Friday, December 27, 2013

1257. Book Review: Human Dependence on Nature: How to Help Solve the Environmental Crisis

By Peter J. Schel, IUCN, Fall 2013

Hundreds of books have been written on the global environmental crises that scientists began to draw attention to about 50 years ago. Many have over the years also come up with suggestions as to how we might solve these crises and lead the world onto a more sustainable development path. The world leaders, however, do not seem to take the warnings really seriously. There are now approximately 500 international conventions, treaties, and agreements in force, but implementation is mostly slow or non-existent, and, although progress is seen on some polluting chemicals here and there, the serious problems like climate change and biodiversity destruction are getting worse by the day.

It is not easy to understand whether they don't understand or don't think it is as dangerous as some of the whistle-blowers are warning, or if they just close their eyes or put their heads in the sand, as the ostrich is (erroneously so) believed to do when he feels threatened. Some of them may also be overly optimistic on our ability to come up with easy technical and technological fixes at the last moment.

So, will Haydn Washington's book make a difference? He is appealing to all of us to do our utmost to contribute to the solution by own actions and by influencing and pressurizing politicians and decision-makers to take the environmental threats seriously and act differently. It is impressive how he has managed to gather updated information and present most of the environmental problems and the possibilities of full ecosystem collapse in an easy layman's language in the course of around 140 pages of text. On these pages he has also come up with suggestions to how we should work and argue to convince everybody to improve their environmental standards in their everyday life, and when taking decisions that may affect nature negatively.  He makes an excellent case of the many “green-scamming” groups that are working against the environmental champions in a full chapter on denial of the environmental crises. Here he builds on the work of Paul and Anne Ehrlich. Paul is one of the real “pillars” of conservation science.

What is also fundamental in the book is how all the way the author builds on solid science and is very realistic about the difficulty of solving the crises we have brought ourselves into. In a globalized world where trade, travel, and business are almost impossible to track, and more than 50% of the over 7 billion people are living in cities, and are more or less detached from real nature, it is a big challenge to make everybody understand that we are fully dependent on nature and nature's services and that we should be acting accordingly. He acknowledges rightly the importance of nature's services, and argues that we should value these services more in the way we manage nature. He is, however, very skeptical about commoditizing nature, valuing it in dollars or pound, and leaving it to the market.

Washington is also very negative towards an anthropocentric worldview, and wants us to change to an eco-centric view. He blames much of the environmental troubles we have today on this anthropocentric view that has developed through modernism. He argues strongly for a change where we give nature more intrinsic value and where we are “re-growing our roots in the Earth”. It may be a bit difficult to understand his thoughts fully here, but he also argues more understandably for developing greater solidarity across borders of species, countries and generations. I think he might have played the generation card a bit more obviously. It is difficult, even for politicians that normally love to talk about win-win situations, to admit that they are stealing from their grand-children or destroying their options and well-being in the future, when making decisions that will undermine nature's services.

Although he argues for better education in school, I feel that he could have done a bit more also here. It is today increasingly important that we teach children, already in kindergarten, how we are dependent on nature and it's services, and how they could contribute to good care for nature, also by influencing their parents' choices.

I can recommend Washington's book for anybody who wants a quick update on the state of nature, and if they know any politicians in need of education, please surprise them with a gift!

Peter J. Schei is an Associate researcher at Fridtjof Nansen Institute, where he was CEO from 2004-2012. He was a negotiator of the Biodiversity Convention and has been the chair of SBSTTA, the convention's scientific advisory body.

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