On Brexit, Slavery and Civil War, 1820-2020

The ‘defining sin’ of a country shapes its history and sparks fresh anxiety and discord whenever any social issue is looked at too closely, often over centuries. Genocide has that role across both American continents, but in the United States specifically the defining sin is slavery, with racism its after-glow. Here, from the 1787 Constitution to the 1861 Civil War, political crises were common between slave and free states, played out in Congress, the courts and the Presidency.

There were repeated compromises over which states and territories would be free and which slave, as the nation grew westward. One of them was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, by which free Maine and slave Missouri were admitted to the Union, on condition that everywhere north-west of the southern border of Missouri (36o30’N) would thereafter be free, and everywhere south-west of it would be slave.

But the compromises eventually broke down and the matter was settled in the Civil War of 1861-1865. Slavery became illegal (except for convicts) with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, and people of African ancestry were thereafter recognised as eligible for citizenship. That this breakthrough was largely cosmetic, until a further struggle in the 1960s (which still continues), shows just how powerful a country’s defining sin can be.

England also has a defining sin, which like America’s is accompanied by the sustained and characteristic injustices of inequity, exclusion, oppression and exploitation. In England it is ‘class’, not ‘race’, and it is based not so much on skin-colour as a marker of ethnicity and legal status, but on wealth, speech, education and other markers of social status. Many observers have noted how England’s defining sin of class arises whenever any social issue is examined closely, just as racism does in America. It is an interesting comparison, but what does it have to do with Brexit?

There’s little point in pretending that Brexit is not being advanced by parts of the wealth-owning elite in England, or that slavery was not protected by parts of the slave-owning elite in the slave states. In both cases, their causes needed mass support from people who had nothing much to gain from their success: poor people in England and poor whites in the slave states. In both cases, and in many others, nationalism, racism, fear, and envy of ‘othered’ and demonised groups were found convenient for this purpose, along with the active suppression of dissent.

Looking in more detail at slavery, enough white men (the only voters) were convinced by racist entitlement myths and fear to keep the slave system going, decade after decade. In this the slave-owning elite were helped by an electoral booster that they had managed to include in the 1787 Constitution. This allowed for slaves to be ‘worth’ three-fifths of a person in terms of the number of representatives that each state sent to Congress. In other words, the more slaves there were in a state, the more representatives it sent, even though the slaves could not vote for them. This is now hard to imagine, but it made a huge difference to who got elected.

In 1857, the struggle between slave and free states, and the thinkers, propagandists, activists and interest groups on both sides, had reached the stage at which the US Supreme Court could no longer avoid making a ruling on whether the Constitution sanctioned slavery, or not [1]. The point at issue was the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise, and it is worth considering the implications of bringing such a decision to such a forum. For it made the choice depend on the balance of opinions among a tiny group of old white men, all of whom had been selected by a corrupt and slavery-influenced system and subjected to years of pressure by cynical interest groups, of which the most cynical (to judge from the selfish cruelty of their regime) were no doubt the slave-owners.

The result is not so surprising with hindsight. The Court ruled by a 7-2 majority on 6 March 1857 that although the Missouri Compromise was indeed unconstitutional, the Constitution did not inhibit the states’ rights to keep slavery going. The judges’ grounds were that the men who wrote the Constitution couldn’t possibly have meant to include blacks in their fine worlds about men being equal, since people of African descent were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” and none could therefore ever be considered citizens of the United States. The slave interests were overjoyed, and started going on about ‘we won, you lost, get over it!’. Most others – the intelligent, the educated, the compassionate, the religious, the professional, and the well-travelled – were stunned, and after a few days they all started moaning about it in the newspapers.

The Court’s decision can be understood in terms of how slave-owners managed to bring the decision to a corrupt forum that they largely controlled. In this, the similarities with the 2016 Brexit referendum are obvious, with its biased press, subverted social media, public lies, shadowy foreign influences and illegal campaign spending. The details are very different, but the underlying process by which the best-organised and most ruthless side of the debate brought overwhelming influence to bear on a single decision point masquerading as ‘democracy’ (just as the American one masqueraded as ‘law’) are much the same.

In America, the Court’s judgement was so obviously wrong that it was not sustainable, not with capitalist modernity demanding freely-recruited labour to work privately-owned machines [2], and not with the likes of Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln working against it. All it really bought was a few more years of suffering for slaves, and of profit-making and tax-avoiding for the slave-owning elite. And then, when the free states insisted on change after all, the slave states walked out of the Union. At least three-quarters of a million Americans died in the war that followed.

Returning to 2019, the EU may have its own defining sins, or at least influences (notably the Ancient Roman empire via the Church, and the Holy Roman empire via Germany), but it stands inherently for a way of life that has no real place for the English class system and its unequal education, its off-shore tax havens, its piratical traditions, and its weak environmental and social protections. This is surely why parts of England’s wealth-owning elite wanted Brexit in the first place: to perpetuate an unequal system, just as American slave-owners had sought to do. And there are obvious similarities between the tricks that the two groups used, and their success in delaying reform for centuries. But considering the United States in 1857-1861 and the United Kingdom in 2016-2020, the question is: what happens next, for us?

In America, the 1857 ruling began a countdown to civil war, while positions hardened and emotions escalated. In Britain, the 2016 referendum began a countdown to Brexit itself, while positions have hardened and emotions have escalated. But does Britain really have to play out the rest of the scenario, or can we dodge the civil war part? In trying to, we have the huge advantage over the Americans of 1860 that we’ve been taught to submit to the class system so thoroughly, and for so long, that we may no longer possess the social volatility needed for armed struggle. Remember that it wasn’t the oppressed slaves, weakened by the habits and hardships of slavery, who made the American Civil War; it was white folk, righteous, self-interested and free, with each side attacking the others’ homelands on a matter of principle.

So, do the English care enough? Do we realise how far we’ve been trained to accept the class system? Could the EU intervene militarily in England, as the free Union did in the Confederacy? If it did, would Russia (widely suspected of influencing the 2016 referendum and US election) support the Brexiter side in Britain (as England did for the South in the American Civil War)? Perhaps not. I suspect rather that the English will manage only a divisive, resentful grumble that will drag on for years, while most of us get poorer and the rich use us as they wish. Since the alternative may be civil war, this could be as good as it gets. Until, that is, the whole system breaks under the multiple catastrophes of climate chaos, whereupon we’ll all starve.

But we can imagine other endings to this story. We could postpone Brexit and hold a free and fair referendum, either to ratify its terms or to cancel it. We could cancel Brexit and revert, older and wiser, to count our blessings as citizens of an EU member state. After that, we could lead the EU in its efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. And those efforts, replicated world-wide with the support of the EU, might be successful. To adapt Lincoln’s words at his 1861 inauguration, the bonds and friendships of our common European identity may be enough to save the day, when we are touched “by the better angels of our nature”. Those angels failed for Lincoln, but may still work for us.

© Julian Caldecott

[1] These Truths, A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore (Norton, 2018).

[2] The Age of Capital 1848-1875, by Eric Hobsbawm (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962).

Extinction and Brexit: the Same Struggle

People ask why I campaign at the same time for the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and for the UK’s continued full membership of the EU. Some argue that Brexit is a trivial matter compared with climate chaos, ecological collapse and mass extinction, so why bother, why get distracted? I say the opposite: that the two issues are utterly one, that XR should be completely against Brexit, and that the anti-Brexit movement should be completely with XR. The two being separated is just what the poisonous elite who ruin the country want, the better to divide, delay, starve, and kill off the united opposition, and unity is what they truly fear.  So why do I think all this?

Before I answer, I want to acknowledge two things. First, the UK has in fact led the world in raising the alarm about climate change. I have documented in my books the impact on international aid priorities, for example, of HM Treasury’s 1997 Stern Report on the economic costs of climate change. The UK has also led the world in making legally-binding commitments to reduce GHG emissions. The EU’s relatively advanced position on climate change mitigation is largely a result of Britain’s lobbying and example in 1995-2015. The problem now, since 2016, is that the UK has fallen into the trap of Brexit, compromising its ability to lead on these subjects.

And second, I do acknowledge that the EU is in part a ‘liberal’ free-trade zone, dedicated to support capitalist enterprise and the ‘bourgeois’ middle-class lifestyle, with all that that implies for unsustainable and unequal levels and patterns of collective resource consumption and pollution, including the exploitation of the weak and the direct and indirect promotion of GHG emissions. However, the EU is also much more than that. It is a system of standard-setting, conflict-resolving, experimentalist governance that is capable of driving steady improvements in social and environmental well-being, and has in fact done so (with the Water Framework Directive being a potent example). Its underlying model, which allows for all its member states to solve common problems in their own ways with the intellectual, material and moral support of their neighbours, is equally applicable everywhere and is, I believe, the only viable model for a practicable global system that could ‘save the world’ and improve the human condition.

Any big diverse system is going to have more or less progressive parts, and the EU has plenty, but only an EU-type system is able to manage them all and help them all find their own paths to success in line with common standards. This is why the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was so good: it allowed everyone to agree on common standards, to compete and cooperate to build capacity to achieve them, and to tighten the standards and goals over time. It may be too slow for the climate campaigners, and it may be too slow for the biosphere, but top-down global planning and enforcement could not have worked without universal coercion, which was not and is not an option. This way, the EU way, we have a chance, especially with XR putting on pressure to demand tighter goals. As Greta Thunberg said: the EU must double its climate goals! And the EU could do that, and with EU leadership, so could the Paris Agreement signatories. Slowly, no doubt, but this is what global cooperation on solving a wicked problem actually looks like.

So, duly acknowledged. But where does it all leave XR and Brexit? My points are simple. First, the people of major parts of the EU are far more progressive on climate change than those of major parts of the UK. Because those parts of the EU also have proportional representation, their governments are much more responsive to public concerns than in the UK. Thus, we see the Nordic countries, the Low Countries, Germany, Portugal and increasingly France exerting themselves mightily on climate change, while England dreams of the past (specifically, and alarmingly, the 1930s). If a few hundred people turn out for climate strikes in the UK, tens of thousands do so in Belgium, etc. Thus, being part of a system influenced by mass support for climate action helps the UK make progress, even if it is now a follower rather than a leader.

Second, the EU has tough and progressive targets on climate action, and these are improvable through public demand. Moreover, the EU has potency at a global level which it can use, and is using, to protect and push its climate agenda forward, influencing trade, transport, aid and industrial standards worldwide, standing up to those countries that temporarily fall to bad leadership. This makes the EU almost the only entity that is remotely capable of promoting system change on the scale that the climate emergency demands. At least at a conventional level, negotiated, transparent and agreed. Obviously a universal Zeitgeist shift and the rise of a new globally-effective mass movement of militant ecologists might happen, or something else might happen, to change the whole situation. But while we hope and strive, there’s a lot to be said for working as best we can with what we have right now. And what we have right now is the EU.

Third, outside the EU there are few powers that have much interest in saving the biosphere. Whatever non-EU trade deals the isolated UK might negotiate will be with repressive regimes selling toxic and/or socially-suspect and/or environmentally-compromised products. An isolated UK will inevitably be forced to ‘dine with the devil’ or starve, and it will also have to be much more complicit than it would otherwise be in the destruction of the living world, while also having walked away from the only grouping that is determinedly willing and has the proven capacity to save nature, and us. And that’s why I carry on waving an EU and an XR flag, in solidarity with both, in the same struggle.

© Julian Caldecott

The Indonesia-Norway REDD+ Partnership

“Thank God for the Norwegians”, a Jakarta-based environmental aid official said to me in March 2011, in awe of the game-changing impact that Norway’s billion-dollar International Climate and Forest Initiative was having on the Indonesian forest conservation scene. Ten months earlier, the Indonesia-Norway REDD+ Partnership had been signed into being through a Letter of Intent (LoI) between the two governments. Suddenly, it seemed, a new ending had been written for the story of Indonesia’s forests, after decades of frustration, inaction, corruption, deforestation and carbon emissions, otherwise known as ‘business as usual’. President Yudhoyono was fully engaged, keen young and forceful older Indonesians were assigned to reform the old system, while the provinces were falling over each other to cooperate. It was a good time to lead the first review of the Indonesia-Norway REDD+ Partnership [1].

Indonesian forests and peatlands have long been degraded by demand for forest products and plantation land, with the pressures made worse by a changing climate and the fire-proneness of damaged and desiccated ecosystems. It was always going to be a challenge to reduce emissions from land use here, or to increase security of biodiversity, natural ecosystems and traditional ways of life, all of them vital to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD)+. But in 2009, the country’s leadership realised the scale of Indonesia’s contribution to climate change, and its vulnerability to the consequences. With Norway keen to support tropical REDD+, it wasn’t long before they began to talk, and the result was the LoI in which Indonesia agreed to attempt forestry reforms and Norway promised up to a billion dollars to enable and reward success. The LoI envisioned three phases: (1) for establishing institutions and capacity, (2) for transforming forest management and governance, and (3) for delivering verified emission reductions. None was expected to be simple or quick.

By the time I went back to lead the second review of the Partnership in 2013 [2], things were looking good. There had been rapid progress on a moratorium on new forest concessions for logging and plantations in primary forests, on national and sub-national REDD+ strategies, on a publicly-accessible database (‘One Map’) with 85 data layers, including all forests, peatlands and concessions (unprecedented in the secretive forest sector), and on establishing a ministerial-level REDD+ Agency. The latter was set up in August 2013, and became a real powerhouse of Indonesian conservation talent, thought and energy. In my career I have been privileged to visit several institutions in the full flush of their youth and enthusiasm: the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity in the Philippines, the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development in Guyana, the National Biodiversity Institute in Costa Rica; well, Indonesia’s REDD+ Agency was like that.

It led the LoI process until early 2015, but it couldn’t last. It was becoming very effective, but it was outside the Indonesian bureaucracy and not remotely sustainable. It could have done with another year or two to consolidate some things, but the newly-elected President Widodo ordered the ministries of environment and forestry to become one Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), which would absorb the REDD+ Agency and disperse its responsibilities throughout the new institution. The challenges of merging these two very different ministries caused a severe loss of Phase 2 momentum during 2015-16. The third review of the LoI process was also delayed, and only in 2018 did I have the opportunity to understand the previous five years, and to describe the current position [3]. It turned out that although staff of the former REDD+ Agency had largely scattered, ecological events had put many of the things that they had been working on back on the national agenda. Thus, forest and peatland fires in late 2015 caused immense damage in Indonesia and led to a strong response in the forms of new and enhanced regulations, a new Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), and increased policy priority for fire prevention, One Map, law enforcement, social forestry, and land reform. Meanwhile, the LoI had been automatically renewed at the end of 2016, while Norway continued to support its various Indonesian partners, by such means as funding the new BRG and delivering capacity-building support to KLHK and others. So the Partnership remained very much alive.

Moreover, essential parts of an agreed system for accounting, earning, receiving and managing payments for verified emission reductions could only be put in place by government, and these were now nearing completion. Better, after all the investment in mapping and monitoring, there was good evidence that the loss of Indonesian forest cover in 2017 was less than in 2016. We suggested having a look at the numbers again in early 2020, to confirm a real trend in reducing forest loss and hopefully justifying a huge party on the tenth anniversary of the LoI on 26 May 2020. But the data were good enough already, and on 16 February 2019 ministers for the two Partners announced that reduced deforestation in Indonesia had triggered the first payment for results – nearly five million tonnes of reduced emissions! [4]. This good news validates the long-term strategy of both Partners, which is based on the truth that solving complex environmental problems requires sustained effort and flexible investment, involves many stakeholders and relationships, and makes it necessary to accept that there may only be slow directional change over a long period, with fewer dramatic breakthroughs than one might like.

[1]www.ccmin.aippnet.org/pdfs/Indonesia-Norway%20REDD+%20Partnership-%20first%20evaluation%20of%20deliverables%20-%20Final%20Report.pdf

[2]www.regjeringen.no/contentassets/78ef00f5b01148e2973dca203463caee/indonesia-norway-reddsecond-verification-final-report.pdf

[3]https://www.regjeringen.no/contentassets/56473ac483ff4f8fa537bd5dfda9d57b/idn-nor-third-review–final-report.pdf

[4]www.regjeringen.no/en/aktuelt/indonesia-reports-reduced-deforestation-triggering-first-carbon-payment-from-norway/id2629504/

© Julian Caldecott

On Citizens’ Assemblies

The Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a growing movement among those willing to take or support non-violent direct action to reform ‘business as usual’ (BAU) in order to fix global heating, ecological collapse and mass extinction. It’s allied with like-minded movements and blessed by the gurus, priests and shamans of numerous faiths and philosophies. I joined XR because after so many years pushing for ecological system change around the world, here at last was a global mass movement that might be able to create political momentum for serious reform. It has three demands which I summarise and interpret as follows.

  • First, the governing elite must tell the truth about the state of the biosphere, the ways of the BAU that threaten its integrity, and their implications for humanity and nature.
  • Second, the governing elite must act effectively and with extreme urgency to address and resolve all threats to the integrity of the biosphere.
  • And third, a new system of leadership and governance must be installed, to guide and supervise reform of the current BAU, so as to ensure effective change and maintain the spirit of inclusiveness and democratic accountability.

Meeting the first demand means building public understanding and support for decisive action, while accepting that depression and fear are natural responses to truth about the world that we have made. Meeting the second demand means making deep and far-reaching changes to the BAU system, going far beyond anything so far agreed but consistent with the true situation that has resulted from past inaction. The third demand is the one that strikes most directly at the ability of the governing elite and BAU system to resist, delay and undermine reform efforts.

It is based on the reasonable beliefs that the ecological problems confronting humanity are too complex and urgent to be handled effectively by current decision-making arrangements, that the BAU system cannot be trusted to reform itself, and that the existing party-based political arrangements are too influenced by those who control BAU to be able to take the necessary hard decisions. This is not to say that individual legislators and businessmen are incompetent or untrustworthy, but it does recognise that established systems of interest and privilege tend to paralyse or misdirect change, at a time when urgent, directional reform is essential.

How decisions are made is important, as it sets the tone for future relationships among people and between people and nature. So any new decision-making forum should be inclusive in its construction, while also being informed and free of undue influence in its deliberations, and able to reach clear, quick, wise and useful decisions. Taking these factors into account, XR proposes to put in place a new Citizens’ Assembly to make strategic decisions. Members would be chosen through ‘sortition’ – that is random selection, like in jury service. The several hundred members would then be given access to expert advice (including a crash-course in ecology and planetary systems science) before deciding how we should proceed.

I speculate that such strategic decisions might focus on how to ensure that ecological reality always takes precedence over human laws (e.g. a Peace with Nature Constitution), or on how to protect the interests of vulnerable and future people and non-human species in all decisions (e.g. the appointment of Tribunes with veto powers). But they would certainly include priorities for combating climate change and mass extinction that are binding on all institutions and sectors. In short, for the specific purpose of making hard decisions to solve the problems of climate change, ecological collapse and mass extinction, a Citizens’ Assembly offers a way to combine the democratic strengths of informed public opinion with the serious responsibilities of jury service. This seems to me well worth demanding. See you on the streets!

© Julian Caldecott

Leadership

Leadership is the skill with which a group’s needs and desires are detected, shaped, and steered. This is worth thinking about, because we are surrounded and blathered at by people claiming to be ‘leaders’ – of political parties and countries especially – but few of them are any good at it. As a result, we are in a real pickle – doomed to being driven mad (e.g. by Brexit) and then extinct (e.g. by climate change). In short, we need good leadership, and urgently. But how to recognise it?

The idea of leadership. The  verb ‘to lead’ comes from the Old English lǣdan (‘lead’) and lād (‘journey’, ‘way’, ‘course’), and it’s linked to ‘load’ (things you carry on a journey) and ‘lode’ (as in lodestar and lodestone, things that guide you on a journey). People have been migrating for scores of millennia (from Africa to Australia and the Americas), and even settled peoples can never afford to forget how to do it as there is always the risk of drought, sea-level rise and invasion. So the idea of a person responsible for starting and steering a journey must be utterly primal. But a group must be ready to travel before a leader can shape a vague motivation to move into enthusiasm for a journey in a particular direction, with all its dangers and labours. And physical travel is only where the idea of leadership came from originally; it now covers other kinds of journey, ones that involve change and progress in relationships between people, and between people and their environments. All require similar skills in managing conflict by dispensing justice, managing relations with other groups, understanding and articulating the needs and desires of groups, and choosing directions and destinations. Leadership is the artistry in doing all these things – and ‘good leadership’ means doing them well.

Why is leadership so hard? Because it brings together every other mental capacity. It requires all signs in the environment to be seen and understood, including the moods of people, nature, and the spirit world, the behaviour of animals, the crying of babies, the texture of grass and soil, and the frequency, intensity and content of social disputes. Many of the clues are subtle – the bad temper of white-tipped reef sharks just before an earthquake, for example – while others (such as the dust of an approaching army) are anything but. In any case, there is a long list, from which particular indicators are chosen (as influenced by culture, itself shaped by experience in that particular environment), and their significance marshalled into a story that can help the group’s ideas and desires take form. These will have been influenced by the same signals that the leader has detected, but perhaps not organised so well or in the same way.

Why do leaders have to be brave? Many important environmental and social signals cannot be appreciated without knowledge and attention to detail, so they may only be recognised by a few people. This applies often in large, complex or fragmented societies in which there are many distractions, and especially involve environmental threats (such as slowly-deteriorating ecological conditions) and social threats (such as slowly-growing inequality, corruption, and political polarisation). Here, if the threats are severe and solutions are needed urgently, but there is little public appreciation of the need for action, an essential quality of leadership is a willingness to act decisively to safeguard the group but in advance of public opinion.

Leaders must make sense of complexity. Modern societies comprise millions of people in political systems and billions in economic ones, and have complex distributions of power among class, caste, gender, ethnic, ideological, and other groups. Distilling useful messages from so many people now requires very selective listening (to focal groups, poll samples, and factional leaders), and very crude messaging about the intentions of the leadership. One-size-fits all price signals, slogans and binary choices tend to replace the subtleties of social discourse, and minorities that cannot build alliances to form large voting blocks tend to be ignored. Only through universal, high-quality education can good minority ideas (such as equity and sustainability) spread widely, and only through local empowerment and decentralisation can accountable governance be maintained in ultra-large political systems. But both education and localism are needed, since otherwise leadership in large societies produces non-inclusive and polarised outcomes. And when these outcomes are challenged by dire events in the social sphere (e.g. through insurrection by the dispossessed), the economic sphere (e.g. through technological or market changes), or the environmental sphere (e.g. through the consequences of climate change), then polarised outcomes can quickly turn into despotic ones. Then we end up with warlords rather than good leaders running the world.

So what are we looking for? Good leadership must include the competence to identify key challenges, the attention given to diverse signals about them and how they are likely to affect the group, the intelligence needed to seek, discriminate and absorb sound advice about what to do about them, the articulacy to explain and build support for a collective course of action that will minimise harm and maximise benefit for most people in the long run, and the flexibility to maintain alliances while adapting to events. So a good leader must be competent, attentive, intelligent, articulate, and flexible, and in the modern world all this must be combined with a surety of touch in communicating with very diverse audiences. How many of those who claim to be leaders come close? Have a look at the UK parliament right now, and see what you think.

© Julian Caldecott

Towards a Peace with Nature Constitution

People ask why I carry a ‘Peace with Nature’ flag at Extinction Rebellion demonstrations. I say it’s because humanity has got into the habit of waging war on nature, but this is a war that we simply cannot win. So we need to give up, surrender, relax, and submit to ecological reality instead. But the habit of war against nature is so strong – how do we break it? My answer is that we need a process of steady, educational change in a consistent direction, as our forces are demobilised and our societies reorganised for peace and sustainability. Then I explain about the daring and imaginative ways that Costa Rica has used to build Peace with Nature over decades. And I say that it’s time to pay attention and learn how to do peace.

Costa Rica is a country in Central America, between Panamá and Nicaragua. In 1948, it abolished its armed forces and redirected its military budget to healthcare, education and environmental protection. During the 1970s and 1980s, despite this early wisdom, rapid deforestation convinced local conservationists that virtually all private lands were likely to be cleared of natural ecosystems. Their lobbying led in 1989 to a National Biodiversity Planning Commission, which started with the premises that biodiversity was economically valuable so should be preserved and used for public benefit, and that forest protection could not succeed unless the people living around each protected area were willing to help protect it. The Commission proposed new laws to consolidate a National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), with all the units being managed locally and for local benefit. To help pay for this, the Commission recommended a national biodiversity inventory, to find out exactly what made up Costa Rica’s biological richness and what it might be used for, and also the creation of a National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) to manage the inventory. All of this was done, and it led in the early 1990s to the high-profile birth of bioprospecting as a strategy for tropical developing countries to use and conserve their own living resources for their own long-term benefit.

By the mid 1990s, the logic of using ecosystems creatively to pay for their own conservation and contribute to national well-being had resulted in a ‘payments for ecosystem services’ (PES) programme in Costa Rica. This is a national system to manage payments for carbon storage, hydrological services, and the protection of biodiversity and landscapes. It is mostly financed by a 3.5% sales tax on fossil fuels, but the aim is that all beneficiaries of environmental services eventually pay for those they receive. In 1997-2004, some US$200 million was invested in PES to protect over 460,000 hectares of forests, to establish forestry plantations and to provide additional income to more than 8,000 forest owners. It had the effect of turning deforestation in Costa Rica into net reforestation by the early 2000s.

These environmentally-based economic programmes, together with debt-for-nature swaps and the rapid growth of genuine ecotourism (i.e. nature-based tourism that pays for conservation and promotes environmental education), helped to transform the country’s self-image and future, and by 2007 Costa Rica was ready for the next logical step, which was to declare Peace with Nature. This involved a number of specific commitments by the government, to abolish all forces that destroy nature by 2021: by banning net GHG emissions and single-use plastics, and promoting environmental action planning by all state institutions, investment in the protected area system and biodiversity, arrangements for users of ecosystem services to pay for their conservation, and environmental education in all schools.

Costa Rica’s 30-year process of change is built on consistent ecological reasoning, appropriate technologies and the sharing of costs and benefits to involve multiple aspects of society and the economy. The factors that made such an approach feasible in Costa Rica (with historical starting positions, luck, and leadership among them) need to be understood, but there are lessons to be learned here that are applicable in all other countries. Three factors are particularly relevant:

  • First, that the social and ethical development of a country or group of states needed for a Peace with Nature Declaration can now be achieved far more quickly than it was in Costa Rica, since we’ve all been wrestling with and learning from similar issues.
  • Second, that ‘Peace with Nature’ need not stop at a declaration and a set of government programmes, even over-arching and mainstreaming ones. Rather it could also be the basis for constitutional reform, applicable equally to a country like the UK that currently lacks a written constitution, and to countries where an existing constitution lacks adequate attention to environmental sustainability.
  • Third, that with ‘experimentalist governance’ as a proven idea (i.e. networked, exploratory peer learning, as applied in the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, the EU Water Framework Directive, the Chinese and Canadian development processes, and in air-traffic and nuclear safety systems), Peace with Nature can provide a goal to which all countries aspire and which they compete and cooperate to achieve.

I reckon that every country needs a Peace with Nature Declaration (to include commitments to Climate Emergency and Carbon Neutrality, but going far beyond them), and a cross-sectoral implementation programme through which to give it meaning, and a Peace with Nature Constitution to embed the key principles at the heart of its legal system, so that laws passed by its parliament can be challenged and judged against the standard of compliance with ecological reality, and struck down as unconstitutional if they fail the test. This would allow a country’s laws to be guided steadily, quickly and irreversibly towards ecological compliance, which is the key essential part of any survival strategy for our species and biosphere. And that’s why I carry a ‘Peace with Nature’ flag at Extinction Rebellion demonstrations! Do join in.

© Julian Caldecott

The EU Pledge

“I affirm my loyalty to the principles and practices of cooperation and social and environmental sustainability that are shared and collectively improved by EU member peoples and institutions, while understanding that this loyalty is compatible with others I may have to place, people and nature. I confirm my distaste for all movements that exploit lies and xenophobia to undermine cooperation among EU member peoples and institutions. I recognise ‘Brexit’ as the aim of such a movement and I reject it utterly: I will not forget those responsible for it; I will resist and strive to reverse its effects; and I will for ever seek a secure and peaceful union between my country and its neighbours, and through them the world and our common future.”

Julian Caldecott (31 January 2019).

The perfectible future

It is clean-up time. The year is 2085 and the biosphere is being saved. The ‘hot storms’ that began in the first quarter of the century built understanding that nature is supreme and merciless in responding to ecological damage, that humanity was violating absolute ecological rules, and that ecological science and spiritual insight could guide us to safety if we paid attention and worked together. A ‘salvage corps’ of young people was mobilised in the 2020s to protect and restore ecological and social harmony worldwide, through hard, intelligent, cooperative work in all environments. The Zeitgeist flipped in the 2030s, and country after country began a constitutional process to declare Peace with Nature, to place ecological law above human law, and to commit to slashing and reversing GHG emissions, protecting and restoring ecosystems, and harmonising society and ecology around true sustainability.

Once the causes of imbalance and extinction had been decisively rejected by a new wave of leaders, trust grew in nature, spirit and human ingenuity to restore the biosphere. The oceans had stored a lot of energy while in the greenhouse, and sea levels are still rising, rainfall patterns remain distorted, and wild storms still pound coastal areas. But there’s a sense of hope even so. Soft engineering, new building codes, and the relocation of populations has allowed for some adaptation, and most people are now reasonably safe. As locally accountable management of ecosystems became the norm, and communities learned from one another about what to require of their leaders, these ideas came to be expressed in a host of different ways, grafted onto a range of religions and philosophies of life. The practical results were incredibly diverse, and this was the whole point of local people seeking and gaining the power to make their own choices, putting their own ecological ethics into practice in their own way.

© Julian Caldecott

The Fairy-Dust Republic

Unconscious folk history influences cultural choices over centuries. Even after so long in the US, Hawaii’s left-democratic politics reflect the influence of ancient Polynesian values, while Iceland’s return after seven centuries of Christianity to its egalitarian and pagan roots shows how a people’s integrity of spirit can long survive underground. Similarly, and shedding light on the Brexit referendum in 2016, the governance history of Europe has two main traditions, one inherited from the Ancient Roman Empire (ARE) and the other from the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), with Britain buffeted by both.

The ARE was a mafia state that radiated the glamour of conquest, imperium, ownership, and law, and lasted so long that its subjects accepted remote, god-like rule as the natural order of things. This model was replicated in many successor states and institutions, including the Catholic Church and Russia. But outside Roman influence, the HRE developed in eastern parts of the Frankish empire founded by Charlemagne in 800 AD. It was invented by the German peoples, and was run as an area of trading standards and human rights protections under the supervision of an emperor elected by lords and bishops based in different cities. These ‘electors’ were local rulers, so the peoples of the eastern Frankish lands had a millennium of experience with standard-setting but locally-empowering governance that eventually gave rise to the Federal Republic of Germany, and then the EU.

The world wars shattered nationalist dreams and scattered a kind of ‘fairy dust’ to create an HRE-like system across most of Europe, but this settled only weakly on England and Russia. England held onto its 1688 constitution, a compromise that suspended a bloody 150-year struggle between the two heritages, until Brexit reignited it 330 years later. Brexit is the work of hard-right politicians, with shady domestic and foreign backers, who have engineered the breakdown of an obsolete constitution to create chaos. This is not the first time. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote of 1914 in The Age of Empire: “What made the British political situation dangerous on the eve of war was not the rebellion of the workers, but the division within the ranks of the rulers, a constitutional crisis …”, with Ireland having a key role as ever.

Part of the problem is misunderstanding of what the EU actually is. Thus, where Germans see the European Commission as an HRE-style emperor freely-chosen by ‘electors’ (i.e. member governments), many English people see the institution as a despotic ARE-style emperor and ‘freedom from Rome’ as an eternal national goal. The conspirators have thus been able to manufacture polarisation, and threaten with an angry mob those who oppose them. Their strategy is to paralyse and frighten, while normality is first eroded and then shattered by a hard Brexit, and forces favourable to the plotters are assembled.

This is Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’ in action, haunting a country that is vulnerable because it never moved on from its class-based entitlement myths. ‘It can never happen in England’ people say, but they are wrong. It’s happening before our eyes, as Parliamentarians entrench themselves in positions that benefit no one but the conspirators. Our poor European allies, especially those like Germany that have learned from the past, must be watching in dismay, wondering what English fascism will look like, and how aggressive it will be. Russia, meanwhile, kept faith with its ARE heritage, making it plausible that its policy is to oppose vestiges of the HRE, including the EU. Since an HRE-like system is the only plausible way to organise a free and sustainable world, much is at stake in this struggle.

© Julian Caldecott

Ecology

Ecology is the science of living systems. As a science, it relies on the use of common standards of observation, analysis and collective criticism to build up reliable descriptions and explanations of reality. As biology, it assumes the engineering of organisms through evolutionary responses to design challenges imposed and opportunities offered by the real world. This makes biological thought very practical, and often to do with budgets, investments, costs and benefits that may be expressed and accounted in terms of energy, nutrients and surviving offspring. But being also concerned with systems, ecology focuses on describing the parts, their relationships, the things that connect them, and the properties that result from all the parts, relationships and connections being active within or upon each system.

Since every living system is connected to every other, an ecologist distinguishes them only as a matter of convenience, and has to remain alert to possible influences from abroad at all times. Here, ‘abroad’ means any kind of distance – spatial, but also sensory (that is, what can be detected using our human senses, as constrained by the expectations of our culture and the abilities shaped by our inherent aptitudes and training, and what other organisms can detect using their own senses, which may differ from ours) and instrumental (that is, what can be detected by the instruments we use, as constrained by the expectations of existing knowledge that are designed into the equipment, and which may simply be unable to detect something important). So while proceeding more-or-less within the boundaries of consilient science, this alertness to ‘abroad’ makes ecologists open to the phenomenological diversity that is inherent to anthropology, mythology, psychology and religion, and also to potential connections within and between systems that are invisible to human senses and current instruments.

At the same time, the systems approach requires an ecologist to think in terms of every system being part of a bigger system, in a connected sequence from the molecular to the global level, and with the characteristics of every level both influenced by and influencing every other level, over every imaginable scale of time and space. This is a way of thinking reminiscent of anthropology, since both have the same challenge of reconciling detail and pattern at all scales. Living systems include our own selves, families, communities, farms and dwellings, as well as the atmosphere, oceans, coasts, swamps, grasslands, soils, drylands and forests and all their non-human inhabitants, which make up the living world and every part of it. These are all systems, and climate change is a system-wide phenomenon, so we have no choice but to address it at a system-wide level. In doing so, since every part of the ecological story has to be supported by evidence and reason, the result in ecology is an edifice of systems knowledge that is reliable, vast and inclusive enough to make sense of climate change and help with the challenge of adaptation in all parts of the world and at all scales of human society and the ecosystems that sustain it.

© Julian Caldecott