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Feature - Issue #7

The World is a Spirit Vessel

Words by Jeremy Lent
Illustration by Cláudia Salgueiro

One who desires to take the world and act upon it,
I see that it cannot be done.
The world is a spirit vessel,
Which cannot be acted upon.
One who acts on it fails,
One who holds on to it loses.

- Tao Te Ching.

At first sight, our modern age might seem to have proven this passage from the Tao Te Ching wrong. Our dominant culture has explicitly “desired to take the world and acted upon it” - and in many ways has succeeded beyond even its own wildest dreams. But is it possible, we may wonder, that the Tao Te Ching was right after all?

Since the second world war, the scale of human impact on the world has exploded in virtually every dimension. The sheer number of humans has more than tripled to 7.8 billion, and is growing at a rate equivalent to a new city of a million inhabitants springing up every five days. Global growth rates in production, consumption and trade have been even more dramatic, each gauge increasing more than tenfold.

This explosion of human activity - known as the Great Acceleration - has, however, come at a massive cost. As our global civilisation expands its scope, it does so by literally consuming the living Earth. Three quarters of all land has been appropriated for human purposes, either turned into farmland, covered by concrete or flooded by reservoirs. Three quarters of rivers and lakes are used for crop or livestock cultivation, with many of the world’s greatest rivers, such as the Ganges, Yangtze and Nile, no longer reaching the sea. Half the world’s forests and wetlands have disappeared; the Amazon rainforest alone is vanishing at the rate of an acre every second.

The Earth’s topsoil is rapidly being depleted, with significant loss of agricultural productivity on nearly a third of arable land. This loss has mostly been masked by the extensive use of manufactured nitrogen fertiliser, which drains into the ocean, causing uncontrolled algae blooms that suffocate all other life, creating more than 400 dead zones in coastal waters, some covering 20,000 square miles. Beyond the dead zones, commercial fishing encompasses an area four times that of agriculture, leaving less than 13% of the oceans free from human impact. At the current rate, it’s estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean, by weight, than fish.

The nonhuman creatures with whom we share the Earth are being systematically annihilated by the Great Acceleration, as they lose their habitat, are hunted down, or poisoned by our pollution. There has been a 68% decline in vertebrate populations worldwide since 1970, with freshwater species such as amphibians registering a jaw-dropping 84% loss. Insects have been faring just as badly, with reports of “insectageddon” from some areas that have seen populations crashing toward extinction levels - such as the Monarch butterflies that migrate annually from Mexico to the United States, which have declined by 98% over the past 30 years.

Leading Earth scientists have identified nine “planetary boundaries” representing what they call the safe operating space for humanity - but report that we have already exceeded four of them. Concerned that their message has not been heard by the world at large, a group of 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a warning to humanity in November 2017 that, because of our overconsumption of the world’s resources, we are facing “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss”. Time is running out, they aver: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” To date, though, this trajectory continues.

Not everyone, however, shares the sense of impending doom promulgated by the 15,000 scientists. There are some who welcome the arrival of the Anthropocene as a triumph signalling the glorious progress of humankind. “We are as gods,” declares Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, “and have to get good at it.”

Brand is one of an influential new breed of environmental thinkers - some known as New Conservationists, others as ecomodernists - who believe humanity’s destiny is to take charge of nature and mould her to its will. A major theme of this group is to question the very idea of nature as something separate from humanity. Since Homo sapiens first evolved, they argue, there has never been such a thing as untrammelled, pristine wilderness. Therefore, there is no reason to mourn the loss of something that was merely a romantic idealisation.

These pundits, many with close connections to centres of money and power, have provoked an acrimonious debate in the environmental movement about how to respond to the Anthropocene. “We are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not,” writes New Conservationist Emma Marris. “To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it.”

They are right about one thing. As we enter the Anthropocene, we must face the stunning realisation - first promulgated by environmentalist Bill McKibben in The End of Nature, written in 1989 - that there is nowhere in the entire world that remains free of human interference. Some of the remotest places are the most polluted, such as the Arctic, where pollutants such as dioxin and DDT accumulate, or the 11km-deep Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, where polychlorinated biphenyls have been found in crustaceans at 50 times the level of crabs living in the dirtiest waters of mainland China.

While this situation might seem deplorable to many of us, New Conservationists take it all in their stride. Nature, they argue, is highly resilient, not fragile. For every habitat that’s lost, a new one emerges. “Move, adapt or die,” exclaims Brand, contending that when fragile native species go extinct, “they leave a niche for other species to migrate or adapt into”. An editorial on the biodiversity crisis in The Economist triumphantly opined that “in a sense, this orgy of destruction [is] natural. In the wild, different species compete for resources, and man proved a highly successful competitor.”

The alignment with the viewpoint of The Economist is no coincidence. Along with their glorification of human supremacy, the New Conservationists are fervent believers in the power of markets and technology to bring about a rosy future in an environment purposefully constructed to maximise human aspirations. Believing that the value of nature exists solely in how it benefits humankind, they argue that conservation should become a tool for economic development. They promote a vision of “working landscapes” where, for example, trees are cultivated to produce lumber, even if that means cutting down old-growth forests and replacing biodiverse ecosystems with monocultures.

‘At a deeper level, putting a monetary value on ecosystem services implicitly changes the frame in which people think about nature.’

Since humanity has now emerged triumphant, the New Conservationists argue, nature should be assimilated into the same globalised market-based economy that has enveloped the rest of life. The process used for this assimilation is known as ecosystem services: a methodology to calculate a financial value for each of the services nature provides for humankind. With ardent faith in market principles, they contend that, priced appropriately, nature’s services will be fairly valued, and those that benefit humanity will automatically be sustained through market mechanisms.

The idea of ecosystem services first emerged in the 1980s. Ironically, it was pioneered not by New Conservationists but by leading environmental champions who, frustrated by their failure to preserve nature in the face of unremitting destruction, believed their efforts might gain more traction if only they could find a way to speak to businesspeople and policymakers on their own terms. If they could show key decision-makers, they felt, how valuable nature’s gifts were, then surely they would stop demolishing their own wealth.

Although initiated with the best of intentions, the concept of valuing ecosystem services to enhance nature conservation has been shown to be deeply flawed, frequently counterproductive and ultimately self-defeating. The most obvious problem is that, once a natural ecosystem is made the subject of cost-benefit analysis, its survival depends solely on its relative value compared to any competing development project.

The rapidly shrinking Arctic icecap, for example, while portending a global catastrophe, offers a short-term economic windfall for mining and shipping companies. In 2019 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unabashedly praised the melting ice for permitting corporations to access its oil, gas, uranium and fisheries, in addition to opening up trade passageways. “Arctic sea lanes,” he gushed, “could become the 21st century Suez and Panama canals.”

At a deeper level, putting a monetary value on ecosystem services implicitly changes the frame in which people think about nature. It becomes normative to start considering the value of living beings in terms of market-based parameters such as trading, efficiency, and profit. From this perspective, nature is debased into just another resource to be exploited as rapidly as possible until its total depletion.

The sombre truth is that the vast bulk of nature’s staggering abundance has already disappeared. We live in a world characterised primarily by the relative silence and emptiness of its natural spaces. It’s only when we read accounts of wildlife from centuries ago that we realise how much is gone. This phenomenon, known as shifting baseline syndrome, was first discovered by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, who was researching the reduction in the size of the catch off the eastern seaboard of North America, which had declined by 97% since written records began, although the fishermen remained strangely unconcerned. He realised that each generation viewed the baseline as whatever they caught at the beginning of their career, regardless of how much smaller it was than the previous generation’s, leading to what he called “the gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance” of fish populations. Shifting baseline syndrome has since been shown to be pervasive everywhere in the world.

‘In contrast to the modern destruction of natural abundance, Indigenous cultures across the world developed behavioural norms that led to a sustainable equilibrium between humans and nature.’

One 18th century writer, standing on the shores of Wales, described schools of herrings five or six miles long, so dense that “the whole water seems alive; and it is seen so black with them to a great distance, that the number seems inexhaustible”. In the 17th century Caribbean sailors could navigate at night by the noise of massive shoals of sea turtles heading to nesting beaches on the Cayman Islands. In the 19th century massive flocks of passenger pigeons would blot out the sun throughout the eastern US. The last one died in a zoo in 1914.

In contrast to the modern destruction of natural abundance, Indigenous cultures across the world developed behavioural norms that led to a sustainable equilibrium between humans and nature. From the earliest times, tribal elders encouraged the institution of rituals and observances that reoriented behaviour to more sustainable practices. These cultural attractors were so resilient that many of them remain embedded in the present day values of Indigenous communities. Building on the ubiquitous Indigenous perception of nature as an extended family - implying that all creatures were relatives - the practices that arose inculcated respect, restraint and reciprocity with all nonhuman beings.

In the Pacific north-west of North America, for example, the salmon runs remained plentiful until the arrival of European settlers, not because the native people lacked the technical capacity to overfish, but because of a complex set of rituals restraining them from casual consumption of the fish until ceremonies had been performed.

Ecologist Kat Anderson, who has spent years researching Indigenous land practices in California, has identified two overarching principles of harvest: leave some of what is gathered for other animals; and do not waste what you have harvested. Similarly, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes a series of precepts among Native Americans - known as the honourable harvest - that guide practices, including rules such as: ask permission before taking; take only what you need; and give a gift in reciprocity for what you have taken.

In Australia, similarly, the Aboriginal population established sacred dreaming sites - frequently nesting or breeding areas where no hunting, fishing, gathering or burning could take place. Fish traps in rivers were designed with wide netting so that smaller juveniles could escape while only the large remained to be caught. An early settler’s daughter wrote in her journal that, when she asked her father why there were no more fish, he responded: “When the blacks went the fish went.” Without the Aboriginals’ ritual practices, the settlers had wiped out the population in just one generation.

Scientists point out that it’s not yet too late to halt the ongoing extinction of species as a result of human activity. So far, only a few percent of species have actually gone extinct, and the direction our civilisation takes over the next few decades will crucially impact whether we can prevent the worst depredations from occurring. In an important step, Indigenous based movements around the world are convincing governments to recognise the intrinsic rights of natural ecosystems. Responding to Maori demands, the New Zealand government has recognised the legal rights of an ancestral forest and river named Te Awa Tupua. Other bodies of water around the world, from Lake Erie to the Ganges, and from the Colombian Amazon to Bangladeshi rivers, have also been granted rights as legal entities.

In Ecuador and Bolivia, Pachamama (Mother Nature) has been granted constitutional rights as a living system that “has the right to exist, persist, and maintain and regenerate its vital cycles”. A related movement is building to declare a global Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Meanwhile, a campaign is underway to make the wholesale destruction of natural living systems a criminal act by establishing a law of ecocide - prosecutable under the International Criminal Court like genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

However, even these visionary and groundbreaking movements may not be enough to turn the tide of global destruction that our civilisation is wreaking on the Earth. Ultimately, the Great Acceleration has been fueled - and continues to be fueled - by the incessant requirement for growth in production and consumption, characterising the globalised market-based economic system dominated by vast profit-driven transnational corporations, and by the implicit view of nature as nothing other than a resource to be exploited.

In recent centuries, as Europeans subjugated other regions, a narrative of white supremacy - one that retains its pernicious power even today - asserted superiority over other races. Among those who recognise its toxic qualities, white supremacy is understood as a form of violence that inflicts suffering on others while simultaneously damaging the perpetrators by binding them to a system of brutality. What is less recognised is that the ideology of human supremacy - claiming innate superiority over nonhuman animals - has a similarly malignant effect. Ultimately, it is the ideology of human supremacy that allows us to maltreat animals in factory farms, blow up mountaintops for coal, turn vibrant rainforest into monocrop wastelands, trawl millions of miles of ocean floor with nets that scoop up everything that moves - while glorying in the Anthropocene, claiming that nature exists only to serve human needs.

If we are to redirect our civilisation’s trajectory away from catastrophe, we must change the underlying foundation of values on which this global cultural and economic system has been based. We must move, ultimately, from a civilisation that is wealth-based to one that is life-based - one that rejects the folly of human supremacy, and in its place asserts the primacy of life as the foundational principle of our value system.

Edited extract from The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place In the Universe by Jeremy Lent. Published by Profile Books, 2021.

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