I began this series by alluding to a paradise paradigm. While my theory specifically links our subconscious concept of home to natural ecosystems, there are many other ideas that point in a similar direction – biophilia, topophilia, healing landscapes and so on. Over the course of this editorial, I want to present a review of how nature affects us in many currently unrecognised and forgotten ways. One of these ways has to do with moral law.
Modern society is so deeply separated from nature that legal and moral issues are not immediately recognised as part of the environmental agenda.
In fact, in our courts, the environment has no legal standing. You cannot bring a case to court on behalf of the environment. This is different from bringing a case against someone for breaking environmental laws that are in place. We assume that, as people, we each have inherent rights which need not be covered by a law in order for us to be protected. We assume these rights to be so universal that we demand it of other countries as well. While our acts against the environment can be illegal, modern law and morality do not conceptually extend to our actions on the environment.
A key breakthrough in international environmental law occurred when a Filipino lawyer, Tony Oposa, successfully fought for the environment on behalf of future generations. This happened very recently, in 1993, in the famous Oposa vs Factoran case.
It may come as a surprise, then, that morality is historically associated with nature. Even today, extremely perverse crimes are seen are unnatural acts. Part of the debate surrounding homosexuality, for example, is that some have argued that it is unnatural. It is only when science discovered a gene that contributes to homosexuality that it was possible to claim that some people are born with such an inclination, thereby showing those with the gene should not be condemned.
But I digress. All I want to point out is the intimate relationship between what we consider to be moral and what seems natural in human behaviour. It is an important point for our age. The separation of nature from human behaviour is a root cause in the problems and difficulties we have with the environment and with sustainability. Without an appreciation of that basic connection, we are left confounded by the social problems caused by the failure of marriage, by sexual promiscuity and by a breakdown in moral and ethical standards. In the same way, we are surprised by research that tells us that access to nature is vital to our physical, mental and emotional health. Without such an appreciation, how can we expect policy makers, business leaders and real estate developers to embrace sustainability? It is difficult to see what the environment has to do with the needs of people.
Consider the convoluted structure behind processed food. These foods are so processed we need to take vitamin and mineral supplements to replace the value that has been taken out. Why are processed food cheaper than non-processed food? Shouldn’t something less processed be, by definition, cheaper since less work is done before it arrives at your table?
Successful societies in history survived by evolving a morality that is based on religion. We see religion today as mere superstition, but the common theme is an appreciation of nature as provider (Mother Nature) and of our individual actions as accountable at the environmental scale (to God or the heavens). More than that, humans are seen also as part of nature and thus governed by what the Greeks and Romans refer to as natural law. In ancient China, as in other ancient societies, emperors who did not rule wisely were believed to incur the wrath of the heavens. The Thai king represents Buddha in human form and needs to act accordingly.
What does this mean for us today? We need to realise that the environment and humanity go hand-in-hand. As much as the environment is threatened, we are even more so. The reason to embrace sustainability is not so much to “save the environment” but to get our society back on track. It is an extremely difficult argument to put forward in our time. Every discussion I get into assumes the environment and human society in opposite camps and we are already at cross-purposes before we start.
Consider then, sustainability as a moral issue. Is it right that our society so processes our food that we need to take supplements? Is it right that our lives are so harried that we don’t have time to cook our own food, spend time with our families, and spend time with nature? Is it possible that with lives not totally filled with work and consumption, we will find time to spend with one another – and with ourselves – and be healthier and happier as a result? I don’t mind working hard but why must I consume so much? Much of my expenditure is not by choice. Electrical products today are designed to fail and/or be obsolete in less than five years. The cost of most of the purchases I bring home is as much in their packaging and marketing than in the product itself.
One of the common refrains for more “business-as-usual” commercial development is to feed the starving millions elsewhere in the world. But why are they starving in the first place? Why are rural societies in today’s world unable to survive without modern services like electricity and piped water? Is it really so difficult to help rural societies become sustainable with locally produced food, water and energy? The pictures beamed through the media are not about societies that are simply technologically or materially behind us, but about diseased and starving children. Why is this so? I find it hard to believe that the only, or the best, solution to the starving millions is more consumerism. How did a society that was built upon an industrial revolution a few hundred years old impoverish a world that survived without industrialisation for several thousand years before that?
These are difficult questions and the answers will mean substantial changes to our world, but they will be good changes – changes that may contribute answers to social problems such crime, divorces, stress and obesity. Research into sustainability often reveals benefits like better productivity, less absenteeism and greater satisfaction as by-products. Even criminals respond positively to exposure to nature – the task of growing vegetables and tending to plants gives them a stronger sense of responsibility and care.
Nature is not just the external environment and the law of nature is not just applicable to the pursuit of science. The law of nature lives in us too.