Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

Whale slaughterThe news this week that Japan intends resuming “research” whaling in the Antarctic spotlights the concern I raised in my last post. Bluntly stated, the concern is that conversations about climate change and other pressing environmental issues are driven more by political, economic and national self-interest and much less by a valuing of the natural world based on an altruistic love and respect for it. Humanity’s approach to the well-being of nature is largely pragmatic rather than ethical.

As I said, this is a blunt statement of my concern and, as such, does not completely reflect the way things are. Fortunately, the picture is not as black and white as I appear to be painting it.

Looked at in isolation, Japan’s behaviour could be seen as validating my viewpoint. Here is a country, already responsible for killing 3600 minke whales since 2005, setting out to slaughter a further 330, ostensibly for “research” purposes. Japan makes no secret of the fact that the meat from the kills will be Whale meatprocessed into food. Quite apart from violating a ruling of the International Court of Justice, Japan accuses opponents of its action of being emotional about whales and deniers of “scientific” evidence that supports its position.

But beyond Japan (and indeed to some extent within it), there is outrage about what is about to happen. As Australia’s Minister for Conservation, Greg Hunt said, “We do not accept in any way, shape or form the concept of killing whales for so-called ‘scientific research’.” Writing in The Japan Times, Tokyo-based historian Jeff Kingston said Japan’s resumption of whaling flouts the rule of law and would have negative repercussions outweighing any potential upsides for the country’s whaling industry. “Whaling advocates in the Japanese government may think they are justified on cultural and culinary grounds, but they are harpooning ‘Brand Japan’,” he wrote.

The extraordinary thing is that criticisms like these would never have been levelled a matter of a few decades ago. Until the 1930s Australia, along with most other maritime nations, saw whales as an economic resource to be exploited with relative impunity. Between 1822 and 1930, for example, 26,000 southern right whales had been taken in Australian and New Zealand waters. Even as recently as the second half of the 20th century, Australia was still killing sperm whales in their thousands. Not only were whales viewed as a commercial commodity, their harvesting was viewed with pride, a demonstration that humans could dominate some of the world’s largest creatures in the inhospitable environment of the open ocean. The whale was largely perceived as a distant, alien creature, even a malevolent one.

But by the 1980s, attitudes towards the whale were undergoing a profound transformation – described by Stephen Kellert in this way:

Once dominant values based on exploitation, dominion and aversion towards whales had been moderated through much of the developed world. Replacing these sentiments were far more appreciative and sympathetic values, including affection, attraction, intellectual interest, and even the spiritual celebration of the animal. This shift in consciousness toward whales became so pronounced that the animal emerged as an iconic symbol of contemporary conservation, prompting the president of the National Geographic Society in 1976, Gilbert Grosvenor, to remark: “The whale has become a symbol from a new way of thinking about the planet”. Whale a

Notice the words (in bold) Kellert uses to describe the transformation in attitudes towards whales. Each refers to a way we humans have evolved to survive and thrive in nature. Each is a way we “attach meaning to and derive benefit from the natural world” – and hence attach values to it.

With Kellert’s detailed picture of how we relate to nature, we are in a much better position to describe that relationship and to appreciate how it can differ from one person to another and how it can change.

The concepts making up Kellert’s picture are:

  • affection – seeking both the “companionship” and well-being of natureIsobel and elephant
  • attraction – appreciating natural beauty
  • knowing – observing, understanding and thinking about the natural world
  • aversion – antipathy towards and sometimes fearing nature
  • exploitation – utilizing the resources of the natural world
  • domination – mastering and controlling the natural environment
  • spirituality – finding meaning and purpose in experiences that take us beyond ourselves
  • symbolism – representing nature in art, language and music

Take a moment before reading on to think about your own experience of nature in terms of each of these concepts – the form and depth of your love of nature, for example, the strength of your attraction to natural beauty, the mental stimulation you get from nature and so on.

Expect to find that you can use all of the concepts to describe your relationship with nature. Even if you are the most ardent nature lover and admirer of natural beauty, you will also be involved in exploiting and dominating nature in some way – indirectly if not directly.

For Kennert, the concepts represent values as much as they do actions. Affection for nature goes hand-in-hand with recreational, aesthetic, psychological and conservation values, for example, just as exploitation is underpinned by an assertive valuing of the economic and material resources of the natural world.

Within Japanese society and culture, exploitation and domination (along perhaps with knowing) are the driving values as far as whales are concerned. Elsewhere, the relationship with whales is shaped much more by values associated with affection and attraction. This is not to say that the Japanese people have no affection for or attraction to whales or that they are insensitive to the suffering of the creatures. But these pro-whale values are not strong enough currently to outweigh the values associated with exploitation and domination. In contrast to the position in, say, Australia, the value balance in Japan is against the interest of whales (or the minke species at least).

Changing the balance is the only way to create a new situation that is good for whales AND the Japanese people. It was such a change that brought Australia and other nations to their current pro-whale position.

Is such a transformative change possible in relation to other species and indeed the natural environment more generally? The whale is, after all, a very charismatic species.

No one really knows the answer, but we do know that many, many factors influence people’s environmental attitudes and actions. We also know that the task of changing environmental values and ethics is challenging and takes a long time.

Kennert understands this but insists that we have no other option. Without a basic reorientation of our values and ethics towards nature, human will never flourish or be fulfilled, he argues. Environmental altruism has to replace environmental abuse across the planet.

Robert Manne agrees. His recent excellent forensic analysis (The Monthly 2015 summer edition) of why the world has failed to address climate change provides a comprehensive review of all the past manoeuvring and machinations and a compelling reflection on what needs to be done, politically, economically and otherwise. But he concludes:

Yet, as many people now realise, something much more profound than all this [the necessary actions] is required: a re-imagining of the relations between humans and the Earth, a re-imagining that will be centred on a recognition of the dreadful and perhaps now irreversible damage that has been wrought to our common home by the hubristic idea at the very centre of the modern world – man’s assertion of his mastery over nature.

Such a recognition signals a coming moral shift no less deep than those that have already transformed humankind with regard to the ancient inequalities of race and gender.

But there are grounds for optimism. Other examples apart from that of the whales show that transformations in our basic values towards aspects of the natural environment can occur quite quickly and exert lasting effects beyond those achieved by mandate or law. Kellert himself points to the radical changes that are occurring in attitudes towards wetlands, once pejoratively known as swamps. Commonly in the past they were known as places to fear, avoid and wherever possible drain and convert to more useful purposes. Now in many countries, the immense ecological value of wetlands is being recognised and action to conserve them is growing.

In the face of seemingly apocalyptic environmental challenges, it is easy to despair for the future of humanity’s relationship with nature. But we must remain hopeful and positive. Relating to nature in our everyday lives with affection, attraction, intellectual interest and spiritual celebration is key to doing this. So too is finding encouragement in environmental success stories – of the kind Orion McCarthy describes in his timely and inspiring blog, Conserve (the link is in the Blogroll).


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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 aglobal 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 global warming cdiseases 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.

No risk of environmental generational amnesia for these two

No risk of environmental generational amnesia for these two

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.


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This stunning image was sent to me by Kate (my guest blogger) in the weekThe Rotherham children look to the future Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment was attracting a great deal of media coverage and comment.

The children in the photo are on a family visit to the magnificent Kimberley region of north-western Australia. They are at a spot on the coast of that region watching the sun set on the Indian Ocean.

The photo stirred me deeply, not only because of its literal content but also because of the symbolic meaning I saw in it. For me, a sunset represents the end of one day and the promise of a new one. It points to the future as much as to the past.

As I looked at the photo I took the glow of the sunset to represent the future of the four youngsters. This triggered in me (again) some uneasy speculation about the children’s  future and the future of humanity and planet Earth more generally. I know that I am far from alone in my deep concern. Among the articles written about the Pope’s urging to heal the environment and combat climate change was one by Nobel Laureate, Professor Brian Schmidt. The title of the article says it all really: I fear for my grandkids and humanity if we don’t tackle this (SMH, June 22, 2015).

Not surprisingly (and quite reasonably in my view), the encyclical identifies the roots of the problem as the rampant consumerism and quest for material growth in the rich nations, and the associated social and economic injustices that are depriving people in poorer nations of the basics of existence – food, water and a secure place to live.

But the encyclical takes the analysis of the problem a significant step further – into our mental emotional and moral relationship with the natural world. First, it puts paid to the ancient Biblical notion of human dominion over other creatures. Second it points to the increasing disconnect with nature in modern life arising from increased urbanisation.

I believe that this second point is the sleeper in the whole conversation about combatting climate change and restoring planetary health. It may even be the elephant in the room. We are hearing more and more about “decarbonising” the atmosphere – largely by transitioning from fossil fuel sources of energy to renewable alternatives. That is great and not to be contested, as decarbonising addresses a major source of accelerating global warming and climate change. But it only partially addresses a wider problem – that of the massive ecological damage being wrought by a host of other human activities. Destroyed forestdesertification       At the core of ecological health and productivity is biodiversity – the number of animals, plants and microorganisms on the planet. The richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to the challenge of climate change. At least 40 per cent of the world’s economy and 80 per cent of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources.

That is why declining biodiversity has to be a major concern, and correcting it, equally with arresting climate change, has to be a foremost goal of the 21st century. As we are all part of the problem, we all have to part of the solution.

We will do this best if we have our mental house in order as far as nature is concerned. There is overwhelming evidence that a love of nature is a powerful driver of action to save the planet. For that reason, the encyclical has to be commended for placing the growing disconnect between nature and ourselves squarely on the environmental and climate change agenda. Reversing that disconnect is a vital step in building an enduring, practical and vigorous commitment to planetary well-being.

CYW_Cover_finalI now see that “claiming our wildness” (restoring our kinship with nature) is much more than embracing nature in order to be happy, healthy and fulfilled at the personal level. It is also an investment in a sustainable future – not only for ourselves but also for our children and all the generations to follow.

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What happens when a circus lion reconnects with earth, grass and rock after 13 years of captivity?

See for yourself by taking a moment to look at this video clip  taken at the Rancho dos Gnomos Sanctuary in Brazil.

There is no mistaking the lion’s pleasure – in the way it paws the earth and rolls on the grass, for example.Freed lion a Its actions are saying as eloquently as any words, this is my scene; this is where I belong; this is where I need to be. Thirteen years of incarceration in cages had not dimmed the lion’s instinctive bond with the natural world.

Freed lionWatching the video reminded me of what Peter Greste said when he was asked what he most wanted to do after being released from 12 months in an Egyptian jail. His reply: Watching a few sunsets…, watching the stars, feeling the sand under my toes — the little things.

Although very different creatures, the lion and Peter were conveying a strikingly similar message – they each have needs that only contact with the natural environment can satisfy.

This is true for all of us and there is no mystery about the reason. We, along with lions and all other animals have our origins in the same place – the natural world. We have all been fashioned by that world so that we can be part of it. That makes us members of a “wild” species just as much as every other creature. Biologically, we belong in the “wild” no less than the liberated lion at Rancho dos Gnomos – and because our psychology is grounded in our biology, the same wild heritage shapes much that goes on in our minds and is expressed in our actions.

Up until 10 – 12 thousand years ago, this would have been obvious in our forebears’ hunting and gathering way of life. Of necessity, they lived lives that were seamlessly interwoven with the natural environment. They drew directly on that environment for sustenance and shelter. They were also mentally and emotionally attracted to the environment even though it contained many hazards and threats to survival. They had both an innate love and an innate fear of nature – the one inviting them to reach out to the natural world, the other to be prudently wary in their reaching out. As the combination of a love and fear of nature was essential for their survival, it was programmed into their genes, to be passed on from one generation to another.

So here we are today with brains primed to connect us mentally and emotionally with the natural world and to richly reward us when we do.

The scientist most responsible for making us aware of this very important aspect of ourselves is Edward O Wilson. He borrowed the label, Wilsonbiophilia”, to refer to it. That was over 30 years ago but Wilson remains as convinced as ever that biophilia is real and a big part of what makes us human. To ignore or neglect the inclinations and impulses that are fueled by biophilia, is to lose a great deal of what it means to be a human. Just as feed-lot cows can never be fully cows or battery chickens fully chickens, humans confined to a constructed and increasingly technological world can never be fully human.

Feed-lot cows and battery chickens appear to be happy; generally they are well-fed, sheltered and protected from harm. What then is so wrong about their lives? The answer, I think, boils down to this – they are not able to do all the things that is natural for cows and chickens to do, to roam, graze and “socialize” freely, for example.

As far as we humans are concerned, very much the same rationale applies. Technology can offer us just so much, but to enjoy our “humanness” to the full, we need a rich connection with nature.

Discovering the range of personal benefits associated with this connection inspired me to write Claim Your Wildness. But the connection has a significance and importance that extends well beyond the personal and the immediate.

The future of the planet depends on it.

Re-establishing the human connection with nature has to be an important theme in conservation and in the movement to curb climate change. For Wilson, the first rule of climate management is to save the living environment – save the species and ecosystems that are our cradle and where we developed and on which we’ve depended for literally millions of years—then automatically you’ll save the physical environment.

It is all well and good to do such things as slowing down climate change, expanding sustainable sources of fresh water, developing alternative fuels, reducing pollution – all the things that people think correctly are of central importance in management of the planet. But, says Wilson, if you set out to save only the physical environment, then you will lose them both, the physical and living environments.

The implication of what Wilson is saying is clear. If we are to save the planet, and hence ourselves, we must first strengthen our own connection with the living environment. This will foster the love, understanding and respect for the natural world ( the biophilia) that effective conservation action requires. If that connection decays through neglect then away goes the necessary commitment and passion.

Wilson is concerned that this is already happening – that our increased dependence on technology has led to a weakening of the human drive to connect with nature.

In fact, the loss of desire to interact with the natural world, resulting in a decreased appreciation for the diversity of life-forms that support human survival, has been cited as a potential factor contributing to environmental destruction and the rapid rate of species extinction.

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