The Brainy Brunch: Ecocide, Value and the Rights of Nature

Blog By Gina Lovett

Photos by Evgeniy Kazannik | Green Lens Studios

Impact Hub Islington hosted The Brainy Brunch in collaboration with End Ecocide on Earth on July 19th, 2015. End Ecocide on Earth is a campaign that aims to stop destruction and harm to the environment stemming from industrialisation and exploitation by making it a crime. 

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Nature belongs to everyone and to no one. Our lives depend on it: we need clean air to breathe properly; clean water to quench our thirst; and healthy food to sustain us. Yet, as a society, we take these things for granted: food is cheaper than ever, we waste huge amounts of water, and air pollution, the cause of one in eight deaths globally, is now the biggest threat to public health, according to the World Health Organisation. On the other hand, the things that we do value – luxury whiskeys, private jets, and spun gold hats – are things that are never going to sustain us.

These sorts of ideas around value are the issues bound up in our relationship to nature. Last month at the Impact Hub Islington’s monthly Brainy Brunch event, the grassroots campaign group, End Ecocide on Earth, ran a workshop with almost 25 people delve into this topic. End Ecocide on Earth is a campaign that aims to stop destruction and harm to the environment stemming from industrialisation and exploitation by making it a crime. This international law would sit alongside Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity as part of the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court.

While our campaign has had considerable success across Europe (a two-year petition helped put it on the EC’s agenda earlier this year), we wanted to engage with people on a deeper level. Discussing our relationship to nature helps understand how we value it, and how we assert these values, collectively, in turn, influences how we treat it. Do we trade, offset, utilise, protect, conserve or guard it, for example? All of this is key to understanding the standpoint of a law of Ecocide, and why it has such potential as a legal, rather than economic, instrument.

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One of the exercises we did aimed to reveal something of the paces of change of natural history and ecology, and how this impacts our perception of nature. I showed various images of natural environments, while the groups had to guess whether the image depicted a ‘wilderness’ or whether the nature had been manipulated in some way. Some of the guesses drew surprise as the group learned that what they thought was a wilderness was not really a wilderness at all. In fact, in three of the four examples, where nature looked serene and beautiful, there had been widespread destruction to the environment – or Ecocide – due to infrastructure or agricultural development.

The exercise revealed something of what geographer Jared Diamond calls “creeping normalcy”. While over the course of say, a century, the changes to our natural environment are rapid and stark, on a year-to-year basis, the changes are so incremental that they are inconspicuous to each generation. These continuous, incremental environmental trade-offs needed to maintain economic growth are ‘death by a thousand cuts’ for global biodiversity.

The impact of this disconnection from nature is also what conservationist and journalist, George Monbiot, refers to as a “second environmental crisis”. As we lose connection to nature, we become less inclined to fight to protect it.

Though almost all in the group expressed concern for nature, asserting its value, which we tried to capture in another exercise, seemed more challenging. Using a values map created by the communications research organisation, Common Cause, we looked at widely held motivations and priorities. These span everything from the drive for security and tradition to the need for self-expression and benevolence. The motivations, or values, are generally divided into intrinsic – values that are inherently rewarding to pursue such as relationships with friends and family; creativity and self-expression in art, music, dance, drama; social justice; and the discovery and enjoyment of nature. In other words, we don’t put prices or measurements on these values. Extrinsic values, on the other hand, are motivations that come from external sources –approval, reward or judgment – and include, often measureable, outcomes like wealth, salaries and GDP.

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Asked about how society assigns value that isn’t monetary, some of the group turned to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to explain motivations. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs, those driven by physiology and safety, must be met before the individual strongly desires or focuses motivation on higher level needs such as love, esteem or self-belonging. This point culminated in the idea that it’s “a luxury to care about the environment”, or rather that’s it’s only when people can feed themselves, and survive, that they can then care about the environment.

For me, this was a particularly interesting perspective. The group placed the environment on a secondary need level, akin to that of love or self-esteem, rather than a primary physiological need. The commoditisation of our survival through the commoditization of land, food, water and utilities, obscures the fact that our existence and our health still very much depend on the existence and the health of our environment.

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While further discussion touched on the progress of alternative schemes like time-banking or the Happiness Index in redirecting collective motivations and goals away from extrinsic values and back towards intrinsic ones, several comments about the growing need for measurability seemed to conflict with these efforts. That “companies need to be able to measure impact” and how some major universities are moving to evaluate degrees by just measuring their alumni’s post-degree earnings is perhaps indicative of a wider malaise across society, where we value what can be measured, rather than measuring what we value. In this way, nature becomes purely utilitarian and functional.

Monbiot explains: “No longer will we be able to argue that an ecosystem or a landscape should be protected because it affords us wonder and delight; we’ll be told that its intrinsic value has already been calculated and, doubtless, that it turns out to be worth less than the other uses to which the land could be put. The market has spoken: end of debate. Under a system of values that are completely extrinsic, nature becomes as fungible as everything else.”

With the discussion flowing and people enjoying chatting in their groups, we ran out of time and had to omit a chunk of the workshop exploring the environmental legislation, springing from particular types of value. But, what we intended to explore was how so much of existing environmental legislation stems from extrinsic value – quotas, trading, offsets, cost-benefit analysis. Yet, if you really think about this, rather than being principles of stewardship, they are economic instruments that ultimately stem from a desire to protect trade. To date, many of these, like the Kyoto Protocol and carbon trading, have been highly unsuccessful.

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Ecocide, however, is a law that would make the widespread destruction and harm of the environment stemming from industrialisation and exploitation a crime. By asserting that this behaviour is harmful, and therefore a crime, we are asserting a completely different set of values. There is a duty of care – similar to the duty owed by a trustee obligated to act for the good of the beneficiaries. This value transcends the volatile and fluctuating value assigned to tradable commodities by irrational markets. As the earth lawyer Polly Higgins says, we do not put a price on harm to human life, so why should we put a price on harm to nature?

Nature belongs to everyone and to no one. Our lives depend on it – there are no trading, quotas, offsets or cost-benefit analysis that can replace what is lost. It’s here I quote Polly:

“Caring for life comes from the nurturing of a relationship, not the placing of a price-tag. The right to life is priceless – it is the very sacredness of life itself that is at stake here. Once a territory is lost (whether through dangerous industrial activity or a naturally occurring event), no amount of money will bring back the land, community, nor the sense of what was once home for those who lived there. Under a Law of Ecocide, any territory at risk of or suffering significant harm shall be assisted first and foremost from a place of trusteeship. The primary determinant is what assistance is required, not how much it will cost.”

Gina Lovett is a writer, researcher and events curator with an interest in environment, social science, art and design. She is a volunteer campaigner with End Ecocide on Earth. Ginalovett.me

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