Values and The Planet seminar report

One Day Seminar – Saturday 2nd April 2016 – Conway Hall, London

VALUES AND THE PLANET

Outline and Extracts from Presentations

Chair: Susan Miles – Planet Centred Forum moderator.

Presenters: –

Dr Rupert Read – Reader in Philosophy; School of Philosophy, Politics and Languages at the University of East Anglia.

Karin Kuhlemann – Population Matters Trustee and Board Member; solicitor specialising in public law; researcher on UN procreation rights.

Dr Patrick Curry – Academic and writer; publications include ‘Ecological Ethics’ and ‘Deep Roots in a Time of Frost: essays on Tolkien’

After opening remarks by the Chair there was an introduction to the Planet Centred Forum network by Susan Miles and Woody Wood, explaining its roots in both Population Matters and the devolution network of Devolve!

There followed a round of introductions of both presenters and participants, including people (in some cases) saying why they were there and what their concerns were.

Dr Rupert Read was introduced as a rare combination of Academic Philosopher and Politician, having served two terms as a Green Party councillor in Norwich.

The theme of Dr Read’s presentation was ‘A resolution to the anthropocentric – ecocentric dilemma?’ He invited all present to take away and use the ideas from the session.

His opening argument was that we (need to) care for the Planet and for people, yet the former is less widely accepted. One way to approach this is through our own children. We like them and care about them. The key question is: what do they care about? … their own children! He drew a lineage tree, showing that this should lead to care for your descendants ad infinitum. How to care for them? Perhaps build them a bolt hole or make them very rich? This will not work. Simply look after your children and hence theirs too; nephews/nieces if you have none. In fact they need not be blood relatives – there are few people we can ignore. There is only one home, which is the planet.

So care translates into care of the whole biosphere … anthropocentrism dissolves into ecocentrism.

In response to points made from the floor Dr Read argued that even those who claim only to care about human beings in reality care about the whole World and the future. This supports the convergence hypothesis.

Dr Read argued the importance of the Precautionary Principle (about which he and others have written and blogged. Because of continual uncertainty about the future, ‘evidence based’ studies (always based on the past) should be treated with caution. We need to build down our (human) share of biotic space. Resilience (of human responses) is not for ever.

Following the Precautionary Principle, Dr Read listed some of the things he regarded as reckless – population growth, GMOs, geoengineering, the ‘economic growth-ism’ agenda. Growth as a concept has outgrown its sociability. Growthism is very unprecautious.

Thinking of human footprint, where does human growth matter most? Here! The most dangerous population growth is in wealthy countries!

Further contributions from the floor led on to the issue of economic growth v the steady state economy. Dr Read dismissed arguments such as “we have always had growth”. Also pointed out that rare earth minerals were used for renewable energy devices: non-renewable renewables! So a steady state economy is an absolute necessity. Provide for the future and the one after that! And remember the precautionary principle.

From the floor Prof. Dot Bennett made the point that growth could be seen a transient stage between steady state economies. Also: “don’t bet on technology – there is no technical substitute for life”

Dr Read was asked if his arguments provoked interesting responses. His answer: “whacko ones a plenty – few good ones except in this company!”

Karin Kuhlemann was introduced by the Chair as someone able to provide the legal/political context for the thorny issues of population and human rights.

Karin’s first question was: “do we have a right to procreate?” The answer was that this ‘right’ is enshrined in United Nations statutes. It is also a unique right in that it is the only one that creates a new rights holder.

This remains the political reality despite the social reality that overpopulation plus overconsumption equals anthropocentrism … more than just anthropocentrism since it also favours present humans over future generations.

Children are not private – they impact on us all – yet making them is. The UN framework guarantees the autonomy to have multiple children. It does not give women the right not to have children in the face of cultural and political pressures. Since 1994 funding for family planning has fallen by 30% world-wide, increasing the number of unwanted pregnancies and denying women the right and responsibility to take careful decisions about each pregnancy.

Karin Kuhlemann made the further point that population growth has its own momentum, with a lag of several decades before a given population starts declining. In the case of Iran, which for some years has had a falling birth rate, this would not happen until 2045. For the World as a whole this turning point might be 2100 even if all nations adopted a one child policy.

The UN median population for the year 2050 is nine billion people, two billion more than the current population. That is eighty million more people or a new Germany every year!

Karin argued that there is no moral basis for the absolute right to procreate. She went on to ask: what World will today’s children inherit?

Any population increase is an increase in committed consumption at a time when productive land is being degraded and a further rapid decline may be expected. The statistics on food insecurity try to take account of pollutant fertilisers, peak phosphorous by 2030 and other factors. Water scarcity is a particular concern. Demand will grow at twice the rate of population increase according to a FAO 2011 assessment, taking account of food growing, personal use and manufacturing. Already falling water tables and desertification are contributing to major displacements of peoples – one aspect of climate change. In sum, outputs from farming and fisheries could decline by 2% per decade despite intensification programmes.

Under the impact of factory farming and encroachments on wild land the numbers of different animals are declining, an aspect of the sixth mass extinction on Planet Earth.

According to Karin this all adds up to a World of dwindling opportunities for humans. In Uganda there is 65% unemployment and already a lack of jobs for young people and women in much of the World. Apart from the consequences for people and of course nature this represents fiscal unsustainability.

All the above facts serve to underline the inter-generational injustice already argued as a key feature of present human values. We struggle to care for those distant to us.

Karin went on to argue that we do have values choices. We can reject the ‘imperative’ to consume now at the expense of those coming later. Want is not the same thing as need. We can resist the ‘low hanging fruit’ of convenience choices. And of course there is the key issue of family size preferences.

However, for most of us change needs cultural support and legitimacy as well personal commitment. Challenging social norms requires courage. For example, in some cultures having children is bound up with status. This is where public education comes in: people need to know what they don’t know. Attitudes to childlessness in our own society can be changed. Likewise with policies to change and reduce consumption.

In conclusion Karin Kuhlemann emphasised the point that there is a need to challenge not just anthropocentrism but the ‘me-centrism’ of today’s adults in the affluent World.

Dr Patrick Curry: the tension between our core beliefs and reaching out. Introducing Patrick the chair drew attention to his very readable book, Ecological Ethics.

Dr Curry started by asking the question: “Why ecocentrism and why does it matter?” He answered that humans are part of the Earth yet have a relationship with it. And all relationships imply ethics. It is clear to some of us that our Earth is the source of all value. Yet simple truths are hard going for some.

In modern philosophy abstract ideas take precedence over feelings; thus the Earth can be considered as an object, an inert body. This worldview supports anthropocentrism in which humans are the only source of value. The Earth and all its wondrous features are reduced to resources for human use or mis-use, to natural capital.

The assumption that these resources are inexhaustible supports the ideology of endless growth and the mind-sets around it. Human activity is directed to securing a return on capital.

Meanwhile one species on its own is crushing diversity; through resource extraction; through agriculture turned agribusiness (including brutal treatment of farm animals); through de-forestation; through its sheer numbers.

Dr Curry drew attention to “hopelessly stupid quotes” suggesting ‘de-coupling humans from nature’. In fact destroying ourselves by destroying our life support systems falls well short of self-interest as well as being profoundly unethical in terms of life’s own purposes.

The concept of ‘enlightened self-interest’ won’t work as the way out. We are not universal beings. Our time spans are very short. Our knowledge is limited: we don’t know what we don’t know. We are plain citizens of the planet, not gods.

Despite these cautions there is continuing belief that we are as gods, rather than just coping organisms. We need to retain the modesty of Ecocentrism. Choosing human interest upfront is going to fail, yet there is a stubborn refusal to accept this.

Eco-modernism (in the USA) argues that more of the same can work, albeit with a green veneer. Only people matter so ‘we’ are the masters. With devices such as eco-tariffs you can be rich and benefit the Planet also. So called Ecocentric organisations have collaborated against deep ecology.

Others feel that social justice among humans must take precedence over deep green issues. Yet there will be no social justice on a dead planet.

In general there is a childish rejection that there are real life limits on human fantasies: these are the ‘grown ups’ on the stage!

Humans have thought of themselves as on a voyage of discovery. Today it is not so much about discovery: we need recovery! If we are smart and in empathy we may be able to manage this, even now.

Wildness is a matter of degree. There is nowhere on the planet that is pristine. Use is not the same as exploitation. Yet if we go on getting it wrong about the Planet then all other issues, for example questions of colour, creed, sexuality etc. fall into irrelevance.

Dr Curry had no illusions about winning the ecocentric argument with the general public but felt that we could shift the centre of gravity towards a little more compassion in our lives and those of others.

General Discussion. A very wide range of thoughtful points were made and questions raised, some producing responses from members of the panel.

One area of debate concerned the population and consumption issue, including the ‘committed consumption’ generated by each extra birth. Also the impacts of birth rate, death rate, hunger, obesity and racial/cultural issues to this complex subject.

This led on to reaching out and who ‘we’ were. Questions as to sections of the community clearly not represented. The point was made that for most people life is an ongoing struggle just to get by and only people fairly privileged in terms of their time could afford to consider these wider issues. Also there were not many forums for this type of wide ranging grappling with issues. Plus our approaches are a long way from mainstream at present: a chicken and egg problem.

There was a caution against treating ‘the Earth’ as one whole, thereby downplaying its variety and diversity and the particularity of each creature or growing thing.

Returning to population issues the Chinese and Indian attempts to limit population were compared. Despite the strong criticisms from Western liberals the point was made (regarding the Chinese one child policy): what would you do with the 400 million people who would otherwise be adding now to the distress of our planet?

There was a discussion of the future of employment, or rather unemployment. It was mooted that the flower children could drop out on the back of economic prosperity and in any case they were middle class for the most part. Are we now going backwards or forwards? With the ‘American dream’ collapsing the point was made that we need to be ahead of the game: challenging not just how it is but how it will be.

Citizen’s income was mentioned as increasingly relevant to the world after work, since it could liberate time to ‘be’ and to be in tune with the World. Related to this it was felt that children were spending too long in school. The panel were in agreement with this. It was thought that many in the Labour movement had lost the plot: supporting Trident for the sake of jobs at any cost. We needed to grab back our childhoods and find open space to reconnect with nature. However, there was a case and a need for worthwhile jobs.

The discussion came back to the questions of population, human rights, cultural and political prejudice and practices and the need for alternative processes to challenge them.

There was a brainstorming session with a variety of suggestions for going forward from here, ranging from practical measures such as making our new web site more accessible, through to addressing particular issues, to challenging the economism of modernity with a vision of an economy that serves human needs, to standing up in all our activities for the values that put our Planet and its diversity first.

The issue of engaging young people was recognised. Points made included the need for a narrative; a Green concert as a launch device; student unions and student groups with related concerns; attention to post crash economics; search engine optimisation; circulating contacts; joining/re-joining the Green Party to restore its ecological imperative.

Closing. Susan Miles as chair summed up the day, thanked the presenters and all participants, wished all safe journeys and closed the seminar.

 

3 thoughts on “Values and The Planet seminar report”

  1. It was a rare privilege to attend an event that was so genuinely open and forward-thinking, considering the place of human beings within the Earth’s global ecosystem. Unfortunately I had to leave before Dr Curry’s presentation, but the other two speakers, Dr Rupert Read and Karin Kuhlemann both delivered important, perceptive and well-argued talks. The above summary only covers some of the points. I think academics and ordinary concerned citizens would have been equally comfortable with the way the day was presented; ‘Values and the Planet’ was about practical philosophy that concerns us all, whether we like it or not.

    Dr Read’s position was one of ‘convergence’ as mentioned in the summary above: that a genuine anthropocentric view that values the well-being of those close to us, extends outwards and to future generations and so encompasses long-term sustainability and an ecocentric framework. In my view, Dr Read’s ethical argument that caring is ‘transitive’, that we should care about what our loved ones care about, has a lot of potential. It’s an idea with legs that strengthens vague and overused phrases of ‘community’ and siblinghood of living beings. It would be interesting to ask what it is in our culture and economic system that prevents many people from using their imagination to take on this more inclusive and long-term viewpoint, but that might be going beyond the scope of this particular talk. I believe Read’s aim was to diplomatically bridge the gap between humanitarian and planet-centred viewpoints that may appear when considering short timescales. I thought this tied in well with the second presentation by Karin Kuhlemann about resolving conflicts between different human rights including the right to reproduce, by taking into account non-human realities.

    I have to agree that we should care as much about the fourth or sixth generation of humanity from this point as we do about our grandchildren (or our friends’ grandchildren if we have none). However, I asked about the notion of ‘discounting’ the future, as economists often do. In many ways discounting is a fatuously convenient dismissal of what science tells us about planetary boundaries (such as food production, the nitrogen cycle and climate change), but I still think more work needs to be done to counter the everyday attachment to discounting: namely that the more distant future is less predictable, and our actions have smaller or more uncertain consequences then, and it is that unavoidable ignorance that is the reason that we think less beyond a few days or years. In the past, a conservative approach that a person’s responsibility is merely to bring up the next generation with a similar culture has been largely successful, at least in producing us, but we’re now at the point of bankrupting the nature that sustains us, pushing other species either to the margins or to extinction.

    I’m also not convinced that bridging the gap between ecocentrism and anthropocentrism, although it may help us wake some of our fellow Homo sapiens (or Pan loquitur or Pan symbolica as we might more modestly call ourselves) to the wider, more interesting but endangered reality, is going to be so easy in such a way that it preserves the value of some unnamed beetle in the rainforest. Indeed if it were easy to bridge that gap, rather than requiring the imagination Read calls for, there would be less of a problem and little to talk about.

    Dr Read also distributed some free reprints of an article co-authored with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and available at https://arxiv.org/pdf/1410.5787.pdf, which has provided me with a lot to think about concerning mathematically ‘fat-tailed’ risks and local versus global threats (eg nuclear power versus genetic modification).

    Karin Kuhlemann moved us from the domains of philosophy to international law, describing how questioning the right to have unlimited children has become virtually taboo in UN circles. The right to reproduce, without considering the responsibilities that encumbers others as a result, is almost sacrosanct. And yet it is in fundamental contradiction to many of the declared human rights to health and peace and privacy and dignity and basic material needs. This reminded me very much of Isaac Asimov’s ‘metaphor of the bathroom’, living in a space with limited sanitary facilities but a variable number of residents (see interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1ZX-x7sySI ), but does need to be supported by actual evidence of limits, which Karin gave us, describing a long list of the ecological and human consequences of overpopulation, each of which might motivate concern. Some of these, such as water and employment

    The other disturbing evidence presented in this section on population is that estimates for the mid-century population peak and ‘demographic transition’ to lower fertility keep rising, and there’s little sign of the peak yet. I cannot argue against improvements to female literacy and giving women the actual and cultural right over their own bodies, but there is a problem that all policy interventions here take a generation to have an effect. So perhaps they are urgent in the same way as climate action.

    I was disappointed to miss the afternoon, as I felt there was more scope to talk about anthropocentric versus ecocentric values and ethics, about which Dr Curry’s books on ecological ethics are invaluable. I expressed during the morning session that distinctive ecocentric values might include extending (a) sympathies beyond humans (and their pets) and (b) appreciations of diversity (as in biodiversity, but also of place and habitat). I’m hoping for a future event that will be recorded and slides made available, as the only drawback of the thought-provoking day was that it was seen by so few.

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