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Essay: There is no Planet B

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  • Subject area(s): Environmental studies essays
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  • Published: 22 April 2022*
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This will change how you connect with nature

1. There is no Planet B

What I (and maybe you) take for granted, a world filled with animals of all kinds – ecosystems teeming with life – is in fact the product of billions of years of evolution. We don’t tend to do well with such long views of time, it’s just too hard to imagine but it’s worth trying to give us a deeper appreciation for how precious all life is.

Let’s shrink this down to a time span we can imagine: 24 hours. If we convert the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history to a 24 hour day, and the formation of the earth happened just past midnight: dinosaurs don’t appear until 10:56pm, mammals show up at 11:39 and homo sapiens arrive at 11:58:43. And in the 200,000 years that modern humans evolved – it took 194,000 years to develop civilization. Industrialization happened just 200 years ago. As the Carpenters song says “We’ve only just begun”.

Yet there’s already talk of the end of the planet. After all the cataclysms of the previous five mass extinctions and the constantly shifting nature of a living planet – what does the future hold for Earth? Some scientists believe that since the sun burns hydrogen atoms into helium, increasing saturation of helium speeds up this reaction. This causes a 10% increase in brightness every billion years, which means the sun will shine 40% brighter 3.5 billion years from today. That means the sun will boil Earth’s oceans, melt its ice caps, and strip all of the moisture from its atmosphere until no life exists anymore on the planet.

Ok, so maybe we can move. As it happens, there’s one right next door (in space terms): Mars. Actually it takes around seven months to travel from Earth to the most inhabitable planet in our solar system. Challenges exist however, including the difficulty of melting water ice for water, producing food and terraforming the climate of Mars to be suitable for humans:

So for now, we have no Planet B.

How are we doing as custodians of Planet A? Well, humanity has had a disproportionate impact on all other living species who call Earth home. Humans could be considered an unprecedented “global superpredator” that consistently preys on the adults of other apex predators which has global effects on food webs. Humans have caused extinctions of species on every land mass in every ocean. Human predatory behavior continues with meat consumption, overfishing, ocean acidification and habitat destruction leading to an almost universal decline in biodiversity. Continued human population growth leads to increased pressure on ecosystems and other species.

According to the UN Environment Programme, the Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction of life. Scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1,000 times the “natural” or “background” rate and, say many biologists, is greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs nearly 65m years ago.

Although many disappeared in one of the Five Mass Extinctions, today we share our planet with species that have been on Earth for hundreds of millions of years, including :

  • Horsetails: 300 million years old from the late Devonian
  • Elephant Shark: 400 million years old from Devonian
  • Horseshoe crab: 445 million years old from late Ordovician
  • Nautilus: 500 million years old from late Cambrian
  • Sponges: 600 million years old from Precambian

But we’re not doing a great job of ensuring the survival of these long-lived species. Take the horseshoe crab for example. Habitat loss and over-harvesting caused horseshoe crab numbers to decline, such that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers them vulnerable (one notch below endangered). While the horseshoe crab has survived all five of Earth’s great mass extinctions, the worst of which killed off an estimated 95% of all marine species, and the most recent of which did away with the dinosaurs, it may not survive human impact.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed to consider listing the chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilius) under the Endangered Species Act. While habitat destruction and climate change has been used as part of the argument construct to explain the declining nautilus populations, the shell harvest industry, most prominent in the Philippines and western Indonesia, has proven to be the most influential culprit in the dramatically declining nautilus populations.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ is widely recognized as the most comprehensive, objective global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species. The list now contains over 40,000 at risk species.

Ok so we’re not doing a great job of protecting the planet we call home. How come?

2. An Ethical Solution

It makes intuitive sense that mounting empirical evidence shows that connecting with nature delivers measurable benefits to people including physical health, cognitive performance and psychological well-being.

Yet despite humanity’s long history of intimacy with nature and our current desire to do so, today we tend to view nature in opposition to humans. This perspective comes at the detriment of nature. Just 4 percent of mammals today are wild, the rest are humans, pets and animals domesticate to eat. About half of the world’s land for construction or agriculture. More than three-quarters of our agricultural land is used for the rearing of livestock. Just 13% of the ocean remains wild, that is free from human-caused ecosystem stressors, including pollution, fishing, and commercial shipping.

Perhaps it’s time to shift from a human-centric view of the world to a biocentric point of view. Biocentrism encompasses all environmental ethics that “extend the status of moral object from human beings to all living things in nature”. … Biocentrists observe that all species have inherent value, and that humans are not “superior” to other species in a moral or ethical sense.

Many world views hold the connection of humans and nature as central to well-being and life. Indigenous people view both themselves and nature as part of an extended ecological family that shares ancestry and origins. It is an awareness that life in any environment is viable only when humans view the life surrounding them as kin.

Faith based perspectives agree on the centrality of nature to human well being. The Dalai Lama observes, “ if we have a genuine sense of universal responsibility, as the central motivation and principle, then from that direction our relations with the environment will be well balanced.” Pope Francis notes, “It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves.” The Quaran says, “There is not an animal that lives on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but forms part of communities like you.” Tu BiShvat is a Jewish holiday (January 30 -31 in 2018) also known as the “New Year of the Trees.” In contemporary Israel, the day is celebrated as an ecological awareness day, and trees are planted in celebration.

Faith-based organizations aren’t alone in linking their values and beliefs to a wider concern for the environment. According to a recent study by The Shelton Group, 90% of millennials will buy from a brand whose social and environmental practices they trust, and 95% of them will recommend that brand to a friend. Considering millennials spend a $600 billion per year — a figure that’s expected to grow to $1.4 trillion, which is 30% of the market — those numbers have a huge significance for brands.

Just a few examples of the many companies who have responded by addressing pollution and animal well-being:

  • At the very heart of Patagonia’s business is to manufacture, repair and recycle products in order that they last a lifetime – the company topped $700m in sales in 2017.
  • Adidas will use only recycled plastic in all of their products by 2024
  • Ikea will phase out single use plastic from all of its stores by 2020
  • McDonald’s USA will only buy pork from farmers and other sources that do not use gestation stalls for housing their pregnant sows by 2022.

The rise of platforms for home-made like Etsy also speak to the rise of individuals making different ethical choices. From its founding by three friends in Brooklyn in 2005, Etsy successfully went public and earned a $2bn valuation in 2015. Proprietors like MaineTideline craft a range of home products from recycled, ocean- worn lobster rope craft.

3. Science-based shift in perspective

Perhaps science can provide some answers. Science finds new ways to demonstrate how similar animals are to humans, demonstrating the already existing connection to nature.

Did you know:

  • Chimpanzees, for instance, can easily beat humans at recalling a set of numbers that was displayed for a fraction of a second.
  • Days old baby chicks can do arithmetic
  • Fishes use tools: tuskfishes and wrasses have been seen using rocks as anvils against which to smash mollusks they have uncovered by blowing water at the sand.
  • Octopuses also use tools, solve mazes and puzzles, can “taste” with their tentacles AND can edit and amend their own genes to an extent hundreds of times greater than other creatures, including insects and humans.
  • Whales can convey 20 times the amount of information as we can with our hearing, surpassing vision (our primary sense)

In fact, every species’ operating system is finely tuned to do what it needs to do, which makes intelligence comparisons across species rather pointless. “It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to 10 if counting is not really what a squirrel’s life is about,” de Waal writes.

Other scientific solutions connect to natural processes to restore environmental health and well being. 16-year-old Boyan Slat was scuba diving in Greece and was surprised to see more plastic than fish. He has since developed a floating boom to let ocean currents concentrate the plastic, which will launch from San Francisco September 2018. According to his latest estimates, his booms will collect about half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years.

Another marine ecosystem solution focuses on turning invasive species into high end food: urchins who overfeed on kelp. Coastal kelp forests are some of the most fertile feeding and breeding grounds for fish and invertebrates globally, but they are disappearing four times faster than rainforests*. Reducing urchin populations can help restore kelp growth—up to 18” per day!

Others like Re-Nuble seek to create closed loop agriculture systems throughout America and the world by creating an organic-based liquid soil and hydroponic nutrient created from organic-certified produce food waste thus simultaneously using food waste, avoiding chemicals, reducing landfill and growing healthier, more bountiful harvests.

From urban farming to eating local, people with a shared commitment to be part of the solution are coming up with new ways to both connect with nature and with each other.

4. Law-based Solution

Sometimes laws are required to enforce behaviors that reflect a health connection between humanity and nature. Increasingly aware of the scope of plastic pollution, governments in more than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to combat single-use plastic waste, according to U.N. Environment, an agency of the United Nations.

Cormac Cullinan, environmental attorney and author of Wild Law, refers to laws as the “DNA of society.” He goes on to say, “Much like our genes form the genetic blueprint of our bodies, our laws form the structural blueprint of society. Laws allow humanity to undergo massive structural shifts without violence and revolt. Yet, rarely does this type of social change happen spontaneously. Oppressed individuals must speak out for their situation to gain attention. Thus it’s no coincidence that some of the most marginalized groups tend to be the quietest. It is imperative that our legal framework allow the voiceless to gain allies against abuse.”

Much of human history has seen laws connecting us by granting equality:

  • Declining profits, slave resistance and anti-slavery campaigns by Quakers, Methodists and Presbyterians helped pass the 13th constitutional amendment in the US making slavery illegal
  • France first recognized children’s rights in the workplace in 1841 with the League of Nations adopting the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1924, the first international treaty recognizing children’s rights.
  • The suffrage movement, war work and trends towards democratic reform saw women gain the right to vote (first in New Zealand in 1893) and in 1920 with the 19th amendment.

Christopher D. Stone’s Should Trees Have Standing? first suggested that nature may need legal rights. Stone notes that extending rights to new groups has always been “unthinkable.”

Rights for nature is an idea whose time has come. For a half century in the United States, forward-thinking environmental laws and regulations have come into existence, but during the same time, the health of our environment has for the most part steadily deteriorated. The dominant approach to nature in U.S. law has been to treat it as property, which frames legal questions in terms of who has or does not have rights to possess or use it.

At ELC, we believe that a more effective way to regulate pollution, overfishing and other consequences of human use of the environment is to recognize that natural ecosystems themselves have inherent rights, rights to be free from toxins and excessive use so that they may exist, thrive and evolve.

Giving legal rights to species and ecosystems shifts the burden of proof to those who seek to harm them, and creates new legal avenues for advocates to challenge environmental exploitation in court. Further, at a time when federal environmental protections are being steadily undermined, inalienable protections for ecosystems that are enshrined in law would be more resistant to changing political tides.

Ultimately, changing the legal system in this way aims at shifting from a paradigm of dominion and ownership of nature to one of equality and connectedness. Laws create social structures that impact both behaviors and attitudes, and our goal is to effectuate a bold reconception of nature and our place in it by creating new rights, impacting regulations over commercial and other activity, and changing people’s understanding of their relationship with and obligations to the wider natural world.

No longer just a great idea, two countries (Ecuador and Bolivia), four rivers (the Whanganui in New Zealand, the Atrato and Amazon in Colombia, the Villcabamba in Ecuador) have secured recognition of their legal rights in the courts – as did the Te Urewera National Park in New Zealand and 30-40 towns in the US. Crestone, Colorado recently passed a resolution recognizing rights of nature.

5. Be part of the solution:

The University of Pennsylvania just published a study which finds that roughly 25% of people need to take a stand before large-scale social change occurs. This idea of a social tipping point applies to standards in the workplace, and any type of movement or initiative.

As the previous rights-based movements demonstrate, connecting with each other forms one of the most powerful drivers of social and ethics evolution we know of. We can spread the connection by extending rights to more groups, and in more geographic areas.

The Earth Law Center (ELC) works to establish rights of nature in local, state, national and international law. Such laws give species and ecosystems legal rights on the same footing as people and corporations, and even a legal playing field that has framed nature in terms of property, encouraging exploitation over coexistence.

In the United States, our strategy is to begin work locally in communities across the U.S., mobilizing local activists and leveraging our expertise to support city councils and others to adopt rights of nature ordinances. As local efforts bear fruit, we will look to expand our scope in two ways, by linking local advocates to form a strong national movement, and ultimately by building on local rights of nature policies to enshrine these rights in state and federal law.

In the coming year, some of our key U.S. initiatives are:

  • Creating rights-based protections for Southern Resident killer whales and their habitat in the Salish Sea;
  • Launching an initiative to recognize the right of the Charles River in Massachusetts to thrive, free of the sewage and industrial waste that have long plagued this vital ecosystem;
  • Develop and disseminate tools to enable activists around the country to mobilize for rights of nature ordinances in their communities;
  • Create an Earth Law Casebook to enable law professors around the country to better teach this novel approach to environmental law.

ELC is a small organization, with program staff supported by a network of over 100 volunteers who together are evolving an ethical framework that recognizes nature’s right to exist, thrive and evolve – enabling nature to defend these rights in court, just like corporations can.

Through the activities described above, ELC is laying the groundwork for a significant shift in how the law addresses questions of natural resources and environmental integrity. Changes that recognize the inherent rights of species and ecosystems will create more effective and durable mechanisms for protecting the natural world. Beginning with one town and extending locally creates both community commitment to the environment and governmental protections that span jurisdictions and support a cleaner and healthier environment. Victories at the local level also build interest and a sense of momentum about our work – as time goes by and more local governments grant rights to local ecosystems, the idea gains in political credibility and a groundswell of support that can translate into motion at the state and ultimately federal levels. And work in the U.S. as well as other countries does not happen in isolation: victories anywhere help build international norms, and the political will for collective solutions to global problems.

Our strategies are long-term, but we believe that incremental steps such as those we will take in the coming year have positive impact in their own right. Earth law, like other rights-based movements, required everyday people getting their minds and hearts around the new idea for the sustainable solutions to take hold. The time is now. Won’t you join us?

www.earthlawcenter.org for more information


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