Can we all learn to get on with nature before nature learns to get on without us? Existing policies don’t fix our broken relations to nature.
6.1 This One’s Finished, Can We Have a New Planet Please?
A study involving more than 1,360 experts worldwide over four years warned of an “increasing likelihood of nonlinear changes in ecosystems including accelerating, abrupt, and potentially irreversible changes” (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). The latest international scientific synthesis report about climate (International Alliance of Research Universities, 2009) warns of “an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts”. This means that humanity is undefended against the day when critical ecosystem services are no longer available and not replaceable at any cost. If so, people will have won every individual battle against nature and then suddenly, tragically lost the war. Nature would endure but civilisation would not.
6.2 Valuing Nature?
Pavan Sukhdev, author of the EU-commissioned study The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB, 2008) reports that the world is losing more wealth from the disappearance of forests than from the credit crunch, “…at today’s rate we are losing natural capital at least between US$2-$5 trillion every year.” The relentless conversion of nature to cash provides only a facade of wealth-creation that masks the reality of collective impoverishment. Historically much effort has been devoted to nature conservation but action is now needed with unprecedented speed and effectiveness. Schemes to value nature by paying for it (including the above precycling insurance) can help but they risk reinforcing the commodification of the Earth. All such schemes are up against continuing large-scale exploitation and destruction that excuses itself very simply by saying, “It’s mine”.
“A person lives on the land for a brief time and is gone, but the land endures. So people must be careful to preserve it – to live by the old Native saying that, ‘The real owners of the land have not been born yet.” Among Native people, the land and all that grows upon it is treated with the greatest respect. It, and everything in it, is sacred, and it’s up to the people who use it to protect it as well.” (Gale, 2002). This native Canadian quote is typical of indigenous cultures’ views on ‘belonging’. Any serious attempt at prospering in partnership with nature requires a rapid switch of emphasis from assumed ownership of the Earth to a sense of belonging to the Earth. A culture of belonging and guardianship is equally suited to private, state and commons areas of the Earth. Such a culture is a precondition for reversing the loss and degradation of the ecosystems on which everyone’s life and livelihood depends.
6.4 Ownership can Evolve From Mastery to Guardianship
Existing practices of ownership of the Earth’s surface haven’t worked since they rely on every individual owner respecting a rarely observed line between natural capital and the sustainable ‘interest’ of renewable harvests. This line and a sense of belonging to the Earth can be restored with a policy switch within the cultural and legal meaning of ownership. Ownership of a piece of the Earth can be reinterpreted by international treaty as a duty of care to future generations. All land, sea and non-renewable resource ownership title can be interpreted as a title of guardianship of ecological capital. All rights for access and use of natural resources can be interpreted as applying only to the renewable harvest, to diminish neither biological diversity nor ecosystem services. Use of non-renewable resources can encompass a compensating expansion in ecosystems and a guarantee (such as precycling insurance) of protecting the resources within circular flows.
6.5 Let’s try Forward Gear
Reversing the loss of nature is not a bad deal for owners, as can be explained by farmers of barren lands and fishermen of barren seas. Making this switch is like finding a car rolling back towards a cliff edge and helping the sleepy driver to locate forward gear. Although the driver may be startled by the intrusion, they would be pleased to be able to move on safely. Society would discover that abundance and prosperity accord with an expansion of nature, rather than its subjugation. The battle with nature can be ended quickly and permanently. One class of owner will remain unhappy; the minority with no intention other than to convert their corner of the world into private profit. The political choice is between catering for this exploitive minority or expanding nature’s abundance for the benefit of all.
This policy switch effectively gifts the world to the unborn future. In compensation, the present gets to have a future. Nations would gain new reasons to co-operate more and fight less. Populations characterised by separateness would learn to create and share abundance. Depleted soils and waters would be restocked with diverse life. For those with less interest in such tangible compensations there are more direct options. Those who have degraded ecosystems may be relieved of the privilege of ownership. Those without an interest in guardianship could bid for funds to compensate them for the transfer of title to a community-based trust of landless people. Funds could also be provided for bids to permanently leave undisturbed high-risk non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels and heavy metals.
- International Alliance of Research Universities, 2009. Richardson, K., Chair of the Scientific Steering Committee and Synthesis Report; Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges & Decisions. http://en.cop15.dk/files/pdf/iaru_synthesis_report_2009_press_release.pdf
- Gale, T. 2002. Guardians of the land. 2002 Canada And the World. Thomson Corporation May 2002 pp3.
- Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis.
- Island Press, Washington, DC.
- The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB) 2008. Sukhdev, P. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/biodiversity/economics/, reported at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7662565.stm
This text is part 6 of 8 of my Advanced Research Workshop paper, Seven Policy Switches for Global Security, for the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme. Please see the abstract, full list of parts and downloads here. Comments welcome below. Some previous comments are at wiser.org.