COVID-19 disrupted the world and peoples’ lives in unimaginable ways. It seems likely that future disasters, whether natural or human-made, will be no less disruptive and challenging. This talk will explore how disaster risk shapes our policy, governance, and planning. Using examples, we will look at how risk is unevenly distributed, and how (and whether) we have learned to better prepare and reduce loss and damage from future disasters.
Nature is one of the most complicated terms in English or any language. It carries the weight of projected human fears and hopes, the marks of history and political conflict, the grounds for moral legitimation or condemnation.
Hurricanes that have increased in number and volume, forest fires that have burned larger swaths of land, flooding, mudslides, viruses, and extinctions are multiplying. The planet is experiencing cascades of disasters that overwhelm human adaptation efforts.
Is nature our enemy?
For most of human history, and for ancient peoples especially, the answer to that question would have been ‘yes’. At every turn prehistoric farmers, hunters, gatherers and herders had constantly to battle the elements to put food on the table. In Medieval Europe, when the stories of Hansel and Gretel and Little Riding Hood were written, nature was represented as a hungry wolf, an evil force with malicious intent, ever ready to attack and consume the vulnerable children of the village. Plagues and diseases were a feature of urban city life, an invasion of human settlements, a product of the devil or evil forces from outside of otherwise peaceful and vulnerable God-fearing folk.
It matters less to us whether an inanimate force is real, and more whether we interpret it broadly as a good or bad function.
This was not by any measure a universal human attitude. Inuit and other indigenous people around the world developed a sense of partnership and community with nature even in the harshest environments, embedding themselves into the natural order. Animals, birds, and even rivers and trees were endowed with spirit and force, which could be destructive or generous. Many civilizations also grew to understand nature’s harshness as part of the order of the world, a way of creating balance and humility.
Humans often mistake their interactions with nature as a form of natural intentionality. It could be thought of as a twist on the idea of an ‘attribution error’. An attribution error happens when people explain individual actions as functions of the innate characteristics of the actor rather than as responses to a situation. In this twist, the actions of a natural or artificial being might be interpreted as intentional, and worthy of either blame or admiration. So, it might matter less to us whether an inanimate force is real, and more whether we interpret it broadly as a good or bad function. The cultural attitudes around nature affect how we make decisions, how we plan, how we use resources. Humans’ interpretation of nature then becomes a cultural force shaping decisions about how to understand the natural world, and the feedback cycle between natural and social worlds accelerates.
With the coming of the Anthropocene and the ‘triumph’ over nature wrought by the industrial revolution, newly-urban city folk softened their fears of nature and began to view it as benevolent, even spiritual and inspirational. During the late 1800s at the height of the colonial era, European estates became filled with exotic trophies, animals, plants, tokens, and artefacts gathered from around the world. The astounding successes of scientific methods convinced Europeans that they could master nature. Europeans were uniquely able to distance themselves from the worst of nature’s wrath, and so they perceived a kind of immunity to its harsher judgements. This sense of immunity allowed Europeans to believe, as they sheltered in cities that became dirty and disease-ridden, that nature was nothing to be feared. A view of the ‘natural cathedral’ and the wilderness ethos fueled a global tourism industry as Europeans sought benign natural experiences in remote locales.
Where are we today? Unsurprisingly, the ‘friendly wilderness’ image has not caught on with people in colonial situations, because culturally and materially their struggle continues and is made worse by colonial relationships. These experiences have heightened a material approach to nature quite different from the ‘wilderness’ view. This view sees nature as a complex partner in human endeavors, sometimes vicious and sometimes generous.
Going to war means we’ve forgotten that a war on nature is exactly how we got into this mess. And also that war hardly ever ends well even for the victors.
Today, climate change has upset the sense of immunity, insulation, separation, and benevolence enjoyed by the world’s cultural elites. Wilderness offers no escape from disease, extinction, pollution, and disasters, perhaps except for a brief respite and retreat. There is a growing awareness that nature is not defeated but is increasingly outside of human control and understanding, and nature is pissed.
With our classic inability to see past ourselves, some engage in an attribution error of growing proportions, nature is blamed for all of our own mistakes. The response is either resignation or a call to war. Resignation in this sense means divvying up spaces on the lifeboat. Going to war means we’ve forgotten that a war on nature is exactly how we got into this mess. And also that war hardly ever ends well even for the victors.
What are we to think in a time when nature seems to be again our enemy? There are plenty of people around all over the world who have a different view. Indigenous peoples with centuries of learning and experience understand nature as a complex system, of which we are an integral part. Consciousness, morality, and will is also natural, and not unique to humans. A reflective turn is needed to shift our understanding. We need to pierce the sense of immunity, separation, and distinctiveness that has led us down this road. The Anthropocene shift pushes us towards a degree of humility. It prompts a sense of connection and complex systems thinking which will not only bring a better understanding of nature, but will enable our survival and adaptation to it.
Talk scheduled for October 18th. Oil is essential to industrial society as we know it. The history of the industrialized world has been shaped by changes in the environmental, economic, social, and political dimensions of oil. In this session, we will learn about the history, the present challenges, and the future of oil in an environmentally-stressed planet. Participants will emerge with a deeper appreciation for the complexities of oil politics.
In the community I come from, life centres around Okanagan Lake. The Okanagan Valley is a spectacular vista of rounded hills, distant mountains, sparkling waters, and a unique ecosystem for human and non-human life to adapt and thrive.
Despite its apparent permanence, the Valley and the Lake are fragile and vulnerable ecosystems experiencing accelerating pressures from unsustainable patterns of settlement, travel, and economic development. The Valley is vulnerable to insect damage, invasive species, extinctions, drought, fire, flooding, and water contamination. Virtually all of these threats arise from human activities in one way or another.
Looking at it from a birds’ eye view, the Valley is a whole ecosystem, yet the laws that govern it, and those that determine its future, are piecemeal. As I have written before, movements to protect the Valley and the planet can build on holistic thinking using the political and social revolution in human rights. ‘Rights language’ can be used to transform the current framework of laws, policies, and decision making procedures that govern development.
The Valley is a whole ecosystem, yet the laws that govern it, and those that determine its future, are piecemeal.
The progress of human rights is one of the most vital political stories of human history. The broad recognition of rights has a natural logic of expansion and consolidation. Progress comes in waves and is often beaten back by counter-movements, nevertheless, rights language often reemerges in new clothes when violations are at their worst. Violence and abuse trigger a reaction toward conscience and care, and new rights become recognized and affirmed following the worst atrocities.
What does ‘rights language’ bring to environmental causes that other arguments may overlook? Arguments from science, expertise, economic interest and values are sometimes disembodied, ephemeral, remote. An appeal to ‘rights’ triggers foundational debates: the questions become fundamental to identity and society because many rights are enumerated and protected by constitutional law, and because Canadian society has made a point of ensuring that people know and understand what rights are.
As Canadians we also understand that rights have intrinsic value. Most agree that we would prefer to live in a society that recognizes and respects rights, rather than one that does not. While we may not all comprehend the statistical probabilities of climate models or the technicalities of a carbon tax as a policy instrument, we understand ‘rights’. They are a thing. Rights are personal.
Rights are powerful because they are inherently subversive and simultaneously affirming. Raising an issue of water as a right raises questions about the status quo. What are all of the ways that water is freshened, used, transferred, polluted, and acted upon? It prompts rethinking the economic premises of water management. Rights language also prompts us to recognize the intrinsic value of existence. In other words,the recognition of a right elevates the ethical value of a rights holder in the view of the government and society. For example, the right to exist is one of the most fundamental rights possible. A right to exist implies the logical necessity of respecting that existence by not threatening or undermining the integrity and dignity of the rightsholder.
While we may not all comprehend the statistical probabilities of climate models or the technicalities of a carbon tax as a policy instrument, we understand ‘rights’. They are a thing. Rights are personal.
Rights language is also ethical and cultural. The current imbalance between human development and natural protection, evidenced by the global scale of pollution, is at least in part a product of the tendency to view nature in purely instrumental terms. In Western cultural constructions, nature is inert, a dumping ground for human wastes, or a storehouse of potential resources ready for extraction. Nature has not even been seen as a player in the cycle, much less as a rights holder.
The degradation of nature is simultaneously and unavoidably the degradation of humans. Since nature is a closed system, wastes and depletion will circle back to impact human welfare. The Anthropocene is signalling not the supremacy of humans over nature, but rather the exact opposite: the re-embedding of humans back into nature. We are now as much a product of our own activities as we are of natural processes. The world is now fully ‘human’ in at least one sense: the fates of human and nonhuman alike are interlaced in a way not seen before in history. Human and nonhuman fates are planetary in scale.
Restoring balance means revisiting the roots of the gap between humans and nature, the original split that divided the world and made degradation possible, and even celebrated it. That split is symbolized in three ways: 1. the assumption of anthropocentric dominance, 2. the neglect of nature’s intrinsic value, and 3. the separation and distancing of humans from the ecosystems that sustain them (both physical and psychological) .
Laws and politics have tended to wipe nature out of the ethical universe by limiting legal standing to parties with property interests. In other words, the legal conversation about value, loss and damage takes place only among those who are deemed to have an interest, namely, property owners. Even the representation of the public interest is narrowly circumscribed by the necessity of showing direct property-like profits or losses, rather than a public interest in a long-term trust relationship with nature.
While present and recognized in law, the notion of a public trust has not proven to be an effective shield against destruction in the long term, primarily because it can always be trumped or replaced by a new property claim. In addition, property claims are themselves partial since they divide nature up into parcels of utility based on their value to particular property interests. Sky, land, water, and underground are all seen in terms of different types of access, use, and ownership rights.
Solutions to this problem already exist in law, but they are currently found only in isolated and disjointed legal opinions and cases, both locally and around the world. Recently the question of nature rights has risen in prominence in political discussions, partly due to the rising awareness of the planetary nature of environmental damage being experienced in the Anthropocene, and partly due to the increasing recognition of indigenous rights and the distinctly contrasting worldview of nature that such rights represent.
The Whanganui River decision in New Zealand, the rise of Buen Vivir in Ecuador, the Ganges decision and others are pushing back against the notion that nature is nothing more than property, sink, or resource. At the heart of this counter-narrative is the recognition that humans and nature are together, with common fates and interests, and that the inclusion of nature as member of the human family, worthy of respect, care and affection, is essential to human survival. This is represented by indigenous worldviews in varying ways around the world and set down in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as many other international legaldeclarations and treaties. Both humans and nature have a right to exist, what is needed (even if it is a first step) is the recognition and affirmation of these new rights in politics, law, and development planning.
This is no small thing, so what are the problems? One may object to the recognition of nature as a rights-holder on various grounds. One objection is that extending rights to nature means the diminution of existing human rights. However, this is not a new argument. This argument is familiar to historians, who documented them in response to the expansion and extension of rights to slaves, women, unpropertied males, and ethnic and religious groups. In every case the historical extension of rights did not result in the reduction of existing rights protections, but instead allowed for the more fulsome exercise of existing rights. This is because the pattern and framework of rights growth reinforces and legitimizes that a universe of moral beings and rights holders exists and is deserving of respect.
Another objection is that nature rights are expensive. Indeed, it is hardly arguable that valuable social and political goals are costly. The question of how to pay for rights has rarely been a strong argument against the recognition of rights, however. Few would argue today that the cost of freeing slaves, or protecting children from abuse are not worth the price of rights enforcement. As well, the social, political and even economic benefits of rights recognition spill over into remarkable new avenues of growth and development. Protecting the right of the lake to flow, to provide recreation and fish and a rich environment has immense economic benefits that should also be taken into account when considering the balance sheet of rights recognition.
Finally, a last objection is that recognizing the rights of a lake necessarily undermines the value of other beings who may be more ‘appropriate’ or ‘deserving’ of rights due to their similarity with or affinity for humans. Why should lakes have rights that are not extended to whales, elephants, monkeys or dogs, all of whom demonstrate more ‘human-like’ characteristics such as family relationships, intelligence, and emotions and feeling? What about microbes or farm animals? What about Mars or the moon or other distant territories? Why lakes and not mountains, or deserts, or garbage piles?
These are all valid and complex issues which should be deliberated and which will likely be decided and come before the courts in the next few years. Awareness is growing about how humans and nonhumans should be governed in a truly planetary ecosystem. It’s important to keep in mind that rights recognition is about governing human action, limiting and allowing different kinds of human interaction with the nonhuman world.
Such rules governing human interactions with the nonhuman world already exist, whether they are laws against animal abuse, or rules about mountain climbing or fishing or logging or nature reserves. The issue is that these rules are currently one-dimensional, shaped disproportionately by property and the need to prove an interest in that property. The rules are insufficiently permanent and not based on inter-generational ethics, and they rely on an out of date worldview of nature, one that is amply demonstrating its failures to protect humans and nature every day.
Rights recognition is about governing human action, limiting and allowing different kinds of human interaction with the nonhuman world.
Rights for lakes will help the larger conversation about how to move beyond the exclusiveness of property, to recognize the limits of the planet and the power of nature to act on human societies. Rights for lakes will reiterate the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world. They won’t solve every problem, but not much can be started without them.
The atmosphere on Mars is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, with an average temperature of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Only 16 of the 39 total Mars missions have been successful. Mars is about as far from habitable as we can imagine any environment. Pretty inhospitable, right? So what is it about Mars that captures the imagination of the public?
As our own planet degrades, are we simply casting around for any alternative, no matter how challenging or unlikely? Afloat on a sinking lifeboat, are we (and by ‘we’ I mean the world’s 2% who have any hope of escaping) planning on being castaways for generations into the future? I think not. I think Mars has appeal for other reasons, and these date back to the era of colonialism in the late 19th century.
Colonialism was the ultimate escape from the uncomfortable truths of home, it glorified a narrative of supremacy and heroism.
From the 1870s to the 1890s European powers fought, pillaged, destroyed, and exploited the peoples and territories variously under their control around the world. Africa in particular was an object of focus, a field of colonial competition and experimentation. Although the forces at work driving colonialism were at least partially strategic, they were also cultural, gaining importance due to broad social trends that gave meaning and legitimacy to an otherwise obviously violent project. At least part of the drive to dominate was an awareness of the losses at home, the shortage of resources and the decline of life quality that had accompanied industrialism. Colonialism was the ultimate escape from the uncomfortable truths of home, it glorified a narrative of supremacy and heroism.
The natural world played an important part in this project. Colonialism was celebrated in the drawing rooms and smoking rooms of English nobility, adorned with the heads of hunting trophies, some beautiful, some made fearsome to elevate the social status of the hunter. The larger and more dangerous the prey, the more remote and unforgiving the location, the more revered was the hunter who made the shot. Check this piece by Maximilian Werner to see how this biosocial dynamic, including its gender dimension, still holds sway. The exercise of domination over nature embedded a narrative of triumph over adversity, struggle and reward, similar to the social Darwinist theories of racial superiority which were also gaining traction as more remote peoples and lands came under colonial control.
As England degraded physically and the environment became more and more polluted by coal smoke, with forests long since cut down and cities overrun with poor migrating for work in the industrial centres, a movement arose to preserve and protect the countryside and the rural way of life. Romantics painted a rosy picture of the village, with quaint gardens and carefully tended homes, and mourned the loss of Hobbiton (OK, that came later, but you catch my drift).
For the colonial mindset, nature could be only two things: it was either a garden, or a wilderness. The garden metaphor viewed the colonies as representative of the quiet English countryside, well tended and cared for, planted and grown with care using the knowledge of scientific methods to regulate the relationships between species. Ecological science, and particularly amateur collectors, made a strong impression by carefully gathering, cataloguing and classifying every new species and specimen ‘discovered’ in the remotest outposts of empire. The endless frontiers would provide valuable information from which to garner wisdom about what had gone wrong in England, and the urge to recreate the Garden of Eden (to somehow earn a ‘do-over’) was strong.
The incorrigibility of Mars is no barrier, in fact it is the fuel for a profound sense of longing and loneliness. Mars is the frontier we’ve already destroyed on Earth, the potential garden which we’ve already mismanaged.
On the other hand, the wilderness represented those areas yet to be tamed. Large areas of Africa were virtually uninhabitable due to disease, climatic hardships, wild animals, and dangerous and resentful local populations. The causes of these hardships were unknown, but not unknowable. Setbacks were common, and did incur some measure of humility and respect for the mystery of nature and the depth of the challenge of controlling what were essentially uncontrollable forces. In the Western part of North America, wilderness was much less threatening, and its imminent loss inspired a sense of strong protection, even reverence, for the ‘natural cathedral’. In Africa, the drive to protect wilderness took the form of hunting reserves where wild animals were protected and cultivated. In North America, it took the form of the creation of national parks with mountain vistas which would be destinations for leisure and health as well as hunting.
So how does the present-day vision of Mars come into this? The colonial imagination of the garden or the wilderness is still present in Western, now in many senses, global culture. Mars is the new canvas for the population to project its longings and dreams, and accuracy is still no part of the picture at all, just as it was with Africa. The incorrigibility of Mars is no barrier, in fact it is the fuel for a profound sense of longing and loneliness. Mars is the frontier we’ve already destroyed on Earth, the potential garden which we’ve already mismanaged.
In an Anthropocene epoch, when nothing on Earth is outside of human influence or touch, our own planet disappoints. As the quintessential mysterious unknown, great status and wealth is to be gained by the race to conquer Mars, regardless of whether it turns out well. Just as the drive to dominate ultimately undermined colonialism itself, so may the urge to colonize Mars destroy not only Mars, but also end up undermining efforts to protect what is left of the only home we’ve ever known. One can argue this point, and perhaps I might be too pessimistic. Might Mars end up being a wellspring of information that might be leveraged to save ourselves and our own planet? Can we learn the real lessons of the wilderness and the garden? I fear instead that we are not departing from the past but recreating it, not because poor Mars might end up being another junkyard (although it’s on the way already) but because we have yet to demonstrate the moral fortitude to be able to see ourselves in Mars.