War and peace with nature

23 February 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

Our relationship with the Earth has long been troubled. Thanks largely to two key developments – the adoption of Judeo-Christian beliefs and the philosophy of the Enlightenment – the Western worldview has been that we are separate from and superior to nature, leading us to horribly mistreat nature.

Prior to the emergence of Judeo-Christian thought there were multiple gods and nature spirits; between them, they embodied nature, for which there was a reverence. Writing in The Conversation in September 2019, University of Nottingham lecturer Heather Alberro noted people “generally considered the sacred to be found throughout nature, and humanity as thoroughly enmeshed within it.”

But then along came the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity and, wrote Alberro, “their sole god – as well as sacredness and salvation – were re-positioned outside of nature.” Not just outside of, but actually superior to nature.

The roots of our current crisis can be seen clearly in Genesis, Chapter 1, where “God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

So there we have it, not just the exhortation to subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing, but to multiply the human population. Added to that was the Enlightenment view, first championed by René Descartes, not only that mind and body are separate but that humans, as the only rational beings, were separate from both inanimate nature and mindless animals, which are ours to exploit.

Hence nature is excluded from our thinking and from our economic models, as my two recent columns on the Dasgupta Review have discussed. And hence what the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has called our suicidal war on nature.

The ‘war’ metaphor with respect to our relationship with nature is not new, but is getting a new prominence these days. Here in Canada Seth Klein, long the Director of the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, has written a book titled “A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency”. In it, he argues that we need to adopt an approach to the climate crisis based on lessons to be learned from our mobilization in the Second World War.

But as my friend and colleague Thom Heyd, an Adjunct Professor in Environmental Studies at UVic, noted, “Are there ever “good wars” in this world? . . . What’s wrong with “A Good Peace” instead?” So I imagine Thom will be very pleased with the major new report from the UN Environment Program, released February 18th, entitled “Making Peace with Nature”.

In his foreword to the report, the UN Secretary General notes the triple human-created threat we face: “the climate emergency, the biodiversity crisis and the pollution that kills millions of people every year.”

In the face of this challenge, he writes, “making peace with nature is the defining task of the coming decades”, adding that we need “a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme.” The report provides these.

Making peace with nature, writes Guterres, will mean “transforming how we view nature”, so that “we can recognize its true value”, and then “ reflecting this value in policies, plans and economic systems”. The report calls for a transformation of our societal and economic systems, including our energy and food production systems, the way we treat the land, waters and oceans and the way we treat our wastes.

Such transformations, the report says, are key to addressing major social concerns such as “poverty elimination, equity, health, economic development, peace, food, water, sanitation, safe cities and settlements”; what Kate Raworth, in her Doughnut Economics model calls the social foundation of society.

In short, we must heed the wise words attributed to the 19th century Dwamish Chief, Seattle: “We are part of the great web of life, and whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves”. So when we wage war on nature, we are really waging war on ourselves at the same time, which as Guterres notes, is “senseless and suicidal” – and I would say, insane. It’s time to make peace.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.


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