Last weekend I attended a conference organised by Victoria University of Wellington and the New Zealand Centre for Public Law, entitled “New Thinking on Sustainability”. The three days of talks were an inspiring insight into what some of our best minds are working on with respect to realigning our legal and social system with the finite limits of ecology. What follows is part one of my summary.
The conference kicked off on Friday afternoon with a workshop on wild law and the rights of nature led by Michelle Maloney. Wild law, or earth jurisprudence, is a legal school of thought that rejects the separation between man and environment, instead working place humanity within the context of the wider biosphere. This key shift involves a number of related concepts: acknowledging the value of all life, obligations of stewardship and various legal mechanisms to help facilitate this change. Rights for nature form a key part of this canon, working within the existing legal paradigm to better balance societal conduct towards nature, empowering citizens to protect the environment we all depend on.
Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s keynote speech focused on some of the history of sustainability and its legal framing: sustainable development. Despite the widespread recognition of this term, Palmer pointed out that it is failing to achieve its aims. It has been 40 years since the first Earth Day in 1970 and conditions on our precious earth continue to deteriorate. In his own words: “environment and development may be incompatible within the same paradigm.”
Later speakers further emphasized this, pointing out the impact of the dominance of economic thought, state sovereignty and our short-term political systems – and how these militate to block collective action for climate change and all our other environmental problems. Sustainable development’s ubiquity stems from its ability to fit within the existing paradigm of growth, with governments focusing on development with reduced impacts on the earth, rather than development within earth’s finite limits – the actual meaning of the term.
It was pointed out that the current contraction of environmentalism in the halls of government (with Australia, Canada and New Zealand all name checked as examples) is a direct response to the global financial crisis, with the environment marginalized in the scramble to respond to the shortages that it has produced. Sir Geoffrey Palmer was critical of this, stating that the commitments in Rio in 1992 were insufficient and that our retreat from even these is cause for concern. Environment and development are inherently linked, and our ongoing failure to acknowledge this is a failure of rational economic governance. In Palmer’s words, what we need is a “transformative change”.
The following speaker, Professor Klaus Bosselmann, focused on the contradictions between our current conceptions of property rights, the exclusion that they foster, and the cooperation necessary to address our environmental issues. Bosselmann pointed out the link between the neoliberal politics and our increasingly wealth inequality, and suggested that enclosure – the privisitisation of common areas and resources to the exclusion of others – is the number one obstacle to a sustainable future.
His response to Palmer’s call for a transformative shift was a return to sustainability in the absolute, no longer bounded by development and the confusion that this fosters, but sustainability as conceived of by 18th century German philosophers: the most essential principle for a flourishing society. This form of sustainability requires conduct within the limits of what the earth can sustain and, as Bosselmann pointed out, has always been the alternative to the current collapse and all its dissociation from what our finite world can sustain. He quoted the 1809 Encyclopedia of German Language, where sustainability is defined as “that which you hold on to, when nothing holds any longer”.
Bosselmann’s suggestion was that New Zealand needs a “constitutional moment” akin to that which took place in German in the late 1980s, culminating in the creation of their Green Party and the consciousness that is responsible for their position as environmental vanguards today. As New Zealand’s law currently stands, sustainability and the long term agenda that it requires is blocked by parliamentary supremacy and the short term nature of our parliamentary term – with successive governments undermining each other and chipping away at the core concepts that underlie the law. The solution to this dilemma is constitutional protection, providing a continuity that transcends the government of the day and ensuring that what matters most is protected from erosion.
Part of this change involves a shift to non-negotiable environmental lines as measured using the internationally recognised concept of ecological integrity. This would provide a break from existing balancing and achieve the transformative shift called for, establishing sustainability as a prerequisite for development.
The next day commenced with a lecture from Linda Sheehan discussing her role in enacting the Santa Monica Sustainability Bill of Rights. Part of this involved a critical analysis of our systemic barriers: the goal of infinite growth on a finite world, the maxim of private wealth; and GDP as a measure of health. Unsurprisingly, Sheehan stated that staying the course is not an option, echoing many other speakers. This was a general trend of the conference: the consensus that we have gone beyond the point of discussion. Our system is clearly failing us, and now is the time to act.
In Santa Monica this action has taken the form of local ordinances recognising rights of nature, giving natural communities rights to exist and maintain their cycles while empowering citizens to enforce these rights. This shift towards rights for nature is an explicit response to the threat of corporate power and the impact that this can have on local communities. Santa Monica isn’t alone in this action, and a number of different American communities have enacted similar laws, working towards the sort of transformative shift that Palmer referred to. As Sheehan noted, “rights-based movements can fundamentally change our relationship with nature to one of respect – not dominance”.
There was plenty more discussed over the weekend, so stay tuned for more updates – including a number of suggestions for the different ways in which we might work towards the “transformative shift” discussed.