Tag Archives: Court of Ecology

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
By:

  • 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