An Open Letter to US Interior Secretary Jewell on the Preservation of the Wild

In response to the recent call by the Wilderness Society for people to write to US Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, to preserve America’s wildest spaces, in particular from industrial development such as energy drilling, I have written and sent the open letter below. It is rather rambling, but espouses many of the points I’ve made over the years on this blog of the importance of the non-economic aspects of the ecosystem services of nature such as the cultural and health services as well as the critical life support regulatory functions that these systems provide. This speaks to the importance of preserving wild systems that is beyond economic valuation and about maintaining the wild biotic processes that have maintained the chemical and physical balances of our planets life support systems from local to global scales.

The Letter

Dear Secretary Jewell,

I know I am not from the United States (US), but the US can and does serve as a world leader on many fronts, and the world needs influential and powerful environmental leaders to show how environmental management can and should be done—turning theoretical best practices, informed by quality science, into reality. I am also writing to you from an ecological systems perspective merged into the notion of regulatory ecosystem services, which is not often voiced (more often you hear about the natural capital/economic valuation aspects of ecosystem services), so I hope you will consider this letter.

It is only since around the 1960’s that work in Earth and atmospheric science started to lead to a scientific paradigm shift of the world as a complex and interconnected system (Lovelock gives a good review of this in his initial book on the Gaia Hypothesis, which may sound hoaky, but the title is just a nod to the ancient Greeks in name, but overlies some solid systems science). In this Earth system, we have come to observe that humans are not just subject to large physical drivers (like things like Earth and solar (Milankovich) cycles and volcanism that help to shape climate), but we humans are also, collectively, drivers and shapers of the environment ourselves from local to global scales. Now that there are so many of us roaming the Earth with population growth, and now that we are so efficient and effective in conducting industrial processes upon the land, we need to improve our rules of engagement with Earth systems so that we don’t sabotage the very ground we stem from.

We have come to see how humans, though miniscule individually, can collectively influence large physical processes on Earth like the climate through things like incremental effects on atmospheric and oceanic chemistry, as well as incremental changes to land use. This paradigm shift is starting to make its way into human spheres like the newish field of ecological economics and our notions of how to do conservation (like the work on planetary boundaries by the Stockholm Resilience Center: http://goo.gl/w7MU3p). This is great, but there is urgency to take what we know from science and better risk manage our Earth systems, for, with our growth over the last 100 years in population and industrial capacity, we are affecting Earth’s physical and ecological systems at an unprecedented rate in history.

One of the areas where not only humanity, but all the biological systems of the Earth, urgently need help, is from environmental regulators and policy makers, like you. We need you to be informed and be strong to protect wild ecological systems so they can continue not only being beautiful places that speak to our sense of aesthetics, nourishing and healing retreats that increase our health as research is increasingly showing, but also because living systems beyond humanity form a central part of the critical life support system of the Earth.

Thank you for your work to update many of the outdated practices and policies within the US Interior Department. Most importantly, I appreciate your commitment to conservation and recognition that there are places in America that truly are ‘Too Wild to Drill’. I’m not sure what you mean by “wild” exactly, but I will tell you what I mean by wild taken from a paper I recently wrote (here: https://integrales.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/marialavis-humanneedandrighttonature-2014-12.pdf in the glossary at the end), which is a systems perspective on the root of the word stemming from ‘self-willed’, of an ecological system that is complex, self-directed, self-regulating, and autopoetic.

North American ‘wild’ places are not just pretty, or important for traditional conservation reasons, but they are vital systems that help to form the self-regulating fabric of the natural world.

Wild systems stem from an ancient original source beyond human control, and these systems are critical because they help to form the collective Earth biotic system and collective biotic driver of large emergent complex global systems like atmospheric climate and oceanic chemistry, of which some parts of these systems have maintained homeostasis in the face of the forces of entropy for billions of years. A homeostasis that humans are now threatening. The degredation of wild systems is part of this systemic threat that our activities pose to Earth systems. How local wild spaces collectively act to create and help regulate certain global homeostatic mechanisms (like the regulation of oxygen in the atmosphere that wouldn’t even be there without biotic photosynthesis) is still beyond complete human understanding, but obviously of central importance to the continuing of life on Earth.

Now, more than ever, we need to come together as people and as nations, to help ensure that the physical and chemical life support system functionality roles that are inherent in ecosystems are preserved.

What this means to me and to many systems scientists is that we need to preserve spaces—on our land and in our waterways—where wild systems can flourish so that they can continue performing their ancient role of systemic regulation from the local to global scales. This also means that now, more than ever, we need your leadership to ensure others within the agency also understand the broader role these places play in our lives.

Our public lands are where children learn to explore the outdoors and meet science face to face. These are the places we find solitude from the hurried world around us, places we know we can turn to for recreation, hunting and fishing. Places we can turn to for psychological and spiritual recharging. (Please also see my paper for a review of recent research on the importance to human health of natural systems, from nature next door to the wilds.) Our public lands are something we count on to be accessible for years to come. Public lands are also something that we depend on collectively across the Earth to keep the ecological systems fabric functioning. To afford us and future generations these experiences, I encourage you to push for better land protection designations for places that are Too Wild to Drill and encourage this practice not only in Washington, D.C., but also in the local and state decisions out west.

I work as an environmental consultant, writing environmental assessments and advising not only governments and energy companies on energy policy. I’ve been busy doing this job and not done a lot of political work, but what I have learned in my profession is that the existing regulatory environment is not enough to safeguard wild systems against the kinds of growing population and industrial pressures that constantly press to carry forward old ideas such as ‘exploiting’ natural systems for our benefit. We need people like you to lay the groundwork policy for a “full world”, in the words of Herman Daly, to redraw the boundaries of what we safely can and cannot do so that we do not sabotage our own success.

Haven’t we run to the end of the colonialist, exploitative, way of looking at natural systems? Haven’t we had enough of seeing ‘nature’ as an enemy to be conquered. I think that day has come. We have won. But, as they say, watch what you wish for. Humans have wished for mastery over the Earth, and in pursuing this, we may spell our own demise since, despite the claims of geoengineers, we do not really understand how complex and interconnected Earth systems work from local to global scales, and because of this, we need to preserve them, functionally intact. Would navy officers on a submarine seek to exploit their sub to the point of sabotaging their own life support systems? Or, would they do whatever it takes to ensure that the chemical and physical factors that keep them afloat and alive are protected? We need to look at our wild spaces, not just as pretty landscapes or natural resources to be economically exploited, but as vital biotic systems that chemically and physically regulate our environment, and without which, life as we know it would no longer exist. We need to get smart policies going, informed by the best of what we know in science, and we need to push back on special economic interests that look to continue the cycle of exploitation, which has now run its course. We need to lay down the boundaries and be strong to the forces which seek to continue their tradition of success in exploiting the Earth, because there are systemic limits to the Earth’s biotic capacity to regulate. Just as a human can succumb to incremental stresses and have health impacted, so can the wild systems of the Earth be affected through our incremental systemic pressures. Is this a chance we want to take, to keep pushing the bar? What kind of sailor would want to mess around with their oxygen system? I can’t think of any. We need to help re-frame these issues of the preservation of the wild in systems terms. This is defensible science. It is credible and it also make sense with risk management. It doesn’t mean energy drilling is bad, it just means that there are limits to certain kind of activities that the wild systems can bear, and to protect the functioning of these dwindling spaces, we need to have people like you know when it is time to draw the line and say no means no. Enough is enough. And it’s not just about protecting this or that species. It’s about maintaining and protecting our critical life support systems that wild systems collectively make up across the Earth.

Let’s Not Be Victims of Our Own Success

Humans are an incredible species. We have amazing intelligence and capacity. Whether this capacity is designed by some external supernatural agent or evolved is often debated, but is not the point. The point is that we do indeed have this amazing capacity for intelligence, creativity/innovation, and production, and we are using it, but we are using it now in ways that may not only be self-sabotaging, but sabotaging to the ecological fabric of many other living systems on Earth.

Billions of years ago, there was a similar success story of a new type of organism that dramatically affected the Earth and life on this planet. This was the appearance of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria, the first creatures to capture the energy of the sun and turn it into oxygen. The early Earth atmosphere was like reducing, not oxidizing as it is now. That is because of the success of photosynthesizing creatures that metabolically spewed out oxygen in the process. Well, these creatures were much much smaller than us, but they were so successful that they reproduced like mad, and made so much oxygen that they too (like us) started to change the mass balance chemistry of the Earth’s global atmosphere and oceans. And what geological science tells us is that this led to a series of very dramatic extinctions, as evidenced in the banded iron formations. Oxygen was toxic to life back then (and it still has this toxicity, evidenced in how we need antioxidants within human bodily systems to keep us healthy), and as concentrations of O2 built up, it got to the point where the levels of oxygen got to the tipping point where it led to a mass extinction killing off a large section of the biota on Earth, including the photosynthesizing creatures themselves. If this isn’t the definition of an organism being the victim of its own success, I do not know what is. But some of the photosynthesizers lived on, and the process started again, and then again, with extinction events happening over millions of years, until finally organisms (like us metabolically) could breath in the oxygen. This led to a new metabolic dance between the photosynthetic organisms (that emit oxygen) and heterotrophs (that would breath that oxygen and eat organic matter), which led to an emergent planetary mass balance in oxygen levels which has remained relatively stable to this day around 21%.

The reason I’m telling this quick recap of the evolution of photosynthetic creatures, and how that ties into environmental chemistry, is because to me this story reminds me of humans. Photosynthetic organisms were remarkably successful in harnessing the energy of the sun, but they also became victims of their own success. We humans are supposedly more intelligent than cyanobacteria though, so I hope that we can figure out the systems effects of our collective metabolic (energy and natural resources using) success more quickly and take action to prevent not only us, but other living systems around us, becoming victims of our success.

It’s Not About Fighting ‘Evil’ Energy Developers

Many environmentalists treat energy development like it is an evil thing. There is nothing inherently evil in humans maximizing our use of energy. One of the most ancient stories of humanity is of how Prometheus brought humans that fundamental ancient energy of fire. Fire is a tool that humans have used since times immemorial which has helped us in so many ways to live and flourish on the Earth. The development of the kind of fire that burns fossil fuels is another kind of fire that has helped humans in many ways to thrive on the Earth and do efficient and useful work. Great. Just like there is nothing inherently bad in a new organism coming along that manages to harness the energy of the sun, producing oxygen as a by product, there is nothing inherently wrong with humans harnessing fire. But, and this is a big but, our human energy development (use of the metaphorical fire) is, in a way an extension of human metabolism, and this has chemical and other secondary effects as science is showing us. Not only our use of energy, but our incremental degradation of wild spaces also has chemical and physical effects, because these wild spaces provide regulatory ecosystem services. Without a systemic process to manage the successes of the expansion of human metabolic processes on Earth, then we too may become victims of our own success, taking the whole biotic system along with us for an unintended ride.

I hope this analogy helps to illustrate how important our wild systems are and how important it is to preserve their functioning, not only for aesthetic, health and traditional conservation reasons, but also because of the vital role that wild and healthy functioning ecosystems play all over the planet in making up our biotic life support system on Earth. I hope that you, and other policy makers like you, will cooperate to take up this banner, and safeguard our present and future systems health on Earth so that ‘sustainability’ becomes more than a wishy washy and abused term, but something as concrete as naval officers safeguarding the life support systems of a high tech submarine. In the latter case, the submarine is human made, but in the case of the Earth, we have a planet with a functioning system that still has a numinous wild mystery to it. Let us preserve that wild and free spirit of our ambient biotic systems. And, is this not—this preservation of the wild and free spirit of the land—not, really, the real American dream after all, when you really think about it?

Do We Value Protecting What is Really ‘Wild and Free’ or Not?

Let us not undermine, in chipping away at the wilds of our lands, what it really means to pursue life, liberty and freedom. I contend (as roughly outlined in my linked to paper) that the sacred beating heart of this freedom we all hold so dear IS the wild. The wild out there, which is a mirror to the wild in each of our own self-directed yet interconnected hearts. As Aldo Leopold learned in observing the green fire go out in the eyes of a wolf he he shot many years ago, to kill the wolf is to slowly kill the mountain, and now we are learning that to kill the mountain is to slowly kill ourselves and what is dear to all life. Please, do not let this happen. Please take the precautionary approach. If you take a risk management approach, not only is the probability that the loss of the wilds will lead to ecological systems harm too high, but also the hazard level of the risk of the loss of the wilds on ecological planetary systemic functioning is too great. And when it comes to that ephemeral thing called the human spirit, the risk of the loss of the dream of freedom is also too dear.

We mostly grow up in cities now and as Richard Louv (nature deficit disorder) and other researchers like EO Wilson (biophilia) have shown, we and increasingly our children are divorced from the nature that is all of our original birth place and also the system that keeps us alive. Many of us in environmental science are coming to realize that caring to protect nature stems from knowledge, which stems from experience. Why would you want to protect what you don’t know or understand? But just because many of us have forgotten nature’s importance through estrangement, doesn’t mean we cannot collectively affect is, or negatively harm through our actions the systemic functional importance of wild systems.

Thoreau Was Right When He States that in Wildness is the Preservation of the World

Wildness is not just the “preservation of the world, it is the world.
– Gary Snyder

It’s time to close the longstanding gap in western culture between humans and nature through sound policy and safeguard what is important to preserve in our ecological systems. Whether our expulsion from the paradise garden millennia ago was, again, due to supernatural or random physical/climatic causes, is not the point. The point is that western history has this discontinuity in our collective memory in our connection to nature, to the wilds, and to our dream of the paradise garden. And, regardless of the source of this disconnection between western colonialist culture and nature, we have been, I contend partially as a result of this discontinuity, systematically acting in ways that sabotage our ever returning.

Maybe reconnecting with the wild is what we have wanted, and needed, this whole time. Maybe in the disconnected wilds lies our own lost feral beating heart. It is my dream that our children can find it again, if we do not destroy it first. This is also the dream of many indigenous peoples. It is time we listen to a different kind of rooted wisdom that connects us to place and to the root our our own touted notions of freedom so that we actually walk the talk of what it means to be both responsible and free.

The risk of losing that wild beating heart of the land, which may be one of the foundational elements of makes life worthwhile to begin with, is there on the doorstep. The time for action is now. If not me taking time to implore you to stand up to protect the heart of what it means to be wild and free, who? If not you stepping up to the plate to do what it takes to preserve the still beating heart of our wild lands, who?

Thank you,

Maria Lavis

On the Joys of Nature Next Door, Cultural Ecosystem Services, and the Human Right to Nature

What does natural capital and cultural ecosystem services have to do with biophilia, nature deficit disorder, and the human right to nature? These topics are typically studied in rather separate contexts. My aim in this long read is to begin to connect the dots between these areas to develop a more holistic picture of our growing cultural relationship with nature in the west.

My Nature Next Door

I live in the Pacific Northwest on the Capilano River escarpment in North Vancouver. This area is known in the local tourist circuit through the Capilano Suspension Bridge and local hikes in the Capilano River Park. It’s a place of rugged contrasts. The river lies at the bottom of the steep Capilano Canyon, shown below.  The river itself is sometimes slow, clear, and slowly meandering along, and at other times it becomes a torrent of muddy waters (that once was so aggressive that I called the local authorities just to make sure we weren’t going to all be washed away in the flood!). The only reason why there are beautiful views of this river, like the one below where you only see nature in the shot, is because of laws. Laws that protect riparian areas in this case, and make it so that you cannot build within so many feet of a river. Thank-goodness for the river. Thank-goodness for the fish. Thank-goodness for me and my hungry camera.

CapilanoRiverCanyon_©MariaLavis

Capilano River from Cable Bridge showing people on trail lookout in the distance.

I count myself blessed to be able to live in a place that sits on the border between the built human landscape and the natural world. The birds one can spot from our house along the Capilano Canyon also frame the extremes, often being eagles or hummingbirds. The last few weeks, it has been raining in the lower mainland off and on (as it tends to in a coastal temperate rainforest). Imagine my surprise the other day I looked out from the kitchen window to find an eagle sunning itself in the trees looking down at the river. I don’t have a telephoto lens like the pros, but managed to capture a few shots.  (Click to go to Flickr)

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_14-49-53_DSC_0680_©MariaLavis

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_14-46-14_DSC_0662_©MariaLavis

What a joy to be able to drink my morning coffee that day while hanging out with this guy fluffing his feathers and spanning his wings out.  On the other side of our house, not 50 feet away, is one of the main routes into the downtown core (you can hear it along with the river in the video link at the bottom of this post). If I go out the front door and I’m walking on asphalt and heading down the street towards the city. Going out the back door is the opposite. It leads to a verdigris world that is a reminder of what the whole of the North Shore once must have looked like at one time (though the trees would have been way bigger; they razed them down at the beginning of the 20th Century in the Great Cut).

The Contentious Value of Cultural Ecosystem Services

In real estate talk, this kind of place is one with a ‘view’, and the economic value of properties with different natural views could be considered one way to measure how we ‘value’ nature. (You can also get a sense of the value of nature to us in the covers of architectural magazines that usually feature places looking out at pristine wilderness. I’d love to see someone who has done a survey of how much nature appears in these magazines. If anyone knows of one, let me know.) The beauty of nature usually doesn’t have an material price tag though, and falls into the realm of cultural ecosystem services, along with other ‘non-material‘ benefits like educational, spiritual or recreational services that humans derive from nature. Yet, in spite of the obvious importance of all of our collective deeply personal, and interpersonal relationships, values and experiences in and with nature, when it comes to measuring and taking into account natural capital, cultural ecosystem services is one of the areas that is often neglected in the research literature.

This notion of putting human economic values on nature rather than focusing on more traditional intrinsic values (such as biodiversity) is one that is hotly contested and debated within ecological circles these days (more on this in a future post). There are some who say that we need to value nature monetarily to better protect it, and then there are others who say that the monetary valuation of nature is counter productive and demeans the real, functional and intrinsic value of nature.

Personally, I think the answer to this debate is we need BOTH approaches.

Nature is not just one thing. It is not an either/or proposition. It is multidimensional, and, like the proverbial Buddhist diamond, it has many facets for us to see depending on where we are standing. Nature has economic value for things like timber and other natural resources, and it has as long as humans have been trading such things. It is also important to economically value nature when the government looks at options for development, which was when nature was traditionally externalized and neglected from the equation and decision making process. This has led to a systematic loss of nature globally over the last few decades which is starting to alarm many scientists. But, valuing nature can stop or slow this process. I have personally chatted with professors doing work in places like Indonesia who know that their work on valuing forest services helped in preventing logging in some areas because they could communicate that value through economic valuation sheets.

But this kind of valuation, in and of itself, is not enough. This is because, at the same time, nature still has other important values such as:

  • aesthetic value (as much if not more priceless than famous museum art which often strives to emulate nature, but never succeeding),
  • functional value (which is not just priceless, but absolutely necessary to our survival like climatic regulation and healthy soil creation),
  • biodiversity value (as someone with a background in behavioural ecology, I would like to note here that maintaining both nature’s genotypic and phenotypic capacity that has evolved over millions of years is key to maintaining diversity; keeping seed banks and zoos to preserve diversity is a last ditch effort because so much is lost when you take organisms out of their interconnected ecological niche that they often grow and learn to live in), and
  • even less talked about but often even more deeply important things like spiritual value (that thing that takes your breath away when you reach the view point on a hike; that thing that makes the guru sit by him/herself on the mountain; and that thing that makes the guru on the mountain become the guru to begin with).

Some of these values may seem intangible, but we are starting to see real effects of their loss.

On Establishing the Human Right to Nature

How do we get out of our silos?

One of the areas where I think that we could make strides in our ability to conserve nature and live in better harmony along side it is through some strategic collaborations to bridge some of the work being done now by the people working on cultural ecosystem services with the work of those who work in the area of biophiia, nature deficit disorder, and the human need for nature. This could also engage those working in the arts who have long known the value of nature, such as poets, authors, musicians and visual artists. For instance, get the people from the ecosystem services world together such as those at the  Natural Capital Project like Gretchen Daily (who was also integral to getting the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment off the ground), the people at TEEB like Pavan Sukhdev, and the folks from the Ecosystem Services Partnership like Robert Costanza in the same room talking to those on the biophiia and nature deficit end of the spectrum. These latter people would include E.O. Wilson who came up with the biophilia hypothesis, and others like S.R. Kellert and working in that vein. On the side of the children’s need for nature and nature deficit disorder work you have people like Richard Louv and the people at the Children & Nature Network. Get these talking to those cultural mavens like authors who care about nature literacy like Margaret Atwood, and the people at the Robert Bateman Foundation connecting kids with art. Add to this the people doing amazing work in ecopsychology and things like deep ecology such as Davd Abram, Bill Plotkin and Jay Griffiths. And get these talking to the people who know about law like the folks at Ecojustice and those who are the traditional lobbyists for nature, the major NGOs like the WWF, DSF, Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club.

The above random list, in no particular order, is just the tip of the ice burg of organizations and people. And, of course, there are the First Nations groups who have basically been trying to get the message across on the importance of the value for nature since European colonialists first landed on this continent, such as in the plight of the Nez Perce with Chief Toohoolhoolzote saying “...I belong to the land of which I came. The Earth is my Mother”, and similarly Chief Joseph saying, “The Earth must not be sold”, to the lament of Chief Dan George and more recent protests to safeguard the land against development going on across North America by many tribes. In so many ways Aboriginal groups are leading us in the theory in this space on how to reconnect, and some of us are finally, slowly, getting the message. And last but not least, there are the parent groups, those amazing moms and dads out there who get it and want their kids to grow up with at least as good of a natural legacy as they inherited.

I guess what I’m saying here is that in spite of all the great work that everyone is doing in their respective areas, the loss of nature on every continent is a collective problem, and for that we need a cross-cutting, collaborative platform that brings us all together on this shared issue. In their own ways, the above people and groups are all essentially talking about the same thing here: about preserving the legacy of the deep and meaningful, and absolutely essential, role of nature in our lives (whether we are individually aware of how much we depend on nature or not). Of course, the work that different groups do in their silos is important, but I believe we need some silo bashing on this issue and come together in some way to make this happen. This touches on climate. This touches on biodiversity. This touches on everything we get from nature.

Of course, protecting the natural legacy that preserves us is what responsible governments are supposed to do as part of safeguarding the public good, but this isn’t something I’m about to rely on my elected officials to be proactive about any more.

(So… Ideas on how to do this? I’m all ears.)

Sure, this is about our ‘personal’ experiences with nature. And, this is about the so-called ‘intangible’ services that nature provides. But just because it is subjective or intangible does not make it less important. In so many ways, it makes it more important. Like civil rights which come down to our subjective, intangible experiences in relationship with one another. Well, we also form relationships with nature. We can develop our capacity to have experiences in nature and grow our relationship with nature to the point where when people lose nature they grieve as though they’ve lost a loved one this is just one indication of how nature is part of our humanity, our birthright. It’s a matter of culture. It’s a matter of health. It’s a matter of survival. It’s a matter of making the world worth surviving in. And it should be a matter protected, like riparian zones, like other civil rights, in law.

However, just as nature has been externalized from our balance sheets, it has been externalized from many legal considerations. I’d like to note here that I am not one to jump on the bandwagon and blame big business, government and the oil companies for this situation, nor for the depletion and pollution of nature around the world. I have a healthy appreciation of,  the mythical Promethean forces that first brought ancestral humans the powers that came with harnessing fire. There is something to be said for human ingenuity, industrial productivity, and the level of cooperation necessary to run things like international corporations and markets. But those markets are part of the bigger ecosystem we share with all of life on this planet, and we all need to get the memo that nature is not the infinite thing we thought it was only just a few decades ago.

We have all benefited from the warmth and energy of combustion in some way or another, but we also all benefit from the air we breath and water we drink and so much more that the living systems on this planet provide. We are, ourselves, through our respiration, something like cybernetic combustion machines that are integrated systems with multiform other systems on Earth (for a longer read my recent essay has more on my view on this).

It’s about finding balance

The point I’m getting to here is that we need to collaborate as well as we do on international markets in order to  achieve more balance with our natural heritage and life support system here, or things could verily get tragic. I’m not just inferring the potential effects of climate change. Recent research confirms that humanity has crossed four of nine identified planetary boundaries. There are systems on this Earth that have been relatively constant for millions of years that we are tampering with. As someone who has studied climatology, biogeochemistry, and ecology, and that professionally writes with a strong degree of conservatism, I am willing to admit that the real potential of tipping planetary boundaries seriously freaks me out. But I’m not a doomsayer, or about pointing the finger of blame. Because that finger points at me, too. It points at all of us, but many of us these days in environmental or ecological circles seem to be pointing fingers, and this often leads to a kind of antagonism that I have seen stifle actually making headway on these important issues.

So, no, no pointing fingers. Instead, this is about growing up as communities, as societies and as nations to our collective impact. It’s about flexing our responsibility, that wing that makes us fly along with its twin that we prefer to talk about, freedom.

The more of us there are in a defined space, the more rules we need to live healthily and harmoniously. The Earth is our defined space, and our communities within it, and more of us there are, every year. So, how do we create social, civilizing, rules for ourselves that help us to live with more, not less, balance with natural systems, going forward? As mentioned, I think part of the solution lies in the field of human rights. (I also agree with those who are trying to instill rights for nature, and power to them, but I think we would get farther in trying to build on the already established lexicon of human rights in this space.)

As mentioned in my last blog post, my own view is that humans have an innate need for, and therefore, an inalienable right to access nature. This is due to our collective need for nature’s systems to keep functioning, as well as due to our personal needs for nature. This blog post focuses on the latter. As I delineate in the essay attached to that post, the jury is out, we do need nature. Personally. Physiologically. Emotionally. Cognitively. Physically. Medically. We have these needs for nature in ways that are also becoming less and less intangible and more and more concrete the more we study this topic. There are so many lines of evidence most likely because we are innately hard wired to live in nature to begin with. When we are cut off from that birthright we begin to see the adverse consequences. Deprivation of nature affects all of our senses. It affects our health. It affects our well being. Intrinsically, but also, now, thanks to the multitude of researchers doing work in this area, measurably so.

Whether it be enjoying the tree out a hospital window, nature next door, the park down the street, or that national park you’ve been meaning to visit for years, we all should have the right to access nature and be able to satisfy our human needs. This isn’t just about ‘benefits’. This is about the base levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Food. Water. Air. In addition to these there are a multitude of other factors that we glean along nature’s continuum (from nature next door to the tangled wilds) that we are measurably less well without. So, this is not about a right to some fluffy nature benefits. This is about establishing basic human rights based on fundamental human needs.

Let’s stop externalizing nature from human rights

Similar to how nature has been externalized from being incorporated into our economic equations because it was not too very long ago considered infinite and ubiquitous, it has also been externalized from the human rights conversation.

It’s about time we take up that conversation. And soon. We all read the news on how natural landscapes, resources and systems are disappearing. Yet, the majority of us are like the frog sitting in the pot of slowly warming water about this issue. Would people sit back and take it if their rights were abused in the workplace? Would people sit back and take it if they went out and were discriminated against on racial grounds? So why do we sit back and take it as our natural legacy, our ancient birthright, is destroyed all around us?

This is not a new idea. There are people working in this space. There are even precedents, like ‘every man’s right’ to roam and wild harvest in Norway, Allemansrätten in Sweden, the IUCN’s Children’s Right to Nature initiative, and grounds closer to home, like the common law right to access and transit navigable waters, and other shared rights. If we remember the First Nations adage that we do not own the land but belong to it instead, we can maybe make some gains here in how to collectively be better stewards, and live more harmoniously with it by adding another tool to the conservation beltthe human right to nature.

There is much that could be gained from establishing the human right to nature in law. Just like we have laws to protect riparian areas within cities I mentioned at the start of this post, if we established the fundamental human right to nature, then we could establish secondary laws based on those, such as laws to protect natural areas where our kids can go outside and play in healthy landscapes and connect to something besides the internet and social media. One of my favourite examples of this is the Children’s Forest that was recently established here in BC on Cortes Island. Imagine if all greenbelts were extended in this way as a trust legacy for our children to be able to play as their great grandparents once did? (I for one would support fences around those areas and cameras so that they can also place in relative safety from predators, human and otherwise.)

Just like we have laws to protect our water quality, we can add to those laws so that all humans have the right to access nature and certain needs provided by nature, regardless of race or economic background (which is not currently the case in many areas where poor people are the ones who get polluted). Just like we have laws for water, we can establish laws for the air we breath, and we can find legal instruments to ensure that in their education, our children, our future citizens, understand the value of nature to them. Understand how something intangible can be not only tangible, but a part of you. Walt Whitman said it perhaps the best, and his words often haunt me:

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover,
And the song of the phoebe-bird…

By working together, those of us who value our right to this natural legacy can go farther to protect it so that we have the legal muscle to help nature provide our food and water and other resources, keep functioning to provide our critical life support services, as providing other ‘intangibles’ like the joy of just hanging out with an eagle for a while.

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_©MariaLavis

Beyond Biophilia: On the Human Need for and Right to Nature, Wild and Free

I recently wrote the essay linked to below as part of a course I recently took that is part of Harvard’s Sustainability and Environmental Management Program.

The premise of the paper is based on the notion that we have not only externalized nature from consideration in our economic systems, but from consideration regarding human rights. My thesis states that, based on the evidence, humans need nature along its whole continuum, from nature next door to nature wild and free, and that, based on this basic need, there are grounds to add the human right to nature to the lexicon.

The thesis builds on the work of E.O. Wilson’s  biophilia hypothesis and the concept of nature deficit disorder put forward by Richard Louv originally in his book Last Child in the Woods. It also takes a complex systems science approach to the issue, arguing that humans not only need nature at the individual level, but also at the collective global level where nature provides essential regulating and provisioning services for things like climate change and biodiversity.

I will be building out some of the ideas in the essay in this blog soon, as I was limited by the length in what I wanted to say about some of the concepts, such as about how cybernetics can play a role in our understanding of nature, our place in it, and how to find solutions to integrating human systems more harmoniously with those found in nature.

Here is a link to the paper. It’s still a bit rough around the edges and my plan is to develop it further, so any feedback on it would be much appreciated!

Maria Lavis Right to NatureCopyright held by Maria Lavis, December 2014.