It is time for us humans to act with a little humility
As 2021 dawned, and we entered this critical decade for our species to address the linked perils of biodiversity loss and climate change, I found myself remembering how I understood nature 50 years ago. As young students studying politics at the University of York, there was little if anything in the curriculum about the environment’s importance, although Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had been published in 1962, and the polluter pays principle was beginning to be asserted. In 1972 this principle was formally articulated by the Council of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The 1972 Stockholm Conference, the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, was hardly mentioned during my politics studies at York. However, I have a copy of the Club of Rome report on Limits to Growth purchased by mail order when I learned about it from the Sunday Times.
I was brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition of western societies founded on the anthropocentric “So God created humankind in his image …. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28). Back in 1967 in an essay published in Science entitled “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” Lynn White argued that Christianity was an anthropocentric religion which could be blamed for our ecological crisis. Bolstered by the idea that science had enabled humanity to escape nature’s dominance and achieved mastery over it we continued to believe that we can use nature as we wish despite mounting evidence to the contrary – biodiversity loss, climate change and pandemics. Some even apparently believe that planet Earth can sustain an ever-growing population.
The chemist James Lovelock worked with the microbiologist Lyn Margulis in the 1970s on the evolution of life forms and how they contributed to the stability of global temperature, ocean salinity and oxygen creating and sustaining the conditions for life. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, the idea of a Living Earth, was very controversial; after all, Earth cannot reproduce. Lovelock’s case for a living Earth rests on the idea that life is a self-preserving feedback loops system. A system with which we interfere at our peril. Lovelock first mentioned the idea of a self-regulating Earth controlled by a community of living organisms in a paper published in 1965 and formulated the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s. The fourth Gaia Conference held at George Mason University in 2006, approached Gaia Theory as both science and metaphor, a means of understanding how we might address the existential threats we have created for ourselves. As Sir David Attenborough says in the trailer for A Perfect Planet “Human activity is now so dominant, that it is disrupting the forces of nature and the vital habitats life needs to survive on Earth. To preserve our planet, we need to act now. And if we do that, there will still be time to restore the ecological balance that once made this Earth our perfect planet.”
Yesterday the UK’s Prince of Wales made an urgent appeal to businesses to commit to the Terra Carta charter. The charter “provides a roadmap to 2030 for businesses to move towards an ambitious and sustainable future …. one that will harness the power of nature combined with the transformative power, innovation and resources of the private sector.” Based on work by a “coalition of the willing” among global business leaders “… they have developed a charter of ambitious, but practical action aimed at building a truly sustainable future.”
The Terra Carta, is supported by the Bank of America, Blackrock, EY, AstraZeneca, Schroders, BP, and Heathrow Airport. The charter is designed “to bring prosperity into harmony with Nature, People and Planet over the coming decade.”
As the Prince argues in his introduction to the Terra Carta “Humanity has made incredible progress over the past century, yet the cost of this progress has caused immense destruction to the planet that sustains us.” As he writes “We simply cannot maintain this course indefinitely.”
We need to change the way we think about our world; we know what to do to reverse the damage we are doing. It is time to accept that we do not have dominion over our planet and in all humility, make the necessary changes to live within our planetary boundaries – before it is too late.
The Terra Carta is part of the Sustainable Markets Initiative.