Between Two Worlds: Tears for the Unheeded Wisdom of Elders

Commentary by Scott Poynton, special to mongabay.com
January 06, 2013



It was September 1990 and I was flying, blissfully high on a sea of books, their rich smells, colors and textures heady like incense, in Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street, Oxford.

I had been thrilled just to arrive in Oxford a week before, fresh from the forests of northeastern Tasmania. I had won a scholarship to study at the Oxford Forestry Institute and here I was, ready and eager but frustrated that the course didn’t begin for another week. Grown from humble beginnings, Oxford was a whole new world to me, one of potential, of learning, history, of new experiences promised, new thinking to embrace. My Professor, keen to get me out of his office and not asking so many questions, had suggested a visit to Blackwell’s, to their forestry section. I had woken early the next morning and had spent the time waiting for the store to open by meandering through Oxford’s parks and the “dreaming spires” of its colleges. As the store door opened, I quietly moved inside, respectfully as one does when entering a special place, my head free from any encumbrance, open and ready to learn.

Earth
Blackwell’s is Oxford; like C.S. Lewis’ famous wardrobe, it is not so impressive, even quite small from the outside. Yet when you enter and pass through the initial promotions and “new releases” section, you move into a vast labyrinth of rooms and interconnecting corridors - left, right, up, down - all lined with bookshelves filled to the gunnels; it really is everything you would expect an Oxford bookshop to be.

Drifting quietly through room after room after room, upstairs, downstairs, around corners and into all sorts of nooks and crannies, I eventually – and with quite some help from the friendly assistants – located the modest forestry section. Forestry was always an oddity at Oxford. Despite being there for more than one hundred years, the Forestry Institute, which has since closed, always had to justify itself to the University Masters. It seemed that even the forestry section in Blackwell’s was tucked away, that it too somehow felt uneasy amongst grander subjects like history, geography, medicine, law, philosophy – was forestry really a science to be taught at esteemed Oxford? To that moment yes, and as a young lad who had set his sights on working in forests, it was a dream to stand in front of bookshelves filled with literature from the world’s greatest forestry minds.

A bright blue, not-so-thick hardback caught my attention: “Between Two Worlds: science, the environmental movement and policy choice”. It was hot off the press, published just that month. The author was American Professor Lynton Keith Caldwell from the Department of Political Science and School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University. I had never heard of Professor Caldwell but as I opened his book and started to leaf through its pages, I was drawn deeply into his words. Caldwell’s preface spoke of our changing relationship to Earth and he stated very simply, first paragraph, that the primary question posed in his book was: will humans adapt their ways of life to conserve the natural systems upon which their future and the living world depend?

How I wished that I could write so succinctly! I leant against the bookshelf and started to read. I have no idea how long I was there but I suddenly remembered that I was in a bookstore, not a library so I rushed to the checkout, bought the book and went directly back to my student room. The rest of the day was a blur. I don’t know at what time I stopped but later that evening I reached the end and after 198 pages of the greatest wisdom and synthesis I had ever read, I knew that for a second time, my life had been changed by the wisdom of a true global elder.

Caldwell’s book had taken me on a journey that seemed so clearly to express the beliefs that had lain latent within me. That humanity, by virtue of the way we arrogantly view our place in nature, was busily and rapidly undermining not only the Earth’s capacity to sustain the biosphere and a whole host of ecosystems and species, but also the Earth’s capacity to sustain humanity. I was sure that we were heading for a cliff and here, in respectful, brilliant prose, Caldwell had beautifully presented the case as well as a possible path to avoid it.

He had described the role of science and scientists in helping us to understand the environment; of science’s role in helping shape local, national and global policy responses; for science and scientific study are always ahead of governance. He had described the geosphere and the biosphere before moving to describe what he saw, with the environmental movement in the vanguard, as a developing planetary paradigm where small changes in human values and beliefs could cause large changes in public policies.

Caldwell described what he saw as a set of science-based ethical propositions which open the way to an expanding view of man’s place in the cosmos, in his responsibilities on Earth. He contended that to accept these propositions was to enter a current of thought that moved beyond the boundaries of late 1980s conventional environmentalism – toward a theology of the Earth and of natural religion.

Caldwell’s propositions each have their own social and ethical implications, explored in the book but not described here. They are:
  1. The living world is a unity derived from a common molecular origin, shared by all living things among which mankind is exceptional, but not an exception.
  2. All life and its environment are subject to limits inherent in the cosmos. Not all that people might wish to do is possible and nothing that people do is done without cost.
  3. Such ‘rights’ as people enjoy are mutually conceded. Rights are irrelevant in the cosmos; humanity has no inherent rights against nature.
  4. Freedoms are conditional within the parameters of nature and the possibilities inherent in the circumstances of human society.
  5. The determining principle of human survival is behavior consistent with cosmic realities (i.e. with nature). The spacesuit epitomizes the human condition of biospheric dependency.
In his concluding section, Caldwell talks of a fragile yet emerging planetary polity, of facing planetary realities, shaping world institutions and attaining the attainable, beautifully describing and re-shaping what he calls the “rhetorical trap of sustainable development” and calling on us to open our minds to new thinking, to go “beyond sustainable development”; we should all read at least that section of his book.

I was left to reflect on Caldwell’s finale. The final paragraph in the main body of Caldwell’s text read:
    The history of humanity gives reason to believe that for all of the tragedies and errors of human behavior, mankind has an innate capacity to learn and evaluate experience. If this is so, it should be possible for humanity to move to a higher level of comprehension and existence. But this capacity may be insufficiently shared to avert disaster, or may be overridden by stronger inclinations. Survival may require a price that human society for whatever reason is unable or unwilling to pay. We have no assurance that humanity can surmount its environmental crisis; yet in the face of this uncertainty we have the option of acting as if it could. Here we go beyond science to a moral imperative, never better expressed than in this paraphrase by Miguel d’Unamuno”

    Man is perishable; but let us perish resisting,
    And if it is nothingness that awaits us,
    let us so act that it may be an unjust fate.
It was at this point, for only the second time in my life, that I had the sensation of having been given an extraordinary gift and as when something is given so unconditionally, so compassionately – it was for us, humanity’s future, that Caldwell had written – I felt like shedding tears for the purity of wisdom that Caldwell had shared.

Back then, there was no Wikipedia so I had no idea who Professor Caldwell was. I wrote to him to thank him for his book. He wrote back, sending me some of his other publications. I was honored to have received such communication from him and I became a disciple, not in the sense that I have since read everything he has ever written, but more in the sense that I carry his words, his five propositions for a theology of the Earth and of natural religion and the words of that closing verse with me wherever I go, I carry his wisdom in my heart.

Last summer, just over twenty years since its publication and my first reading, I decided to read his book again. How it disturbed me! Twenty years on and tragically, irresponsibly and possibly irretrievably, we appear to have totally failed to heed Caldwell’s warnings. Caldwell spoke of policy choices, of a climacteric, a turning point where humans might make wise decisions to enable them to live with the problems of population, of resources, of pollution. Caldwell quoted Eric Ashby who, in an address to Stanford University in 1978 noted that the seminarial problem facing humanity today is whether man can adapt himself to anticipate environmental constraints. Caldwell cited our response to the problems created by stratospheric ozone as an example of how we can respond. Yet, prescient in 1990, he warned of the consequences of our failure to deal with six large issues that for him, encompassed major anthropogenic threats to the integrity and renewability of the biosphere. Caldwell noted then that
    Laws, treaties, and technology, all other things unchanged, will be insufficient to arrest their destructive effects – much more will be necessary, not less than a new set of human behaviors in relation to human life on Earth.
Caldwell’s six large issues were:
  1. Loss of topsoil through erosion and qualitative deterioration.
  2. Depletion and degradation of fresh water.
  3. Contamination of the biosphere: of air, water, soil, and living things.
  4. Devegetation of the land by deforestation, especially equatorial rainforests and by desertification, especially of grasslands and semi-arid regions.
  5. Destruction of natural habitats caused by all of the foregoing and, in addition, by the damming and channelizing of rivers, filling or draining of lakes, estuaries, and marshes, and by expanding urbanization and agriculture.
  6. Loss of biological variety and diversity – species’ extinctions.
He noted that the consequences of these destructive trends and the anthropogenic forces that drive them are first, the breaking of the biogeochemical cycles revolving through air, land, and water, and organisms that keep the biosphere in homeostatic balance and permit its self-renewal and second, the impoverishment of the biosphere through loss of species and ecosystems. Caldwell pointed out that while the causes are disputed,
    even as the significance of the trends is denied by those for whom acceptance of their reality would threaten deep values and ideological commitments
, that two causes seem beyond question yet they are rejected or evaded by many, perhaps most, people. They are the inordinate increase and concentration of human populations and the ill-considered use of technology in exploiting the Earth’s resources. Both are linked by the concept of growth which Caldwell noted had, undefined, undifferentiated and vigorously asserted, become a talisman of modern political economy.

The attrition and degradation of the biosphere had become, for Caldwell, "a planetary reality which confronts humans." He noted that reluctance to face unpleasant realities is a common trait of human character yet he warned that" some environmental developments may become too threatening and pervasive to be ignored." Chief amongst these was the CO2 global warming trend, the disintegration of the ozone layer, acidic precipitation and the destruction of the world’s tropical forests.

Caldwell concluded that if the trends outlined in his book were allowed to continue indefinitely, even though partially moderated, they "will eventually turn back upon their progenitors". He noted that history appears to be accelerating and that we cannot be sure that the future may not arrive well in advance of expectations. Finally, Caldwell considered that:
    Denial of their significance does not change their reality, but may weaken the public will to take the actions necessary to arrest or reverse the destructive trends. For such will to be asserted on a planetary scale, a change in social beliefs, attitudes and priorities would be necessary with a speed and fervor for which only the outbreak of great war offers a partial precedent. That humans have the innate ability to make so dramatic a transformation seems plausible; that they will do so is uncertain.
That was 1990. How have we done since? Anyone following the UN Climate Change COP processes will, like me, be hanging their head. Meeting after meeting after precious meeting has come and gone with no progress, no firm decisions; our efforts to date rank testimony that we are not yet transforming. In 2006, Lord Stern released his report telling us the serious actions we needed to take to avoid a >2oC warming; advising governments, businesses, all of us that there was still time to act. Just this week, only six years later, the World Bank issued a report saying we are on track for >4 oC, this coming only weeks since PricewaterhouseCoopers told us we were trending toward >6oC.

The world’s tropical forests are disappearing at a rate that is unprecedented which given our past efforts at forest destruction shows how fully we have avoided all calls to save these critical ecosystems. Recently, WRI announced as a result of its mapping work in Indonesia that some 14 million hectares of degraded forest land was available for palm oil plantation development. On the one hand, this sounded like good news – why cut down further forest if you can plant this vast area of degraded land? Yet, few seemed to ponder where this 14 million hectares had come from. Sadly, it was former tropical forest that had been degraded by the depredations of the plywood industry over countless cutting cycles and illegal logging since the 1960s; plywood sold into global markets to meet consumer demand, much like the palm oil replacing the forests today. Have we learned nothing? And this only in Indonesia.

Everyday we’re reading more and more warnings from our scientists about the great species extinction happening rapidly yet invisibly before us. Soils are disappearing along with forests and species and yes, our populations are rising and our agricultural systems continue to destroy ecosystems and critical habitats. We appear to have gone seriously backward on each of Caldwell’s six large issues, and that despite countless meetings, UN processes, billions of dollars and other wasted energies.

Caldwell was an environmental policy professor but his book and his concerns were essentially for people. He forewarned us of the human tragedies we would cause through our misplaced treatment of the biosphere, of nature and this has been prescient as well. Everywhere we look, indigenous and local communities are being kicked off their land; “land- grabbing” is a new term with an ancient history not found in Caldwell’s book. Human rights are being abused but these abuses are tolerated, accepted as sad but necessary outcomes of the things we have to do, ladies and gentlemen, to feed ourselves, to grow.

Above all else, when I read Caldwell’s book again after those twenty years I felt deeply and completely saddened, grief stricken and dismayed really, at the lost time, the lost opportunity to have done something. Most of all, I was stricken by the terrible lack of leadership through that twenty year period. Caldwell and others before and since have shouted these warnings from the rooftops, yet no one hears and even if they do, no leader has emerged to take sufficient action to do anywhere near what is needed to address the issues we face; the Copenhagen climate change meeting the most tragic flop of all, despite many experts’ attempts to suggest it was a success.

But there are two worse things that emerge from reflections of how little distance we’ve travelled in that twenty years. First and foremost is the reason why leaders haven’t emerged. They haven’t emerged because we haven’t voted them in. Granted that it is not the sole responsibility of Western democracies to save the planet but their citizens’ failures over the past two decades to democratically elect anyone ready to address the planetary biosphere crisis tells us that we really aren’t hurting enough yet to take the issues seriously. Yet as the experts keep telling us, through our continued mis-treatment of the biosphere, we’re embedding 2, 4 and likely 6oC warming into the system now, a point beyond which no large mammals will survive. We’re slow-broiling our grandchildren, and the planet that might support them, to death.

The second is that our scientists are now not only universally ignored, they are even castigated and demeaned throughout the world when their findings don’t match our version of reality. Caldwell’s book beautifully described the link between science, the environmental movement and policy choice, noting how critical good science has been to wise policy decisions in the past. Our leaders now find it OK to just ignore science and to even castigate the scientists that push any findings that might disturb voting habits.

Yet, reality is coming home to roost and, again showing how prescient were Caldwell’s warnings, it’s accelerating faster than even our best scientists predicted. We’re seeing the Arctic ice cap shrinking to levels not foreseen for decades. Droughts and storm frequencies are more intense, more common. People are starting to discuss climate change over their dinner tables because the effects are hitting now.

Let’s return again to Caldwell. Professor Caldwell added a postscript to his book where he reminded us of the key question he had sought to address: whether humans acting through their institutions are capable of choosing and implementing decisions that will advance the prospect of a sustainable future at a high level of environmental quality. Caldwell affirms again in his postscript that humanity sits “between two worlds” where continuing as we have been seems to lead us further on the path to suffering and planetary collapse and where choosing a new path, one that more clearly recognizes mankind’s relationship to the cosmos, remains an option but one we are not certain to take. Key for Caldwell is our human nature and whether we have the capacity to make the fundamental changes that are needed or whether they will inevitably be forced upon us with concomitant suffering and possibly extinction.

Caldwell noted that
    ours is a libertarian age in which freedom, liberation, self-expression, and rights of all kinds are vigorously asserted and defended. Freedom, undefined, appears to be the most widespread generalized goal of our time – and the personal freedom most sought for appears to be freedom to realize one’s own individual identity. Very often, however, this freedom is expressed in self-centered behavior that appears to deny meaningful relationships with the larger humanity and with nature. In effect this introverted effort primarily seeks freedom from responsibility.
Reading his words again at the start of 2012, I was reminded of the emergence of the Tea Party as a political movement in the US who, to an outsider at least, appear to push the whole concept of ‘individual freedom’ very strongly. Their candidate for the US Presidency recently lost the election, which perhaps is a symbol of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape of impending biosphere collapse.

What then are we to do?

Now, as in 1990, I am reminded by Caldwell’s concluding poem – if we are to perish, we should perish resisting, and we should act as though it may be an unjust fate.

Despite the genuine horrors of humanity’s war against nature, ultimately against humanity itself, I remain hopeful. I am not full of hope; I do believe that our current world is doomed and I believe that we will be unable to change it through our current political institutions; they just aren’t structured to deal with the scale and pace of the impending planetary crisis.

I believe without doubt that we face catastrophe and that countless species will perish, that we will continue to pollute and desecrate our planet and that we ourselves may perish. The old order must implode before we move to a new world because we are unable and unwilling to carefully and constructively dismantle it; too many people have too much to gain from the status quo. But I also believe that we must continue to fight and to resist and that the fighting and resisting must be done at a local level; we cannot wait for national political leaders to emerge and champion the cause; too many of us seek our individual freedom to vote such a leader into power just yet. As for the UN, I do not hold my breath yet pray that I am wrong and that something useful might someday emerge from their tortured processes.

People only change when they’re uncomfortable and perhaps the recent climate related disasters around the world, particularly those in the US, will start a change in thinking. Yet, the longer we wait for someone else to lead, the more we risk out-sourcing our responsibility to others. It is now more critical than ever that we each undertake our own personal actions toward a new world.

Our personal responsibility is to continue to send messages to our leaders but more importantly, each of us has to do something in our day to redress our damaged relationship with nature. I’m constantly inspired by people everywhere who continue to fight, who are constantly innovating and reconnecting, not accepting enforced false wisdom, who promote new ways, new solutions. We each have to find our partners, our networks of true believers, of people working with the same values as ourselves, working within a global murmuration of humanity fighting, resisting in their own way to set things right, struggling together on the path to this new world.

I recently had the privilege to watch a presentation by Wade Davis about the wisdom of the world’s indigenous communities (the disappearance of whose languages is yet another aspect of our impending planetary crisis) and I was uplifted by hope that these elders, these people who have not lost their deep connection to nature might yet be our guides to a new world. How true would it be if it were these suppressed, disrespected people who eventually emerge as our leaders?

In the end, I think we can all shed a tear for the unheeded wisdom of the elders who live among us; indigenous elders especially but also elders, like Caldwell, from our own tribe who spoke with such clarity and prescience to warn us, had we been ready to listen, of the troubled path we are on.

Let us keep resisting then. Let us take to the wing in our own murmuration of free spirits who, like Caldwell, continue to dream and fight for a new world based on a fundamentally different set of values and beliefs. Let us fight and point out disconnects where we see them in programs and projects that remain stuck in our wrong-headed thinking, in our current world. Let’s commit to always proposing solutions; solutions consistent with Caldwell’s five propositions for a theology of the Earth. Hopefully, enough of us will survive the impending planetary crisis that after it has passed, we may help humanity to find a different way, indeed an old way, of reconnecting with nature, of seeing ourselves part of it, not dominant over it.

There is merit in the view that what you want will only be yours when the struggle is forsaken. Perhaps we have to completely resign ourselves, to let go in the face of our impending fate before we can find a way to avert it. Above all else, I hope that if we all keep our faces pointing full into the coming storm, that humanity might emerge the other side intact, but changed.



Scott Poynton (Twitter: @scottpoynton) lives in Switzerland with his wife and two children. He graduated with a forestry degree from the Australian National University in 1988 before completing a Masters program at Oxford University in 1991. He founded The Forest Trust (TFT) in 1999 after working in Nepal, Tasmania, Vietnam, the UK, Eastern Europe and throughout SE Asia. He has served as TFT’s Executive Director ever since. Today, Poynton’s focus is on seeking solutions to problems created by humanity’s use of the Earth’s resources. In the future, he hopes to get ahead of the curve and rather than working to clean up messes, he hopes to influence the way humans see themselves in nature and thus to change the way they act to prevent problems arising in the first place.













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CITATION:
Commentary by Scott Poynton, special to mongabay.com (January 06, 2013).

Between Two Worlds: Tears for the Unheeded Wisdom of Elders.

http://news.mongabay.com/2013/0106-scott-poynton-commentary.html