Phyllis Creighton and Derek Paul
revised edition, February 2020
Earth’s biosphere faces unprecedented threats from the destructive effects of civilization — warring, wastefulness, consumerism, burgeoning population, overexploitation of natural capital, and blindness of humankind toward the living system of which it is part. Failure to change course will spell disaster only too soon. Thus a new basis for policy making is imperative, and it must be grounded in a holistic way of thinking, to replace the paradigm that has underpinned thinking in the western world for more than three centuries.
What is that old paradigm? Faith in reason, science, and technology took hold during the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, leading to an assumption of progress as their inevitable reward. The paradigm of that past era, which still holds sway, posits economic growth and the concomitant technological advances as measures of the desired progress. It has not only fostered materialism and the present wasteful consumerism, but has led recently to the concentration of wealth and power in corporations and fewer and fewer hands, with rising economic inequality. Collectively, we are depleting Earth by the consumption annually of more resources than Earth can supply, and by accelerated extinction of species. We need a new conception of progress.1 Men have shortsightedly ridden roughshod over nature for too long.2 Seeing it as an externality to dominate and use, they exhaust its resources through greed and wanton warring. This human drive for mastery has left us an ecologically threatened planet in the throes of disintegration.
The risk of ecosystem collapse3 is matched by prophetic scientific insights: if a living system such as the ecosphere is allowed to reach a state of too great disorder, death will ensue. Social stress, strife, and violence compound the breakdown. Regionally or globally, such disorder can mean death on a large scale.4
The paradigm changes
For all of the above reasons, the old paradigm must be abandoned. Sound thinking and policy must be based on a realistic awareness that all living things are linked in a web of life.5 Human life, dependent on the water, air, and land of the biosphere, is interlinked with plants and creatures. The new paradigm must be interconnectedness — the web of life — and it dictates justice for Earth and humanity as the moral imperatives for the renewal required by our present peril. Consonant with hard science and ethics — being grounded in conscience and scientific principles — this holistic paradigm centred on life provides the framework we need. The meaningful question when choosing policy is: will it sustain, enrich, and enhance life and its variety, or will it be harmful or destructive? Honest searching is needed to find good answers, which is never easy.
Analytical reason and intuitive, emotional, and moral insights are needed for the thinking demanded by the present crisis. Our approach to policy-making must be visionary and focused on Earth and life. It must provide equitably and inclusively for both short- and long-term interests of living things and of humanity – all nations, peoples, races, and both genders. At this juncture, we need the broadest application of mind and energies.
To achieve the essential changes, we must also end the paucity of women’s voices in the world’s top decision-making bodies. By bent and by socially framed roles, women are most often inclined towards nurturing and sustaining life. Governance frames policy making. Most parliaments, the U.S. Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA, NATO’s hierarchy, the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, and the Vatican operate in male-dominator mode. What is needed is a partnership mode. A commitment to such partnership was in fact made at the 1995 Beijing Conference.6 It was reinforced by the UN Security Council’s adoption on 31 Oct. 2000 of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which mandates increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional, and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict. The climate crisis—with increased weather turbulence, floods, desertification, wildfires—will have greater impact on women, given their biological and socio-economic roles and vulnerabilities. Women’s issues and insights must be truly represented by their voices. The failure to achieve equity in any significant measure is a sobering sign and it impedes the framing of policy appropriate to the Earth’s predicament.
Guided by the new paradigm
The new paradigm would replace all the features of the old paradigm listed above and would focus on the central theme of supporting the web of life in all its diversity. Regarding nature as an externality subject to human autocracy has proved neither benign nor sustainable. The world is inching towards misery: rising greenhouse gas emissions; the culture of war, fueled by the cult of oil, with arms industries driving aggression, and ongoing violent conflicts; women’s lack of education, indeed suppression, and denial of basic necessities to children; unfair trade policies; wasteful destructive agriculture, fishing, and forestry practices, as well as misuse of the global commons; the use of inappropriate technology; disease; punitive, unfair justice systems. The web of life is the paradigm needed for thinking about the nexus of people, the environment, economy, and society. It predicates our responsibility to live by an ethic of care for the natural world, our fellow human beings, and all living creatures, since they inhabit Earth by the same right as we do. Economics and use of finite resources must be undertaken as if both Earth and people matter. The protection of biodiversity — the riches of plants and other species – and of ecosystems is crucial. So too is social justice — ensuring that the basic needs of all for food, clean water, shelter, health care, and education are met. Stewardship and the common good are imperatives of interconnectedness.
By adopting this paradigm, the world might have a better, longer future. That future would be achieved by adopting a strong, realistic, life-enhancing strategy to: reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly; guarantee the common security of nations; foster transition to democratic society in the dictatorships; abolish armaments step by step, except in so far as international policing not relying on violence remains necessary in a crowded world; publicly fund the restoration and enrichment of natural capital, and infrastructure worldwide; rein in greed; distribute wealth fairly; restrain and reverse world population growth through universal education; replace biased trading rules with equitable trade policies; ensure children are well fed worldwide; institute an equitable international loan system; develop sound agricultural, fishing, and forestry practices, and enforce and enlarge their reach in the world community; extend medicare until it is instituted everywhere; restore the integrity of the global commons; and establish restorative justice. None of these objectives is impossible. All are economically and societally desirable and practicable. And their success can be measured through an index or indices of well-being (for the human population) and ecological footprint data7 (for the ecosphere).
The way ahead
Though they may not have spelled out this holistic paradigm, many people have adopted it, as what they say and do shows. Such people are to be found among adherents of all the great religions, and also among environmentalists, organic farmers, and peace activists. You will find them in grass roots organizations — groups such as those working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, people struggling to oppose corporate domination wherever it diminishes human rights, harms the environment, or undercuts social justice, as well as in the medical and helping professions. One practical way forward is therefore to join with them and learn from them. Governments and corporate leaders need to focus policy and action on the paradigm and build on the achievements of those already paving the way. There is good news already in print.
1 Robert Bateman, in Thinking Like a Mountain (Toronto: Penguin, 2000) p.ix, writes: “The speed and volume of new discoveries have “imprinted on us the idea that endlessly accelerating growth and technological change are good in themselves. We’ve indentured ourselves to the master called ‘Progress’ and neglected to look after the planet on which all depends.” He urges, “Humanity needs a new definition of ‘Progress’, one that values our heritage, both natural and human.”
2 The early development of agriculture, beginning some 10,000 years ago, was part of this process, but only changed the ecosystems on a scattered and limited scale, and did not reduce the abundance and diversity of life. What has been happening these last hundred years amounts to environmental destruction on a huge scale and at an unprecedented rate.
3 There are many clear indicators of ecosystem collapse today. The decimation of the ocean’s fisheries, the expansion of deserts, the rapid destruction of rainforest and cutting of boreal old-growth forest, complete in some areas, and the accelerated decimation or extinction of species are important examples — E.O. Wilson, The Future of Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2002).
4 Disorder is precisely defined in the science of thermodynamics, where it is called entropy, and associated with randomness. Applied to living systems, we find that too great disorder corresponds to death. The reference of physicians to illnesses as disorders is very apt, and fits the thermodynamic concept nicely. Factors that increase disorder are well known to nonscientific observers, even those who know nothing of thermodynamics. Wars and pillage of the environment are two obvious examples.
5 Peoples whose technology was that of the Stone Age were aware of this web of life, and of the interdependence of the elements of this web, by living closer to nature than do urban dwellers today. However, this is not to say they watched over sustainability. Their world seemed sustainable because only occasionally would a group exhaust essential resources, thereby causing the collapse of its local economy. Today the importance of sustainability is global and this importance is being established in diverse ways, through environmentalists and ecologists, both amateur and professional, and through eco-feminism.
6 The United Nations’ “Fourth World Conference on Women” — one of the world’s largest — was held in Beijing, 4-15 September 1995. Its 6000 delegates from 189 countries agreed upon a substantial statement, “The Beijing Declaration and The Platform for Action”, published by the UN in 1996.
7 Mathis Wackernagle and Bert Beyers, Ecological Footprint: Managing Our Biocapacity Budget, New Society Publishers 2019, 278 pp.