Carol, for including Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Tedx talk. It moved me to tears. It includes several more suggestions for an Honorable Harvest: “Defend [berries, etc. i.e. nature] fiercely and love them so much that you will not let them be lost.” Robin goes on to add “Take only that which is given to you,” because all flourishing is mutual. It’s one of our Unitarian Universalist principles: the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part. But having been raised in a culture that sees nature as “resources,” we Westerners need the heartfelt lesson that Robin Kimmerer brings to us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nancy I had originally included the “Defend…Love” as part of the Honorable Harvest guidelines but it was not phrased like the others and as Kimmerer did not include it on her power point list, I took it out of the list I had made. But it is important. “Everything begins in love.”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Regards environmental ethics, thanks Carol, one website on the topic I visited defines eco-spirituality as “Concern for the present ecological crisis and even simple lovers of nature to be caretakers of the Earth and stewards of creation.” I love that phrase “simple lovers of nature.” That’s probably true for most of us always.


  7. Loved the video, Carol, and sharing with our garden club and on facebook.
    Tomorrow we vote in a by-election – Green? or continue the same old destruction and greed?


  8. Thank you for this informative blogpost. Human intervention in nature even in the distant past hasn’t always been positive. I appreciated reading some examples of positive outcomes.

    This is obviously a very timely topic. Here in California, people continue to protest forest management decisions meant to reduce fire danger, but I’m not so sure. Of course, the current administration’s push to exempt such decisions from full NEPA requirements implicate such decisions in moneyed interests and anti-environment “science” which complicates the issue. If Environmental Assessments or EIS’s are done and done with impartiality and new science, we can at least be sure that such decisions are made in the best interests of all.


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