The Role of 'Nature' in the Politics of the Environment
Report on the meeting of the Triglav Circle, Montézillon, Switzerland, 14-15 June 2014
The Triglav Circle promotes an approach to international relations and public policy grounded in moral and spiritual values that are to be expressed in ethical norms and behavior. To this end it aspires to enrich the discourse on global problems with cultural, philosophical, and spiritual perspectives. Its recent focus has been on the relationship of man and nature, and it met near Neuchatel, Switzerland, on 14-15 June 2014 to discuss "The Role of 'Nature' in the Politics of the Environment".
The opening discussion paper by Philippe Roch, former Director of Environment (equivalent to Minister of the Environment) in the Swiss Federal Government, noted that there was no place for nature in the political dialogue today. In our reductionist approach, we have forgotten nature since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. He used a tree as an example of the five dimensions of nature:
- ecological, the role of the tree in protecting the earth and biodiversity;
- economic: the tree providing wood and energy;
- emotional: the beauty, strength, and music of the tree;
- philosophical: the symbol of unity, as in a family tree;
- spiritual: the cosmic dimension, a place to worship, links to the world.
Today we have an empty culture with only superficial values, which cannot easily be reversed, but must be replaced by a new civilization. To nourish this new culture we need to:
1. think nature, and a philosophy of nature (citing St. Francis of Assisi, J.J. Rousseau, the Trancendentalists, Aldo Leopold, Arne Naess)
2. explain how nature works, since most people today do not have contact with nature
3. experience nature, perhaps by bringing nature into the city
4. change our lifestyles, living closer to nature, with a simpler life
We need to accumulate small experiences that will help us to rebuild after the collapse of our civilization, as the monks rebuilt after the collapse of the Roman Empire.
Barbara Baudot, a professor of political science in America and Secretary of the Triglav Circle, cited the pertinent reflections on nature of thinkers in previous centuries such as John Stuart Mill, James Madison, and Ando Shoeki in Japan.
Dirck Stryker, active in development and business in the U.S., discussed the bottom of the pyramid, with the planet suffering from the tragedy of the commons and the time-bomb that is growing inequality. The universe is increasing its web of interdependence as it increases in interdependency towards self-fulfillment, but this needs to be balanced with small-scale efforts and local, decentralized decision-making.
Jean-Michel Collette, a consultant on social and economic development from France, traced the rise of attention to nature and environmental thinking in international organizations since World War II, with the creation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1948 and the first UN conference on conservation and utilization of resources at Lake Success in 1949. International cooperation can help to increase and distribute information, prepare joint actions wherever feasible, and undertake evaluation and implementation. These mechanisms performed well in the beginning, but since the Rio Earth Summit, the difficulty in finding a consensus has pushed action down to the lowest common denominator.
Arthur Dahl, President of the International Environment Forum, described four steps in our evolving relationship with nature: 1) in primitive times, nature is dominant and man sees no separation with nature; 2) nature is to be conquered and the planet provides an endless supply of natural resources; 3) we live in a largely man-made environment; nature is increasingly scarce and needs to be conserved; 4) the loss of nature is imminent as humans cause the sixth mass extinction. To reconnect with nature, we need to combine three sources of knowledge about nature corresponding to the three human realities: our physical reality where we can experience nature directly; our intellectual reality where we accumulate scientific knowledge about nature; and our spiritual reality where all religious traditions teach respect for nature and see contact with nature as a path to spiritual development. He gave examples of indigenous cultures where there was no separation between man and nature and concluded that we should draw on all three realities to close our circle with nature. [For a more complete development of these themes, see his paper "Healing our Relationship with Nature" at http://iefworld.org/ddahl14c .]
Oliver Smith, who works on interfaith issues for WWF-UK and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, pointed out that, despite all the efforts of non-governmental organizations and the international community, we are still losing the war to save nature. The UN system is broken, so how do we reengage with society in decision-making to achieve change? Too much of the effort has been scientific and aimed at the head, but people are engaged through the heart, by art, culture, beauty and values. This is a values problem, and ARC has been asked by the UN to work on values in UN processes. We need to plant seeds about values, but it will take a generation to make a change.
Edouard Dommen, an economist with many years service in the UN, and a Quaker active in the values debate, referred to the interconnectedness of all ecosystems with man as an integral part. Recent efforts in some Latin American countries give rights to Mother Earth and call for harmony with nature. Different languages and cultures define this in different ways. The Bible sees naming as an act of possession, so that humanity is superior and the master of nature, but the integrity of creation requires a loving relationship with the larger world. The principle of subsidiarity is important, as people know their local environment. There are increasing efforts to maintain cultural diversity and to prevent expropriation of traditional knowledge.
Jaques Baudot, founder of the Triglav Circle and Secretary-General of the 1995 UN Social Summit in Copenhagen, noted that intergovernmental organizations are indispensable to defend the environment, as only states can impose on their citizens, and the main problems are global. Why has the UN failed to address this serious problem? The UN has not been considered the legitimate place to discuss the economy, and linking environment and development has marginalize the environment as well. There is also a diplomatic culture of the defense of state interests, with a short-term perspective and a culture of compromise that is not adapted to the environmental crisis. Diplomats cannot innovate, and avoid values as they complicate the debate. There needs to be an environmental organization with enforcement powers, and a wider training of diplomats on environmental issues. Ultimately we need a change in the spirit of the times and the dominant philosophy. Even at the UN and among diplomats, many know that a new direction is necessary.
There was a rich discussion around each of these themes, and a determination to carry the reflection forward in the future.
More photos of the meeting and of a visit to an adjacent biodynamic farm are at http://yabaha.net/dahl/travel/t2014/travel2014.html#Montezillan.
Last updated 29 June 2014