Reflections on the Rights of Nature conference

Feb 10, 2015 Comments Off on Reflections on the Rights of Nature conference by

The rights of nature conference at the Nottingham Contemporary Arts Centre and Gallery took place to further elaborate the theme of the exhibition opened the previous night. It was a major event for Nottingham. It brought to us some really important themes and ideas from and about global ecological politics. It informed us about how people who live in the Americas, north and south, have attempted to get to grips with the frightening scale and intensity of the ecological crisis. Themes and idea were presented by artists and activists that I have previously only heard in conferences abroad – for example in Berlin.

One theme in particular came out very strongly, over and again. This was that human rights of and for indigenous peoples and the protection of the rights of nature, of mother earth, of the living eco-systems in which they live, are two sides of the same coin. What this conference did, and what the arts exhibition does splendidly too, was to portray the world view, the thinking, culture and ways of life of indigenous people that has led, for example in Ecuador, to the adoption of the rights of mother nature, Pachamama, into the constitution of that country. This is a legal precedent and “a first” with far reaching consequences.

And yet….I had my hand up over and again during this conference because there was something that I wanted to say but never got chosen to make my points – so I am writing these points down here.

As the conference proceeded it seemed to me that there is a need to elucidate and understand what are the features of “non indigenous people”. Although a lot was said about indigenous people, the main thing that was not said, was the need for a self examination of non indigenous people. I am an non indigenous person and so were most the of the conference participants in the audience. Also the overwhelming majority of people who will see the exhibition over the next few weeks will be non indigenous. A vital dimension of self understanding was not explored in the conference although there were one or two hints – for example, when Mabe Bethonico read a text in which a shaman described his perception of the ideas of the non indigenous people. It was about how we appear to indigenous people.

At various points in the conference non indigenous people were variously as colonialists, as euro-centric peoples, as white people. All these labels have an element of descriptive accuracy. They express partial truths in their own way but do not touch on the core differences between indigenous and non-indigenous.

So let me get to the heart of this matter and describe what I feel is the difference. At the risk of over simplifiying all indigenous people belong to particular places. In contrast non indigenous people belong no where in particular – although places may belong to them – which is not at all the same thing.

At various parts of the proceedings people described land belonging to indigenous peoples – but strictly speaking this is not an accurate description because it is the wrong way round. They do not own the land that they live in – it “owns” them. They do not own the earth – it owns them. Or, more accurately still, they are walking and sentient pieces of this earth from which they come and to which they will go back. That is why it is Pachamama – mother earth and not simply “the environment” or “natural resources”. In that sense the plants and animals where they live are kin – non human persons that are part of the same place as them, non human persons interpreting and deciding how to live as parts of the Great Spirit that infuses life through the whole of a place – a place where their ancestors are buried and where they too will be buried. And because this is all their kin they have a responsibility to it and for it. As their ancestors have always been there the place, with its plants and animals, its natural features, its climate and its water flows, are all deeply understood and deeply committed to. They are a part of evolving kin relationships. The stories of the people are about the place and help them understand it. This story, in which their personal story is interwoven, is a story of ancestors and of generations to come – not only of their children, but of their children too, often to 7 generations in the future, who must be protected.

A society like this has “nature protection” built into its identity, its culture and its spirituality. It is the living embodiment of ecological sustainability and almost all forms of “development” where OUTSIDERS come in with promise to make life better are, for good reason, suspect.

What I am describing here is a human community living inside and as part of a natural community of different species. A human community living as a genuine community looks after all its members who have a variety of needs and a nature community, consisting of a pattern of interacting plants and animals, is characterised by variety. This diversity, this variety, is necessary for both the community and eco-system to produce and reproduce itself. To preserve the community of humans and of life forms the different people and species must be held in a balance that protects the diversity. Life requires diversity – the natural cycles of the plants and animals and humans must feed each other in a cyclical pattern.

What is called “development” is not like this – it is the way of living of a non indigenous society. Non indigenous societies are formed when the diversity characterising communities of people in communities of species is dissolved. People and corporations take no responsibility for a community of people or for non human beings living in particular places. Rather if they “own” those places, then they make claims that expropriate and impose a radical reduction in variety and diversity in favour of their single purposes for the place concerned.

Their single purpose is making money by extracting and selling – for example timber, cattle, silver, oil, gas.

Adam Smith had a development model of historical evolution which he defined as “progress” – first there was the age of the hunter gatherers. Then there was the age of the pastoralists. Then there was an age of agriculture and finally – the ultimate form of development – the age of commerce. Anyone living in “earlier” forms of economic life were by definition “primitives” who must be “helped” into the age of commerce. This ideology of “progress” and “improvement” is still with us today. It is what underpins the idea of “development” and the idea of “developing” countries who have not yet made it to “maturity”.

However, it was never really like that. The age of commerce was characterised by specialisation and exchange. But specialised people create specialised places. Specialised places see a radical reduction of diversity.

Non indigenous people are, by definition, people without a relationship to the human and non human communities (“eco-systems”) in particular places. “Land” is a place turned into a “resource” and/or an amenity or a production location. Land belongs to particular people or corporations – and people who do not own land must pay for a location to live and work.

Non indigenous people mostly have no particular loyalty to, or understanding of, the place that they live – why should they have? Most places are very much like any other – there will be a MacDonalds there, a Walmart or an equivalent, water is piped to their houses and sewerage piped away. If people move to find work so that they have money for Walmart, they will find an urban world much the same wherever they go.

Non indigenous people are therefore quite literally the descendants of “dis-placed” and “dis-located” ancestors. They do not belong to places although, if they are rich, places may belong to them. Most non indigenous people obviously have a superficial familiarity to the rural or urban landscapes in which they live but know nothing about the eco-system in the places that they live. Nor could they have that knowledge – because the eco-systems that sustain cities are partly engineered infrastructures channelling water and drainage and land use but the sources of food and sustenance are spread across the entire world global economy. We are talking here of just in time production systems, assembling products made of multiple components, co-ordinated with and through infrastructures of transport, energy, and finance. Our “non-indigenous” “eco-system”, the anthropocene, is animated in the form of trillions of technical and mechanical devices powered almost exclusively by fossil fuels and voraciously requiring an inputs of material resources – extracted from plantations, from mines, from oil and gas fields, fracked and unfracked.

In the so called “developed” economies, non indigenous people – which is most of us – work and shop and get into debt. We mostly have no interest in local ecology because local ecology is an urban landscape organised by town planners, architects and civil engineers. Alternatively it is a radically simplified countryside where farmers define any living being that they do not want to see growing on “their land” as a pest or a weed. There is virtually no “nature” for us non indigenous peoples to have a relationship with except gardens and allotments, and some scraps of land for which farmers have no use and which are therefore given over to a dwindling amount of wildlife.

The eco-systems that people lived in where European populations could themselves be described as “indigenous” have all but been destroyed during a process over several centuries called the enclosures.

This is a description of the diversity of the pre-enclosure landscape in the East Anglian countryside as remembered by the 19th century english “peasant poet”, John Clare:

“I grew so much into the quiet love of nature’s preserves that I was never easy but when I was in the fields passing my sabbaths and leisure with the shepherds and herdboys as fancys prompted sometimes playing at marbles on the smooth-beaten sheeptracks or leapfrog among the thymy molehills sometimes running among the corn to get the red & blue flowers for cockades to play at soldiers or running into the woods to hunt strawberries or stealing peas in churchtime when the owners were safe to boil at the gypseys fire who went half-shares at our stolen luxury we heard the bells chime but the field was our church.”

Later, however, a poem by Clare reflected on “progress” and “development”

“Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours/ Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers/ Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,/ And hath been once, no more shall ever be/Inclosure came and trampled on the grave/ Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave/.”

The diversity characterising the communities and the eco-systems in which indigenous peoples live, and which constitutes their identity and quality of life, and which it is their responsibility to protect, no longer exists..This is what ‘development’ means. This is what “progress” means. Buen vivir, the rights of Mother Earth are incompatible with “development and growth” because they destroy the diversity and the balance. Buen vivir is incompatible with growth which destroys the balance of ecological relationships.

In his book The Greatest Estate on Earth, the historian Bill Gammage describes how the aboriginal people of Australia managed the entire landscape and eco-system of the Australian continent before the British settlers started to arrive at the end of the 18th century. The aboriginal people saw it as their spiritual duty not to “grow” an “agricultural economy” but to manage the landscape and eco-system in such a way as that it remained the same. They did this by the controlled use of fire and, to some degree, by the management of water flows. To maintain the eco-system required an intimate knowledge of every aspects of the land and its species but it also mean living off surpluses and culling species in temporary surplus and living from them. The sites more productive of life and fertility were held to be sacred and remained untouched so that plants and animals always had a place to regrow from in difficult times – this was the very opposite to the way that a market society exploits the most productive sites first.

Far from being “primitive” as the settlers arrogantly assumed this meant that that aboriginal people had to “work” at most 3 hours a day and could spend the rest of the time in leisure, chatting and ceremonies – whereas the settlers worked 8 to 12 hours and day and completely messed up the ecological system that they did not understand. Before the arrival of the dis-placed English settlers the aboriginal people had lived like this for at least 8,000 years, perhaps 25,000 years.

Note again – this was a society of leisure, with the aborigines living as “a free people” in parks that were not unlike the “gentlemen’s parks” in England, created by their own management. This landscape was not maintained by aiming for “growth”, nor by deepening “specialisation” nor by “technology and mechanisation” but by seeking to find a balance for the ecological system in all its features and diversity and then retaining it as it was. The real “primitives” were the settlers with their religion of economics, development and improvement.

Adam Smith’s “Age of Commerce” brought about a division of labour driven by the property owners – the psychopaths who took it for granted that they had the right to kill, to dispossess and enslave and, with the aid of government, drove a deepening division of labour and specialisation of people, together with an increasing powered mechanisation. But the specialisation of people but to a specialisation of land and places at regional, national and international levels in a way later theorised by Ricardo and other economists in the new religion for non-indigenous society, economics.

The specialisation of land forced most people, who had been dispossessed, to move. They become part of the displaced and dislocated. They become non indigenous. They go to “look for work”. Their labour is now on sale as just another commodity. Meanwhile the land to which they belonged has single uses imposed on it. These single uses preclude other uses – monoculture crops or extraction of minerals and fossil fuels. In each case the result is toxicity and death as an inevitable result. What is called “development” inevitably involves killing. If you want to grow only one crop then all other plants and animals are competitors for the space and are defined as pests or weeds. If you want to extract oil or gas then the poisoning of water and air and soils, the pipeline corridors and the installations, make places unfit for other use. The war against diversity requires fossil fuels and techno-fixes. When communities of people rise against these incursions they are killed too.

At one point someone in the conference, I think they had a background in therapy, started to try to ask in what way we non indigenous people could change the way we thought and reacted to things.

I hope I have shown here is that it is not nearly as simple as that. The psychology and mind set of non indigenous people are the result of their way of life connected into the global division of labour, which has brought non indigenous people to the point where they are prepared to sacrifice everything on the altar of mechanical technology, including their own lives and that of their children, – so as to be able to continue shopping and worshipping their great God: Economic Growth.

The way ahead is therefore not only or even mainly mental, conceptual and ethical – a “change of hearts and minds” is not enough. It has to be translated into a change in production systems and an attempt to recreate communities of people who share the purpose of re-creating natural diversity, communities of species, appropriate to places that can function as genuine ecological systems. This is a process of land and natural reclamation and re-creation that will not be easy – not mainly for ecological reasons – eco-design systems like permaculture can help on that – but for reasons of property division, institutions, law and ideological (mis)understanding. Not the least of the problems is the fact that although the fossil fuel industry is currently in crisis, it nevertheless has enormous momentum and its agendas, like the promotion of fracking, have the potential of poisoning the soil, atmosphere, groundwater and land. At the worse this could cut off the access to uncontaminated land that is necessary to recreate the productive eco-systems that we need – and particularly to sequester large amounts of carbon in soils, trees and biomass.

(The themes of this article are covered in depth in my forthcoming book Credo: Economic Beliefs of A World in Crisis) – please feel free to pass on to whoever might be interested.

Featured image: Parking lot. Author: Ariel da Silva Parreira Source:

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About the author

Brian Davey trained as an economist but, aside from a brief spell working in eastern Germany showing how to do community development work, has spent most of his life working in the community and voluntary sector in Nottingham particularly in health promotion, mental health and environmental fields. He helped form Ecoworks, a community garden and environmental project for people with mental health problems. He is a member of Feasta Climate Working Group and former co-ordinator of the Cap and Share Campaign. He is editor of the Feasta book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, and the author of Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis.

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