A green perspective

by Stan Hirst

Introduction

In a blog posted on this site earlier in the month, Elder Bob Worcester proposed a new view of the world, termed the ‘green perspective’. The prime purpose of this view is to provide a framework for mitigating the present worldwide vitriolic conflicts between the world’s “globalists” and “localists”.

“Globalists” are broadly considered to include the urban elites who support world-wide integration of communications, commerce and transportation, while “localists” are groups who are sceptical about moves from traditions, homes and families to so-called “new world orders” and their associated clash of cultures.

Between global and local perspectives are ‘ecological’ views which imply that everything has its role and place. While globalists see local perspectives as limited and narrow, they forget that the global is made up of a mosaic of local conditions, each of which emerged from the particular circumstances of that region. Locals, on the other hand, discount cosmopolitans as being out of touch with the day-to-day realities of lived experience.

The green perspective is not just the middle ground between two extremes, it can be a radical position beyond either extreme; something outside the lines of the conventional. The green perspective should dive deeper into the imagination to find things unseen. It can derive much from nature which provides a deep, rich model of how the world works, and from spiritual traditions which claim that by “seeing through the glass darkly” more depth may be revealed.

The conflict between the two viewpoints is exemplified by carbon extraction (in the form of oil, coal, natural gas, etc.) and its combustion, creating the very real possibility of local impacts from spills and contamination, and global threats to climate and planetary ecosystems from carbon dioxide and methane emissions. These impacts will affect virtually every person on the planet in some way, and the negative effects will be handed on to succeeding generations.

Locals are mollified by global capitalists who appear to value environmental quality (at least in their own backyards), who also have children and grandchildren who they want to see live happy and productive lives but who also seem quite ready to sidestep the obvious implications of negative global impacts and focus instead on the materialistic benefits – jobs and money.

Thus far the conceptualization of a ‘green perspective’ has been based only on consideration of the prevailing toxic dialogue around the environment and the extent of human exploitation of global resources and ecosystems. Missing from the discussion so far are ethics and spirituality, a deeper appreciation of global ecosystems, and concern for environmental rights and freedoms.

This post attempts to provide these additional perspectives.

Incorporation of ecological intelligence

Differences and/or shortcomings in perception have huge consequences for the way in which we manage the planet. It is suggested that the green perspective would be amplified by inclusion of liberal doses of ecological intelligence, described by its inventor Daniel Goleman as an understanding of ecosystems lending the capacity to learn from experience and to deal effectively with the environment.

Current human use and consumption of natural resources far exceeds Earth’s long-term carrying capacity. At the same time, modern society has lost touch with the sensibility crucial to our survival as a species. As Goleman expresses it – our collective mind harbours blind spots that disconnect our everyday activities from the crises those activities cause in natural systems.

Ecological intelligence supports the ability to categorize and recognize patterns in the natural world – ecological, geological and climatic. Humans have been doing this for centuries, but the global extent of human-induced change now requires that ecological intelligence be extended to the planetary level. Moreover, our other levels of intelligence – social and emotional – enable us to take other people’s perspectives, assimilate these and feel genuine empathy.

The sheer efficiency and widespread prevalence of modern technologies have severely blunted the survival skills of billions of individuals on the planet. Modern economies require and encourage specialized expertise, which in turn depends on other specialists for tasks in another field. However, while many excel in narrow specialized fields, we all depend on the skills of others – farmers, software engineers, nutritionists, mechanics – to make life work for us. Modern society now falls short in having the abilities, the attunement to the natural world, and the custom of passing on of local wisdom to new generations to find ways of living in harmony with our patch of the planet.

Our collective ability to perceive significant global issues has been rendered ineffective. Our attention has been drawn, slowly and reluctantly, to symptoms like the slow rising of global sea levels or the pesticide-induced demise of our bee populations. We have no sensors for other indicators and little insight into natural disruptions. Our otherwise impressive neural systems are ill-designed to warn us of the ways that our activities are impacting our own planetary niche. We have to acquire new sensitivities to a growing range of threats and learn what to do about them. In other words, we need to sharpen our ecological intelligence.

Adequate development of ecological intelligence requires a vast store of knowledge, too much for any one individual. While intelligence has traditionally been a characteristic of individuals, the environmental abilities we now need in order to survive must necessarily be collective.

Large organizations already make good use of distributed intelligence. Goleman cites the examples of hospitals where technicians, nurses, administrators and specialist physicians coordinate their skills to provide appropriate care to patients. Another example is that of modern commercial enterprises in which sales, marketing, finance, and strategic planning each represent unique expertise yet operate together to provide coordinated, shared understanding and implementation.

Incorporation of ethics

Nearly 70 years ago the conservationist Aldo Leopold published a series of essays under the title of A Sand County Almanac in which he proposed adoption of a land ethic. Leopold, a naturalist by choice and a forester by training, considered that Old Testament religion had played a major role in environmental deterioration in twentieth century America through its Abrahamic concept of land as a commodity. That meant that the non-aboriginal relationship to land was basically economic, entailing privileges but no obligations.

Leopold proposed a “Land Ethic” which expanded the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well – soils, water, plants, and animals. In the lexicon of the late 19th century all these ecosystem components were conventionally lumped under the term “land”. Leopold’s revolutionary concept of land was in fact “a community to which people belonged”, thus entailing use with love and respect.

The land ethic has been a significant contribution to conservation in North America, and the concepts are embedded in many state and federal resource management policies. One reason it is popular with mainstream environmentalism is that it does not require huge sacrifices of human interests, but instead seeks to strike a balance between human needs and interests and a healthy and biotically diverse natural environment. It also permits framing of global land as a commons, to be governed on a global scale based on international cooperation and conservation.

Incorporation of environmental rights

As fundamental as the right to food, shelter or freedom from discrimination is the right of all members of society to live in a safe physical environment in which the continued diversity of non-human life is also ensured. This can be promoted by promoting stronger environmental laws and better enforcement of existing laws through the framework of the green perspective.

The right to a healthy environment is widely recognized in international law and enjoyed as a constitutional protection in over 100 countries, but not in Canada (the Canadian Constitution makes no mention of the environment). Ironically, environmental rights and responsibilities have been a cornerstone of indigenous legal systems in Canada for millennia. The right is currently recognized in five provinces and territories (Quebec, Ontario, Yukon, NWT, and Nunavut), and has been tabled in draft legislative form in B.C.

The formulation of rights is a legal mechanism for creating or shifting the balance between competing interests. Such a right residing in each Canadian would provide the courts with direction in, for example, determining the strength of the individual Canadian’s claim for environmental health in cases where it competed with the right of another individual or corporation to develop property. An environmental bill of rights is also seen as a mechanism for removing obstacles which currently prevent individuals and public interest groups from participating in the environmental decision-making process and litigating issues of environmental degradation.

The David Suzuki Foundation’s Blue Dot movement is a national grassroots campaign seeking country-wide implementation of environmental rights. To date more than 110,000 people across Canada have participated at various levels, and 160 municipalities have passed resolutions in support of legislation. The end goal is the amendment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to include the right to a healthy environment.

Characteristics of a green perspective

The characteristics of a green perspective can now be summarised as follows.

  • Seeking a broad picture that encompasses all viewpoints.
  • Open-ended.
  • Recognizing that positions affect people and there may be multiple sides to an issue.
  • Recognizing that being in the majority on an issue is not a reassurance that it is wise.
  • Knowing when an acceptable course of action can be a middle ground between two extremes, or possibly even a position outside the lines of the conventional.
  • Welcoming spiritual traditions being brought in to reveal depth to the perspective.
  • Defining a strong ethical framework for planning, approving and implementing.
  • Recognizing the right to a healthy environment as a cornerstone of any plans and actions involving individuals, communities and ecosystems.
  • Responsible understanding of ecosystems and their functioning lending the capacity to learn from experience and to be proactive in environmental management.

 

4 comments

  1. Wow, Stan, there is so much useful and thought-provoking information here in your article– I will have to read it over a few times to incorporate and be able to share the many ideas. Maybe you and Bob can offer a “study circle” or salon or something to further discussion??

  2. The “land ethic” is a solid foundation for a “green” perspective. Our very DNA arose out of our interactions with the community of beings (especially viruses and bacteria) and we therefore ought to resonate to things that threaten our ecosystems. However, since WE are posing a substantial threat to our own ecosystems, the problem may be complicated. Modern economists (Thaler, Kahneman and Tversky) have demonstrated that our “natural” intelligence is limited in its ability to deal with complexity. We avoid taking actions with a 20% chance of failure BUT are happy to take actions with an 80% chance of success. Just as we are developing “algorithms” that can beat humans at chess, Jeopardy, poker and Go, perhaps we will need to develop algorithms that identify and understand the patterns of deep ecology and demonstrate “brilliant” resource management “for the greater good of the greater number.” No one doubts that self-driving cars will be safer than human-driven cars. Perhaps AI driven algorithms will provide better, more “rational” oversight that our current leadership. The danger may be that such algorithms will quickly conclude that WE are the problem and take steps accordingly!

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