Monday, 15 November 2010

"Part of the Whole" thoughts on mother earth, by Cormac Cullinan

Below is a piece in today’s South China Morning Post by a fellow called Cormac Cullinan, titled "Part of the Whole".  It’s not available except by subscription, so I’m posting it whole, with my comments interspersed.
I certainly agree with moves to control commercial fishing – we’re in serious danger of massive collapses of key fisheries.  And in favour of people eating less; and of food labeling, especially with info on calories; and of eating less meat; and of eating less (especially me); and of cutting back on consumption generally.   All good stuff.
The problem with people like Cullinan is that they look to major government involvement in the process, and that always worries me for I’ve seen what it can do in China.  Grim.

The best of intentions can become egregious depredations and corruption.  I’m more in favour of working to change things item by item – eg to tackle overfishing -- rather than trying, as Cullinan does here, to talk of wholesale “system changes”.  That could lead to tears in the soup, and nothing much to show for it.  

Cullinan's piece is the indented part, the left justified is my comments....

Part of the whole
Cormac Cullinan
Nov 15, 2010
Preparations for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting later this year in Cancun, Mexico, are not going well. George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, argued that the UNFCCC process was broken and it was unrealistic to expect a new treaty before the Kyoto Protocol expired in 2012.
Regardless of what is agreed at international meetings, we will never be able to arrest severe climate change while we leave intact the forces that drive it and the legal systems that legitimise excessive greenhouse gas emissions. As protesters at the climate change conference in Copenhagen last year succinctly put it, we need "system change not climate change".
System change not climate change raises spectres in my mind of the system changes tried by the Soviet Union and China at the beginning and middle of the last century. These were sytem changes that had devasting effects: hundreds of millions of humans killed (which may be just fine for the likes of Cullinen), and the environment despoiled (which is bad, bad,  bad for Cullinen).  The problem is that such “system changes” can only happen with totalitarianism – which would be fine for Mother Earth types, one suspects, as long as it was Green Totalitarianism.  But it doesn’t work so well for messy democracies.
Industrial civilisations are founded on the belief that humans are superior to, and separate from, nature and that the human well-being is best pursued by consuming more material goods, which means exploiting "natural resources" at ever increasing rates. These cultural beliefs have resulted in extensive environmental degradation. It is also becoming clear that the profligate use of the main energy sources (coal, oil and gas) that have built and sustained these societies could destroy this form of civilisation. It is also clear that if industrial economies and consumerism keep expanding, sooner or later there must be a catastrophic collapse - as has happened throughout human history.
I’m not sure how this “catastrophic collapse” is supposed to happen.  Worldwatch said much the same in its State of the World, Jan 2010, but it’s just an ipse dixit statement: nothing more than a statement “preventing the collapse of human civilization”, with no hint of how they think it might happen.  Mainly that report focuses on the consumer culture, the gist of which is “MacDonald’s bad; fruit and veges good.”   (BTW it doesn’t seem as if people are listening, as the Telegraph story on the world report has zero comments).  But how is it the world’s civilisation supposed to collapse?  Only Easter Island is mentioned by Worldwatch (and none by Cullinan) and there the lessons are not so much about sustainability as about the irrational nature of ritual building.  As for the Aztecs, it seems that warfare as much as climate change (not man-made!) were to blame.  I just don’t get how our civilasation, the whole shebang, is supposed to collapse, even with the most dire global climate change forecasts.
The problem is that the core beliefs that have guided the structuring of most contemporary societies do not accord with reality. Modern scientific understandings (particularly in the fields of quantum science and ecology) and ancient wisdom systems conclude that we are deeply enmeshed in a complex web of relationships, without which we cannot exist. In the long term, a healthy planet is a prerequisite for healthy human communities. Our first priority then is to stop trying to dominate and exploit and to try to fit in - to rediscover ecological niches in which our species can flourish. This means shifting perspective from seeing the earth as existing for humankind (anthropocentrism) to seeing people as part of a more important whole (ecocentrism).
Climate change is one of many symptoms of the deeper problem that industrial human civilisations are structured to encourage exploitation of the natural world. (Other symptoms include the depletion of fresh water supplies, the loss of fertile soil, the destruction of forests and the accelerating extinction of species.) For example, most legal systems only recognise humans (and creatures of law such as companies) as holding rights. In the eyes of the law, all other beings are property that can be used for the benefit of the owner. In other words, the legal status of most of the community of life is akin to that of a slave, beholden to a slave owner and not entitled to rights. Climate change and the over-exploitation of "natural resources" are inevitable consequences of legally entrenching an exploitative relationship between humans and nature.
The environmental crises that we have created are now so severe that the only viable way forward is to transform legal, political and economic systems throughout the world. Instead of incentivising greed and environmental destruction, they must be restructured to establish a framework to contribute to, rather than undermine, the health and integrity of the communities of life that sustain us. This transformation will require both internal changes to the values and beliefs of individuals and societies, and external changes in behaviour and in societal structures such as legal, economic and political systems. It will require the recognition that all aspects of nature have the right to exist and to play their part in the earth community, and that the law must protect and enforce the rights of nature as well as those of humans.
Environmental laws, almost without exception, have failed to stop environmental destruction. The unpalatable truth is that they were never intended to do so. They were designed to regulate the manner and rate of exploitation of "natural resources" and not to enforce limitations on human behaviour in the interests of preserving the ecological balance. On the other hand, recognising that nature has legally enforceable rights would enable the machinery of the state to be used to safeguard the health and integrity of ecosystems, rivers, mountains and other species, against human exploitation and, in so doing, would begin a process of fundamentally restructuring legal and political systems.
I doubt that a stocktake of environmental legislation over the last, say, half century would support the statement that “Environmental laws, almost without exception, have failed to stop environmental destruction”, but I stand ready to be proved wrong on that.  I can think of the US Clean Air Act, the legislation to stop CFC’s and the damage to the ozone layer, for a quick start. 
Ecuador began that process in September 2008 when it adopted a constitution that recognises that nature has rights that must be enforced by law. Another major step in this direction occurred at the People's World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, convened by Bolivian President Evo Morales in Cochabamba after the failure of the Copenhagen conference. On April 22 this year (International Mother Earth Day), the more than 35,000 participants at the People's World Conference proclaimed a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Unlike the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Cochabamba Declaration articulates not only human rights but also the duties of humans to enforce the rights of all members of the earth community and of the earth as a whole. It is the "DNA" of a new "system" that will enable humans to live in harmony with nature. As Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu said: "We are not masters of the earth, entitled to dominate and exploit her `natural resources' for our own selfish ends, but privileged participants in a wondrous and sacred community of life. Bringing about this transformation and creating viable human communities that live harmoniously within the earth community will require committed and concerted action.
"The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth calls upon each of us to embrace our kinship with all the beings of the earth community and to recognise, respect and defend the rights of all. Now is the time to answer the call."
Cormac Cullinan is an author, practising environmental attorney and governance expert based in Cape Town, South Africa. He is the author of Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, and earlier this year led the drafting of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

Postcript: I’m even more worried about the research in Worldwatch’s State of the World (2010), when I see what they say about Islam, in the section dealing with how religion might change the consumer culture.  About Islamic finance, a topic on which I’ve learnt quite a bit, they say:
Islamic finance is guided by rules designed to promote the social good. Because money is intrinsically unproductive, Islamic finance deems it ethically wrong to earn money from money (that is, to charge interest), which places greater economic emphasis on the “real” economy of goods and services. Islamic finance reduces investment risk— and promotes financial stability—by pooling risk broadly and sharing rewards broadly. And it prohibits investment in casinos, pornography, and weapons of mass destruction.
Worldwatch, p29

This is nonsense from start to finish, as I’ve written about before, eg here.