Category Archives: Nature

The Bee-cautionary Principle

I go on at times about the significance of the precautionary principle, the idea that “if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an act.”

Illustration: Peter Harris via Building Green

Illustration: Peter Harris via Building Green

Here in the U.S., regulations tend to work strongly in the opposite direction in a sort of innocent-until-proven-guilty approach to things like synthetic chemicals. This means we can be subjected to substances that are suspected of being dangerous to our health or to the environment up until the point (and perhaps after) they are proved dangerous.

Europe, on the other hand, has adopted the precautionary principle as policy: “the precautionary principle may be invoked when a phenomenon, product or process may have a dangerous effect, identified by a scientific and objective evaluation, if this evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty.”

What a disappointment, then, that in the face of the potentially disastrous bee colony collapse disorder, and mounting evidence that neonicotinoid pesticides are a major part of the cause, Britain along with Germany and Spain are pushing to defeat a ban.

Image source: Inhabitat

Image source: Inhabitat

Bees have a crucial role, far beyond their occasional annoying habit of stinging us when provoked. They are the great pollinators, without which many types of agriculture would be close to impossible. A true die-off of pollinating bees could trigger a food disaster. (This is just one example of the free services provided to us by nature; services that we tend to destroy without understanding the costs or ramifications.)

This ties together two fundamental concepts of environmentalism: the precautionary principle and the valuation of nature’s services. Neither one receives nearly the amount of attention deserved. Ignorance of either one of these, let alone both, paves the way for catastrophically bad decisions.

Of Slugs and Solutions

Bear with me through a somewhat circuitous train of thought here. It starts unfortunately, since we’re all pretty much politicked out, with the second presidential debate. I promise, though, the topic isn’t politics.

Politicians love to shift topics when faced with a question they don’t particularly want to answer. Generally, this frustrates the hell out of most of us. The town hall debate, where a question about regulation of assault weapons turned away from gun control to an apple pie discussion of parents teaching moral values, was no exception. This was, of course, a safe cop out of an answer. Who could be against the idea of parents instilling responsible behavior so the urge to violence might be stemmed in the first place? Whether you are for or against gun control (and I, for one, am pretty sure the founding fathers didn’t envision the invention of AK-47s), it’s certainly a valid point that guns wouldn’t be the problem they are if they weren’t used for the wrong purposes.  If, in formative years, children were helped to understand the implications of gun violence and to value lives more highly, then it stands to reason that shootings would diminish.

Yes, it’s a naïve, simplistic answer, and there are all kinds of reasons that it wouldn’t work, starting with the fact that too many parents were themselves raised in circumstances where guns trumped moral persuasion. But let me try to get to my real topic before I trap myself in a politically incorrect corner.

image credits: www.avenuek9.com and http://image.off-roadweb.com

In ecological terms, we might (reluctantly) put a positive spin on Romney’s and Obama’s answer avoidance by saying they were attempting to look at the problem systemically, getting at the root causes. NRA members have long said “guns don’t kill people; people do,” and there’s an element of truth to that, self-serving manipulation aside.

A core strain of environmentalism advocates thinking in and understanding systems, and there is indeed an environmental parallel here with the candidates’ attempt, politically motivated as it may have been, to get past what some would call the blunt instrument of government regulation in order to pre-empt the problem. The parallel occurred to me the day after the debate while taking one of my classes to an exhibit on “biomimicry” — the attempt to solve human problems by looking at nature’s methods. (More on that in a moment.) Toward the end of the visit, the BiomimicryNYC organizer asked us what we thought were the best ways to teach biomimicry principles and whether it should be in college or high school. Most of my students thought it needed (and deserved) to be a college-level course. I agree entirely, but piped in that perhaps there is a good reason to begin the discussion even earlier, in grade school.

That discussion, I suggested, might not be so much about specific examples of biomimicry and their applications, and instead might be about the wisdom embedded in nature and how we can learn from ALL aspects of nature. The point, implicitly or explicitly, would be that we can’t learn from something that doesn’t exist. (Not readily, anyway.) If bats hadn’t been around, would the concept of sonar have occurred to humans? If birds didn’t exist, would we have ever yearned to fly?

image credit: http: www.robaid.com

 

 

Both of these can be thought of as examples of biomimicry; figuring out how to do something by studying the experts — tapping nature’s 3.8 billion years of experience. It’s a fascinating developing field that holds the hope of leading us to solutions to our environmental – and other – problems. But what particularly intrigued me in the discussion during our field trip was the potential to instill in a new generation a different relationship between ourselves and nature. Many of the specific and advanced concepts to be found and explored through biomimicry are more suited for high school and college courses, but grade schoolers are not too young to get the idea that nature is really very smart, that that mildly annoying housefly or icky worm, for instance, oughtn’t be so quickly swatted to death. We get indoctrinated early on to think that humans are in a separate category and on a higher plane than the rest of the things that co-occupy the planet with us. You can blame that attitude on religious beliefs or on the teachings of various philosophers, or on an assortment of other cultural theories. But when you start understanding that, in many ways, nature has better answers than we do, the stage is set for a change in the assumed hierarchy. A new respect for other living things – and, in fact, for non-living things as well – can result.

When biomimicry comes up in my classes, we often discuss that there are many as-yet undiscovered species of life and that some of those species may provide clues or even direct answers to problems such as cancer. The logical outgrowth of that realization is that human-caused extinctions, such as the ones arising from the decimation of the rain forests, may well mean we never get the chance to make those discoveries. (There are, of course, many other reasons to preserve the rain forests as well.) In this era of the fifth mass extinction the Earth has faced – and the only one to be human caused – it isn’t only the threatened species and ecosystems that lose out.

Decline of species, from the Living Planet Index 2012, WWF

 

 

Equipped with the understanding that killing an animal or clearing a forest means harm both to others who may possess “useful knowledge” and to ourselves, perhaps children will treat creatures and surroundings differently. And more significantly, they may grow up to adopt those beliefs and put them into practice in their personal, civic and business endeavors. Imagine a developer or an oil company executive approaching an untouched ecosystem understanding that human needs don’t automatically outweigh nature’s.

That borders on what might be called a misanthropic attitude: believing that nature’s interests are more important than humans. While that might be misplaced, it is hardly likely. We are currently so far in the opposite direction, the anthropogenic approach that states nature exists primarily for our use and benefit, that a shift to biocentrism (giving equal emphasis to all species of life) or ecocentrism (emphasizing the systems by which life exists) is wholly necessary.

Remaining wilderness, per Living Planet Report 2004, WWF

Planets Are People, My Friends

Let’s try this out and see where it takes us. In the blogworld a few days ago, I came across a post about a river in New Zealand being given official legal personhood. Elsewhere in the world, animals and nature are being awarded human-like rights. And just last week, a group of prominent scientists including Stephen Hawking declared that there is no unique difference between humans and other animals.

Call that point #1. Point 2: In the US, as we all know, corporations are people. (Some would say corporations are animals, so I guess that makes sense, though a few would say that’s an insult to animals.)

All this makes it but a minor leap to conclude that, if animals, rivers, forests and corporations have legal rights, why not the planet? You know, Gaia, Mother Earth and all that. This, of course, could profoundly change how we see ourselves — legally and morally — in relation to the other occupants, both living and inert, of this planet.

But I’ve got another reason for contemplating this vast, to put it mildly, extension of the definition of personhood. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the fundamental economics explanation for pollution: externalities. A decent definition of an externality is “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.” A classic example would be the evil factory dumping its effluent into a river.  The cost of that pollution is borne by the people and governments downstream. Similarly, when a fossil fuel burning power plant dumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, its owners don’t pay for the resulting climate disruption. Want a more tangible example? Look at the towns whose water sources are being polluted by nearby fracking.

But what if nature – the planet – had rights and, furthermore, had standing in court? What if nature could sue for damages? Would that, in effect, lay the economic and legal groundwork for internalizing those externalities? Among other outcomes, we could have the equivalent of carbon pricing – without involving the government so it wouldn’t be vulnerable to attack as a tax.

We can take this idea – odd as it may sound – further and say that the Earth owns all the natural resources “onboard.” You want some steel? First you have to buy the ore from Earth Inc. (Notice that twist? If the planet becomes a corporation, it has rights through that legal standing as well.) Same for baby seals (unless the seals themselves are granted rights), or for oil or the Amazon rainforest.

 

 

 

 

Logo by Lori Greenberg/Bergworks

There is at least one major problem, aside that is from figuring out who the signatories on Earth Inc.’s checking account are. Mother Nature would be the biggest monopoly imaginable. OPEC’s oligopoly would seem like an unfettered free market in comparison. And imagine an antitrust suit against the Earth.

Could this be a conservative’s dream? A solution based upon free market principles and an expansion of both individual (if you can get your head around seeing the planet as an individual) rights and property rights.

Yeah, there are a lot of details to be worked out in this hypothetical monetizing of the Earth. Some ethical ones, too. Would it amount to commoditizing nature? That’s bad, right? Right? Is it worse than assigning no value to nature, which is essentially what the market does now?

Corporations, of course, have shareholders. I propose that every person on the planet be granted a share in Earth Inc. (Yes, I know. What about animals and rivers and forests? If they have personhood rights, shouldn’t they have shares in Earth inc. as well? Yes, they should, but the problem is figuring out who represents them, as well as who their signatories are.  I didn’t say this would be simple.)

So if the planet’s resources are polluted or drawn down, compensation is paid to the shareholders. Now that sounds really odd. The effect would be higher prices for many industrial processes and products as those companies had to pay fees to Earth Inc., but those fees would be redistributed back to us, the shareholders. Many things would be more expensive, but we’d get money back in the form of dividends. In theory, we’d be no worse off financially, but we’d be paying the true cost of things and making our consumption choices more accurately.

In a modern context, all of this evolves from philosophies of animal rights. Kant said treating animals well is “good practice” for treating humans well. (Not trying to show off here and I’m certainly no Kant expert. It’s part of the material I cover in one of my Parsons courses.) “We can judge the heart of man by his treatment of animals.” In his world, though, animals were considered non-sentient (which, in case you’ve been mislead by Star Trek episodes, means non-feeling, not non-thinking) and soul-less, barely more than the mechanical vessels described by Descartes.

Just as there are varying beliefs as to what constitutes a soul, there are ethics and religions that believe the Earth has a soul. But that isn’t the issue here, at least as long as we’re defining corporations as people; I don’t think anyone could argue that a corporation has a soul.

Could this possibly work? I’m treading here into the realms of economics, law, ethics, religion and who knows what else. But maybe this type of fundamental re-envisioning is just what we need.