Decolonising our thought processes through active efforts at unlearning is vital if we are to understand and overcome our limitations in exercising care and stewardship over the earth. Inherent in the imperial gaze and interwoven into zeitgeist since the Enlightenment period is a mode of thinking that functions through the construction of binaries. How we are programmed to learn and think is based on hierarchy; a construction of categories that denote a superficial and inferred inferiority. This has prevailed due to the advantages accrued to populations in power who benefit from this categorisation. Colonial thinking has laid the basis by which the Western world has engaged with the rest of the globe to date, thereby setting the tone, as Mama D states, ‘for arrogance over earth management (driven by this) very limited understanding of interacting with the earth.’
For the penultimate conference, the Regenerative Activities series conducted an inquiry into ideas that were beyond the purely anthropocentric. The view that humans are separate from nature, in that we of overriding importance at the centre of all things is at the heart of our dysfunctional system. The series asked questions about what form ‘deep change’ takes when so much of our society is grounded in the assumption that humanity and the natural world are discrete. Humans are seen as ‘above’ in a top down hierarchy that relegates nature to the ‘exterior.’ This human-centric superiority complex has been a major driver of ecological destruction.
The series tackled this prevailing view, platforming speakers whose unique activism grapples with new concepts, by working at the edge of our understanding of the ‘more than human.’ It considered the legal and cultural frameworks needed to embrace a fuller understanding of the rights of nature. Agency, personhood and our relationship with nature was also examined. The dialogue was framed by Gaia Theory and Whole Systems Thinking. Rather than externalising and objectifying nature as ‘other,’ this mode of thinking considers humans to be enmeshed in an integrated system that functions as a living organism.[i] Panellists considered the significance of activism in embodying a world where humans are considered members of the earth community as a whole. Within this paradigm, the conference explored the role of law in creating concrete frameworks for articulating and protecting the rights of nature. Together, it demonstrated the multi-level approach that can produce a radical shift toward wholeness, in redefining who we are in relation to the natural world.
Since the Enlightenment, Western philosophy and religion has encouraged us to think of ourselves as separate from nature, thereby justifying exertion of dominance over it. This mode of thinking represented a sharp divergence from earth-based religions, which were originally grounded in natural cycles and that looked to the earth as the primary source of law. This human/ nature split propagated a widespread detachment that has now informed our current reality: Western cosmology now almost entirely overlooks that we are as much a part of nature as any other form of life. Inextricably linked with the historical legacy of colonisation, Enlightened rationalism helped to de-legitimise non-European cultures and continued to silenced earth-centred cosmologies.[ii] Colonial power structures were re-embedded with the industrial revolution, the dominant assumption of which is that privileged groups are entitled to extract from life endlessly from people and nature alike.[iii] Over centuries, the twin forces of industrialisation and urbanisation further split humans from their natural environment.[iv] The resulting global neoliberal regime commodifies nature and people alike, the consequences of which we now face in the form of multiple social, ecological and climate crises. As speaker Carlotta Byrne writes, this ‘insatiable, death-dealing industrial growth economy’ and its underpinning legal system destroy our very life support system.[v] Humankind are therefore in dire need of coming back into ‘right relationship’ with nature in philosophical terms before it is possible to change economic and legal systems in meaningful ways.
The Legal System
While common law is touted as improving economic growth and institutional equality, it is also a major factor producing many of the interconnected issues explored throughout the Regenerative Activism series on deep change.[vi] The common law system was exported across the world through the processes of colonial domination.[vii] The view of nature as property - something over which humans have complete control and ownership over, with the ability to maintain and destroy as we see fit - originated on English soil and was transplanted alongside colonial rule.[viii] Within a system built on the foundations of the colonial worldview, the dominant legal paradigm recognises humans as the sole subjects of law and objectifies nature as either an inanimate ‘resource’ or ‘property.’[vi] The objectification of nature as a commodity is upheld through legal processes, which in turn legitimises its systemic exploitation and destruction. In the UK, the legal system is dominated by property rights: there is no legal protection for trees, rivers or other elements of thriving ecosystems. A hierarchy of rights that prioritises privileged groups of humans, and is hardwired into a legal system that does not effectively balance how rights interact. In addition, most environmental laws are inadequate as they are too often subordinate to economic interests, being overthrown in favour of large corporations and exploitative governmental policy. Despite the fact that human rights are reliant on the natural world to subsist, common law, and environmental laws and the human rights framework does not effectively protect the rights of nature.[ix] It is therefore not possible to achieve the seismic shift needed in our treatment of nature without simultaneously addressing these legislative issues.
The lack of protection of nature has extensive human and environmental impacts. None are more starkly prominent in the context of the current pandemic than that of global health. Panellist Shivali Fulchand, editor of the British Medical Journal is one thinker bridging the gap between health and the environment. In their 2018 report tracking progress on health and climate change, the Lancet named climate change as the biggest global health threat of this century.[x] Global health care carbon emissions are just under that of aviation at 4%: if considered a country it would be the 5th largest emitter in the world. This particularly problematic because of the increased stress certain to be placed on health care systems due to the impacts of climate change. Health crises are expected to increase in frequency and severity due, where climate change exacerbates occurrences such as waterborne and vector-borne disease.[xi] In China, more premature deaths were avoided due to the reduction of pollution during the Covid-19 lockdown (12,125) than lives lost due to the pandemic (4,633).[xii] Covid itself has demonstrated the sacrifices frontline workers are forced to make in provision of care when health care systems become overwhelmed. Enshrining the rights of nature in law is one way to force policy makers to act, protecting our health care system, along with the many areas of the human and natural world that are increasingly put at risk.
Author Charles Eisenstein writes that the quantification of the natural world has produced discordance amongst humans. [xiii] By focusing on the non-animate and examining nature as a fully actualised power in its own right, we can interrogate the assumption that humans are superior. Eisenstein advocates for considering elements of the natural world such as rivers and forests as valuable and sacred in their own right, not merely as materials for extraction. The conference proposed two main methods that can be considered a roadmap for achieving this systemic shift. First is building legislative frameworks that protect the rights of nature. Second, cultivating emotional and psychological connections to contribute to caring for the ecological health of the planet.
Protecting the rights of nature within the context of systemic change is best framed by the concept of Earth Jurisprudence (EJ). EJ is a growing global movement inspired by indigenous cosmologies and customary laws. It is a philosophy and practice that recognises nature as the primary source of law and ethics.[xiv] It aims to shift our legal system and ways of thinking from a human centred to an earth centred paradigm, which prioritises a mutually enhancing and respectful relationship between people and earth. This paradigm sees the inherent values of both people and nature in their own right, approaching nature with due respect and humility, rather than understanding them through the colonial prism of profit, ownership and control. EJ recognises that humans exist interdependently with all other life forms, which each have inherent rights to exist and thrive. It examines social and ecological systems that need to be protected as a whole, and the interconnectivity of the rights of all living things within them. The right for living members of the earth community to perform their unique role is one that is bestowed naturally, as it is integral to the wellbeing of the planet as a whole. Within EJ, there have been wins to securing rights for rivers, forests and mountains across the globe. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to enshrine the rights of nature in its constitution, codifying them to also expand the rights of indigenous peoples.[xv] Two years later, Bolivia introduced the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.[xvi] This was followed by New Zealand, who not long after recognised the legal personhood of the Te Uruwera forest, the Whangangui River and Mount Taranaki. Wins in granting rights have been spreading slowly across the world, enshrining personhood and the ‘right to integral respect’ from India to Colombia.[xvii]
Working in Solidarity with Indigenous Communities
In growing a movement for EJ, a critical approach being taken by organisations like the Gaia Foundation is to work alongside traditional communities to revive customary law and protect sacred sites. The laws and governance systems of indigenous peoples have guided humans to live in respectful relationship with one another and the earth for generations. Predating state laws, they have balanced human interests against those of the natural world. Prioritising the support of indigenous defenders on the frontline is a critical element to environmental protection work.[xviii] The work of the Gaia Foundation aims to support earth centred law, upheld through storytelling, myth and song and shared through intergenerational dialogues. They also work to recover and revive rituals and practices that govern the health of the natural world and community as a whole.
Local Grassroots Activism
To successfully protect the rights of nature, a strong group of committed citizens is needed to push for changes in policy and the legal system through direct action and declaration. Change in this sense comes through collective power, rather than through the glacial pace of altering law. Civil society plays a dual role in both regenerating healthy ecosystems and encouraging communities to restore their relationship with the earth. One example of such activism can be seen in the successive wins of Lawyers for Nature, created by speaker Paul Powlesland in order to represent the natural world for activist groups that seek to defend it at the local level. Powelesland is dedicated to directly representing nature and protecting it through the courts system through his branch of ‘wild law’. [xix] In one of the biggest grassroots environmental actions in the past decade, he worked alongside local people in Sheffield to stop 17,500 trees being cut down. Panellists agreed that - as evidenced by examples such as these - a substantive amount of community action is needed. This activism must occur alongside a strategic approach that achieves the recognition of the rights of nature at the local level first, in order to leverage change within national legal frameworks.
An additional form of activism explored by the conference that plays a powerful role in shifting our treatment of nature is embodied creative performance. This is exemplified in the work done by panelist Laura Guarch. As a singer and composer, Guarch uses creative performance to run workshops that guide people in how to reconnect, relate and care for elements of the natural world. She runs site-specific participatory performances, such as Totally Thames. Guarch chose this model for her activism as she believes that the creative arts bring back the practice of ritual which we have lost along with our connection to the natural world. Embodied spiritual connection is an important step toward shifting our worldview to protect the rights of nature. Performance brings a collective feeling of belonging, enabling groups of people to celebrate, honour and acknowledge something in more depth, returning an element of the sacred that has been largely lost.
In the course of her work, Carlotta Byrne has seen that the majority of law emerging from the grassroots level arises from a worldview that recognises nature as sacred. Many of the cultures and traditions Byrne works with recognise nature and the cosmos as something greater than themselves, a humility which is distinctly absent from the Western worldview. As former monk and peace activist Satish Kumar so aptly writes:
“The Earth is not a dead rock, she is Gaia, a living organism. Thus we do not measure the value of nature in terms of her usefulness to humans, rather we recognise the intrinsic value of nature (as) the source of life itself.”[xx]
Before any lasting change can be made through activism or within the legal system, we must first address the systemic issues of how nature is predominantly viewed as a collection of objects. To achieve this, all speakers agreed that the first step is to actively cultivate our personal relationship with the natural world. We need to engage with nature with deeper levels of intimacy, in order to develop an emotional and metaphysical connection that heals the way many in the Western world have been raised: to see nature as an object solely for our use. Cultivating a deeper connection with the planet is essential if we are to recover our relationship with the natural world and orient future actions aimed at protecting the rights of nature.
When drawing on Whole Systems Thinking, this engaged relationship is one which may inevitably lead us to heal the human/nature split, as we begin to understand our inner and outer landscape as two aspects of one reality.[xxi] As we regenerate, we begin to see ourselves as part of the natural world, interacting within a whole system: a web of life that has supported ecologies of movement, civilisations and cultures for millennia. We are a part of nature, relying on it even as we try assert our difference from it and dominance over it. Even while we distance ourselves psychologically and emotionally, we remain physical embodiments of nature. We are made up of cells and atoms, existing in space, breathing oxygen, living on land, relying on water and resources. Even technology, which we see as the triumph of human creation - in that it has allowed us to defeat our ‘natural’ limits - does not distinguish us from nature. The harder we try to claim our place as superior sentient beings whose consciousness separates us from trees and plants and animals, the further we fall from true consciousness. As sick as we make ourselves in attempting to firm up the delineation between us and nature as ‘other,’ we can never vanquish our connection with nature.
Decolonising our thought processes through active efforts at unlearning is vital if we are to understand and overcome our limitations in exercising care and stewardship over the earth. Inherent in the imperial gaze and interwoven into zeitgeist since the Enlightenment period is a mode of thinking that functions through the construction of binaries. How we are programmed to learn and think is based on hierarchy; a construction of categories that denote a superficial and inferred inferiority. This has prevailed due to the advantages accrued to populations in power who benefit from this categorisation. Colonial thinking has laid the basis by which the Western world has engaged with the rest of the globe to date, thereby setting the tone, as Mama D states, ‘for arrogance over earth management (driven by this) very limited understanding of interacting with the earth.’[i]
To assume that our form of consciousness grants us hierarchy over the natural world is a symptom of our colonised modes of thinking. It is to continue to colonise and lay claim to that which is not ours, and that which cannot and should not be owned. Shifting this worldview and this infected way of thinking is nothing short of a radical uproot, a journey of reprogramming and unlearning that takes us into a new realm of language and thinking. Prominent international speaker and survivor of the Reign of Terror, Tiokasin Ghosthorse describes how a colonised worldview has infected the English language, pointing to words that denote ownership and separation – such as ‘domination’ – which do not exist in Lakota language. He describes language as a war against Mother Earth, seeing concepts of ownership as at the crux of anthropocentrism’s self-importance.[xxii] There are many prominent thinkers that offer diverse contributions to such processes of unlearning. One such decolonial thinker is Director of the Emergence Network Bayo Akomolafe, who puts forward the idea that even in the middle of the city, surrounded by concrete and grey buildings that block out the sky, we are in the middle of nature.[xxiii] Our creations too are a part of it.
So what does all of this mean for our activism?
If we are - as author Gillian Ross writes when describing the theory of evolutionary spirituality – ‘the universe becoming aware of itself,’ then we are also nature becoming aware of itself in all its diverse forms.[xxiv] As environmentalists fighting to protect the earth, we are fighting to protect ourselves. This struggle exists at a metaphysical level: it is more than just a struggle for survival against climate breakdown.
While we may feel ourselves to be a part of nature, we often still think of our activism in terms of separatism. The narrative that drives many of us, is that it is us humans causing the destruction of nature: a realisation that can make us feel immeasurable anger and sorrow. When considering environmental destruction through the framework of Gaia Theory, we are in fact elements of nature destroying parts of itself. In going into battle against it, we are battling against ourselves. In trying to heal it, we are trying to heal ourselves. That is why any above steps toward protecting nature must be rooted in this internal shift. As Satash Kumar writes, we need to build a new paradigm that restores health to people and planet earth: ‘healing people and healing nature is one and the same.’[xxv]
While strategic litigation is needed to protect the rights of nature, the power of activism in challenging the limitations of the legal system - particularly at the local grassroots level - should not be overlooked. The recognition of the rights of nature is not a panacea, but the first step on a long journey toward building Earth Jurisprudence. Consistent with the holistic approach applied throughout the Regenerative Activism series, the speakers concluded that it is of key importance for activists and lawyers alike to integrate their actions in order to co-solve environmental and social justice issues together. One of the most resounding messages from the session was that personal practice and reflection are essential for restoring our connection with nature. Working at the individual level to deepen this relationship will bolster collective activism for Earth Jurisprudence.
The conference has consistently provided practical steps for strengthening our activism in the collective struggle for systems change. The call to action for the first step in committing to the protection of the natural world is one that is both resounding and simple: spend time in nature, develop empathy for it, and learn in an embodied way that we are not separate. As activists we must recognise this connection and know that outer transformation and inner transformation are inextricably linked. This unity between inner and outer will in turn encourage unity between nature and humans.
To conclude with the words of Satish Kumar:
“The root cause of our current crisis is the old story of separation. Therefore, in the new story, we need to shift our anthropocentric worldview to an eco-centric worldview… move(ing) from self-interest to common interest (that sees) unity in diversity.”
References [i] Enting, I. (2012). ‘Gaia theory: Is it science yet?’ The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/gaia-theory-is-it-science-yet-4901. Lovelock, J. (2006). The Vanishing Face of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity. Allen Lane: Santa Barbara. [ii] Tricoire, D. (2017). Enlightened Colonialism: Civilization Narratives and Imperial Politics in the Age of Reason. Palgrave: London. [iii] Gaia Foundation. (2020). Earth Jurisprudence. Retrieved from: https://www.gaiafoundation.org/what-we-do/earth-jurisprudence/. [iv] Vining, J., Merrick, M. & Price, E. (2008). ‘The distinction between humans and nature: Human perceptions of connectedness to nature and elements of the natural and unnatural,’ Human Ecology Review. 15(1). Retrieved from: https://apjh.humanecologyreview.org/pastissues/her151/viningetal.pdf. [v] Byrne, C. (2020). ‘Earth jurisprudence: Law for an animate earth,’ Shumacher College. Retrieved from: https://www.gaiafoundation.org/earth-jurisprudence-law-for-an-animate-earth/. [vi] Ring, J.,Mitchell, S. & Spellman, M. (2009). ‘What did they leave behind? Legal systems, colonial legacies, and human rights practices,’ University of Iowa. Retrieved from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.584.8906. [vii] Joireman, S. (2006). ‘The evolution of common law: Legal development in Kenya and India, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14662040600831636?src=recsys&journalCode=fccp20. [viii] Hussain, A. (2020). ‘Wild law: an interview with Paul Powlesland, Counsel. Retrieved from: https://www.counselmagazine.co.uk/articles/wild-law-paul-powlesland. [ix] United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/. United Kingdom. (1998). Human Rights Act. Retrieved from: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/42/contents. United Kingdom. (1990). Environmental Protection Act. Retrieved from: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1990/43/contents. [x] Watts, N. Amman, M. & Arnell, N. et al. (2018). ‘The Lancet countdown: Tracking progress on health and climate change, The Lancet. Retrieved from: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)32594-7/fulltext. [xi] Hunter, P. (2003). ‘Climate change and waterborne and vector-borne disease,’ Journal of Applied Microbiology. Retrieved from: http://urbanag.wdfiles.com/local–files/forum:thread/watervectorborne%20diseases%20and%20CC.pdf. World Health Organisation. (2020). Climate Change. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/health-topics/climate-change#tab=tab1. [xii] Greenwood, M. (2020). ‘In China, strict quarantine improves air quality and prevents thousands of premature deaths,’ Yale School of Medicine. Retrieved from: https://medicine.yale.edu/news-article/24721/. [xiii] Einsteinn, C. (2018) Climate – A New Story. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley. [xiv] Gaia Foundation. (2020). Earth Jurisprudence. Retrieved from: https://www.gaiafoundation.org/what-we-do/earth-jurisprudence/. [xv] White, J. (2018). It’s only natural: the push to give rivers, mountains and forests legal rights, The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/apr/01/its-only-natural-the-push-to-give-rivers-mountains-and-forests-legal-rights. [xvi] World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. (2010). Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Retrieved from: https://therightsofnature.org/universal-declaration/. [xvii] Tanasescu. M. (2017). ‘When a river is a person: from Ecuador to New Zealand, nature gets its day in court,’ The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/when-a-river-is-a-person-from-ecuador-to-new-zealand-nature-gets-its-day-in-court-79278. [xviii] Tanasescu. M. (2017). ‘When a river is a person: from Ecuador to New Zealand, nature gets its day in court,’ The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/when-a-river-is-a-person-from-ecuador-to-new-zealand-nature-gets-its-day-in-court-79278. [xix] Hussain, A. (2020). ‘Wild law: an interview with Paul Powlesland, Counsel. Retrieved from: https://www.counselmagazine.co.uk/articles/wild-law-paul-powlesland. [xx] Kumar, S. (2019). ‘Love revolution,’ Advaya. Retrieved from: https://advaya.co/read/2019/12/27/love-revolution. [xxi] [xxi] Kumar, S. (2019). ‘Love revolution,’ Advaya. Retrieved from: https://advaya.co/read/2019/12/27/love-revolution. [xxii] Excellence Reporter. (2019). Tiokasin Ghosthorse: Wiconi — The Meaning of Life. Retrieved from: https://excellencereporter.com/2019/01/14/tiokasin-ghosthorse-wiconi-the-meaning-of-life/. [xxiii] Akomolafe, B. (2020). ‘What do you do when there is no hope? With Bayo Akomolafe & Toni Spencer, Advaya. 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