Everything we consume, our food, all the gadgets and machines we use daily, our houses, our cars and skyscrapers and cruise ships, all, all, comes from nature, and all of this, our waste products, our plastic, our broken computers and washing machines, we ourselves at the end of our short stay on Earth, all sooner or later will return to nature. Most of the time, the obvious truth that we are a tiny part of a vast natural system is very far from our busy and distracted minds. Centuries of Western thought and mindless exploitative practice have encouraged us to believe that we are, as Descartes put it back in 1637, “masters and possessors of nature”.
Well, our day of reckoning has arrived. The natural systems on which we depend – and towards which we have shown precious little respect or gratitude – are now collapsing around us. Whether we consider the climate crisis or the sixth extinction, soil exhaustion or water depletion, our time is up – unless we transform our relationship with nature in the next few decades. Ecology is not a political value, in the same way that liberty, equality, and fraternity are – rather it is the precondition of any livable human life on Earth. But it is a value which must run through our politics, like every other aspect of our 21st century lives, if we are to survive the century.
Nature – the totality of the blind processes which make up what we call reality – cares little for us, and will shake us off like a bad case of the fleas if we do not play by her rules. Our collective survival matters only to us – but to us, surely it should matter above all else. An understanding of the fragility of our situation – our utter dependence on nature – is what is means to be ecologically aware. Indigenous communities living marginal existences have, by necessity, always been acutely aware of this dependence, but abundance, aided by modern science and technology, has given us the illusion of security.
Science and technology are not however villains in this cosmic play, they have given us modern medicine, saved millions of lives, and delivered humans from drudgery. Now science is alerting us to the precise nature and extent of the climate and ecological crisis. Everything depends on two related points: firstly, who controls science and technology and secondly, how they are used. With so much at stake it is vital that they are brought under democratic control. In the critical situation we are in, key decisions about the direction of science and technology cannot be dictated by the profit motive, which, though it has brought us much that is useful and beneficial to mankind, has no in-built preference for the public good. Left alone, the market will tend to produce whizz-bang solutions that can generate a profit, and will never favour cutting back on consumption or building the circular economy, the kind of measures we really need right now.
Like any relationship, our relationship with nature is a matter of give and take. The problem is that some of us have been treating nature as essentially a free resource, taking a great deal and giving back very little. The technical term for this attitude is “extractivism”. You might think of fossil fuel or mining companies when you hear this word, but really, we are all extractivists: we are all complicit in a system which takes without giving back. Whatever our individual actions – and they are important – it’s impossible to live in the economic system we have and not to be compromised by it. We need to become aware of just how we are complicit and how we can bring about a system in which we no longer are forced to be unwilling extractivists-by-proxy.
In fact, the ecological crisis calls for a double response. The first is an emergency response, which can only be led by Government, to help prevent the worst case scenarios and protect populations for what cannot be prevented. Government possesses the information and knows what must be done: there is no excuse for political inaction, and our leaders must be pushed on this. In order to gain public acceptance for the kind of radical measures which will be required, this emergency response needs to be preceded by a massive campaign of public education on the depth and extent of the crisis. Secondly, we need a paradigm shift in terms of the way we view the natural world and our relationship to it. This is a much deeper and long-term project, which must start in early education and continue throughout the educational process and working life. The aim will be to foster an awareness of our dependence on nature in everything we do. Ecology should be at the centre of Government, business, and our individual lives. Changing our ways will not be easy, as many of us in the global North have become addicted to cheap food, cheap petroleum-based products, and distracting gadgets made from unsustainable rare-earth metals. The rewards are however immense: apart from “saving the planet” (i.e. saving a planet which is livable for humans) we will reconnect with nature and with our fellow humans. But I must reemphasise: we do not have much time, and the really big changes can only come from the top i.e. from the state, which alone has the power to shift incentives like taxes and subsidies, outlaw destructive practices, and regulate the economy which supports them. The best thing that any of us can do as individuals is to join the growing movement for a rapid and radical transformation of the economy. Now.