Wild Law (second edition 2011)
By Cormac Cullinan
We desperately need some new thinking today about systems of global governance. We’re stuck with the same obsolete, ignore-the-earth institutions that were brought into being after the 2nd World War, and they’re failing us ever more catastrophically. Wild Law shows just how radical we need to be in creating new institutions that are genuinely ‘fit for purpose’ in the 21st Century (Jonathon Porritt, Director of Forum for the Future).
The challenge facing each one of us is to take personal responsibility for orienting our lives and our communities towards a future that is ecologically, socially, and spiritually sustaining. However, we need to act collectively to change the thinking and the social structures that are hindering us from making that transition…
Human societies are savaging Earth. Right now, the human societies that currently dominate our planet are precipitating what is being described as the sixth mass extinction. Periods of mass extinction have only occurred five times in Earth’s fifteen billion year history. The last such event occurred 65 million years ago, and appears to have been triggered by a massive asteroid - about 6 miles in diameter- smashing into the Yucatan Peninsula.
It is hard to believe, and indeed most people do not believe, that in a few centuries our species has been able to unravel the beautiful and complex web of life on this planet so extensively. Worse still, many of us are now bored by the increasingly frequent news of environmental destruction and impending ecological disasters.
Each year the ecosystems and natural cycles and processes of Earth generate a certain amount of clean air, freshwater, and fertile soil, and together with the sunlight that falls on Earth, this sustains all life. Each year our species takes more...and in doing so deprive other beings of what they require to flourish…by consuming coal, oil, groundwater and other ‘natural resources’ far faster than they accumulate…by releasing substances into the water and atmosphere faster than they can be metabolised by natural systems and processes we are destabilising them and impairing their functioning…the human population is consuming not only what ecosystems produce each year but is also consuming the ecosystems…we diminish the Earth’s capacity to maintain the conditions conducive to life…diminishing the prospect of our children and those of most other species flourishing or even surviving.
The extinction of species is part of the evolutionary process but the fossil record indicates that on average less that one mammal species became extinct every thousand years. Yet within a few hundred years human societies have increased this ‘background’ rate of extinction by as much as one thousand times.
It has been estimated that if the current rate of human impact on the Earth’s systems continues throughout this century, by 2100 (i.e. during the lives of our grandchildren and some of our children) a third of the species alive today will be extinct.
The human societies that presently dominate the world govern on the basis of a false understanding of the universe. The core falsehood is that we humans are separate from our environment and that we can flourish even as the health of Earth deteriorates. In fact we humans have convinced ourselves that human health and well-being depend on exploiting Earth (preferably as fast as technology permits and the market demands) rather than preserving the global ecosystem…this encourages and legitimises environmentally and socially destructive behaviour…
A new vision and understanding of how we govern ourselves is essential.
In European history the rise of the myth of separation from nature appears to be strongly associated with a change, at the end of the Middle-Ages, in people’s image of nature from nurturing mother to that of a machine.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the Italian mathematician, astronomer and physicist, argued strongly that science should be restricted to considering phenomena that could be measured and quantified…he stated that the book of nature is written in mathematics, and rejected approaches that focussed on the qualities on nature.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626)…argued in particular for a distinction to be made between reason and revelation, and emphasised the importance of experimentation to validate or disprove theories. Although Bacon did not regard Earth as inert matter, his writings show the empirical modes of thought that emerged in seventeenth century Europe began to supplant earlier reverential attitudes to Earth as a bountiful mother.
René Descartes (1596 - 1650), the French philosopher and mathematician, set out to entirely reconstruct philosophy on the basis of mathematical reasoning…his most influential theory concerns the distinction between the human mind and the human body…we humans are intangible rational minds that have somehow become lodged in a physical body, like a ghost in a machine. The understanding of mind and matter being entirely separate has had, and still has, a profound impact on how we see the world and understand our place in it.
The work…was finally synthesised by Isaac Newton (1642 - 1724), thereby completing what became know as ‘The Scientific Revolution’. The physical world at this point was seen as a complete machine that could be understood by reductionist analysis. The fact that human consciousness was separate from this world…led to nature being viewed as something that existed for the benefit of humans. The idea of Mother Earth was dead.
These ideas…are still very much alive today…most human governance systems are based on this worldview. Ironically, the leading physicists and mathematicians of today…have already rejected this worldview. Yet we continue to govern ourselves on the basis of a discredited 17th Century understanding of how the universe functions. No wonder we have problems.
Quantum physics exploded the view that the universe is a vast mechanism constructed of many tiny ‘building blocks’. Rather than a construction, the universe is now understood as a surging, swirling dance that unifies all the dancers and is shaped by the constantly changing relationships between them. This point of view is fundamental to what is today often referred to as ‘systems thinking’. This is an intellectual approach that focuses on understanding anything by looking at its context or role within a larger system, rather than dissecting the system and analysing the component parts in isolation.
A most striking aspect of quantum physics and system thinking is the degree to which their conclusions find common ground with many ancient philosophers. All paths, it seems, lead to a similar conclusion that everything is interconnected.
The dominant legal systems are all based on the assumption that…we are the only beings or subjects in the universe…the trouble is we know these assumptions and philosophies are false. We know that from the perspective of the whole Earth…the results of our governance systems are spectacularly bad…it seems insane to carry on blithely governing ourselves on the basis of discredited philosophies from the 16th and 17th centuries.
A good place to start would be to regulate ourselves as if we were part of the Earth Community – which of course we are. Despite overwhelming evidence that we are completely on the wrong track as far as regulating ourselves is concerned, we display an immense capacity to avoid addressing the most vital issue of our times.
Bringing about the much-needed transformation will also require a fundamentally different understanding of the nature and purpose of law, and changes to how we govern modern societies.
The intricate and exquisite fabric of life is rapidly unravelling and slipping through our fingers. Earth desperately needs a new paradigm for social governance…states use law as a method of social control…laws reflect the a particular worldview held by those with political power and there is not always a healthy relationship between law, justice and morality.
Our systems for regulating human behaviour are not protecting Earth, our home, from destruction, because that is not their purpose. The fact is that, by and large, these laws do not give accurate expression to the defective worldview that underlies them. Our legal and political establishments perpetuate, protect and legitimise the continued degradation of Earth by design, not by accident.
The law reserves all the rights and privileges to use and enjoy Earth to humans and their agents (usually only selected categories of those, at that). It has also reduced other aspects of Earth and the other creatures that live on it, to the status of objects for the use of humans. It legitimises the eternal extermination of species and the most profound disrespect and abuse of the Earth that sustains us.
Animals, plants and almost every other aspect of the planet are, legally-speaking, objects that are either the property of a human or artificial ‘juristic person’ such as a company, or could at any moment becomes owned, for example by being captured or killed.
The only rights recognised by law are those enforceable in a court of law, and these may only be held by human beings or by juristic persons’ like companies. This means that from the perspective of our legal systems, the billions of other species on the planet are outlaws, and are treated as such.
In our 21st century word, fictional, incorporeal beings are given enormous, largely unfettered powers to dominate and exploit virtually every aspect of Earth. These corporations and other juristic persons have no emotions, consciences, values, ethics or ability to commune with the other members of the Earth Community. Indeed, companies have a inherently rapacious appetites because the laws that create them and their own constitutions require them to compete aggressively for control of Earth’s bounty and to consume it as fast as possible, heedless of the long-term consequences for Earth itself or its inhabitants.
Consequentially we now have a situation where the vast majority of humans involved in corporations, whether as investors, managers, employees or customers, do not feel and personal responsibility for the destructive acts committed in the name of the corporation. It is high time we took a long, hard look at corporations and asked ourselves whether this form of organisation is still in the best interest of people and Earth.
It is interesting to note that most legal systems expend a great deal of energy on attempting to impose uniformity – in both approach and substance. Globalisation is also founded on the promotion of uniformity and the reduction of cultural and regional differences.
Once we recognise the essential unity of all things and honour this truth by acting in a whole-maintaining manner, we no longer need to fear that permitting diversity or ‘deviance’ will cause our social systems to fall apart.
None of the components of the Earth’s biosphere can survive except within the Earth ecosystem. This means that the well-being of each member of the Earth Community is derived from, and cannot take precedence over, the well-being of Earth as a whole. It is only our failure to appreciate that we are part of the Earth Community that has led us to believe and act as if the reverse were true.
The ‘allegiance’ that we humans owe Earth is therefore analogous to that which a cell owes the body. The ‘duty’ of the cell is to fulfil the functions for which it evolved and to continue acting in a manner that contributes to the health of the body. If it ceases to so it dies or become a cancer.
So far, the response of the governors (governments, international organisations and powerful private companies) has been to look for security in more technology and more ‘control’ over nature. This approach is bit like staying in the car in the wilderness. It certainly feels safe, but…sooner of later the petrol will run out and you will have to venture out for food or die in the ‘safety’ of the vehicle. Today, however, most of the wilderness has already been destroyed by the world of the car.
The beliefs and worldview of the dominant cultures have suffused our consciousness to such an extent that it is very difficult even to imagine our societies functioning in a manner that is integrated with nature.
Historically, land ownership has been associated with political power. The feudal systems that developed in the Middle Ages in Europe, for example, were structured around land tenure systems. At the apex of the feudal systems was the monarchy, which derived most of its secular power from the fact that the Crown was the source of all land rights. The Crown rewarded those who were loyal with legal documents of land rights…the barons and aristocracy…in turn gave right to use the land to other ‘landlords’ loyal to them. In this way, each social class, from serfs to the barons and princes, derived their ability to make a livelihood from the land, not from the land itself, but from their loyalty and obedience to those above them in the social pyramid.
By defining land as a commodity, the dominant legal philosophies legitimise and facilitate our exploitive relations with Earth. These philosophies also obstruct us from developing governance systems based on a respectful relationship with land or Earth, and prevent us from recognising that this is a reciprocal relationship between subjects with inherent Earth rights. In this way they increase our own alienation from nature.
It is very difficult sometimes to retain faith in the ability of humans to alter the course and to stem, let alone reverse, the wholesale destruction of natural systems and human cultures and communities. When I get too gloomy, I remind myself that the modern world as we know it, and in particular the belief that humans are separate from nature, is a very recent (and hopefully transient) phenomenon. A long-term view of human cultures also reminds us that even civilisations that were enormously powerful in their day have passed into history.
It is also important to bear in mind that societies, as well as everything else, are constantly changing and evolving anyway. The issue is not whether or not we can change societies and legal and political structures, but how they will change and in which direction.
Certainly, on the basis of the evidence of the last few hundred years, it is entirely plausible that our societies will continue to place their faith in improving our technological ability to manage the planet until it is too late to prevent massive environmental degradation.
Humans within dominant societies no longer observe any etiquette or ethics in relating to the rest of the ~Earth Community, and instead base most ‘environmental management’ decisions on a combination of scientific models and economics.
Even concepts such as sustainability tend to be focused on determining the maximum level of exploitation that can be sustained, rather than maintaining a healthy balance.
Sometime is seems as if we have forgotten that some legal rights and issues are more important than others and require and different treatment. For example, the current international debate about whether or not the trade rules of the World Trade Organisation should take precedence over the obligations to protect the environment contained in multilateral environmental agreements, like the Convention on Bilological Diversity, would be ludicrous were in not so tragic.
The idea that rules designed to foster free trade (which only bring significant benefits to a few of the wealthiest humans) should be treated in a par with obligations intended to preserve absolutely fundamental aspects of the Earth Community, is absurd and wrong – as is the notion that a corporation’s ‘right’ to profit from its manipulations of plants that co-evolved over millennia should take precedence over the rights of poor farmer to save and propagate seeds.
One of the toughest challenges may be to find a place for wisdom at the governance table. In fact, wisdom of the kind needed to begin healing our relationships with Earth is not only undervalued in the corridors of power; it has been absent so long that the very word has a strangely archaic ring to it.
The apparent economic successes of the dominant cultures are built on consuming and wasting the natural ‘capital’ of Earth, and on increasing the inequalities between people and other members of the Earth Community. Every year the warning signs become clearer and the irreversible loss greater. This cannot continue indefinitely.
In particular, we must reject the misconception that humans are separate from Earth, and recognise that every aspect of our well-being is derived from Earth.
So many people now have a great, often inarticulate, sense of loss and being lost. It is felt in shanty towns and well as penthouses. It stems from the detachment in heart and soul that comes from having become strangers in our wider Earth Community…our governance systems must become sophisticated enough to be sensitive to how we do things and conscious of the need to express the purpose of adapting ourselves to play our role within the Earth Community.