from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

after Rio, now what?

George Monbiot is one of my heroes. Here he is on Rio and post-Rio: 'It is,' he says, 'perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. The Earth's living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations – the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia – could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit in Rio last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue "sustained growth", the primary cause of the biosphere's losses.'

'Some people will respond' Monbiot continues, 'by giving up, or at least withdrawing from political action. Why, they will ask, should we bother, if the inevitable destination is the loss of so much of what we hold dear: the forests, the brooks, the wetlands, the coral reefs, the sea ice, the glaciers, the birdsong and the night chorus, the soft and steady climate which has treated us kindly for so long?'

It is hard to remain optimistic about the future for our planet. Did we really think the machine could be turned around? The monster machine is all about growth growth growth; and is virtually unstoppable. And that's not unconnected with the debt paradigm, nor with rising levels of human population.

The trouble is consumer capitalism depends on unlimited growth, but we live on a planet with finite and finely-calibrated interconnections of ecosystems. Yet we act as if 1) it's all unlimited and 2) it's put here for us. It's a very simple equation. No ecology = no economy.

As a counsellor, I suspect there are very high levels of unregistered despair in our collective psyche at the destruction of the natural world. I also suspect virtually no one pays any attention to the effects of this on our inner lives and how we then 'act out'. Part of the picture is our sense of powerlessness and helplessness, which entraps us in a vicious circle.

So we also need to believe we can make a difference. It's not enough, is it, to focus on what's wrong.

Monbiot proposes three ways forward: the first 'is to draw out the losses over as long a period as possible in order to allow our children and grandchildren to experience something of the wonder and delight in the natural world and of the peaceful, unharried lives with which we have been blessed.' I'll come back to that one.

The second, he suggests, 'is to preserve what we can in the hopes that conditions might change'. Well, yes...

And the third, with which I'm in total agreement: 'is that, while we may have no influence over decisions made elsewhere, there is plenty that can be done within our own borders. Rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – offers the best hope we have of creating refuges for the natural world, which is why I've decided to spend much of the next few years promoting it here and abroad.' Yes. Yes. Yes.

And even if we can't all commit to the action required for this bigger picture, we might be able to make as simple a gesture of hope towards the future as each of us committing to saving/making/restoring/tending/watching one tiny area of wildlife habitat – in our back garden, in our local community, in a patch of wasteland or marshland; maybe as a collective effort, as has happened here in Totnes.

Growing some of one's own food, organically, is empowering, liberating, and makes a small difference – fewer food miles, not supporting multinationals, not adding to the toxic chemical overload, preserving wildflowers, bees, and insect food for vertebrates – for their own sakes, but also because our lives depend on them, too. (Plus there are so many benefits to gardening in terms of personal physical and mental health.) I'm not naively suggesting, by the way, that a little bit of gardening will solve the world's problems. I'm simply suggesting that doing something, no matter how small, has a more positive impact than doing nothing, for fear it'll make no difference. These actions go some way towards offsetting our despair and sense of hopelessness.

One of the things I've found so heartening this year as I travelled in the late winter round small Westcountry rural primary schools giving workshops, was an awareness and practical effort towards sustainable habitat, wildlife preservation and growing organic food. (Dartington Primary School grows enough organic veg on site as to sell it to the local shops. Tiverton Primary schoolchildren are raising salmon from eggs to release into the rivers – that will have happened by now, I realise.) These efforts, however small, make a difference.

But I quibble with Monbiot's first point about drawing losses out to preserve something for our grandchildren. Yes, of course, that's worthwhile. Essential. I want that too, and will fight for it. But it's not enough in itself; and beneath it is something I consider to be at the root of our current environmental troubles, and that is an unconsciously hierarchical attitude that puts humans at the top of the tree. In other words, a deeply-engrained anthropocentrism.* It's not enough to wish to preserve the planet for our descendants – we need to preserve it for itself, in its own right. Seems to me that we fall into a fundamentally flawed trap: the planet with its other inhabitants, in my view, was not put here for our benefit – that's 2000 years of Judeo-Christianity informing our post-industrial worldview.

Unless we can shift our view from the purely anthropocentric to a more ecocentric perspective, to be more genuinely and radically inclusive of the ecosystems of which we are a part and on which we are entirely dependent, nothing will change.

Perhaps all we can do is commit to gearing down/scaling down our own individual views of how much we need in material terms in order to be happy, to notice instead how little it takes to make a difference, and to feel empowered to make changes in one's own locality at least – that's a revolution worth having.

* If you consider the ethical issues behind all this worth investigation, I highly recommend Patrick Curry's Ecological Ethics (polity).

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