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Standing Apart From Nature

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“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place, the consequences on which we are counted, but in the second and third places, it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. Thus, at every step, we are reminded that we, by no means, rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.”

The above quote written by Friedrich Engels in 1883, over a century ago, shows that humans have had the bent to assume mastery of nature for a long time. This assumption of mastery has often led humans to think that they are not part of nature, but that it is their responsibility to exploit nature and also strive to make her more efficient in her processes.

Standing apart from nature has inevitably beclouded our understanding of what nature herself is. To some, nature refers to specific places that can be designated as pristine, untouched, and a sort of wilderness. Synonyms for nature include the earth, living things, Mother Nature, Mother Earth, the universe, creation, environment, cosmos, scenery, etc. The range of these words shows that the concept of nature is indeed wide.

The point is that the way we define nature affects the way we relate to and understand natural things, places and territories. In terms of current experience, nature is often considered a commodity and aspects of nature are classed as environmental services. Such services include those provided by rivers, forests and even insects when it comes to pollination, for example. This understanding of nature as a commodity places her as an item of trade and is the basic background to what has been termed the ‘green economy.’

The characterisation of nature as a commodity has led some conservationists to see the market as the proper arena for resolving environmental challenges. Indeed, one often hears of the claim that nature can best be preserved or protected when her monetary value is known. Thus, market environmentalism supposes that without placing monetary value on nature,   humans cannot grasp why they should invest energy, thought or actions to ensure that the natural cycles of Mother Earth are not disrupted.

This trajectory has had serious implications on environmental action at national, regional and global levels. It gave rise to the marketisation of pollution and emissions, enabling polluting corporations to purchase the right to pollute. This right to pollute is manifest in emissions trading schemes where pollution rights or caps are issued for particular entities and those who cannot pollute up to the allotted levels are free to sell off the extra rights and those who are more egregious in polluting can buy up more space to continue with their acts.

Emissions trading and offsetting assume that it does not matter where emissions reduction is carried out as the impact is essentially global and would balance out. The problem with this mechanistic concept is that it is all based on our limited understanding of the intricacies of the webs of life. Think of the estimation of carbon stored in trees or in a forest, for instance. Knowledge of the amount of carbon in a tree is basically an assumption. The lifespan of particular trees in a forest and whether they would store carbon in perpetuity is also a suspect notion. We recall that at the height of the debate about deforestation in Nigeria, a top governor posited that cutting down older trees and replacing them with saplings was the best way to ensure heightened carbon storage as, according to him, saplings store more carbon than the old trees.

Market environmentalism provides a cover for inaction. Air pollution cannot be beaten by emissions offsetting or even trading if polluting activities such as gas flaring, burning of crude oil and wastes, emissions from cement factories, bush burning, etc. are not halted.

The world needs a citizens-driven participatory systems as opposed to working on the platform of a poorly defined green economy, which in its application, is a euphemism for green capitalism. We note that massive environmental degradation has been promoted through the subversion of the democratic space, exclusion of citizens and the appropriation of these spaces for decisions and actions favourable mostly to vested interests.

Market fundamentalism has been enthroned at the highest policy-making levels as the absolute creed for progress and environmental protection. This has elevated the widely disputed platform of the green economy, sometimes interpreted by environmental justice advocates as the greed economy. As already noted, seeing ourselves as apart from nature makes inevitable, the market environmentalism that insists that the basis for nature can only be preserved when it is assigned monetary value. With such a neoliberal construct, speculators have the opportunities to reap profits from ecological destruction originating from, but not limited to extractivism, land grabs, genetic manipulations and a number of techno-fixes that ensure the reign of monopolies. We need to soberly agree that we are part of nature and that we cannot pay our way through ecological crimes.

 

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