The Bridge

Rob took the ticket with his queue number. The room was full. All the more time before his fate would be decided. With his swarthy complexion and dark eyes, he blended in with local people; a shaved head dealt with balding. “Tea, coffee, Coke, sandwiches?” The snack vendor must have been puzzled by these Westerners anxiously queuing to renew their Southland visas when Southlanders were risking their lives on overloaded traffickers’ boats to emigrate. For Rob it had been the possibility of living life in a slower lane—that was becoming a thing of the past. His decision to reside in the country also had had to do with its energy, which was good for the soul.

“Why do you always wear black? You’d better try something more upbeat,” a colleague had advised. “Remember, it’s been getting more and more difficult to renew residency after the troubles,” someone added.

Now as he faced a few hours waiting, Rob had plenty of time to go over what he had said and done since his last visa renewal. “We ourselves don’t know who ‘they’ are or what they’re after,” a Southlander colleague had said.

*

Rob ordered a coffee. A recent episode came back to him. Colleagues from school had organized a farewell gathering for Verna, whose contract had not been renewed. They met at Beverly Mall on the outskirts of Neapolis. The taxi got lost in a labyrinth of roads and clouds of dust in this area under construction. Rob who had gone there with Virginie, the French teacher, entered the huge ground plaza. “Sorry we’re late.”

“Good to see you.” Verna, elegant as usual with just that extra spicy note, greeted them warmly and seated them between Franck who taught geography, and Dax, the maths teacher.

“There’s IKEA and Bloomingdale’s. I love to go shopping in a cool and clean place,” she said.

“We were talking about the bridge,” said Jack who worked for admin.

Rob’s heart sank.

“I hope they’ll go ahead this time,” Jack added.

“They’ve been talking about it for decades,” said Verna.

“West Island’s national parks and wildlife are already under stress.”

“Rob, You sound like a mouthpiece of Antopian propaganda,” said Jack sharply. Half a century earlier, the Southland province of West Island had been under Antopian occupation for several years.

Rob felt exhilarating bubbles of anger rise—and dissolve. Visa renewal was soon due.

“But I’m a biologist,” he had mumbled.

“For Southlanders who work in RSE, it will be that much easier than to take a ferry or go by plane and there will be more tourists from RSE,” said Verna.

“My uncle has a diving centre in Shark Bay. People are very worried. I go down there to help in the holidays. They have invested all their money into it,” said Dax.

“Be scientific. How many jobs will be created, how many lost? It’s a mega project. Thousands of miles of roads and mining all over West Island,” said Jack with enthusiasm.

“If they go ahead with the bridge, Shark Bay will be just another shopping place like Dubai,” said Dax sadly.

“Or like here”, said Virginie flinging her arms out.

“The really big ones are in China,” Franck commented.

“It’s good old liberté, égalité, fraternité recycled as consumer goodies for all,” Virginie quipped.

“Southland deserves a better future. It’s not just the West or BRICS,” said Jack.

“When did your uncle open his centre?” asked Rob, deflecting the conversation.

“In 1990.”

“I went there in 1996.”

 

Back then Rob was married. Rina was from Southland. They had camped just the two of them in a cove. As they snorkelled, their vision filled with the sea world: coral shrimp, Christmas tree worm, cleaner wrasse, decorator crab, diadem sea urchin, elephant stone coral, feather star crab, grey reef shark, harlequin fish, hawksbill turtle, moon jellyfish, red coral, Spanish dancer nudibranch, spinner dolphin, spotted ray.

A pink and orange fish had invited Rina to play, or so she had said, and she had named him Shikshik. Rob had found her ridiculous. Now she was a finance director in London.

 

Virginie suddenly remembered to ask, “Dax, could you replace me for the Green Club on Monday?” Before Dax could answer, Rob blurted, “You should think twice about the club. The one or two poor kids who go green for good…”

“Actually, parents love the club.”

“OK for Monday. But I don’t have the time to prepare something.”

“Show them Johnny Express. It’s a Korean animation.” “What’s it about?” “Johnny works for a galactic delivery company. He must bring a microscopic parcel to a miniature planet.” “What’s the connection?” “When Johnny gets there he unknowingly tramples all over the city and people, too small for him to see, and causes devastation.” “I still don’t get it.” “I want to use this as an allegory. The minuscule planet represents the undersea world going about its life at its own rhythm, blissfully ignorant of the Armageddon we humans are concocting for it in the world above.”

“Too far-fetched for me. I prefer a wildlife documentary.” “That’s OK too.”

Ruminating further about the bridge, Dax observed: “In 25 years time consumerism will be out like our diving centres are today and you’ll be left with abandoned shopping centres, a decaying bridge and an underwater wasteland.”

“Don’t worry. Life goes in cycles. Mother Nature will take care of it all. It happened in Bangkok. Fish reclaimed a derelict mall,” Franck facetiously consoled him.

“So, you’re saying just go with the flow?” said Rob.

“ My fallback plan is the monastery.”

“No! You, Virginie, are thinking of taking the veil?”

“Not exactly. It’s a self-sufficient community in France. I bought a share. Its motto is inspired by words of Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation: ‘We’ve been given minds to take care of the wild animals and plants and the rivers.’ I hope I can pay back my loan before the whole system collapses.”

“That won’t happen anytime soon,” said Rob.

Franck got up. “Sorry. I have to leave. See you on Monday. Verna, good luck and let’s keep in touch.”

*

Rob handed the empty cup to the waiter. He was getting older. It would be difficult to find a job back in Europe. Maybe there would be a cell for him in Virginie’s monastery. A recorded female voice announced his number as it flashed on the digital screens.

 

She is Aluna

“In the beginning there was darkness, there was nothing at all, only the mother; she was Aluna”. The documentary film Aluna starts with this quote from Kogi cosmology. Aluna is the cosmic consciousness that pervades everything, rocks, plants, animals, people. Through her, the Kogi believe they can commune with the world.

The ancestors of the Kogi, the Tayrona, built urban centres in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta coastal mountain region in present-day Colombia. Archaeology has revealed roads, stairways, terraces, and networks of storm drains. Their world was turned upside down by the Spanish invasion in the early 16th century. A century later the Tayrona were forced to abandon their towns, losing most of their ancestral lands. They retreated higher up in the Sierra, keeping their knowledge, traditions and language.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta rising sharply from the sea to 6000m above the Caribbean coast has a full range of biomes, from mangroves and rainforests to snow-capped mountains. It was declared a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve in 1979. More recently the region has acquired the dubious distinction of being top of the list of sites with the most endangered species on Earth. Conversely, this proves that it is not humans in themselves who are wildlife annihilating but their attitude to nature since traces of human presence dating back thousands of years have been found in the region.

By the late 1980s, the Kogi who practice a self-sufficient way of life were alarmed by the changes they saw in local ecosystems, which they attributed to changes in the world beyond. British documentary film maker Alan Ereira happened to be in the region preparing a documentary on Tayrona sites for the BBC. The Kogi seized this opportunity to ask for help to diffuse their ecological warning to the world. The result was the film From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brother’s Warning.

The “elder brother” is the Kogi, the younger brother is everyone who has accepted by choice or by default the narrative that economic growth is society’s ultimate purpose and that the planet is essentially an inert base, a source of commodities and a waste dump for human activities.

In contrast, the Kogi believe that it is their duty to take care of the biosphere and to maintain its balance, which compares with monotheistic religions’ concept of human stewardship of Earth. This can be understood as acknowledging the dangerous potential of human thought, while subtly enticing it to behave well toward the rest of creation, instead of running it backwards as we moderns are.

As a day-to-day precaution, Kogi men carry around with them a stick they rub against a cylindrical object. Besides the fertility symbolism, it is meant to keep in check the destructive aspect of human nature, in particular in the male, suggesting too that the Kogi do not believe in the myth of the “noble savage” that attributes innate goodness to the human living in nature.

In the 20 years since the film From the Heart of the World, things continued to deteriorate, so the Kogi appealed again: “We have not spoken clearly. We need Alan to make a new film”. This film, Aluna, came out in 2013.

Alan Ereira says the core message of the Kogi in Aluna is that there is a network of connections in the natural world and interfering with one part impacts on the others. This perception corresponds to the science of ecology which is by definition “the study of the environment and the way that plants, animals, and humans live together and affect each other”. Industrial civilization is interested in interconnections too, but narrowed to economic exchanges. The contrast between these two types of connectedness is vividly illustrated in scenes from Aluna. We see a Caribbean port facility loading coal on a tanker for distant markets and further along the coast a dead mangrove.

Through the film Aluna, the Kogi share their experience in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta about how to take care of the planet. To be taken seriously they ask academic scientists to interpret their form of knowledge to the outside world.

For instance, the Kogi say that the draining of lagoonsthis has been done to build industrial infrastructuresis diminishing the replenishment of rivers high up at their sources. A specialist in ecosystem restoration agrees with the Kogi and says that in Spain coastal rivers that had been canalized were being restored to improve water flow at the top of mountains.

A doctor who worked for 35 years with the Kogi in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta describes the astonishing restoration of the Guachaca River Basin by the Kogi. It had been deforested, turned into mono-cropped plantations and cattle ranches; the river had dried up. Twenty years ago it was returned to the Kogi. Today the forests are back with many wild animals and the rivers are full again. The doctor says that only the Kogi with their special knowledge could do this.

The Kogi are also versed in astronomy. Their notions about the Universe are similar to those of mainstream science: it is very large and, like the current dark energy dark matter theory, a lot of it is dark and cannot be seen.

Whereas in our world cost-benefit analysis is central to every decision, Aluna does not broach the financial aspect of taking care of the biosphere. Without a broader conception of reality such as the Kogi have, nature stewardship comes to be viewed as a side-issue for a handful of nature lovers and experts most of them in rich countries and a loss of income for poorer countries, requiring assistance and a payoff. One approach which combines the two is to request from the wild that it should pay for its right to continued existence via nature tourism or ecosystem services.

Nature conservation has been practiced by the Kogi, other indigenous peoples and our own distant ancestors without spending a penny because their relationship to nature was viewed in its reciprocity, the land and the wildlife sustaining the people and the people sustaining the land and the wildlife. Given the present circumstances, the Kogi endorse the idea of giving an international legal basis for our care for Earth by criminalizing ecocide, the killing of an ecosystem.

Through Aluna, the Kogi do not seek to impose their way of life or beliefs to the rest of the world, but they advise us to listen carefully and to think. Will the Kogi elder brother manage to convince younger brother to amend his ways?

The German sociologist Wolfgang Sachs has said that politics should no more be divided between “right” and “left” but between those who accept limits and those who do not. Will the pro-limits younger brother succeed in convincing the no limits younger brother to plan for de-growth so as to leave options open for the future?

The film Aluna reminds us that the good life is possible without the trappings of consumerism and with score zero on the UNDP Human Development Index, which measures “knowledge” as years of schooling and a “decent standard of living” as income.

It is good to be reminded of this since the future lies in some form of self-sufficient lifestyle, in other words relocalization, where we obtain the greater part of our food, water, medicines and other needs close to where we live and deal with waste locally. This system has a guaranteed sustainability since people have survived in this way since humanity began one million years ago, whereas industrial civilization as a global project has existed for just 70 years and is already putting severe strain on our biosphere in its Holocene phase.

What grand finale will younger brother choose for industrial civilization? Will he actively move to an eco-centric de-growth civilization such as has been worked out by a school of economists and sociologists? The obstacles to this are people’s expectation of ever-increasing affluence, the economic interests of the powers that be, disentangling the globalized economy and the geopolitical risks those countries that would adopt de-growth first would face.

Or will younger brother passively stick to his business as usual routine, leaving it to Earth to reorganize human life and planetary systems in a more swashbuckling à la collapse-science-fiction way as she evolves to a new biogeochemical equilibrium to us unknown?

Ereira says that the Kogi see a possibility of hope if we listen.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alexander, Samuel , 2016, https://theconversation.com/limits-to-growth-policies-to-steer-the-economy-away-from-disaster-57721 [The obstacles to this…would face.]

Aluna: the movie website, http://www.alunathemovie.com

Aluna: There is No Life without Thought, Dir. Alan Ereira, BBC, documentary film, 2012

Gentil Cruz: Passeur de mémoires, Dir. Philippe Bruolois, Association Tchendukua, documentary film, 2012.

Kallis, Giorgos, Ecological Economics, 70, p. 873–880, “In Defence of Degrowth”, 2011.

La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City): From the Heart of the World: the Elder Brother’s Warning, Dir. Alan Ereira, BBC, documentary film, 1990. [“unbalanced masculinity without the civilizing power [of the poporo] would be dangerous”].

McKibben, Bill.[“We moderns are running Creation backwards.”].

Reddy, Jini, What Colombia’s Kogi people can teach us about the environment, www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business, 29 October 2013.

Sachs, Wolfgang, http://www.footprintnetwork.org/pt/index.php/GFN/page/testimonials/

 

The Spell of Development

In the 1998 science fiction film, Deep Impact, a meteorite is about to strike Earth and cause a mass extinction. Disaster is averted thanks to heroic astronauts who sacrifice their lives to save Earth by blowing up the asteroid.

According to scientific estimates, extinction of wildlife and transformation of the biosphere by industrial civilization in the past few centuries, accelerating in the past few decades, has cumulated in destruction greater than was wreaked by the meteorite that terminated the Cretaceous Epoch and the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago — our ancestors living back then would have been smallish four-legged creatures we would wantonly be exterminating today were they around.

Obviously, for those of us who take nature to heart, although our numbers are much greater than the Deep Impact saviour crew, there is no such one-off solution to stop industrial civilization on its destructive trajectory.  

Extinction looms over the albatross as a result of industrial fishing, threats at breeding sites and ocean plastic pollution. If this happens, a whole animal culture will be extinguished, with its particular dances, songs, courtship rituals, life-long bonds and transmission of skills to the young. One tagged albatross has flown the equivalent of six round trips to the moon in her 65-plus years of life. She understands winds and water in ways no human ever will.

The dolphin and the whale have their own mode of perceiving and communicating and possess languages with extensive vocabularies. “Within a humpback’s half-hour song there are a hundred million bytes. A million changes of frequency, and a million tonal twists…An Odyssey, as information-packed as Homer’s, can be told in thirty minutes.”  These oceanic cultures are threatened by human restlessness too.

Swiss nature artist and philosopher Robert Hainard (1906 – 1999) wrote that in this age we should take pride in our animal faculties to be distinguishable from robots and justify our existence.

Hainard also believed that a day would come when the degree of civilisation would be measured by the size and wildness of nature it would leave to flourish.

The opposite is true today where the level of civilisation attributed to a culture or nation hinges on the heaviness and extent of its ecological footprint.

Since Christopher Columbus first set foot on a Caribbean island in1492, exploration and colonization brought Western people into contact with indigenous peoples in different parts of the world. As their presence on the land was light, they were assimilated to fauna and flora and treated at the coloniser’s discretion too. 

There is a movement today to rehabilitate indigenous peoples by showing that they, like Westerners, managed their environment with a human-centred approach.

Speaking about Australia where James Cook first landed in 1770, historian Bill Gammage demonstrates continent-wide intensive management before white settlement in his book, The Biggest Estate On Earth. How Aborigines Made Australia.

In the same vein, Charles Mann in 1493.Uncovering the New World Columbus Created claims that Amerindians were as manipulative of nature as were the invading Europeans.

English settlers founded Jamestown in the 1600s in the Chesapeake Bay area in the England-sized indigenous empire of Tsenacomoco whose landscapes they failed to recognize were under cultivation.

What the English saw resembled natural ecosystems. Maize and beans grew together. Below them grew squash, gourds, pumpkins and melon. On fallow communal lands grew naturally occurring plants but they were medicinal or edible, Mann underlines, thus useful for humans.  

The Europeans also misinterpreted another seemingly undomesticated feature of the landscape. Amerindians let dam-building beavers transform narrow quick-flowing streams into pools that were easier to navigate and retained water throughout the year, creating ecosystems that provided complementary sources of food.

Because of their invisible human footprint, entitlement to their own land would be denied Amerindians, Australian Aborigines and other indigenous peoples through the doctrine of terra nullius, land belonging to no one.

Today the required norm for civilization – in its modern incarnation, development – is a much heavier footprint than what 17th or 18th century European colonizers had in mind.

Its signs are air-conditioned skiing resorts in hot deserts; airports; artificially snowed-up mountain resorts complete with artificial indoor beaches; dense road networks; gigantic container ships; high-rise buildings; industrial fishing fleets; industrial plants; large-scale, mono-cropped fields worked from air-conditioned combine harvester cabins, sprayed aerially with pesticides; luxury hotels;  mega cities;  mega dams;  mega malls; nuclear plants; and satellites.

It is inhabited by people who score high in terms of “human development”, that is, they have a broad range of choices, access to income and a job, standardized education, high-tech healthcare, and a clean and safe environment. They also participate fully in community decisions and enjoy human, economic and political freedoms.  

Development concerns the whole world and in particular industrialized countries where it first appeared and is at its greatest extent.  “Emerging” countries are closing the gap and some “mature” countries fear that they are sliding down on the scale of development, witness the popularity of the US presidential campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!”.

A critical view of the development dream might read something like Evgueny Zamyatin’s We (1920) that describes a future world where wildness is the enemy and all life has been “perfected” to produce an entirely artificial civilisation. An individual who has undergone a routine brain operation is told, “You are perfect; you are on a par with machines.”  Futurologist Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, goes further. He actually looks forward to a takeover by artificial intelligence.

In Zamyatin’s fictional country, there is the Green Wall beyond which lies the wild world of nature. But industrialisation, which goes with development, extends in its production, consumption and disposal stages to the totality of the planet, including its oceans and atmosphere. 

Zamyatin’s country but even more so development is about a human-controlled world. So how far are those who mastermind development in control of the planet and the welfare of its people?

Insurance experts who prepared the 2016 assessment of risks for the World Economic Forum before its annual meeting in Davos warned that “climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, weaker societal cohesion and increased security risks.” It added that the number of forcibly displaced people is now almost 50% more than in 1940 when World War II was being fought.  

Wild fauna and flora is being sacrificed on a planetary scale in the name of development; however, sixty years after its extension to the whole world, universal development has not been achieved.

Although classic economists like Adam Smith celebrated the “progress of wealth”, they expected a steady-state would eventually be reached, but today’s decision-makers, whether from developing, emerging or developed nations, have no such plan. In the background may lurk the fear of leaving a patch of terra nullius that the other could snatch.

Once awoken from its spell, how ludicrous—and dangerous—development appears, with its classroom-style grading of countries from underdeveloped (fail), developing (pass), emerging (good; making rapid progress) to developed (excellence).  

Before the era of development, as today, societies have combined different sets of goods and evils; they have exchanged products, ideas and technologies. In a post-development world, the “package” a random individual gets for life will be neither better nor worse than it is today and wildlife will be given a reprieve from its death sentence meted out by industrial civilization.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Campbell, N.A, Reece, J.B., Biologie, Adaptation et révision scientifique de Richard Mathieu, 2e édition, 2004, page 1339 : « Selon certaines estimations, nous sommes en train d’infliger à la biosphère plus de dommages et d’entraîner vers l’extinction plus d’espèces que ne l’a fait l’énorme astéroïde responsable semble-t-il d’extinctions de masse vers la fin de la période du Crétacé, il y a 65 millions d’années. »

Elliott, Larry, Climate change disaster is biggest threat to global economy in 2016, say experts. The Guardian (online), 14 January 2016.

Griffiths, Jay, Wild, An Elemental Journey, 2006. [Evgueny Zamyatin, We]

Mann, Charles, 1493. Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, 2011.

Mermod-Gasser, Viviane, Robert Hainard. L’art, la nature, la pensée (film), 2014.

Rist, Gilbert, Le Développement. Histoire d’une croyance occidentale, 2e édition, 2001. (The History of Development. From Western Origins to Global Faith)

Roch, Philippe, Le penseur paléolithique. La philosophie écologiste de Robert Hainard, 2014. 

Rose, Deborah Bird, Nature as Power (video), FutureLearn, Environmental Humanities, University of New South Wales, 2016.

Van Dooren, Thom and Rose, Deborah Bird, We need new narratives (video), FutureLearn,  Environmental Humanities, University of New South Wales, 2016.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation, http://uk.whales.org/whales-and-dolphins/welcome-to-world-of-whales-and-dolphins

Williams, Heathcote, Whale Nation, 1988.

Wildlife Game Over?

The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was adopted on 3 March 1973. The date has been designated as World Wildlife Day to raise awareness about the importance of wild fauna and flora not only for their economic value but also for their ecological, cultural and recreational qualities as well as for their intrinsic value. World Wildlife Day is celebrated in Cairo at the Greater Cairo Library in Zamalek.

CITES regulates the trade of more than 35 000 species of animals and plants, whether traded as live specimens, such as monkeys, or products such as fur coats or mahogany wood. Its role is to ensure that international trade does not threaten species’ survival. There are presently 180 member countries to the Convention, which was signed by Egypt in 1978.

As the global population has grown both in wealth and numbers, so has the demand for wildlife. The most important categories of wildlife traded both in volume and value are timber and seafood. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than $100 billion worth of fish and nearly $200 billion worth of timber were traded in 2009. Meanwhile wildlife traffic generates an estimated US $20 to US $40 billion a year ranking close to the top of the list of the most lucrative global illegal activities behind drugs and arms.  Its effects are disastrous as it wrecks conservation efforts.

Other than fish and timber, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) whose mandate is the care and protection of wildlife populations as well as individual animals gives a snapshot of wildlife trade through a six-week survey carried out in 2014 on 280 online marketplaces in 16 countries. Researchers found around 33 000 advertisements for wildlife and wildlife parts and products for species protected under CITES. The top category was ivory followed by reptiles and birds.

In the 42 years between the adoption of CITES and today, the world has witnessed a decline of 52% in wildlife. The causes are summarized by the acronym HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population increase and overharvesting by hunting and fishing, and last but not least climate change, a form of habitat destruction. Many scientists are now describing this accelerating drop in biodiversity as the sixth mass extinction.

Extinction is a natural phenomenon as life forms adapt or not to changing conditions on Earth. For instance Wadi al-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales, in the Fayoum was under the sea level 35 to 40 million years ago as the fossil remains of a now extinct whale ancestor, the basilosaurus, testify.

Palaeontologists agree that there have been five mass extinctions over the 3.6 billion year history of life on Earth. The last one put an end to the reign of the dinosaurs. Whereas a meteorite likely caused the dinosaur extinction, it is humankind’s activities that are clearly provoking the sixth great extinction.

As those who enjoy watching wildlife documentaries know, humans are not unique in destroying the lives of other beings to feed themselves and thrive. The difference lies in the speed and scale at which increasingly powerful and invasive technologies interfere with the Earth’s ecosystems. One concern today is that this may backfire on humanity.

Although the drift away from nature started with ancient civilisations, the mainstream contemporary attitude toward nature arose in 16th and 17th century Europe with the Enlightenment. This movement fostered individual freedom, scientific curiosity and technical development. Scientific discoveries opened the door to new technologies and large-scale industries.

Some 17th century thinkers like Thomas Hobbes developed a mechanistic view of nature, and René Descartes compared animals to automatons or even clocks. Their ideas have spread to the whole world and underlie today’s general lack of sympathy for wildlife and other non-human life forms.

However contemporary science is revealing how wrong Descartes and Hobbes were in reducing nature to the level of simple human artefacts. In the field of ethology, for example, research is blurring the frontier between the minds and emotions of animals and ours. This new knowledge should lead to a more reverential attitude toward all life forms, beyond humankind.

This issue was already brought up in the 10th century, in the tale The Case of the Animals against Man before the King of the Jinn, written collectively by the “Brethren of Purity” who lived in Basra, Iraq. In this story, the animals complain about the cruelty of humans and the way they misuse their superiority. Humans, they claim, are the only creatures that do not assume their proper role nor stay in their proper place.

In his introduction to a new rendering of the story, philosopher Seyyed Hussein Nasr asks us to reflect on what our role vis-à-vis the rest of creation is at a time when we have adopted lifestyles that are totally out of harmony with nature and based on a complete disregard for other life forms.

Surprisingly, reconnecting with nature is possible even without leaving Cairo whose sky, buildings and tree-lined streets have been adopted as a habitat by a number of wildlife species. Among the most familiar are the House Sparrow, the Hooded Crow and the Cattle Egret, as well as the much-maligned Gecko.

Activities out in the field are proposed by Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) and the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), the two major NGOs dealing with the preservation of nature in Egypt.

Books on Egyptian wildlife include Sherif Baha ElDin’s Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt and Common Birds of Egypt (with Bertell Bruun); Richard Hoath’s Mammals of Egypt, Francis Gilbert and Samy Zalat’s Butterflies of Egypt; and Loutfy Boulos’s Weed Flora of Egypt. Information on Egypt’s biodiversity and protected areas is also available at the EEAA.

Branding Earth

 “Carthago delenda est”. The Roman Cato the Elder is said to have pronounced this phrase in every one of his speeches. It means, in translation, that Rome’s rival, Carthage, must be destroyed. Replace “Carthage” by “nature”, and you have the implicit mantra of modernization.

For the economy that underpins this civilisation, as the current theory goes, it is “grow or die”, unlike natural systems such as the parts of a healthy human body that reach a certain size then stabilize. This means that the economy in its fight for survival is on track to smother Earth ecosystems.

But what is being destroyed has little reality for us because much of our mind space is occupied by the world devised by the branding industry.

Whether we are aware of it or not, our collective intelligence is subject to the art of branding professionals working for transnational corporations. This translates natural needs like drinking into 1.9 billion Cokes sold a day, and creates a ceaseless stream of new socio-cultural needs like smart phones and computers. Branding evokes images of a certain type of utopia and a sense of entitlement to it.   

This lifestyle looks very much like the way of life as packaged in American films that are beamed across the world. Several planet Earths would be required for us all to take up this lifestyle today, and many more if as predicted the population grows in sync with the global economy. Yet the model continues to inspire as it is replicated and amplified in China, the Gulf States or Singapore for example.

Historically, strategies to promote mass consumption were developed in Western countries at the end of the 19th century. Excess production had resulted from the use of new technologies harnessing concentrated forms of energy. The growth machine had been set into motion.  That is where advertising and the more sophisticated branding techniques came into play to help absorb overproduction. 

The need to push consumption is, surprisingly, still as great as it was in the early days of mass industrialism when consumerism had not yet become mainstream, and branding is big business today. It employs over a million people and reaps in half a billion US dollars a year in worldwide revenue. 

It doesn’t hesitate to take on board different trends, even anti-growth ones—if they promote growth. For instance “Collectively”, a global digital platform was launched to boost TNC brands through the promotion of “sustainable lifestyles”. Thanks to this type of campaign Unilever expects to double revenues, defying the laws of physics, as it says it will at the same time halve its environmental impact. 

This strategy is not new. Propaganda  published in 1928 by Edward Bernays, one of the founders of the public relations industry, exposes how products can be associated with ethical principles to increase sales.

But couldn’t these methods be used to spread paradigms that are outside the world of consumerism? 

Already today, the branding toolkit is serving to broadcast the values of non-profit organizations such as WWF or Oxfam. Branding is also being used by cities, regions, and countries to promote their own agendas. Utility companies that supply tap water, treat wastewater, or provide electricity use branding to make the public aware of the services they provide.   

How much greater should awareness of the Earth as the underlying support system be. One attempt to enhance Earth awareness came in the film series, “Nature is Speaking”, where viewers are reminded of the power and essentiality of nature, the ocean, rainforest and soil through the voices of Hollywood film stars.

Just as advertising and branding have instigated a collective desire for the consumer goods society, could they in turn inflect desire towards a new society with a variety of global cultures adapted to the reality of local ecosystems on a changing Earth? 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baudrillard, Jean, La Société de consommation, 1970.                            

Elks, Jennifer, Unilever, Coke, M&S, BT Launch Digital Platform to Engage Millenials on Our Power to Create Change, ‘Collectively‘, October 6, 2014.

Future Learn, The Secret Power of Brands, 2015, https://www.futurelearn.com/…/the-secret-power-of-brands/

Voight, Joan, Adweek, For Unilever’s CMO, Global Growth and Social Responsibility Are Now Inseparable Goals, CPG empire has learned doing good is good business, March 23, 2015. www.adweek.com/contributor/joanvoight

 

Water, Water, Everywhere

In the early 20th century, the Colorado River formed a verdant delta community with deer, bobcat, jaguar, quail, raccoon, waterfowl and other creatures. Today the land is parched. The Colorado has been pumped to dryness before it reaches the sea. On the way it has been intercepted by many dams; it has provided water to the desert city of Las Vegas; it has been diverted on hundreds of kilometres to large cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix; and it has irrigated vast areas of cropland in the USA and Mexico.

Most of the Nile Delta’s natural wetlands were replaced by agriculture already since Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom. But if the ten upstream countries of the Nile Basin were to develop the river’s water resources with the intensity of their American counterparts, Egypt’s Nile Valley would end up as just another desert wadi of the Sahara, receiving only an occasional trickle of polluted runoff. Getting little rainfall, Egypt owes its existence to Nile waters which originate beyond its south border.

But now, Ethiopia, in its effort to modernize, is building the largest dam in Africa on the Blue Nile. The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is one of a series of dams which will produce electricity for its planned industrial takeoff and for export. Ethiopia’s hope spells Egypt’s nightmare since the Blue Nile provides a big proportion of the Nile water Egypt gets, the rest coming from the White Nile.

However, with the Renaissance Dam, the Ethiopian government is simply fulfilling the obligation to provide its citizens with an “adequate standard of living” as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So what does the required standard of living correspond to? Is it the standard of living of an average American? This would require forty times the amount of water presently used by an average Ethiopian. Or is it the European standard of living, requiring half that amount? And what happens when Ethiopia’s population doubles as it is expected to do so by 2050? And what happens as the other countries of the Nile Basin, including Egypt, do the same?

Even the modest lifestyles of the vast majority of the people of the Nile Basin countries who (with the exception of the Egyptians) are subsistence farmers or pastoralists are detrimental to Nile ecosystems. Traditional adaptive resource management declined and disappeared in most local communities during the colonial period. The development decades that followed saw a rapid increase in population pushing people to claim ever more land. As they cut the vegetation that conserves water catchment areas, they destabilize the very ecosystems on which they depend, also affecting water supplies for regions downstream.

The greater volumes of water required for development have led the Nile countries to establish the Cooperative Framework Agreement for the River Nile Basin. Previously only Egypt benefitted from a treaty to guarantee its supply of Nile water.

The River Nile Basin comprises rivers and waterfalls, floodplains, lakes, wetlands, tropical forests and savannahs, which host the Serengeti and Masaai Mara National Parks with their world-famous Big Five animals and annual migrations of buffalo, wildebeest and zebra.

From a contemporary economic perspective, these are all “natural resources”. Valueless in themselves, they acquire worth when they are exploited for profit. A water lawyer illustrates this view when he observes that upper Nile countries with wildlife “gain a huge amount of revenues from (…) safari tours”. He then registers “the water consumed by the plants and animals of this region” in the debit column of the Nile water ledger.

The debate over Nile waters shows the limits of the conceptual framework that underpins the present economic system. It highlights the impossibility of guaranteeing human rights for individuals, communities and regions if we do not at the same time recognise and defend the right to exist of those “resources” we depend on: the Earth and nature.

A shift toward a jurisprudence that does recognize this right is taking place. It is spearheaded by an alliance of environmental lawyers, nature advocates and indigenous peoples.   

Indigenous cultures have traditionally respected what we today call Earth rights. Upper Nile wildlife thrived side by side with humans since they originated there hundreds of thousands of years ago. When the first Europeans reached this region in the mid 19th century, they were awed by the abundant wildlife. In spite of their poverty according to current monetary criteria, the local people had chosen to coexist with wild plants and animals. All that changed with the arrival of the British colonizer.

Some countries like Bolivia and Ecuador already have clauses in their constitutions that attribute rights to nature, and over two dozen local governments in the United States have adopted rights of nature laws. In Africa, organizations such as Porini in Kenya and the Ethiopian lawyer and biologist, Melesse Damtie, are exploring nature rights in the customary laws of their countries to integrate them into national legislation.

Lawsuits have been won based on Earth jurisprudence. In the USA, the town of Nottingham prevented a company from withdrawing local water for bottling and export overseas, and the city of Pittsburgh stopped a fracking project.  Thanks to those laws that recognize the rights of ecosytems to flourish in the place and form where they occur naturally as wetlands, streams, rivers, and aquifers, they were able to bar corporations from privatising or polluting their water supply. 

On an international level, the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth responds to the dangers faced by people worldwide because of the destruction of nature. If it was applied, Egypt could be confident that it would continue getting its natural share of Nile water as it has since people first settled there. 

According to the Declaration, measures should be taken “to prevent human activities from causing (…) the destruction of ecosystems or the disruption of ecological cycles,” and “(e)very human being is responsible for respecting and living in harmony with Mother Earth”.  The term “Mother Earth” or Pachamama, still used by Andean people today, describes the relationship we should establish with Earth, instead of our current dismissive view of her as a mere “resource” to exploit and manage.

The most critical provision of the Declaration to act upon at this stage is the promotion of “economic systems that are in harmony with Mother Earth”. Globalization, which externalizes ecological and social costs, and economic growth, which presupposes infinitely expanding resources, are certainly not part of them.

However no country or region – except the biggest and the most powerful ones – can move alone to an alternative economic system. Hopefully participative, this transition will have to be global too.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abdul Hamid,  Hesham Hamza,  A Study on the Concept of International River in International Water Law and Its Applications in Nile Basin Agreements, Nile Perspectives, Studies & Articles, 41-45, Volume 11, Issue 39, 2013.

Burdon, Peter ed., Exploring Wild Law, Wakefield Press, Mile End, South Australia, 2011.

Cullinan, Cormac, The Call of the Wild, IUCN Academy of Environmental Law, e-Journal, Issue 2011 (1). http://www.iucnael.org/en/documents/664-the-call-of-the-wild/file

‎Postel, Sandra, http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Where+have+all+the+rivers+gone%3F-a016937725

The Gaia Foundation, http://www.gaiafoundation.org/earth-centred-law

The Nile Basin Initiative, State of the Nile Basin Report, 2012, http://nileis.nilebasin.org/content/state-river-nile-basin-report

Waithaka, John, The Kenya Wildlife Service in the 21st Century: Protecting Globally Significant Areas and Resources, The George Wright Forum, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 21–29, 2012. http://www.georgewright.org/291waithaka.pdf

Rewild, Civilize

Without Earth, we would not exist. Without Earth Law, it is hard to see how other-than-human beings can continue to exist − apart from domestic animals and commensals that is.

We humans are driving wild species to extinction at a rate a thousand times above normal and we are threatening even the more common ones. In the last forty years, the world population of non-human vertebrates has halved, the human population has nearly doubled. 

Earth Law says that we have a moral responsibility toward the Earth and its web of life where − we forget most of the time − our bodily existence takes place.

The step we must immediately take is to halt the destruction. Nature reserves have not been up to the task: they are too fragmented and encroached upon.

Nature activists and conservationists believe that we should set aside vastly larger tracts of the Earth for wildlife. Naturalist E.O. Wilson is exploring the practicalities in his new book, Half-Earth, expected to come out early 2016. The general public would support such a scheme according to a survey conducted in Brazil, China, India, the USA and the UK by the Zoological Society of London.

When this happens, wildlife will know how to recreate its natural communities in its half of the Earth as it did in Mexico at Cabo Pulmo after 15 years as a no-take marine zone. A large, multi-species fish population now occupies the area. In Chernobyl, elk, wild boar, wolves and ermines have made a comeback in the no-go zone around the exploded nuclear plant.

 But what about humanity? How will we organize ourselves in our half of the world?  First of all, we will have to learn the virtue of restraint. Other societies have practised it. Two Pacific island civilisations, Tikopia and Tonga, managed to sustain themselves for over three millennia, each on an area smaller than Singapore. As Jared Diamond points out in his book Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed environmental success came from information feedback loops between central authorities and people living across the land.

In our globalized world, we get feedback on the out-of-sight impacts of our way of life through the media. We know about the ecological and social ills embedded in many of the products we need to subsist and function as social beings in our type of society: pesticides for food production; the burning of tropical forests and their replacement by plantation trees for palm oil, timber and paper; child slavery and wars for the metals in our electronic devices; fracking and off-shore drilling for oil to run the whole system. The list is much longer of course. Up to now awareness has not led to real change.

Living within the island-like boundaries of city-states like those of Sumer, ancient Greece or medieval Europe would allow us to have more control over the implications of our lifestyles. Already today city-states such as Singapore and Dubai show this type of government’s potential. However what we need, to abide by Earth Law, are self-sufficient, ecologically neutral, socially adequate versions of these cities.

Like the gated communities of today, but for very different purposes, an essential structure of the city-state of tomorrow and its agricultural hinterland will be its enclosure wall. It will give citizens a concrete feel for boundaries and at the same time prevent the conflicts with wildlife experienced today by farmers, pastoralists and, more generally, by people living in isolated rural settings. One can imagine that buildings forming the wall will be highly prized by those who enjoy the spectacle of wildlife.  

Economic activity will aim at meeting essential human needs including the need for meaningful work. Technologies will be judged on their social and environmental merits rather than novelty.

The number one economic need (with water) is food, so many people will work in agriculture. Working on farms, they will supply food for the city and get direct access to it for themselves − today one in seven people in the world is undernourished because of distribution failure. Food will be produced on the agricultural land around the city as well as on roofs and other available areas in the city using high-yield organic farming methods. Urban wastewater will provide irrigation, and organic waste will serve as compost. Green areas will double for leisure time.

Travel will be limited. Economic self-sufficiency, the rich and diverse cultural life in these big cities and the possibility of going out in the wilderness just beyond the walls on minimum-impact holiday will have removed much of this need. No permanent transport infrastructure will cut through the wilderness. Any city to city travel will be on foot, on horse, by ship, or maybe, resources permitting, with environmentally friendly zeppelin type airships.

Urbanization, although it presents its own challenges, offers the prospect of leaving more Earth to nature. A large majority of the world’s population are already heading to the cities in search of employment, better healthcare and education, social and cultural activities, but also, importantly, they are attracted by the urban way of life.

When business as usual fails, Earth Law principles will provide us with a unifying alternative to consumerism. And, with its surrounding wall, the city-state will remind us of planetary boundaries.