By Bernadette Thomas
Climate change, bushfires, floods, firefighting chemicals, plastic waste, industrial fires, contaminated soil, fish deaths, rivers running dry. If you’ve been following reporting of environmental impacts over the past few years, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was all bad. If you did you probably wouldn’t be far wrong.
In a time when our collective environmental consciousness has perhaps never been greater, humans (though not all of us equally) continue to consume Earth’s resources at an ever-increasing rate. In 2019 the Global Footprint Network calculated that humans consumed more ecological resources and services than the planet could regenerate in that year by 29 July. The date is recognised as Earth Overshoot Day (check it out here: www.overshootday.org), and represents our Global Environmental Footprint. And while each year’s calculations are improved based on available data making direct yearly comparisons not strictly accurate, it is interesting to compare the first calculated overshoot day, which occurred on 29 December 1970 with 2019 – a full four months difference in nearly 50 years.
Humans have always made use of the natural environment to sustain life. Early humans caught animals and collected plant-based foods for sustenance. They changed and managed the landscape to aid their survival. People in modern societies live increasingly western-style lives, and many of us take the natural environment for granted. We dig it up to produce material items to support our ‘lifestyles’, we farm it to grow meat and vegetables for our very existence, and we dump our pollutants into waterways and the atmosphere. We even use it for recreation and to maintain our mental health. When we use the natural environment in this way, as a means to an end, whether we know it or not we ascribe what moral philosophers call an instrumental value. Put simply, the environment has instrumental value because it provides raw materials to make a mobile phone or computer (in the same way that a mobile phone has instrumental value because it allows you to make a phone call).
The past 250 years (since the industrial revolution began) has seen a rapid change to human impact on Earth. Technological change has improved the lives of millions of people, raising them from poverty, cities have grown providing opportunities for education, housing and travel, and extending lives through the application of new medical techniques. But along the way a corresponding environmental impact has rapidly unfolded – excavation of natural resources, increased greenhouse gas emissions, rising temperatures, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, increased land use – rendering changes to Earth’s natural cycles. This time has been dubbed the Anthropocene, “a new ecological epoch dominated by humanity”
Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results”. If humans continue down the path of valuing the natural environment only (or mainly) for its use as a means to an end for us, then there will be no end to the Anthropocene – or maybe it will all come crashing down on our heads and things will end pretty quickly. Just as we have created the Anthropocene, our awareness of the impacts of our actions, our creativity and ability to adapt, provides us with an opportunity to do things differently. How do we find our “safe operating space” that previous human societies have functioned within over millennia?
Moving beyond the Anthropocene will require more than a scientific or technological fix; it relies on a change in values. We must develop an environmental ethic; one that elevates the value and moral status of the natural environment to one of intrinsic value, or value for its own sake without reference to humans. But where to start?
Let’s go back to the 1990’s. The Earth Summit held in Rio de Janiero in 1992 prepared the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. The Declaration set out to guide sustainable development across the globe “recognising the integral and interdependent nature of the Earth, our home” and grounding growth in the context of environmental protection. Some might argue that this doesn’t go far enough and that the scales are still tipped too far in favour of humans and their development (and they might be right given the scale and extent of environmental destruction that has played out since this time).
More recently the concept of Earth Laws or Earth Jurisprudence aims to shift the balance away from human-centred to earth-centred under the law. You’ve probably heard of environmental laws that seek to protect clean air and water or maintain biodiversity, but this movement seeks to go a step further by focusing on the interconnectedness of humans and nature. It introduces nature’s intrinsic right to exist and flourish. It’s an exciting step forward in “transforming our relationship with the non-human world”. In Australia the Australian Earth Laws Alliance (www.aela.org.au) is leading the development of this work in collaboration with colleagues from across the globe.
These ideas are starting to take hold in some pockets of the world, with the Ecuadoran government recognising the rights of nature in its Constitution. In 2008, in a move ratified by a referendum of the people of Ecuador, the Constitution was updated, acknowledging that nature has the right to exist, evolve, and regenerate, and giving the people of Ecuador the right to enforce this right on nature’s behalf.
Going one step further, New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant the Whanganui River the same legal rights as a human being in 2017, with India following suit with the Ganges soon after. These rulings start from the position that the rivers are living beings, and appoints legal guardians who act on their behalf to protect them and uphold their legal rights.
In 2015, a review of the Climate Change Act in Victoria responded to community submissions and recommended developing a Climate Charter (like the Charter of Human Rights but for climate) to ensure that the government incorporates climate change and emissions reduction into all relevant decision making. The success of this idea relies on the implementation by government agencies and departments at all levels and across the whole of government.
In even more recent times, political parties, student movements and environmental organisations across a number of states have called for a Green New Deal, a plan to tackle climate change and put a halt to economic inequality by using public resources to transition the economy away from fossil fuels to clean energy and provide dignified work to citizens. It’s an economic approach to an environmental crisis.
But is all
this enough? Systems must change, as Greta Thunberg reminded us: “if solutions
within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the
system itself”. And in order for systems to change, we must first change
ourselves. When we make decisions as individuals, in a family or household, as
an employee or volunteer, our focus must shift to let’s consider our
relationship with the environment, set our own needs aside and instead ask,
what impact do my decisions and actions have on the rights of the environment
to exist? Make that change.
Bernadette Thomas has a Master of Arts in Professional and Applied Ethics. Her Master’s thesis looked at the question of ecological debt among members of the consumer class.