The UK is exceptional in lacking a written constitution. Among its component nations, at least Scotland is contemplating independence, and with it the need for a written constitution to spell out the principles by which it defines and governs itself, relates to others, chooses its own priorities for justice and development, and reminds its citizens of the full range of their roles, rights, and responsibilities. As this process unfolds, it is worth noting four points.
- First, that those who frame new constitutions, whether ‘founding mothers’ or ‘citizens’ assemblies’, have the opportunity to learn from history and from elsewhere to create a new high-water mark in the evolution of human society.
- Second, that constitutions are long-term guiding documents, and should use prescriptive detail sparingly while also having built-in flexibility to allow for amendment and interpretation over time.
- Third, that a constitution must be widely understood and supported, so it should be built through inclusive processes of consultation, debate, participation, referendums and ultimate ratification by the people, and thereafter maintained through public education.
- Finally, that there are vital subjects at special risk of being missed in drafting a constitution, because they are little known publicly, or are only recently subjects of scientific certainty. These include Inherently ecological issues such as the causes, consequences, and potential mitigation of climate chaos, ecological collapse and mass extinction.
The last is my starting point, since the extent of mutual dependence between the well-being of a country’s people and the health of its ecosystems is now better understood the ever before. This knowledge comes from the science of ecology, which is the study of the living systems that comprise the biosphere. A constitution that does not start from the specific premise that ecological health is essential, and must be maintained, will therefore be obsolete before it is written. But ecologists have seldom been seen as sources of necessary guidance in public affairs, and this note aims to safeguard against the possibility of ecological neglect.
What follows is an appeal to include within any new constitution an Article on Peace with Nature. This would declare the end of ‘war’ against nature and seek cooperation with like-minded peoples and governments. In practical terms, it would also establish a Court of Ecology, the role of which would be to decide, on behalf of the country’s citizens, whether or not any law is safely compatible with ecological sustainability, and with the authority to strike it down if not. This goes far beyond the constitutional platitude that ‘nature is the patrimony of the nation and should be safeguarded for the benefit of future generations’, to which many countries subscribe even while being in ecological free-fall due to neglect of their own living systems.
Draft text for a ‘Peace with Nature’ Article is given in the following table with explanatory notes. It would only be a fragment of a constitution, however, and those framing a complete one would need to address many other issues, including property (e.g., whether terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems may be privately owned), rights (e.g., of citizens and other people, future generations, and non-human stakeholders), political participation and representation, and the aspirations and purposes of statehood and sovereignty. But all, ultimately, will need to be consistent with each other and with ecological sustainability.
|Draft text of a Peace with Nature Article||Explanatory notes|
|To put these aims into effect, we further resolve:
Note 1 – ‘The Disasters of War’. Scientists organised through networks such as the United Nations Environment Programme, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), have shown humanity to be pushing at and breaking through the boundaries of ecological safety. Limits are known to have been exceeded in at least four areas: biosphere integrity, climate change, land-system change, and biogeochemical flows. Moreover, based on published evidence from many taxa, the Living Planet Index shows a decline of over 60% in wildlife abundance since 1970. In 2019, IPBES found that close to a million species are threatened by human actions, while other analyses imply that up to a million species are becoming committed to extinction each year due to trophic shifts and loss of co-evolved species. These signs add up to the key dimensions of climate and ecological emergency: climate chaos, ecological breakdown, and mass extinction. All have the potential to induce chaotic environmental change, which on the scale now foreseen could ultimately prove fatal to humanity.
Note 2 – Ecological tipping points. Natural ecosystems sustain water supplies, environmental security, pollination of crops, fisheries and soil fertility, among many other things that cannot be replaced by artificial means. Yet it is clear that these ecosystems are deteriorating fast, exposing people, farms and settlements to severe risks and costs. The truth is that all the living systems that provide food, water and security for people and businesses are failing, as indicated by spreading deserts, droughts, wildfires, floods, storms, mudslides, epidemics, extinctions, famines, and political crises induced by them. These are typically reported as individual ‘natural disasters’, but ecologists know them to be connected into one worldwide pattern, and also as manifestations of ecological tipping points. Several of these at the largest scale are now known and feared, including deforestation in the Amazon basin, which at over 20% of land area is very close to the point where there will be insufficient rainforest to maintain the region’s moist climate. Sustained and repeated drought would then permit the rapid replacement of all forest by fire-maintained grassland. A similar scenario is in prospect in Borneo and Sumatra. In all three cases, forest and land fires are underway and consistent with the tipping point prediction, with catastrophic implications for tropical biodiversity, environments and livelihoods.
Meanwhile, a potential Arctic tipping point poses a clear and present danger to all life on Earth. An Arctic ‘death spiral’ has been documented (Figure 1), so-called because it displays in spiral form the volume of sea ice in the Arctic ocean declining since 1979, its depth having been measured by military submarines and its area by satellite imagery. Here it is notable that before 1980 there was little seasonal variation in sea ice volume as so much of it was in the form of deep, multi-year ice. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s multi-year ice declined and seasonal effects became more marked, and after 1997 most of the ice became single-year and began dramatically expanding in the winter and contracting in the summer months. The declining minimum ice volume in September each year (the innermost line) is the key point to note, since from the trends visible this seems likely to approach zero in the early 2030s.
Figure 1: The Arctic ‘death spiral’
The melting of ice and burning of permafrost peat in the Arctic since 1979 is from the small amount of global heating so far, as a result of carbon emissions from industry and deforestation since about 1950 when the ‘carbon balance’ tipping point was reached for the biosphere as a whole. With no ice to absorb extra greenhouse heat in the 2030s, Arctic water will heat up much faster than before (considering the 80-fold difference between the heat capacity of water and its latent heat of fusion), accelerating the melting and decay of permafrost peat, and release of methane. Methane is far more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, and the sudden release of trillions of tonnes of tCO2e during the 2030s and 2040s would greatly amplify the worldwide greenhouse effect, causing total climate chaos, decades of starvation, war and refugee movements, and the transformation of all societies and businesses.
Note 3 – Peace with Nature. The notion that we have been destroying the very ecosystems that sustain us can be expressed by saying that we are in a suicidal ‘war’ with nature. The alternative to this is ‘Peace with Nature’, an idea from Costa Rica, which in 1948 gave up its armed forces in favour of public health care and education, and committed itself in 2007 to resolve all conflicts between nature and its citizens. But Costa Rica is exceptional, due to its history of equitable land settlement (since the 16th century), official pacifism (since the 1940s), and innovative environmentalism (since the 1980s). Green investment over 30+ years has put Costa Rica in a strong position, but most of the rest of the world has run out of time to copy them. Inspiring leadership under the ‘Peace with Nature’ slogan, backed by real systemic change, is now needed globally to mobilise citizens and reshape institutions and economic systems. But ‘peace’ with a superior power such as nature, with which one cannot negotiate, in practice means ‘submission’. This would require us to stay carefully within the boundaries of peaceful behaviour if our existence is to continue. Knowing where the boundaries are is a complex issue, for which it would be wise to trust (within reason, and under collective supervision) those with deep ecological knowledge. To explicitly align the principles of ecological sustainability and good governance at a constitutional level is necessary to take the pressure off nature definitively, and encourage and enable natural regrowth to occur.
Note 4 – Rebellion, reaction, and bounded freedom. Many believe that ‘war’ with nature is inherent to the modern world, from its cosmology and values to its business models and technologies. They therefore prefer to strengthen communities and links between them and the ecosystems that sustain them. Coupled with a call to ‘follow the science’, this commitment is at the heart of the Extinction Rebellion and Climate Strike movements. Now tens of millions of citizens are demanding change, and the anxiety-motivators of this demand will only increase since ecosystems across the world really are disintegrating. Experience suggests that reaction to demands for systemic change will be limited to cosmetic tinkering until ecological sustainability is placed at the heart of governance, for which a constitutional provision is uniquely suited. But it is important to distinguish between the hard boundaries of ecological sustainability, and the ability both of capitalist enterprise to create shareable wealth and that of the state to improve enforceable equity. The boundaries are knowable through ecological science, and protectable through reason and the precautionary principle, but sharing and equity depend on values that are cultural and mutable. Our survival may require us to live within ecological boundaries, but our contentment requires us to achieve effective political settlements and freedoms within those boundaries. These are very different aims, and a constitution should recognise that they are both important.
Note 5 – The Court of Ecology. Here the draft suggests how to make Peace with Nature a practical reality. It does this by calling for a Court of Ecology to defend the boundaries of ecological sustainability by considering evidence and deciding whether existing laws can or cannot safely be allowed to stand. The Court would offer an accountable way to safeguard society and nature by reviewing and if necessary vetoing unsafe laws, through transparent deliberation, debate and collective decision-making.
Note 6 – Composition and powers of the Court. Numerous issues would need to be resolved as the new system is developed, including those to do with the selection and accreditation of ecologically-trained judges and advocates, the rules of evidence, subpoena and other powers of the Court, and the enforceability of its decisions. One suggestion on the appointment of Judge-Ecologists is contained illustratively in the draft text.
Note 7 – The right to petition the Court. The strategic intention is for those who think that a law may violate ecological sustainability to have the right to petition the Court for it to be reviewed, debated by experts, and possibly struck down. This process would be slow, algorithmic, and incremental, founded on the hope that steady progress towards ecological sustainability will be fast enough to save the biosphere and humanity. But if we run out of time we may have to think again, and rebuild human society guided by the precautionary principle and the need for urgent restoration of ecosystems. Meanwhile, though, a ground-breaking constitution that establishes the supremacy of ecological law over human law, and that offers a practical and cautious way to put it into effect, would set a new, replicable and deeply hopeful standard for all other countries.
© Julian Caldecott