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Our current legal and economic systems are built on a cracked foundation of false assumptions. Chief among these are the myths that infinite economic growth is possible on a finite planet, and that the natural world is merely a “resource” for our use. As a result of our misperceptions, the natural world is visibly and rapidly declining. Scientists estimate that the current rate of species extinction is 1,000 times the average across history. Climate change accelerates related impacts, creating heightened urgency for action. The climate is now changing ten times faster than any point in the last 65 million years, over 100 times faster than species can adapt.
Numerous government regulations and programs are being developed to address these growing threats. Before we leap forward, however, we must step back and determine if our “solutions” will improve Earth’s well-being or enable further destruction. For this reflection, we turn to the Confucian concept that in order to govern others, we must first govern ourselves, since “[i]t cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered.”
The root of the Earth’s decline is not failed environmental statutes. Rather, it is the grounding of those statutes in a fatally flawed frame of “Earth as servant.” We do not accord the natural world the respect it deserves as a partner on our shared, small planet. We attempt to bully and subdue it; we treat it as merely our property; we manipulate it to feed our desires. We build economic systems that call nature “resources” and “capital,” and ignore the costs of environmental degradation on balance sheets. We think that we can master nature, but we cannot. We are ignoring its strength, and it is reacting to our head-on assault in ways that we cannot control.
In attempting to divine a path forward, jujitsu – a cherished practice of my own for a number of years – provides us with important lessons. Jujitsu teaches to respect an opponent’s strengths, and to flow with those strengths to a better position. We similarly need to learn to flow with nature and respectfully build the space necessary to continue the struggles that are the reality of our interconnected lives on Earth. We must evolve our own awareness, character and actions to the fact of our shared citizenship with the natural world, rather than continue to fight it head-on in a doomed battle for dominance.
Respect for the Earth means nothing less than the full recognition in our laws and economic systems of the inherent rights of ecosystems and species to exist, thrive and evolve. If we assume humans have fundamental rights because we are born on this planet, so too must we assume the same for nature. And just as we recognize human rights in our laws, so too must we recognize the rights of nature, and reject attempts to force it to fit within our false idol of endless economic growth. Without this clear grounding in nature’s rights, our efforts to improve the Earth’s condition will founder. For example, popular “sustainable development” and “green economy” initiatives illustrate the programmatic result of building off a “nature as servant” foundation. The nouns “development” and “economy” demonstrate the true focus of these initiatives. Nature’s protection is merely tangential.
Just as we created our current economic framework, however, so can we change it. Adam Smith, the “father of modern economics,” can provide guidance. Contrary to common belief, he did not intend to pit us in a failed struggle against nature. Instead, he believed that the “chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved,” and he supported actions that benefitted community relationships. By contrast with the stunted “sustainable development,” a governance foundation that recognizes nature’s rights would support initiatives to create “thriving communities,” encompassing both humans and the natural world. Community well-being would be served by the economy – not the reverse, as today.
We can start developing this foundation by recognizing the rights of nature in law, as governments worldwide have begun doing. For instance, Santa Monica, California adopted a Sustainability Rights Ordinance in April 2013 stating that “natural communities and ecosystems possess fundamental and inalienable rights to exist and flourish,” and “corporate entities . . . do not enjoy special privileges . . . that subordinate the community’s rights to their private interests.” They are building an updated Sustainable City Plan now on this foundation of respect for nature, to better ensure the success of city programs.
We are currently in a senseless, head-on battle for supremacy over nature, having failed to recognize the natural world’s power and status as fellow Earth citizen. What we must do now is learn, as jujitsu teaches, that we will do best by bowing to the natural world as our respected partner, and working with – rather than against – its strength. With our new self-governance, we can build community governance systems that go beyond simply reacting to environmental degradation. Instead, they will begin to restore the health of the planet by changing how we fundamentally live our lives with nature.
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