In the search for appealing, catchy, urgent and simple slogans, we climate justice activists have come to accept the phrase "climate change is the defining issue of our time" as gospel. But is it really? Unquestionably, the climate tipping point is fast advancing, if it has not past already. The easiest of many foreboding statistics notes human activities are hurling the Earth towards a 4ºC rise in temperature, threatening everything we know about how we carry out life on the planet. Everywhere -- not just in the Global South which already experiences untold horrors of loss, devastation and suffering due to changes in the weather.
But as psychologist Allen Kanner wrote in "Why Extinction Matters at Least as Much as Climate Change", “The center of the ecological crisis is not the weather but the ongoing and wholesale destruction of life.” He argues that climate change is not the problem of our time, but a timely symptom of how much of humanity treats the Earth. This is a critical difference, not just semantics, and can take our analysis in a new direction. Redefining the problem allows us to open new doors and work towards new solutions. And let’s face it. We could use new solutions.
A report released before the Rio +20 Earth Summit in Brazil by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), compiling three years of work by 300 scientists on the health of the planet, notes, “Several critical global, regional and local thresholds are close or have been exceeded,” and that “Abrupt and possibly irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet are likely to occur.” The report extensively lists the frightening extent of loss of diversity, estimates that greenhouse gas emissions could double over the next 50 years, and finds that pesticides contaminate 90 per cent of water and fish samples. The report analyzes a lack of progress -- of 90 internationally agreed goals and objectives to “support the sustainable management of the environment and improve human wellbeing”, the report says little or no progress has been made over the past five years on nearly a third of these goals, including mitigating global warming.
While these broad ‘internationally agreed’ goals may not rank priorities in step with the climate justice movement, the report’s findings do highlight that global decisions makers are unwilling to take action on even the most basic preservation needs. Those who most pollute and create destruction are not the most immediately impacted, and yet no amount of so-called conservation -- from creating parks, closing land to development to offering cap-and-trade systems for industry or REDD schemes to "pay off" polluting, will stave off the advance of climate change for anyone.
Meanwhile, parts of the planet already cannot sustain life, and signs of increasing impacts are visible each day. Countries in the South Pacific are being consumed by the rising ocean, aboriginal communities are unable to sustain life and custom due to species extinction and/or poison in the food system and/or changing climate patterns, families in California (USA), Alberta (Canada), Cabinda (Angola), Manila (Philippines) and the Ecuadorian Amazon, to name a few, are seriously ill or dying at increased rates from rare diseases linked to dirty oil extraction. Conservation fixes often proposed by decision makers fail to recognize the need for justice and a focus on equity as we take action.
Is summit hopping getting us what we want?
If we want to stop climate change (which we certainly do) appealing to the international bodies is a logical place to campaign because 1) nation states are culpable for the problem and 2) it’s where change should happen.
We were so hopeful coming out of the Rio Earth Summit, but 1992 was a very different time. We believed the revelations of the magnitude of the crisis and examples like Severn Suzuki’s plea from the floor to take actions for future generations would compel international cooperation for the sake of humanity’s existence.
Yet commitments toward "sustainable development" made at the Rio Earth Summit have long since been broken as nation-states bowed to the drive for corporate-led, unlimited economic growth, and environmental issues took a back seat. In 2009 global citizens watched with dismay as the COP 15 in Copenhagen barely eeked out an agreement, which itself was weak and did nothing to hold to those destroying the planet accountable. Thousands around the world protested and Nigerian climate justice activist Nnimmo Bassey called the conference "an abject failure." At the following COP 16 in Cancun it become clear that even the modest goals set forth in the Kyoto Accord can’t stand against the forces behind economic growth at all costs.
As activists we move our resources, our energy and ourselves from Summit to Summit and each time we have been disappointed. The United Nations process is not going to attack the root causes of environmental exploitation and expose polluters. Instead it wraps up ‘market fixes’ to the same free market corporate-led economic model that has driven us to the cliff’s edge.
Nowhere is this clearer than the "Green Economy" agenda (developed by the UNEP) being promoted at the Rio +20 Earth Summit with its emphasis on attaching a price tag to “ecosystem services.” The Green Economy of the Rio +20 Earth Summit is the latest attempt to justify privatizing nature in new and obscene ways.
Our valiant efforts to speak truth to power over the last decades have mitigated some of the destruction -- but as global citizens once again focus on this upcoming Summit, many of our activist allies will not be negotiating in small rooms or in the halls of the Summit or taking to the streets of Rio, believing that they cannot make a difference by protesting at large international conventions or negotiating for small concessions. Others take the opportunity at each of these Summits to be the voice for the predominantly voiceless -- believing that taking any opportunity to slow the rate of destruction is better than not.
Considering the rights of nature as a starting place
The majority of the world’s economies are based on the idea that nature is property. So are most legal systems, putting real power behind the idea that nature is a “thing” here for human use and occasional enjoyment.
By accepting the current structure of law and economy -- we are accepting that the human relationship to the natural world is one of ownership and enfettered exploitation. And as long as our activism operates within these confines, we are limited to merely slowing down the rate of destruction. Climate change, and the constant reminders of the ecological destruction it brings, is that large flashing red light and siren reminding us that we’re operating by a set of laws that are out of balance with the laws of nature.
So, the question is, how do we set it straight, and live within the boundaries of nature’s laws? By recognizing the Rights of Nature we agree that human beings have rights that are inalienable. Thus natural rights are higher law than man-made law, and therefore must too belong to the forces of all creation. Mountains, oceans, forests and all other species have the right to exist, persist and regenerate their natural cycles. In short, ecosystems have the right not to be destroyed by human activity.
Considering the Rights of Nature as a starting point places our activism within the sphere of the world we want, rather than fighting back the juggernaut of the system that is. What would it look like to truly take on the root causes of climate change and how would our economies look based on living within the carrying capacity of the planet?
Canada is a prime example of where such a paradigm shift is needed to ensure the health and safety of the environment and communities. Canada’s economy heavily relies on extractive industries and exploiting "natural resources" for profit. The legal system not only fails to prevent this from happening -- it makes it possible. Industry and government treat the land as a commodity to be bought, sold, and leased, reinforcing a particular and destructive relationship with the Earth. The Canadian government is pushing expansion and export of the tar sands industry through pipelines and tanker projects that cross precarious terrain and promise to bring toxins and pollutants to otherwise clean river and lake systems, impacting hundreds of nearby communities. In the week immediately prior to the Rio +20 Earth Summit alone, there was a large spill in Alberta releasing 3,000 barrels of oil into a river system. Residents of nearby communities are being told to "monitor the situation."
As ecosystems continue to be seen as property by those who shape the economic and legal systems, it becomes difficult to imagine a different relationship with nature. We fail to make the connection between the structure of law we operate under that treats nature as a “thing” to the very health of our bodies and our communities, dependent on the environment from which we seek air, food, water, and spiritual fulfillment.
What could our world look like if our relationship with and connection to everything around us was at the forefront of how we thought, shaped our economies, and made decisions? Imagine the conversation if rather than codifying corporate destruction of an ecosystem by legalizing things like tar sand extraction, we codified the rights of the boreal forest to regenerate its vital cycles?
The conversation began in Cochabamba
Following the disaster of the COP 15 in Denmark -- Evo Morales, president of the Plurinational State of Bolivia declared, “In Copenhagen the so-called developed countries failed in their obligation to provide substantial commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. We have two paths: either Pachamama or death.”
In 2010 the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia hosted the People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. The title was significant -- a dawning of the idea that climate change is inextricably linked to the natural rights of Mother Earth. Far from the stage of the UN Summit circuit, 35,000 global participants got a lot right in Cochabamba.
On day 3, the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth was crafted. On International Mother Earth Day, April 22, the Declaration was presented.
It states, ‘To face climate change, we must recognize Mother Earth as the source of life and forge a new system based on the principles of:
- -Harmony and balance among all and with all things;
- -Complementarity, solidarity, and equality;
- -Collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;
- -People in harmony with nature;
- -Recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own;
- -Elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism;
- -Peace among the peoples and with Mother Earth.
The Declaration also fully denotes responsibility for climate change on developing countries and outlines points of action to repay climate debt.
Getting to Buen Vivir
Buen Vivir is the concept of living well, rather than living more. How different would our world look if communities were empowered to act as stewards for their local environments and say “no” to tar sands extraction? What if economies placed our human activities within the context of the biosphere, rather than the other way around?
Building a movement of this magnitude is possible. We can unify around what we’re for -- a future where ecosystems have legal rights to exist, flourish and regenerate their natural capacities and where there is justice for impacted communities and polluters are held accountable. It’s time for new solutions.
This article is excerpted from the report “Rights of Nature: Planting the Seeds of Real Change” published by Global Exchange (June, 2012).
Maryam Adrangi is the Energy Campaigner with Council of Canadians. She is a social justice organizer who frequently works on environmental and climate issues. She is in love with her bike, likes exploring by kayak, and playing capoeira.
Carleen Pickard is the Executive Director at U.S.-based Global Exchange. She works to oppose free trade agreements and privatization, promote fair trade and buen vivir. She surfs and learns from documentaries.