Courtesy of the Times Colonist
February 1, 2017

Over the past couple of years, Conservation International (CI) has released a series of brief but powerful videos that give nature a voice. And what voices they are; movie actors such as Harrison Ford (The Ocean), Julia Roberts (Mother Nature), Robert Redford (The Redwood) and Penelope Cruz (Water), accompanying beautiful and powerful imagery.

As the Flower says, “Life starts with me. You see, I feed people”, while the Coral points out “I am the nursery of the sea . . . I am the protein factory of the world” and the Soil says “Without me, humans could not exist. But you treat me like dirt”. The over-arching message from CI is simple: “Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature.”

Mother Nature says “When I thrive, you thrive, when I falter, you falter – or worse”, while the Ocean points out “If nature isn’t kept healthy, humans won’t survive. It’s as simple as that”. And Mother Nature again: “Your actions will determine your fate, not mine. I am nature, I will go on, I am prepared to evolve – are you?”

This takes me to a point I often make in talking to students and various audiences: We don’t need to ‘save the planet’, it is 4 billion years old and nothing we do can destroy it. We also don’t need to save life on Earth; life has been around for a billion years and survived 5 Great Extinctions, it will survive the Sixth Great Extinction that we are creating.

We don’t even need to save the human species; we are a weed species, like cockroaches and rats – tough, resilient and adaptable. We have spread around the world from our origins in Africa and found a way to live in almost every terrestrial ecozone; we have weathered ice ages and near eradication, and doubtless some of us will still be around in all but the most extreme – and unlikely – circumstances that our unsustainable practices might create.

What we do need to save – although some may debate the merits of it – is our modern civilization, which is endangered. Because when ecosystems decline or collapse, so too do the societies and communities embedded in and dependent upon them. Just ask the Easter Islanders, or the ancient Maya, or the cod fishermen of Newfoundland.

But the problem is that it is our present way of life that is undermining the natural systems upon which we all depend for our basic needs. So we will have to dramatically transform our way of life and indeed our very understanding of what it is to be civilized in the 21st century. Unfortunately, in most parts of the world, we aren’t listening.

The US has just elected a President who doesn’t believe humans are causing climate change (he thinks it’s a Chinese hoax) and has appointed climate change sceptics to head up the EPA and the Department of Energy and an oil company CEO as Secretary of State. He is going to ramp up the fossil-fuel industry and exacerbate global warming, supported by a business elite that celebrates a big business agenda and economic growth that we know will bring in its wake more environmental destruction.

Under Trump Americans, more than ever, will believe that we can dominate nature, a belief reflected in and bolstered by the Old Testament. In Genesis 1:26, God gave man “dominion over . . . all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”. It is a philosophy that underpins our modern technological society and economy – and it threatens our societies and communities around the world. If this attitude prevails, we – and by that I mean humans and nature – are in for a rough and nasty ride; the consequences for our health are profoundly troubling.

So if we are to preserve a civilised way of life and good health and wellbeing, we need to replace ‘dominion over the Earth’ with stewardship of the Earth or – since that is still hubristic – partnership with the Earth. Just as dominion has a spiritual dimension that underpins our values, so too must we evolve a new spirituality, one that sees the sacred in nature. We need to listen to nature’s voices when they speak.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.
thancock@uvic.ca