With the aftermath of the horrendous terrorism attacks in Paris still resonating, world leaders will gather in that city on November 30 to seek agreement on a viable plan to arrest global warming. Understandably, the horror in Paris will be a distraction, but let’s hope that the leaders can effectively address what former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, described as the “great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our age”.
But if a plan is agreed on, it will mainly reflect economic and political considerations rather than moral or ethical ones. We are deluded if we think that world leaders and their constituencies are motivated to avoid the devastating effects of global warming because the natural world is valued for its own sake. Fine words will probably be said about humanity’s moral obligation to protect all life on the planet but what ultimately will spur action will be the value that is placed on nature as a contributor to national economic security, development and prosperity.
Proposing to act against global warming because sea level rises will damage city infrastructure (and, of course, destroy whole island nations at the same time), for example, is not a moral argument. Neither is the warning that global warming will bring increased threats to health from pollution, loss of food producing land, destruction of marine life, diminished availability of fresh water, rise in malaria, dengue fever and other vector borne diseases and heat distress.
Sometimes the case for action against global warming is couched in terms of biodiversity protection but this is usually bracketed with utilitarian and self-interested concerns about the loss of medicinal and food resources. Only occasionally is the protection of biodiversity advanced as reason in its own right, as a moral or ethical obligation in other words.
None of this should come as a surprise because the growing disconnect between ourselves and the natural world makes it increasingly difficult for us to value that world beyond an intellectual and unemotional level. Peter Kahn sees that happening in children. He has observed what he called environmental generational amnesia. Children from generations who have known only degraded natural environments never get to know what a non-degraded environment is really like. They may voice genuine concern about atmospheric pollution, loss of forests, species extinction and the like but they have no experience of the alternatives. What they haven’t known directly and loved personally is hard to value with a “fire-in-the-belly” passion.
So it is, that valuing nature for its own sake depends first and foremost on having a rich and profound emotional connection with the natural world. That connection enables us to experience nature as a significant and necessary component of our lives – one that we want passionately to safeguard.
But as nature is pushed to the margins of personal and community life, we are losing sight of how much our health, productivity and wholeness continue to rely on our immediate and intimate connection with the natural world. We have separated ourselves from nature and degraded it in the dangerous delusion that we have become free of the constraints of the natural world and can aspire to transcend our biology and our natural origins (Stephen Kellert in Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World, p.187).
The Chinese city of Suzhou provides an example of where this “dangerous delusion” can take a society. I wrote about Suzhou in an earlier blog post, drawing on the sobering observations of “Zhou”, an ex-pat American living in that city. In this densely populated region, he finds a world that is completely devoid of “original” (or pre-industrial revolution) nature, where there is only one ecosystem – the ecosystem of the species homo sapiens. In that world, he says, nature exists only in its most basic philosophical form – as the earth and a running total of the actions of the earth’s inhabitants.
Among the ways the impact of this environment plays out in the people’s perspectives and attitudes is to make conservation an alien concept. I have never met a Chinese person from Eastern China who shares my world view of environmentalism unless they have traveled abroad, Zhou says.
The “dangerous delusion” is not confined to Suzhou. I see evidence of it our own society – in for example:
- the alarming increase in the proportion of our lives spent indoors
- the decline in children’s outdoor play
- the falling rates of visits to national parks and reserves in Australia, USA and elsewhere
- the declining membership of bushwalking clubs
- the headlong rush to high density housing with scant regard for the provision of natural spaces and amenities
- the political power and inadequate regulation of big mining, energy, timber and some agricultural companies
- the ignorance and indifference concerning species extinction
- the ideological rejection of science as the only valid basis for understanding and safeguarding the natural environment
- and of course, the shrinking backyard
How, then, can we expect our political masters and leaders to make global decisions about climate change motivated by a genuine sense of moral commitment and ethical responsibility to the natural world? Like the rest of us, they will ultimately sustain only those things that are loved and valued and if nature is not high on their list, it will inevitably be neglected or miss out altogether.
Clearly there has to be a universal transformation in our values towards the natural world. Without it, action on behalf of the planet will never be wholehearted. As the great ecologist and ethicist, Aldo Leopold, said:
There must be some force behind conservation more universal than profit. Less awkward than government, less ephemeral than sport, something that reaches into all times and spaces…something that brackets everything from rivers to raindrops, from whales to hummingbirds, from land-estates to window boxes…I can see only one such force: a respect for land as an organism.
Well, is such a transformation possible and achievable? I believe so, and I will tell you why in my next post.