Category Archives: Peace with Nature

On Waging a Losing War with Nature

The obsidian scalpel

To mention nature is to invoke an infinite, mysterious, and supremely powerful universe, part of which is our own home-world. As story-telling mammals, it is easy for us to think of nature as our mother, and to describe our evolution as stages of growth or initiation. In this metaphor, we spent our childhood in the hard school of the Pleistocene era, under repeated stress from severe ice ages, and our adolescence in the less turbulent Holocene, in which we learned to think of nature, most of the time, as tolerant and generous.

But the Holocene is now ending, largely due to the impacts of our careless numbers, needs and technologies. The tolerance of nature – which once seemed, like the oceans, boundless – has run out. We might hope to be forgiven one day, but there is ample evidence that our mother is seriously angry with us. Worse, we suddenly realise that nature has many other children to look after, and that we are not as special as we had thought. Perhaps this unexpectedly steely-eyed mother will drag us to the altar, to face the obsidian scalpel of extinction that has ended so many of nature’s vast family before us?

But maybe not. We have no way of knowing what’s really going on or why, beyond the discoveries of scientists and the intuitions of mystics. But it does seem certain that we’re in for at least a thorough flogging, and our defensive gestures are far too feeble to do us much good. Nature cannot respond to appeal or negotiation, apparently cares nothing for inflicted suffering, and requires only compliance with her own laws. No, the only thing that might work is for us to understand our punishment, and to hope that we can guess how we are expected to behave in future, in case we get another chance.

And therein lies our hope or faith: we did learn, we did adapt, we are capable, we can survive. But first we must set aside the notion that we have powers that are greater than those wielded by nature herself. Powers we may have, for none of nature’s offspring are so quick to be clever, inventive and cooperative as we are when we need to be. The question is: can we understand how to use those skills to earn a survival niche, somewhere, in nature’s great coral reef, while nature grows back around and within us?

Origins and lessons of warfare

Much will be said about this, as the struggle unfolds. Meanwhile, we can contemplate some lessons from another rich metaphor: human warfare. This is an activity to which we are driven often, perhaps in line with behaviour inherent to one part of our evolutionary heritage as great apes – the ‘chimpanzee’ side with its tendency towards inter-group warfare, which stands in eternal tension with our more pacific ‘bonobo’ heritage. Thus we can imagine that humanity has been waging ‘war’ against nature for millennia, and that nature has now unleashed a ‘war’ against us.

But both are strange kinds of war, by human standards, being fought out by accident between adversaries who are largely unconscious (people) or entirely so (nature) of what they are doing and why. Moreover, it is between those who are grossly ego-inflated (people) and entirely ego-less (nature). And it is also absurdly one-sided according to any rational metric, leaving us with a losing war to endure and learn from, rather than a victory to attain.

Still, warfare is familiar to people, so there may be some concepts and experiences here that can point towards the terms of an eventual peace. In this spirit, I explore here a few lessons from A History of the World War 1914-1918, by B.H. Liddell Hart (Faber & Faber, London, 1930), and draw attention to what they might mean for us in our conflict with nature. I start in Table 1 by setting side by side the opening of Liddell Hart’s book and a statement by myself on the origins of the present climate and ecological emergency. My aim is to show that many years of barely-conscious effort were needed to prepare both the continent of Europe and the whole biosphere, respectively, to the point where a single spark could ignite calamity.

Table 1: Origins of a human war, and of war with nature, compared.

Origins of a human war (1930).

Origins of a losing war (2020).

“Fifty years were spent in the process of making Europe explosive. Five days were enough to detonate it. To study the manufacture of the explosive materials is within neither the scope nor the space of a short history of the World War.

“On the one side we should have to trace the influence of Prussia on the creation of the Reich, the political conceptions of Bismarck, the philosophical tendencies in Germany, and the economic situation – a medley of factors which transmuted Germany’s natural desire for commercial outlets, unhappily difficult to obtain, into a vision of world power.

“We should have to analyse that heterogenous relic of the Middle Ages known as Austria-Hungary, appreciate her complex racial problems, the artificiality of the governing institutions, the superficial ambitions which overlay a haunting fear of internal disruption and frantically sought to postpone the inevitable end.

“On the other side we should have to examine the strange mixture of ambition and idealism which swayed Russia’s policy, and the fear it generated beyond her frontiers. We should have to understand the constant alarms of fresh aggression which France had suffered since 1870 [and] study the regrowth of confidence which fortified her to resist further threats.

“Finally, we should have to trace Britain’s gradual movement from a policy of isolation into membership of the European system and her slow awakening to the reality of German feeling towards her.”

“Seventy years were spent in destabilising the biosphere, and now only a few days are enough to gestate storms, fires and epidemics that make life a misery for scores of millions at a time. Conditions have so ripened that these calamities and others are poised to unite in a devastating global riposte to humanity’s abuse of nature’s intricate living systems.

“To understand how these conditions arose, we should have to consider on the one hand American and Russian power at the end of Nazi Germany, their subsequent influence on their respective client states and non-aligned rivals and dependencies, including the UN, their proxy wars and arms races, and their competing visions for the regulation of human enterprise.

“We should have to note the proving of capitalism as the most efficient way to turn natural resources into surplus production, consumption, armaments, and pollution, the haunting fear among its owning classes of disruption by the externalities of social and environmental breakdown, and their frantic quest for eternal, super-normal profits.

“On the other side, we should have to examine the periodic growth and dissipation of ecological and social-equity movements since the late 1960s, but also a growing confidence among the neoliberal freemasonry in the permanence of their own power.

“Finally, we should have to trace the rise of social surveillance and control technologies that hold people against their will ever closer to the cutting edges of a doomed machine civilisation.”

Disaster overhang and transition

In the event, the ‘disaster overhang’ that had accumulated in Europe by 1914 took two world wars and 31 years to exhaust itself, like a forest fire that finally ran out of fuel after flaring and smouldering for decades. Similarly, it will take many decades to unravel and dissipate the poisonous overhang that threatens the current biosphere. Moreover, in the case of Europe a wholly new American-Russian hegemony was needed to stabilise the situation after 1945, combined with a post-war economic boom to replace imperialism as a source of elite profits, and social democracy to replace nationalism as a source of stable governance. These arrangements prevailed into the 2010s, followed by the start of a transition through chaos towards, one hopes, a more stable configuration based on new ideas of citizenship, governance, equity and sustainability. In mid-transition, however, as powerful forces both conscious and unconscious strive together with increasing violence, it is hard to foresee any particular outcome.

Practicalities of warfare

Table 2 explores three practical strategies that Liddell Hart considers key to military success:

  • elasticity in defence, against a locally-overwhelming onslaught that will exhaust itself in due course if the defenders can withdraw far enough while retaining their coherence;
  • duality in attack, where multiple blows from different directions can confuse and entangle the opponent as they try to respond to them; and
  • surprise in attack, where an action manages by some means to catch the opponent unprepared and vulnerable to shock and confusion.

Table 2: Some war-strategy concepts and their application to a losing war with nature.

Concepts and observations (1930 and 2020).

Elasticity. “Then on the 16th [April 1917] the main withdrawal began, the German forces marching back unhurried to the new line called by them the ‘Siegfried’ and by the Allies the ‘Hindenburg’ line. A consummate manœuvre, if unnecessarily brutal in application, it showed that Ludendorff had the moral courage to give up territory if circumstances advised it. The British, confronted with a desert, were cautiously slow in pursuit, and their preparations for an attack on this front were thrown out of gear.” (p. 391). When nature attacks, she overwhelms or finds a way under or around any fixed defensive position, requiring humanity to give way, fall back, absorb and dissipate the energies of the advance until the thrust becomes manageable with the counter-measures and resources available on site. Thus we abandon floodplains and coastal zones to water, storm and salt, and resettle on the boundaries of new habitability, where we re-establish barriers and plantings that are shaped by the lessons learned in the withdrawal. At the margins of habitability we can dig in and stabilise the front for a while, and maybe push back a little over time.
Duality. “Now duality is the very essence of war, although curiously overlooked. Duality of objective enables the attacker to get the opponent on the horns of a dilemma, and, by mystifying him, to obtain the chance of surprising him, so that if the opponent concentrates in defence of one objective the attacker can seize the other. Only by this elasticity of aim can we truly attune ourselves to the uncertainty of war.” (p. 574). When nature attacks, she often does so in one dimension after another, or else in multiple dimensions at the same time. Water-born or mosquito-born diseases and waterlogged fields all follow floods, giving us hunger and sickness as well as demoralisation and discomfort. Our fields may be seared by drought, our old and young slain by heat, and everything we know burned to ash by fire. Then the top-soil and ash may be blown away, or scoured by sudden floods, destroying soil structure and fertility. Such combination blows are terribly effective, and are the frequent means by which nature forces us to abandon places where we have been comfortable for decades or centuries. Property values collapse, tumbleweeds roll across deserted highways, real estate crumbles into the sea, and the poor gather in cities far away, where the lights are still on. Having many lines of simultaneous attack bestows overwhelming advantages upon nature as an opponent. Counter-attack requires a capacity to understand each of the weapons used against us, and how they work in combination so that they can all be neutralised to the extent possible. A gradual restoration and reoccupation of the devastated area might then become feasible, but the peace-building response would be to try to understand fully what provoked the attack, and promise never to do it again.
Surprise. “This final year [1918], indeed, read in the light of previous years, affords fresh proof that surprise – or, more scientifically, the dislocation of the enemy’s mental balance – is essential to true success in every operation of war. A lesson oft repeated, oft ignored. At the bar of history any commander who risks the lives of his men without seeking this preliminary guarantee is condemned.” (p. 526). “Now, to cut an army’s lines of communication is to dislocate its physical organization. To close its lines of retreat is to dislocate its morale. And to destroy its lines of ‘inter-communication’ – by which orders and reports pass – is to dislocate it mentally, by breaking the essential connection between the brain and the body of an army.” (p. 555). When nature attacks, a complete failure of morale can result from the ‘dislocation of our mental balance’ through unanticipated impacts or threats in new places, and/or overwhelming force majeur  (the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 being a case in point), especially when each push reacts on and reinforces the others so there seems suddenly to be nowhere to turn and no hope of survival.
Blockade. “Helplessness induces hopelessness, and history attests that loss of hope and not loss of lives is what decides the issue of war. No historian would underrate the direct effect of the semi-starvation of the German people in causing the final collapse of the ‘home front’.” (p. 588). Now imagine nature causing a progressive breakdown in the opportunity to travel and trade, and in the supply of goods and services from beyond one’s immediate vicinity, and consider the decline in confidence, narrowing of imagination, and eventually the erosion of physical and social well-being from monotonous and inadequate diets. The 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland suspended air travel around Europe for a few days, while the 2020 coronavirus pandemic had far greater impacts on trade and transport, both being examples of natural ‘blockades’. It is not hard to imagine the dangers of social breakdown under the stresses of unfamiliar deprivations, as exploited by malign opportunists, nor the effectiveness of counter-measures that promote solidarity and the strengthening of society through education, networking, mutual aid, and fair rationing.

A false sense of security

In each case in Table 2, I have mentioned their implications for people in reacting to the supreme powers of nature, and finding ways to survive, minimise our losses, and buy time to seek a stable outcome, ideally through some kind of peace. I added blockade because this is a potent strategy for demoralising populations, can result from nature’s inhuman processes or her reaction to abuse, and because counter-measures can transform society and help to build peace. In all cases, the point is to consider what the situation would look like if nature was a human opponent, and what we as humans might do to protect and advance what we consider to be our own interests in the short or long term. The following might have been included as well, all of them with war-fighting and peace-building implications:

  • invention, including natural mutations among pathogens and pests, and the technological counter-measures that people design under pressure of necessity;
  • innovation, in war including the use of gas, tanks, submarines, aircraft, and guerrilla tactics, which can confer sudden advantages and help win battles;
  • learning from the past, where history and anthropology are rich sources of invention and innovation, and biology can teach us about the extraordinary creativity of nature in setting up and striking down survival strategies through evolutionary ‘arms races’; and
  • learning from each other, where networking with peoples experienced against certain threats can help naïve peoples obtain new ideas, again as a rich source of invention and innovation.

But all these human responses carry the risk of creating a false sense of security. They all offer tactical advantages, allowing ‘battles’ to be won and giving hope of ‘victory’, but by so doing they can discourage the asking of strategic and policy questions like whether we should really be at war at all. In a human context, those who speculate that their side’s commitment to war makes no sense, are likely to be condemned for ‘treason’.

More questions than answers

The war has become history, and can be viewed in the perspective of history. For good it has deepened our sense of fellowship and community of interest, whether inside the nation or between nations. But, for good or bad, it has shattered our faith in idols, our hero-worshipping belief that great men are different clay from common men. Leaders are still necessary, perhaps more necessary, but our awakened realization of their common humanity is a safeguard against either expecting from them or trusting in them too much.” (page 587). This paragraph in the book’s Epilogue is deeply relevant to our own current experience of the coronavirus pandemic, which raises such major issues of public policy as:

  • whether a country is better off on its own or in a network of cooperating countries;
  • whether the institutions of unregulated capitalism are ever capable of solving unexpected problems with major social and environmental dimensions without massive state subsidy;
  • whether spontaneous local mutual aid is a durable source of resilience and social well-being, both in a stressed society and once the stress has passed;
  • where are the political constraints on lying and hero-worship among leaders who have been caught out advocating irrational and antisocial agendas at times of social crisis; and
  • what are the hall-marks of good and necessary leadership at these and other times?

The answers to these questions can perhaps encourage and enable us relinquish our war with nature as unwinnable, and to use the powers that we do possess to make a lasting peace.

© Julian Caldecott, 2020

A Peace with Nature petition, 2020

Over the last year or more, Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion have been demanding that we ‘follow the science’ – science that tells us how endangered we ourselves are becoming. But solving this is not easy or simple. It’s not just a question of a few nature reserves or recycling plastic bottles. Rather, the whole attitude that people are in charge and that nature should fit under human needs is just plain wrong. Nature is far more powerful than we are, and she is starting to respond to abuse with fires, floods, storms and new diseases. This response can only get worse if we continue to abuse nature, paying little or no attention to the science of ecology (see: Ecological Risk and the Climate emergency).

With this in mind, I started a petition on 8 March 2020, calling for Peace with Nature to be written into national constitutions, starting with Scotland’s. This would declare an end to humanity’s suicidal war with nature by acknowledging the supremacy of ecological reality and our dependence on nature. The key practical point is that a Court of Ecology would be established to which citizens would have the right to appeal for any law to be examined for ecological safety, and struck down if it is considered unsafe. This would provide an essential protection for citizens, future generations, non-human species, and nature as a whole, against unsafe decisions by politicians. The effect of this would be to place ecological law at a higher level than human law, and establish that the people are sovereign while nature is supreme (see Towards a Peace with Nature Constitution). This is a new constitutional idea, since other national constitutions make either the people or parliament both sovereign and supreme, with the result that all power lies with humans. This is clearly wrong if you accept that nature is more powerful than us. By accepting it, Scotland would set a new standard for other countries to follow. And people are starting to accept that the world is not there just to be exploited by us.

By 31 March 2020, the petition had been viewed 1,103 times, shared 186 times, and signed by 358 people. I decided then to draw the process to a close, and forward the results to the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament and media. My aim was to put some new ideas ‘out there’ for public debate, and comments from some who have signed the petition show that we are indeed thinking in new ways: “this is essential for sustainable life on earth”, “the concept of a Court of Ecology is staggeringly powerful”, “we have lost so much already globally, and Scotland is well placed to lead by example”, “this is what is needed – human rights need to be balanced with responsibilities and social good, and of course the right of other species to exist and flourish”, “this is something that should have been done decades ago – but better late than never”, “this is THE most important issue of our time/of all time”, and finally “though Scotland is not my home, Earth is, and we all share the same planet – we need to lead by example, to show how it can be done.”

The text of the Petition:

“This is an appeal to include within a new Scottish constitution an Article on Peace with Nature. The Article 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 possessing the authority to strike it down if not. It would help to safeguard the people and biosphere against dangerous mistakes by politicians. A 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 also set a new, replicable and deeply hopeful standard for all other countries.

“Natural ecosystems sustain water supplies, environmental security, pollination of crops, fisheries and soil fertility, and many other irreplaceable things. Yet these ecosystems are deteriorating fast, exposing people, farms and settlements to severe risks and costs. 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. Ecologists know these to be connected into one worldwide pattern, and also as manifestations of ecological tipping points, which threaten us all, along with our children and everything else that we love about the world.

“They are all signs of humanity’s ‘war’ with nature, which must end with ‘peace’. 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. 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. Citizens who think that a law may violate ecological sustainability should have the right to petition for it to be reviewed, debated by experts, and struck down if it is unsafe. This new and empowering approach is founded on the hope that steady progress towards ecological sustainability will be fast enough to save the biosphere and humanity.”

Updates to supporters:

22 April 2020. The spirit flares again! Earth Day 2020 marks fifty years since the 1970 epicentre of a peak in environmental consciousness and efforts to improve the relationship between humanity and nature. Between 1968 (‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ by Garrett Hardin), and 1972 (‘The Limits to Growth’ by the Club of Rome), new environmental institutions were set up and laws passed around the world, the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment occurred, and the UN Environment Programme was born. The spirit of those times has flickered and flared ever since, and on 22 April each year we remember that the struggle continues, most recently through the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Extinction Rebellion, and the inspiration of Greta Thunberg, among many others. The petition to write Peace with Nature into national constitutions is a push in the same direction, and to help continue it you can join us on the Peace with Nature Constitution Facebook group.

17 April 2020. A ‘Peace with Nature Constitution’ Facebook group. In the run-up to Earth Day on 22 April, I’ve set up a group on Facebook called ‘Peace with Nature Constitution’, aiming for Scotland to lead a new deal between humanity and the living world. Do join and invite others to join. Let’s not forget that the coronavirus is only one threat among an infinite variety that we are just beginning to stir up. It’s time to pay attention to the rules of ecology, to forget everything we were ever told about humanity being in charge of the world. We are not. We must live more modestly and in peace if we are to survive.

6 April 2020. Waves of support. Ten days have passed and people keep signing this petition. We are all distracted by the lock-down at the moment, so I now plan to keep the petition open until Earth Day on 22 April. Maybe we can reach a magic number by then, but comments received meanwhile make it clear that the new idea that ‘people are sovereign while nature is supreme’ has real traction, and that meaningful constitutional protections for the ecological safety of all citizens, future generations, non-human species and the biosphere as a whole are desperately needed. The struggle continues.

27 March 2020. Delivering the future. In the last few weeks we learned a lot about humanity’s truly precarious position in the biosphere, and the value of cooperation and foresight. Meanwhile our petition was viewed or shared 1,200 times and signed by 330 people. I’ll circulate it now for one last weekend before sending it to the citizens’ assemblies, media and parliament. Maybe this Spring we have planted an idea that will germinate, shatter the concrete of modernity, and one day bear fruit. There is certainly new hope in the air. Peace with Nature!

20 March 2020. Moving the Earth. As we grow in numbers, the Secretariat of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland has replied that the Assembly “is not geared up to consider petitions”, but that an Assembly on climate change is being planned and may be open to new ideas. My feeling is that we should keep agitating for these assemblies to consider Peace with Nature, while reaching out to parliament, the media, and society as a whole. We should accept that we are now a movement, one calling for peace and peace-keeping with nature to be written into all national constitutions everywhere, starting with Scotland. This is a logical step from our calls to follow the science, to restore the biosphere, and to rebel against extinction. What do you think?

19 March 2020. Baby steps. The coronavirus continues to break hearts while promoting mutual aid and new thinking on our place in nature. It’s the latest in a succession of ecological (fire, flood) and social (economic, political) hammer-blows that have hit us since 2008, knocking the stuffing out of our certainties, and calling into question the true sources of security and risk in our world. They all remind us that reason and reality are the things to pay attention to, and that cooperation and foresight are the things to value. One supporter wrote that a ‘Peace with Nature’ Constitution is only a baby step, and that is true. But if baby steps are all we can do right now, we must still do them.

17 March 2020. Imagine. One supporter wrote “This is THE most important issue of our time/of all time.” It reminds us that the galaxy may be littered with the remains of species who were clever enough to ruin their home worlds, but not wise enough to live at peace with nature. We can see the truth of this, and its power of warning. But the question remains: how to regulate ourselves to fair prosperity and ecological sustainability? A Peace with Nature Constitution is one part of the puzzle, and a Court of Ecology is another. But the aim is not to anticipate every ruling of such a Court, whatever our priorities. It is to empower and trust wise people to understand ecological reality and protect all living systems. Imagine having the right of appeal to a Court comprising people like Naomi Klein, Mark Carney, Hilary Mantel, Patrick Vallance, Margaret Atwood, Chris Whitty, and Brenda Hale. Add some serious ecology training and that’s what I imagine. It gives me hope, and joy.

16 March 2020. Healing new ground. We are now in uncharted levels of support for a wholly new constitutional idea: that the people are sovereign but nature is supreme. Also that powerful, practical means are essential to protect future generations, non-human species, and the web of life on Earth. Brilliant comments like this are coming in: “Excellent – this is essential for sustainable life on earth”, “the concept of a Court of Ecology is staggeringly powerful”, “We don’t have the option *not* to move forwards like this – we have lost so much already globally, and Scotland is well placed to lead by example”, and “Yes, this is what is needed. Human rights need to be balanced, responsibilities, social good, and of course the right of other species to exist and flourish.” So our movement is growing roots. Peace with Nature!

14 March 2020. Progress and principles. To recap, in this petition we are asking the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland to ensure that a Scottish Constitution includes an Article on Peace with Nature. This would end humanity’s suicidal ‘war’ with nature by acknowledging the supremacy of ecological reality and our dependent status with respect to nature. The key practical point is that a Court of Ecology would be established to which citizens would have the right to appeal for any law to be examined for ecological safety, and struck down if it is considered unsafe. This would provide an essential protection for citizens, future generations, non-human species, and nature as a whole, against unsafe decisions by politicians. The effect of this would be to place ecological law in principle at a higher level than human law, and establish for constitutional purposes that the people are sovereign while nature is supreme. This would set a new standard for everyone on Earth, with Scotland leading the way to a pragmatic but transformative solution to our existential crisis.

12 March 2020. Next steps to make peace with nature. Thanks so much for signing our petition to end the war against nature and set a new constitutional standard for keeping the peace. There are nearly 150 of us now, with lots of overseas support. But our aim is for Scotland to inspire the world by showing how to protect the biosphere and humanity, so it would be wonderful to boost the number of Scottish supporters. Therefore, please forward the petition and an encouraging note to anyone you know who might want to help, including any Scottish citizens and groups based in Scotland. We could then hope to make even more of an impact with the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland and the national media. Many thanks again. Peace with Nature!

Towards a Peace with Nature Constitution 2

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

  • Recognising that humanity has persistently violated the rules of ecological sustainability over many centuries and with particular intensity over the last several decades;
  • Perceiving that these violations are tantamount to acts of war by humanity against nature;
  • Affirming that grievous damage in the form of ecological collapse, mass extinction and climate chaos has been done by humanity to the natural systems of the biosphere;
  • Believing that such damage endangers all human life, well-being and development, along with the ability of the biosphere to support most life; and
  • Acknowledging that the capacity of nature to harm humanity is infinitely greater than our capacity to evade the consequences of harming nature,

  • Natural ecosystems sustain water supplies, environmental security, pollination of crops, fisheries and soil fertility that cannot be replaced by other means. These ecosystems are deteriorating fast, exposing people, farms and settlements to severe risks and costs, as shown by spreading deserts, droughts, wildfires, floods, storms, mudslides, epidemics, extinctions, famines, and political crises induced by them [Note 1].
  • These events are typically reported as individual ‘natural disasters’, but ecologists know them to be connected into one worldwide pattern, while also being manifestations of ecological tipping points, some of very large scale and including irreversible deforestation in the Amazon, Borneo and Sumatra, and the precipitate melting of the Arctic [Note 2].
We resolve:

  • To declare Peace with Nature;
  • To concur with the need to be guided by scientific understanding of all ecosystems;
  • To restore as quickly as possible mutually supportive relations between humanity and nature;
  • To maintain permanently thereafter a healthy relationship between humanity and nature;
  • To cooperate with countries everywhere that are of like mind in establishing and maintaining Peace with Nature.


  • By destroying the ecosystems that sustain us, we are in effect waging 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 [Note 3].
  • To align the principles of ecological sustainability and good governance at a constitutional level is necessary to take the pressure off nature. But we should distinguish between the boundaries of sustainability, and the ability both of capitalist enterprise to create shareable wealth and that of the state to improve enforceable equity. Survival requires us to live within boundaries, but contentment requires us to achieve effective political settlements within them, and both are important [Note 4].
To put these aims into effect, we further resolve:

  • To establish a Court of Ecology with powers exceeding those of parliament and with sufficient staff and other resources to obtain, manage and consider evidence on all subjects in the zone of tension between law and ecological reality.
  • To accept that no law or regulation issued with the authority of the legislative or executive branches of government, or precedent established by the judiciary, shall have effect if it conflicts with the requirements of ecological sustainability as determined by the Court of Ecology;
  • To grant all citizens the right to petition the Court of Ecology to review, consider, hold hearings concerning, and make a decision on the validity or otherwise of any law, regulation or precedent;
  • To appoint a number of qualified Judge-Ecologists to comprise the Court of Ecology [e.g., seven, selected according to their ecological wisdom and appointed until they reach 80 years of age, or until six members of the Court agree that a deterioration of mental health precludes participation by the seventh member].

  • The Court would consider evidence in order to decide whether an existing law can or cannot safely be allowed to stand [Note 5].
  • Many practical and procedural questions would need to be resolved as this system is developed [Note 6].
  • The intention is for those who think that a law may be in violation of ecological sustainability to have the right to petition the Court for it to be reviewed, argued over by ecologists and ecologically-trained lawyers, and possibly struck down. This process would be a slow and incremental, so may not be fast enough to prevent global calamity, in which case we would have to think again. But meanwhile, establishing the supremacy of ecological law over human law, and offering a practical and cautious way to put it into effect, would set a new, replicable, and deeply hopeful standard for the rest of the world [Note 7].

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

Water 2020: new edition, new problems, new solutions

As water crises multiply, and mass extinction and climate chaos escalate, we have the sense that nature is serving us a very clear warning and that something major has to change, or else. To respond requires that our adaptive skills are informed by ecology and applied effectively. The key issue is whether we can adjust our ways of life to make it in our new global environment. Building an informed awareness of water, and the life it bears in every drop, has to be a key starting point. Public involvement in the environmental struggle is now worldwide, transforming political agendas everywhere. Science, spirit and community are working together to release energy for change and justice at a scale seldom seen before. The channelling of this energy into ecological restoration and renewal of our relationships with nature and with each other is the great task of everyone alive today or soon to be born. It is time to make Peace with Nature.”  (Water: Life in Every Drop, pbk ISBN 9781843199632, hbk ISBN 9781843199649.

More of the same but worse, plus chaos

As large swathes of England are flooded and much of Australia burns, the 2020 edition of Water: Life in Every Drop introduces key ideas of water ecology and sustainable development. These ideas are essentially unchanged since 2008, and stories I tell and their implications for our relationship with water remain true. The need is now even stronger for ecological thinking to shape our laws and constitutions. I have weeded the book for anything that seems misleading on current reading, and in the process I updated it. Lake Baikal in Siberia is now more threatened by pollution, for example, and there are many more people living around Lake Naivasha in Kenya. These reflect general trajectories, as does the rising power of China, but for water, ecosystems and climate the position can be summarised as ‘more of the same but worse, plus chaos’.

Meanwhile, many forebodings have been fulfilled. The consequences of global heating are hard to anticipate in detail as they involve turbulent systems, but some predictions are spot on. Many thousands of wild species are sliding into extinction each year, the sea is rising, atmospheric and oceanic currents are wobbling, multi-year droughts are grinding down large parts of Australia, North America and southern Africa, heatwaves are killing people in Europe and India, and lethal wildfires are raging with unheard-of ferocity in unexpected places. Every new year is breaking records for mean global surface temperature, and savage storms are taking heat and water from warmer oceans and slamming into unprepared coastlines. And all this follows with precision the expected path of a biosphere newly-loaded with greenhouse gases released by the actions of humanity.

It was recognised in 2016 that human impacts mean that we are now living in a transition to a new geological era, the Anthropocene, which will be clearly visible in future sedimentary deposits that are rich in plastics and poor in fossil species. The Anthropocene succeeds the gentler Holocene, which followed the end of the Ice Ages 11,700 years ago. Our cities and farming systems depend on Holocene conditions, so there is now real concern that humanity will die out during this transition, along with most other life forms. We have the sense that nature is serving us a very clear warning and that something major has to change, or else. And we’re also running out of time. The melting of the Arctic Summer sea ice, which for decades has been absorbing surplus solar heat trapped on Earth by an enhanced greenhouse effect, is a particularly worrying trend that seems to be heading for zero in about 2030. After that, all bets are off.

Local water, local heroes, 2020

But we should remember that there are thousands of brilliant efforts by small groups all over the world — an aquifer or catchment restored here, a neighbourhood preparing against disaster there — multiplying everywhere but invisible to big government. These grass-roots actions must be validated and supported, networked and replicated, until they condense into a new Zeitgeist in which we all suddenly realise that of course we must pay attention to ecology, of course we must protect the web of life, and ask ourselves why else would we have minds, spirits and communities?

And meanwhile, we should also remember:

  • that there are thousands of cities and hundreds of states and provinces that are getting on with ecologically-positive action regardless of what their national governments are doing;
  • that some small countries are declaring ‘peace with nature’ and halting or reversing deforestation, extinction, and greenhouse gas emissions, with Costa Rica, Nepal, Bhutan, New Zealand, Iceland, East Timor and Portugal all springing to mind;
  • that many corporations now see their assets as dangerously exposed to ecological risks, with their managers, shareholders and regulators struggling to forge new rules, often encouraged by potent divestment campaigns; and
  • that since 2018 the Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion movements have been putting enormous constructive, non-violent pressure on governments across the world, forcing a re-think of human priorities and laws in the face of impending ecological collapse.

The future, if we can but imagine it …

This is all great stuff, and because this re-thinking was starting when I wrote this book I began Chapter 10 with a visit to the year 2085: ‘The biosphere, having been saved…’ While it is easy to be discouraged if you look only at big governments and the big picture, hope is to be found hidden in the undergrowth where local actions, local heroes, and small countries are the green shoots that will one day replace the deadly old system. In the process, we’ll have to accept that the rules of ecology apply to everyone, always and everywhere, but that we have the intelligence, compassion, will and freedom needed to rebuild a world that is good for everyone — born and unborn, weak and strong, human and non-human.

Physics, astronomy, evolution, governance

There are other challenges for the imagination here. They include background themes, such as the astonishing physical chemistry of water itself (Chapter 1) and the presence of water on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system and beyond (Chapter 2). Also, the origins of the ‘tree of life’ (Chapter 2), and the influence of human adaptation to coastal environments, in which foraging in water helped to shape our minds and bodies (Chapter 3). And the EU’s Water Framework Directive (Chapter 9), which is now seen as part of a global drive towards green ‘experimentalist’ governance, where local heroes meet, teach and make friends with national and international institutions.

Ocean plastics and acidification, wildlife collapse, water shortage

Meanwhile, some topics in the book have been publicised and popularised to the point of common knowledge and general interest. They include the following.

  • Plastic in the oceans (Chapter 4) is choking, entangling and poisoning sea life, and is an inevitable consequence of making non-biodegradable materials for everyday use by everyone in an exploding population on a small planet. To solve it we will have to phase out the use of such plastics through effective regulation and/or taxation, while also cleaning up the debris.
  • Acidification of the oceans (Chapter 2) is eroding the web of aquatic life that sustains most of the biosphere and is an inevitable consequence of burning fossil fuels into carbon dioxide, which dissolves in water to make carbonic acid. The current rate looks set to make the oceans more acidic than they have been for 65 million years. To solve this, we will have to phase out the burning of fossil fuels through effective regulation and/or taxation, while also cleaning up the air by capturing the greenhouse gases that have already been released.
  • Collapse of wildlife numbers and diversity (Chapters 2, 4 and 9), by more than half since the 1970s, is an inevitable consequence of feeding and enriching humans by replacing most natural ecosystems with artificial ones and then spraying poisons over everything. To solve it we will have to deploy environmental education, community ecosystem ownership and benefit sharing, payment for ecosystem services, ecological restoration, organic farming and other effective arrangements in millions of locations, while also protecting natural ecosystems and wildlife populations through effective regulation, and systematically closing down and cleaning up all sources of agricultural, industrial and urban pollution.
  • Critical shortage of fresh water in urban areas (Chapters 6, 8 and 9) is an inevitable consequence of not paying attention to where water comes from, not managing catchments properly, and not charging users enough to pay for these things (while also, often, being an inevitable consequence of rising sea levels and drought induced by global heating). To solve it we will have to establish ecosystem protection, ecological service payments and restoration arrangements in upstream locations, while investing in public water systems that guarantee adequate water for all at affordable cost, solving the climate change problem if we can, and managing humanely the evacuation of unviable cities where we have to.

Learning to survive

Some of the changes that face us during the birth of the Anthropocene may well be manageable, but only if our adaptive skills can be informed by ecology and applied effectively. The key issue is whether we can adjust our ways of life to make it in our new global environment. Building an informed awareness of water, and the life it bears in every drop, has to be a key starting point.

© Julian Caldecott

Praise for Water: Life in Every Drop:

  • A brilliant overview of an enormous subject’ – Steven Poole, The Guardian.
  • ‘Should be read far, wide and as soon as possible . . . it does an excellent job of promoting a rational, effective, trans-ideological approach to environmental decision making’ – Miguel Mendonça, Resurgence.
  • Caldecott keeps a masterly hand on the reins of what is a vast topic . . . With laudable dexterity, [he] moves from the very small to the very large, from the interactions of atomic particles to the role water plays in the biosphere’ – The Ecologist.
  • ‘A prophetic read’ – Edward P. Echlin, ecological theologian and author of The Cosmic Circle.
  • ‘Includes a lucid presentation of the Aquatic Ape Theory . . . The book shows that we can avoid disaster if we come to our senses and give Gaia a helping hand’ – Elaine Morgan, evolutionary anthropologist and author of The Descent of Woman and The Scars of Evolution.
  • ‘What could be more important than water? This book looks at every aspect of water from its chemistry and mystery to its central role in the ecology of EVERY LIVING THING. And yet, it’s a riveting read, full of fascinating stories from an author who actually knows what he’s talking about. So many of these environmental books are written by journalists with no real grounding in the subject. But Julian Caldecott is an ecologist with decades of field experience which enrich this work. He’s been there, done it, seen it and best of all, has put into practice ways of solving local water crises of every hue. Give it to all your friends and relations  – they’ll love you for providing a good read and you’ll glow with the pleasure of sharing knowledge on the big issue of the coming decade.’ – ‘Smartyhands’ on Amazon.
  • ‘I’ve just finished reading Water by Julian Caldecott. There’s a long waiting list to read it after me, but it goes deeply into marine pollution, of course. One point he makes is that visitors (tourists) to the coast need to take care of the environment they’re visiting. Earlier in the book there’s a good summary of what a Biosphere is, which I sent to the members of our Grabouw Beautiful committee. Highly recommended!’ – Andy Selfe, Whale Coast Conservation (Cape Town).
  • Water by Julian Caldecott is a brilliant, beautifully written book which I found very informative and initially depressing, but it finished on a positive note with a clear message of hope.’ – Henrik Chart, Land, Sea & Islands Centre, Arisaig (Scotland).

What Greta Means To Me

The tension between reason, reduction, technology and industry on the one hand, and feeling, holism, intuition, empathy, compassion and light-touch living on the other, has long haunted us. It continues to smoulder in the friction between environmental movements, such as Greta Thunberg’s Climate Strike, and the powers of business as usual. It became obvious once the ideas of the Franco-Scottish Enlightenment were absorbed, monetarised and weaponised by the English to create the Industrial Revolution. But one suspects that these very different ways of thinking have much deeper roots, since there is so clearly a tendency for simple, close-to-nature lifeways, with their shamanic beliefs and spiritual art-forms, to be ploughed under from time to time by more rational and better-armed cultures, who live to exploit and destroy everything that cannot be used.

One such model in Europe is the Ancient Roman Empire – a notably harsh and invasive cultural system that shaped so many of our values – but even here there is tension between this heritage and the non-Roman parts of Europe, notably that of the German peoples. This, based on federation among equal local societies, was later given expression through the (confusingly mis-named) ‘Holy Roman Empire’, the Reformation and the European Union. By contrast, the Roman model itself gave us the Roman Catholic Church and a tendency towards hierarchy and centralisation. But this is all wildly complex, as the various influences swirled and settled in different places, and then influenced one another. It may be decipherable one day, if we can ask the right questions and reconstruct enough social history and folklore, but meanwhile we are left with tensions between just-discernible tendencies and ways of doing things that seem to be associated with different local histories, languages, myths and political traditions.

Trying to make sense of some of this, in my 2008 book Water: Life in Every Drop, I built on the many lines of evidence that support the idea of humanity having both a fully terrestrial and a semi-aquatic heritage, and extended the idea from anatomy to behaviour. I observed that “humans seem equally adept at living in either of two alternative and contrasting models of society: one militaristic, controlling, male-dominated and hierarchical; the other peaceful, accepting and egalitarian. It seems we can do either, depending on circumstances.” So I argued that our minds must be inclined, and have the capacity to think, in two contradictory ways, which I called a ‘hard’ way, which I associated with the Confucian tradition in China: top-down, mechanistic, reductionist, the thinking of a terrestrial ape; and a ‘soft’ way, which I linked to Taoism: bottom-up, organic, holistic, the thinking of an aquatic ape. And I claimed that “Their different implications are expressed sometimes this way, sometimes that, in response to social context, lessons learned in upbringing, and the observations, reasoning and self-discipline of which people are capable during their long lives.”

Now, from Tim Flannery’s 2018 book Europe: The First 100 Million Years, we learn that the invention of truly spectacular cave art – at Lascaux in France and El Castillo in Spain – and the carving of works such as the Löwenmensch (Lion-man) figurine of Hohlenstein-Stadel – and the domestication of dogs, can all be dated to about 35,000 years ago, and may have resulted from hybridisation between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens in the Danube Corridor, which is known to have occurred at about the same time. Flannery argues that neither parent species showed much sign of artistic-religious creativity or the kind of empathy needed to domesticate animals before then, and that some kind of ‘hybrid vigour’ induced it. The hybrid element in our gene pool was later swamped by subsequent invasions of ‘unimproved’ humans from Asia, leaving the ‘neanderthal’ component as a tiny fraction among our genes.

There is very much still unknown about the flow of humanity across the world, the human-like species with which we interacted and interbred – including Homo denisova, whose genes are now so widespread in Australasia, and Homo erectus or its descendent species which persisted among the Indonesian islands until very recently – and the nature of the various actors and their habitats, so firm conclusions cannot yet be drawn. But the suspicion is there again in Flannery’s work that a tension exists in modern humanity between an artistic, creative, pacific side, and a mechanistic, analytical, warlike side, which may be traced to distinct and ancient heritages.

And we find a similar pattern in Wendell Berry’s 2002 essay ‘Two Minds’, in The World-Ending Fire. Here he nails the difference and tension between what he calls the ‘Rational Mind’ and the ‘Sympathetic Mind’. As Berry summarises it: “The Rational Mind is objective, analytical, and empirical; it makes itself up only by considering facts; it pursues truth by experimentation; it is uncorrupted by preconception, received authority, religious belief, or feeling. Its ideal products are the proven fact, the accurate prediction, and the ‘informed decision’. It is, you might say, the official mind of science, industry, and government. The Sympathetic Mind differs from the Rational Mind, not by being unreasonable, but by refusing to limit knowledge or reality to the scope of reason or factuality or experimentation, and by making reason the servant of things it considers precedent and higher. The Rational Mind is motivated by the fear of being misled, of being wrong. Its purpose is to exclude everything that cannot empirically or experimentally be proven to be a fact. The Sympathetic Mind is motivated by fear of error of a very different kind: the error of carelessness, of being unloving. Its purpose is to be considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out. The Rational Mind is exclusive; the Sympathetic Mind, however failingly, wishes to be inclusive.” (pages 181-182).

So what light, if any, does all this shed on the current environmental movement and the reaction of its participants to the eruption of Greta Thunberg onto the scene in 2018? To simplify slightly, let’s consider only the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Greta’s Climate Strike for the Future, which arose together in late 2018 (Greta spoke at the launch of XR in London on 31 October), and have been growing in global influence, in dialogue and in parallel, ever since.

Participants in the XR movement call for official truth-telling and declarations of climate and ecological emergency, urgent action against GHG emissions with an early goal of zero net carbon, and governance reforms built on citizens’ assemblies to provide leadership and participation at all levels of society. These participants are a very mixed bag of people, all of whom share a fear of impending climate chaos, ecological collapse and mass extinction, and frustration over official denial and inaction over the decades since the dimensions of the crisis became known. The culture of the movement is determinedly non-violent, inclusive, egalitarian, tolerant, welcoming, transparent and regenerative through mutual support. It is also highly respectful of art – and wonderful art has been a hallmark from its beginning – spirit, healing and the ecological and climate sciences, and practitioners of all these traditions are highly valued. Everyone else is seen as persuadable through the logic of environmental truth, the feeling of shared nature and humanity, and the recognition that we are all equally terrified by reality but can help one another through ‘existential nausea’ to a better, more accepting and more determined frame of mind.

This is all both benign and electrifying. There are no great ideological tomes to read – if only because, as yet, there is no theory of governance to promote. There is only the manifest truth that all is very far from all right, that we have been lied to, and that it might be possible to build a better world if we can only summon enough spiritual energy and collective goodwill. There is, however, a deep and potent back-story: the history of life on Earth as told by palaentologists and planetary ecologists; the inexorable decline of the Arctic Ocean’s summer ice towards zero in about 2030, and what this means for runaway global heating; mass extinction at a level that may be as high as a million species annually; the processes of human separation from nature and the pretence of human ascendancy over the rules of ecology; and the consequences of that separation in broken societies and broken ecosystems. These consequences, it is understood, may soon include total breakdown: mass starvation, desperate migration, unconstrained war, and the wholesale end of the biosphere that we as a species have known for ever.

Since all this is well-founded in consilient knowledge (i.e. ‘science’), the question and frustration arises over why it has not been acted upon. Clearly, the science has been ignored, and it isn’t hard to make a list of reasons for this: it’s complicated, difficult, expensive to do anything, and it’s much easier to rationalise denial and delay, using whatever entitlement myths may be to hand – religious, racist, nationalist or neoconservative. From an English perspective we might cite two contributions by the folk hero Winston Churchill: the ‘ten year rule’ for not doing anything about a threat until it can no longer be pretended to be more than ten years away; and the aphorism that ‘scientists should be on tap – not on top’. These traditions of English conservatism can stand for a whole raft of reasons why the establishment is reluctant to respond to the urgings of science, and specifically ecological science whose practitioners have been pilloried as ‘tree-huggers’ since the 1960s when ecology first came to political prominence.

Well, that’s the problem – or part of it, since in addition to ecology there’s also the whole set of other things in XR, including the art, shamanism and anarchism, the purple-bearded men and the children and young mums with their naïve hand-made posters. Greta’s School Strike adds to the mix a million or two disobedient adolescents. This lot is virtually guaranteed to activate hostile feelings among more conventional thinkers, or Rational Minds, or Confucian officials. In this sense, as it has been since the ancestral environmental movements of the 1960s, ecology can be seen as a pseudo-scientific front for the anarchist left, easy to ’other’, easy to ignore and isolate, and, like the rest of the ‘hippies’ and ‘subversives’, if push comes to shove, easy to do away with. Which is frustrating for all concerned, and especially for ecologists.

But this brings us back to Greta Thunberg, and what her advent may mean. To me it is very clear. Greta activates a potent archetype: the virgin girl-child inspired by divinity, speaking truth to power, taking on the world. These figures are recognisable throughout history, and are powerful because they spark a deep response in our collective minds, summoning us to great out-pourings of spiritual energy which often have the effect of changing history. Since we need a great outpouring of spiritual energy to overcome resistance to change, and we need to change history very urgently, this is all as it should be. Whatever is going on in Greta’s mind, and for all I know in the mind of God in communion with her, it is necessary and welcome.

But the other thing here is that Greta’s message, essentially is: “Everyone and everything needs to change. Make the best available science the heart of politics and democracy. We must start today. We have no more excuses.” (from No One is Too Small to Make a Difference). The sailing yacht on which she is now crossing the Atlantic Ocean bears the slogan ‘Unite behind the science!’ on every boom and spar. The call is for policy and action on climate chaos to be based on scientific realism (i.e. what is needed) rather than political convenience (i.e. what is cheap and easy). That’s the message, and that is the green line that runs through the XR and Climate Strike movements, that holds them to the truth, that validates the knowledge we need for change, and that provides us with the indicators we need to measure real progress.

By uniting in one person deep respect for consilient knowledge, open-mindedness, creativity, compassion and social union, Greta symbolises everything important that we have been trying to say for decades, and quite possibly for millennia. As a girl-child/eco-warrior/hero-archetype she’s impressive and necessary enough, and one important thing is that she may summon our energies to change what needs to be changed, as a matter of deep and immediate urgency. But another important thing is that she may succeed finally in inspiring us to unify the divided mind of our species. This attempt seems to me utterly worthy of passionate engagement.

© Julian Caldecott


Rusalka: an ancient warning for modern times

An opening night at the opera, Glyndebourne, 29 June 2019

In 1899 the Bohemian Czech Jaroslav Kvapil finished writing the storyline and lyrics for the drama Rusalka, as the libretto for an opera, and began looking for someone to compose the music for it. He drew on ancient fairy-tales, but in his mind were great questions of governance, power and accountability. This was an era of decaying multi-national empires, including the Habsburg of which Bohemia was a part, where tensions between the rights of local peoples and the rights of over-arching authority were in everyone’s minds. A few years later, Kvapil was to sign the Manifesto of Czech Writers, which expressed the yearning of a self-aware people to be free. Meanwhile, though, he was exploring similar themes by unearthing shimmering veins of meaning in the rich loam of folklore and faerie. And those themes are ours today, as much as his then, because they are everyone’s everywhere.

A glance at Aboriginal Australia makes this clear, for the Dreaming Law created tens of millennia ago contains the same principles of autonomy that peoples still strive to articulate and defend (see: Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture, by Deborah Bird Rose, Cambridge, 1992: 45-55). Here no species, group, or country can command another, since each adheres to its own Law; to be a centre is not to dominate, but to have one’s own perspective; there are no orders from above because there is no above; and in each country the Law manifests an eternal, stable relationship between nature and humanity. Each part of every system shares responsibility for sustaining itself, for learning to understand, for paying attention, and for balancing every other part. The processes of ecology weave themselves through these countries, as rivers, evolutionary relationships, mountains, aquifers, migrating birds and breeding crocodiles, and are represented by the adventures of Dreamtime creation beings that are shared by all peoples, unifying them. This symbolic, ecological universe was being ruined by Europeans in Australia while Kvapil wrote his libretto, just as the land of faerie was being oppressed by modernity in Europe itself.

All this is reflected in Kvapil’s choice of myth and the characters to represent classes of beings and relationships in Rusalka. There is Vodník (Alexander Roslavets), the ruling spirit of a lake: absolute monarch of that one ecosystem of aquatic water-nymphs or naiads, co-equal with the ruling beings of all other natural spheres, and relating on those terms to a vaster natural ecosystem of witches and wood-nymphs or dryads. There is Rusalka (Sally Matthews) herself, his daughter who pines for a different, mortal, human life. And there is Ježibaba (Patricia Bardon), the witch. These names are all personified symbols: in Czech, vodník means ‘shape-shifting water spirit-creature’ (or something like the Loch Ness monster, say, in our terms), just as rusalka means ‘water-sprite’ (or perhaps mermaid) and ježibaba means ‘witch’ (or any figure that the Christian tradition uses to demonise female knowledge and power outside Church control). Against these mythical materials, Kvapil opposes others, all numinous but all refracted through the distorting lens of human Christian thought.

Thus the Prince (Evan LeRoy Johnson), representing an utterly different idea of universal relative status, blunders into Vodník’s world, hunting and killing his way into the forest with a party of humans. They understand nothing of where they are, or why they should care, or what’s up with their Prince, who seems to be searching for something that only he can sense the existence of. Seeing him, Rusalka projects her own yearning onto him, and bewitches herself, just as he will presently do in response to her. This is the moment when the ecosystem breaks, when Law falls into madness.

Kvapil found in Antonín Dvořák a composer skilled and subtle enough to illuminate this story with the most sublime, powerful and sensitive music. Between them, and the fabulous singers in this production, they articulate the whole bitter tale in a way that is a painful joy to experience. For Rusalka becomes obsessed, begging Ježibaba to help her abandon her own nature, as well as Nature and Law, so that she can experience a human life instead. The witch pretends reluctance, but it is her role to facilitate transformations – as witches do, presiding over the generations, initiations and transmutations of life, most of which are female, horrible, painful, and necessary. After Rusalka’s obsession proves immune to the dire warnings of Vodník, the witch and her sisters summon the powers of change, warping the very fabric of the ecosystem (represented on stage by the toppling of its trees, like a collapsing pine forest over melting permafrost), and ripping the hearts, eye-balls, wings and other organs from its quivering wildlife. These sacrifices are stirred into a boiling iron womb, into which Rusalka is also eventually fed. She will emerge, bereft of swimming tail, unsteady on her new feet, and not possessing human speech, to meet her new destiny as a bewildered, yearning woman in the arms of a bewildered, yearning Prince.

For the audience, these terrible sights are leavened by a champagne-break amid the flowering paradise of the Glyndebourne gardens. We can imagine what Rusalka went through no more than we can sense what went on in the pupae that broke open to release the bees and butterflies who are around us in the summer afternoon. Also, we don’t yet know how badly it will turn out. But back in the auditorium, the forest lake has been transformed into a castle kitchen. Humans are drawing and quartering wildlife, and chatting among themselves as they work. The castle gamekeeper (Colin Judson) marches in, unslinging a cross-bow and handing out dead animals for butchering. He and his niece (Alix Le Saux) sing about the strange, silent creature that the Prince has brought back from the forest, and that he intends to possess through the sacrament of marriage. Meanwhile, the aristocratic guests of imperial Bohemia gather behind and around them for the wedding party.

The kitchen table duly becomes a banquet hall, a runway for the fashionable dance-guests of the wedding ball, a marriage bed strewn with the red roses of lust and blood. Rusalka, looking more bewildered and yearning than any human ever has before, is trying to wear heels and a misshapen white wedding dress, is trying to learn how to dance like everyone else, is trying to convey her feelings to the Prince, and is utterly confused by every signal, as is the Prince himself. Rusalka becomes more and more desperate, the Prince more and more impatient, the guests more and more patronising. Prince and Rusalka are locked into a binary orbit the unbearable tension of which is almost resolved as Rusalka sheds her panties in a desperate effort at communication and bonding. But a glamorous foreign Princess (Zoya Tsererina) intervenes and makes a pass at the Prince, who is briefly distracted by the thought of a relationship that he can at least understand.

Nothing can last, because the Law is in ruins. Rusalka flutters around the candle-flame of her human love. Vodník manifests to observe the ball, which under his gaze is held in slow-motion ordinary time while he mourns for his daughter in faerie time, before taking her away, back to the forest and the lake. The foreign princess, sensing that the Prince is already broken by madness, spits him out with shrill curses. And so the second Act ends in smoking ruins, with the trembling audience retreating to the picnic gardens to try to make sense of it all, perhaps more sensitive than before to brief movements in the undergrowth as they forage among the crystals, patés and cheeses. They gather their energies for whatever lies ahead.

There, Kvapil and Dvořák have laid a most intricate trap. We knew it would go ill for nature, but here comes Rusalka to greet her sister naiads, with their writhing tails dangling from the water surface high above, who reject her utterly and for ever. Here is a damaged, charred Rusalka begging restoration from Ježibaba, who offers her relief only at the price of hot human blood freed by the dagger that she offers, which Rusalka cannot accept. Here are the gamekeeper and his niece, come to seek Ježibaba’s help to heal their Prince of his madness, but they are spurned by the witches and are taken instead by the wood-nymphs, who strip with them, dance with them, and bloodily consume the gamekeeper’s heart. Here the imagery and music pass beyond understanding, as the wild-haired conductor (Robin Ticciati) dances in the pit with the instruments of pain and pleasure. Somehow, the idea is conveyed that the great virtue of being mortal is the opportunity to die, to bring suffering to an end and to participate in furthering the endless cycles of life.

And so before long … here runs a beautiful exhausted doe, her tall ears rotating as the human hunters approach, until she dies at last, reflecting the fall of Rusalka herself who has vanished deep into a corner of the lake. There she contemplates eternity as a will-o-wisp, one of the swamp stars fired by the methane of decay that lure men to their deaths by night. And here comes the Prince, blundering and staggering, demented and exalted. He sings of his guilt and of his loss. Humanity self-pityingly recognising that his actions have ruined Nature, begging forgiveness, knowing that she can never again be the sustaining all-mother that she was while the Law still held. And Rusalka responds from the muddy depths, gradually emerging, beautiful, hopeless, broken, understanding. She can only offer humanity death as a release from guilt, and the Prince gratefully accepts her gift, dying with a kiss in her arms.

Rusalka then, neither lawful sprite nor human, considers the constellation of swamp-stars among which she will rot for ever, and plods off to join them. The music seals the tale with perfection, and we are left to think: how unnecessary the quest, how pitiful the outcome, how foolish the choices that brought us to this insane, unlawful result where nothing will ever be whole again. For make no mistake: whether or not it was once about empires crushing the indigenous peoples and lifeways of mediaeval Europe, this whole story is nowabout modern humanity destroying the living world in arrogance and greed, reckless of our own vulnerability and dependency upon nature. We have broken every law, polluted the oceans and atmosphere, driven a million wild species a year into extinction, ignored all warnings, and are at last starting to realise that we have lost what we most pretended to love. We are now blundering around in anger, and will soon start snivelling. But Nature is now too damaged to offer us anything more than the kiss of death, before she plods off to exist as best she can amid the methane fires of the melted Arctic.

The second viewing (20 July 2019)

Everything worked just a bit better with practice and tweaking. Excellent on the opening night, three weeks later Rusalkawas fascinating, moving and brilliant. What I wrote before can stand, but I saw more detail: how the sacrificial animals were torn from the wood nymphs like vivisected daemons in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials; the cursing of the Prince by Vodník at the end of the ball; the doe as a guide between human and faerie. Above all, the acting of Rusalka herself, struck dumb by metamorphosis, had reached a new level of heart-breaking perfection. Half the audience were crying by the end, including us. The lady on the door murmured her sympathy as we filed out. The talk around us was all of beauty and despair. We couldn’t resist joining some conversations. In one, a shaken observer noted that the music was so expressive that it drove the story-telling to a sublime ending “that left us to meditate on what we had just witnessed”, and that the performance was one of those very rare moments “when an opera is a true combination of acting and theatre and text and music all together and not separately”. I can vouch for that. It was far more emotionally potent than before. I suspect that other operas will feel like light entertainment after this. So I think I’ll get back to my day job now: fighting climate chaos, mass extinction, and the brutalisation of nature and ourselves. Viva Greta!

© Julian Caldecott

Towards a Peace with Nature Constitution 1

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