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.

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