You only have to experience the futility of a climate breakdown debate to understand how disconnected human beings have become from nature. When it comes to the natural world our human superiority complex prevents us really connecting with the very thing that sustains us. Like the Amazon, the irony burns.
So we need a rethink.
A good place to start would be to get back to natural law which would mean that we humans have the opportunity to rewrite the social contract and, as importantly, restructure the deal that we have with a planet we call home.
Director of Replenish Earth, Dr Tia Kansara and author and campaigner, Rory Spowers joined with Renegade Inc. to discuss how we can rediscover natural law and our sense of self.
The lack of any initial progress towards a reconciliation of human beings’ relationship to nature must of been a depressing prospect for any budding environmentalist campaigner during the early days of the movement. Dr Tia Kansara is no exception. When Kansara started out working in the environmental field as a speaker, for example, the attitude among CEOs with regards to how their businesses had a negative environmental impact on society, was largely one of incomprehension and condescension.
Kansara suggests there was a minimal conceptual understanding among heads of big business of the holistic interplay between business and the environment. Back then, the general consensus was that their business plans had no harmful affects on the planet, largely as a result, says Kansara, of the lack of any visible manifestations in the form of plastics in the ocean compared to today. Moreover, due to the disconnect between human experience and the reality of nature, there was (and arguably still is) a sense that people in the developed world were less aware than their counterparts in the developing world that their actions have real environmental impacts. The latter are more in touch with nature because they actually experience – on a day-to-day basis – the consequences of their actions.
As Kansara says, this has to do with visibility and notions of what is normal:
“So when we’re talking about things that don’t really relate to the reality of nature, it’s not visible and you can’t use the senses to understand it. You can’t touch it or smell it because maybe you don’t live in India and down the street there’s this big pile of rubbish that everyone just turns a blind eye to. It is normal to walk down the street, say in Birmingham, and put something on the floor because you don’t think that that has a consequence. You have systems in place in the city to collect that trash. It’s not gonna be there tomorrow. Somebody else will have done it…You live in a system [and] don’t think twice about how the system runs. It runs. You leave your rubbish outside. You buy what you want. When you’ve purchased it you throw it in whatever corresponding dustbin – at the time when I was growing up it was a black bin. So everything just went in…You never had to think about whether you have to segregate your plastics.”
Kansara recalls her time spent in Japan where she lived. The lack of any organized system of waste disposal in the country reiterates the extent to which personal responsibility for one’s actions begins, and the expectation resulting from the said actions ends. Does the expectation to act in a certain way override one’s personal responsibility to take charge of something? Kansara’s experience highlights a broader societal-environmental conundrum – does one take preventative measures or does one try to change the system so that those preventative measures are taken into account?
The corporate bottom-line
The dilemma is heightened as a result of a system motivated by the imperatives associated with the financial bottom-line. The environmental decision-making strategies of big business, in other words, are factored into their financial cost-benefit calculations. The environmental ‘externalities’ – to use business jargon – resulting from a system motivated primarily by profit, means that society as a whole is deemed responsible for cleaning up environmentally destructive outcomes that emanate from the economic decisions of big business that give rise to the said destruction. Corporations only act voluntarily in the interests of society in circumstances where their destructive environmental actions impact negatively on profits. This strategy, in a nutshell, is what is meant by ‘greenwashing’.
It takes intervention at the state level to offset environmental harms caused by big business whose financial bottom- line is dependent on the perpetuation of the said environmentally destructive factors. As the decision by the Norwegian government to recommend that the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund fully divests from all fossil fuel attests, social change comes when big business is hit directly in its pocket. In the view of Kansara, the move by the Norwegian government is the beginning of a strategy to fight climate change.
Out of step
More broadly, the apparent dichotomy between a rapacious system driven primarily by profit on the one hand, and notion of an ecological sustainable planet on the other, is consistent with Rory Spowers thesis that what we’ve created is an economic system completely out of step with natural systems. “We’ve become the first species to generate waste and create linear systems when nature is obviously inherently cyclical and regenerative by design”, says Spowers.
In his 2002 book, Rising Tides, Spowers was arguably ahead of the curve (at least in environmental circles) in terms of recognizing the inherently destructive nature of the existing system. The title of the book refers to the rising tides of world sea levels and the rising tide of public opposition to an economic system in which runaway climate change and the destruction of the planet are its corollary.
“I got woken up to these issues in the early 90s having spent a year cycling the length of Africa and I came back basically consumed with all of this stuff. Things like ozone depletion, rainforest depletion and climate change were just starting to hit the headlines…It’s rather depressing to find that all these years later, so little of it seems to have permeated through to high level thinking”, says Spowers, who adds:
“My oldest son is studying economics A level. But there is absolutely nothing within his syllabus that gives any time for circular economic thinking, systems change or complexity theory – things that have been around now for decades. And very few people in any positions of influence have got even a limited grasp of these concepts. They still hold onto this completely illogical belief that infinite growth on a finite planet with finite resources is a plausible agenda. We are still living with an economic system driven by what we know to be obsolete parameters and drivers that was designed for the industrial revolution. It is woefully out of date, and has never been upgraded.”
The author and campaigner opines that the core of this illogical belief system stems from a conceptual misreading of the nature of wealth:
“Many people in positions of power and influence ignore the real wealth of natural systems and fail to recognize that many economies are dependent on ecological systems. You can never build an ecology on an economy. And this is yet to really permeate”
In the author’s view, it will be future generations who will be forced to pick up the pieces resulting from the irresponsible decisions made by of their forebears:
“You look globally at what is going on and it is my children’s generation that’s really bearing the brunt of this. The way things are, we might well see runaway climate change kicking in within my lifetime, possibly – according to some people – within the next decade, certainly within my children’s generation”, says Spowers, adding:
“We’re the only species to have created waste – a pretty unique concept. Climate change is an example of that. Micro plastics and its airborne micro plastics – nano particles – are now going into our lungs as well which is a whole new area that’s going to come out soon – PCBs, dioxins… all of these things that cannot be sequestered by natural biological processes. So there’s a whole design revolution that needs to go in step with this whole change in the economic paradigm. But the core problem is – as Upton Sinclair famously said – ‘it’s very hard to convince a man that something’s wrong when his job depends on it being otherwise”.
Underlying all this is the notion that human beings are totally out of step with natural law. The consensus view among decision-makers and broad mainstream public opinion alike is that we will somehow be able to cheat this natural law and are uniquely separate from nature.
In the process of writing Rising Tides, Spowers was able to identify the drivers that have separated us from the natural world.
“It’s a combination of the reductionist, materialist scientific world view that I would say is fundamentally reaching the end of its viability. It’s given us incredible insights and technologies, but it’s woefully inadequate in explaining the complexities of the natural world and what we face.”
Trans humanist fantasy
The author and campaigner continues:
“What we’re seeing now is the final zenith of the atomized, individualized, human ego that has separated itself from the natural world to such a degree that it somehow is pursuing this trans humanist fantasy that we are going to get ourselves out of this problem through a combination of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. I think is fundamentally deluded.”
Spowers adds an important caveat:
“But at the same time…we’ve brought together neuroscientists, cosmologists, physicists, all of whom are increasingly pulling together empirical evidence to show that consciousness is not this epic phenomenon of the human brain that the reductionist, materialist scientists would try and have us believe. There is, in fact, more evidence for non-local consciousness than there is for it being a unique product of neuronal firing in the human brain. And I think that this could be the Copernican shift that is necessary.”
Spowers posits that if the scientific paradigm were to embrace these shifts, it would likely unleash a broader understanding of our interconnection with nature and the natural world and ipso facto lead to an economics and a politics that could potentially bring us back in step with natural systems. “It’s going to be nothing less than that to bring it about”, says Spowers, who adds:
“I think we’re stuck slightly into this notion that incremental optimization to these fundamentally broken systems are going to somehow get us out of our pickle when in fact, as Buckminster Fuller said, ‘you never create change by fighting the existing reality, you’ve got to build a new model that makes existing models obsolete.’
It’s important that the energy of the various protest movements [that go into creating these new models and reveal the obsolete nature of the existing model] have the most viable alternative systems up and running and in place to take over when the current one comes crashing down – which is an inevitability.”
In the epilogue of Rising Tides, Spowers added the quote, ‘because you are the world, your actions will affect the world you live in, which is the world of your relationships.’ The difficulty, however, is that on the whole, humans appear unable to envisage that individual actions can have a broader transforming impact. The assumption is that things change in isolation, as if humans are somehow disconnected from the social relations that give rise to them. We demand the transformation of society but we are unwilling to transform ourselves in order to make that happen. To use Spowers’ analogy, humans have forgotten that they are the ocean.
“We’re so identified with being a separated wave or a bubble when in fact when the bubble bursts you recognize that you’re the ocean. You could only ever have been the ocean.”
“I think the beginning of this journey is a step inwards and that we’ve got to fix ourselves in here before we can go around fixing ourselves out there. I’m absolutely guilty of this myself”, says Spowers, whose move to Sri Lanka was his attempt to integrate these issues by ‘walking the talk’.
Connecting with nature
The author highlights the important role of plants and the biological processes associated with them “could have on not only fixing our own inner ecologies but also fixing the global outer ecology”:
“I think there are sacred plants that are being revered for millennia by cultures across the globe that do precipitate what E.O Wilson famously called Biophilia, which is this recognition of our innate, inherent connection with nature which we’ve completely – as a species – seemingly lost… Studies are showing that something like one-tenth of the land devoted to growing soya in the US, devoted to biohydrogen, would actually replace all the fossil fuel needs of America”, says Spowers.
Traditionally, it’s fossil fuel use tied to the accumulation of material objects associated with them, that’s been the measure of happiness. But as Spowers says, “it’s the illusion that happiness comes through the accumulation of objects and wealth that’s one of the many veils collapsing around us at the moment. I think my children’s generation do recognize that. People are sort of waking up.”
Spowers continues on this theme:
“One of the other many illusions we need to overcome is the notion that all of that change happens gradually in a linear progression…The significant shifts in social change are rather like seismic tectonic shifts – the insights we get from chaos and complexity theory and systems change is precisely that. Even the change within the mutations in species are going on in parallel to the collapse of the existing one. So the more that people can recognize that…and start getting on whether it’s recognising the work done by the Transition Town movement – or whatever it may be in their local community – is actually putting in place the systems that are going to enable us to potentially get out of this pickle.”
In the view of Dr Kansara, people are aware that they are on a journey to enable change:
“Part of that journey is kind of like Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs. You start to realize what your personal step-by-step personal development edges are like. And I think people are becoming more aware of coaching; of different kinds of therapies; of understanding and having conversations with community members that are airing the same levels of distrust in the system or a distrust in the actual fundamental reasons and intentions behind companies.”
Kansara points to the father of public relations, Edward Bernays:
“With the PR campaign, ‘torches of freedom’, Marlboro paid him a huge sum of money to get women to smoke cigarettes and all he had to do on a Freedom March for women was to light up their cigarettes and say, ‘women, you walk for your freedom’ and the models puffed on their cigarettes. You got all these thousands of women behind them. I mean, these images are so powerful, they open up something because there is an association. It’s about time we disassociate and become mindful of these things. You know, there’s a moment when in your life you wake up and think, ‘you know what, this is not enough, but what is? What is the feeling of sufficiency? Where do I feel whole? You know, where do I feel that my life matters or what I do matters?’.
Optimism for the future
Kansara emphasizes the ability to align ones true values with what one actually does – an optimistic sentiment with which Spowers concurs:
“More and more people”, says Spowers “are…seeing the limitations of materialism within their lives and still looking for happiness and finding that it’s not where they thought it was…. I think all of us are massively enriched by proper immersion and connection with nature. There is all sorts of scientific evidence to show us now just how the body responds when it is actually properly immersed out walking in a forest. Things happen to us biologically that actually enabled us to reconnect and feel happier and more comfortable with ourselves”, says the author.
Humans have the tools and science at their disposal to enact change which proffers optimism for the future.
Ultimately, says Kansara, we have the consumer power behind us:
“Every single moment you choose to put your money somewhere, it’s a vote on the system that you’ve created yourself. If each one of the thousand people that are going to buy a mars bar today… decided that they’re going to go for something healthier, that’s a thousand mars bars that haven’t been bought.”
With millions of kids demonstrating on the streets throughout the world, Spowers also feels optimistic. However, in conclusion, the author tempers this optimism with some reservations:
“I don’t think it’s going to be an easy ride”, says Spowers. “Transition on the scale that we need is never going to be a comfortable process. And evolutionary quantum shifts don’t happen without some discomfort. But I do believe it’s possible. The technologies we need are there. We don’t need to be massively pursuing all of these very speculative geo-engineering schemes. There are basic biological processes with us which can help us sequester carbon. But we do need to dismantle the monocultures that are driving the food system and go to a regenerative farming kind of system. And we do need to create the circular economy. We cannot incrementally optimize a broken system and make it work.”