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Harmony with Nature: Toward an Earth Jurisprudence

30 Nov


[Prefatory Note: This post consists of my responses to four questions asked of 189 ‘experts’ around the world by a project of the UN Harmony with Nature Network, as assembled through the good offices of my friend, Barbara Baudot. To have access to the responses of others go to This corpus of work is a rich depository of global wisdom relevant to the most original and daunting challenge ever to have faced humanity as a whole. My own approach is based on the biopolitical imperative in this historical period of developing an ecological consciousness for the sake of human wellbeing, and possibly species survival. Reestablishing rapport with nature has become a postmodern necessity. It is helpful to recall that rapport based on the recognition of human dependence on nature had been an essential feature of pre-modern reality.]


2016 Virtual Dialogue on Harmony with Nature – Theme Earth Jurisprudence


  1. What would the practice of Philosophy/Ethics look like from an Earth Jurisprudence perspective? How is that different from the way that Philosophy/Ethics is generally practiced now? And, what are the benefits of practicing Philosophy/Ethics from an Earth Jurisprudence perspective?


My concerns have concentrated upon the ethical, legal, and philosophical dimensions of international political behavior. From a disciplinary orientation there was almost no attention given to Earth Jurisprudence perspectives beyond occasional concerns for local pollution issues until the 1970s when there was a sudden surge of interest associated with limits on the earth’s capacity to deal with a variety of pressures caused by global industrial growth and demographic trends. The publication of Limits to Growth became a major event, anticipating the need for drastic changes in consumption patterns, industrial behavior, resource conservation, and population increase within a matter of decades to avoid ecological disaster. This surge of concern also produced negative reactions to such dire assessments of the global situation, dismissing the recommendations as alarmist and exaggerated.


More moderate reactions suggested that environmental regulation should be enhanced, but that the basic earth ecosystems were not at serious risk. In this respect, there did emerge a certain awareness that the normative order could no longer proceed without taking account of ecological factors, but at the same time, technological innovation many believed could extend the limits of the earth’s carrying capacity almost indefinitely. In this regard, a dominant disciplinary orientation of ecological complacency allowed the basic dynamic of economic growth and expanding consumer demand to continue without surrounding sensitivities to the surrounding realities of nature. There was also present a resolve in the non-Western countries to reject any policy claims based on environmental protection that encroached upon the primacy of economic and social development.


The onset of global concerns about climate change from the early 1990s has increased the disciplinary recognition of ‘earth jurisprudence’ for normative guidance encompassing philosophical speculation, legal guidelines, and ethical imperatives. As such, there have evolved two sets of dominant approaches: (1) a public/private partnership perspective in which ecologically responsible behavior is introduced into the operations of business, the formation of governmental policy, and the opinion-shaping role of the UN and other international institutions. (2) a critical perspective skeptical about the reconcilability of either a market-oriented economic order or a state-centric system of world order to cope with the challenges of climate change, biodiversity, and especially to meet these challenges in a manner responsive to the priorities of the climate justice movement. In (1) reliance is placed on a top-down approach that regards technology and rationality as providing the vital ingredients for an appropriate earth jurisprudence. In (2) reliance is placed on a bottom-up approach that is value-driven in ways that question prevailing ideologies associated with neoliberal globalization and nationalism, giving primacy to the reconstruction of civilization around ecological principles of sustainability and a collaborative relationship with the natural environment.


By and large, the academic disciplines associated with normative concerns have not identified the central structural obstacle that limits the influence of earth jurisprudence—the absence of institutional capabilities and ideological understanding to identify and implement the global public interest or the 2


human/nature interest. One line of conjecture is whether to conceptualize earth jurisprudence as ‘ecological humanism’ or ‘humanistic ecology.’



  1. What promising approaches do you recommend for achieving implementation of an Earth- centered worldview for Philosophy/Ethics? (Note: depending on the discipline, approaches could also be theoretical, although practical approaches should be prioritized).


Worldwide appreciation of the climate change challenge is exerting a significant impact upon how normative disciplines conceive of their relationship to reality, with a much greater realization that ecological sensitivity is bound up with species wellbeing, and even survival. This impact is still marginal because the majority of scholarship continues to be devoted to traditional concerns such as security, uses of force, trade and investment with no attention paid to adverse effects on the natural surroundings. Security studies are particularly notorious, focusing inquiry on counterterrorism and asymmetric warfare with the main normative interest directed toward whether international humanitarian law needs to revised or selectively abandoned in response to the sort of transnational tactics being employed by non-state political actors with extremist goals.


I think it is long overdue to bring an earth-centered view into war/peace studies. I attempted to do this to some extent more than 40 years ago in my book This Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Human Survival. Unlike other treatments of ecological dangers in the 1970s, which almost totally ignored ecological considerations associated with war except in the context of a rather distinct concern with the environmental effects of a major nuclear war (‘nuclear winter’ and more recently, ‘nuclear famine’). There was some attention paid to earth effects in response to the deliberate burning of oil fields by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Gulf War of 1992. In my book, the basic idea put forward was that ‘the war system’ as such was inconsistent with a prudent and humane approach to the overall dynamics of human/earth interactivity.


In the course of a 21st century inquiry into harmony with nature I think it is long overdue to question war itself as a source of systemic disharmony with nature. A second emphasis would be on giving priority, morally, legally, and politically, to nuclear disarmament for its own sake, and as a first step toward the demilitarization of political relations on the planet. These fundamental questions of war and peace should be put on top of the agenda of work associated with the philosophical and ethical inquiries into harmony with nature.



  1. What key problems or obstacles do you see as impeding the implementation of an Earth- centered worldview in Philosophy/Ethics?


There are several obstacles that block the adoption and implementation of an earth-centered worldview in ethics and philosophy. For the most part mainstream thinking for several centuries in the West has been anthropocentric in its outlook, assuming above all that aside from the vertical relationship between humanity and the sacred there was no serious challenge to a species centered view of reality, and that policy and practices should be shaped to fulfill the values and goals of human society no matter how a particular political community was being governed.

Less philosophically fundamental, but more immediately relevant, is an economic logic that connects material growth, as measured by GNP, with human wellbeing, and also gives priority to the efficiency of capital in promoting this growth. Given such priorities, the ravaging of the earth has been a 3


consequence, and even minimally necessary environmental regulation is widely opposed as constraining economic activity. The development premise of growth as the key to progress also encourages the inflation of demand through advertising and other forms of manipulation of human desires.


It is also relevant to take note of the global fragmentation that results from the dynamics of a state-centric system of world order, where those who act on behalf of states are seeking to maximize the national interest without worrying too much about the human or ecological interests are at stake. Governments are dependent on fulfilling the expectations of the nation, with little thought given to the natural surrounding or to the implications for the earth.

In discussions of nuclear weaponry, and what to do about them, there is rarely present an earth- centered participant. Most of the debate about the dangers of such weaponry to produce catastrophic warfare centers upon speculation that any use will cause massive human suffering. Even commentary on effects of use in causing a nuclear winter or nuclear famine are directed at what such an event will do to human society and civilization.

Overall, to get beyond the Anthropocene will require a new earth-centered imaginary that is only beginning to be understood as related to the wellbeing and survival of the human species. The essence of this imaginary is a recovery of the pre-modern awareness of many indigenous peoples and others that human society would succeed only so long as there was maintained a harmonious relationship with nature, and that it was natural events more than human endeavor that determined whether society did well and persisted.


The challenge to contemporary philosophy and ethics is to fashion an earth-centered jurisprudence that can reshape the dominant imaginary in ways that privilege a collaborative relationship between human activity and its natural surroundings. To move in this direction is to move beyond the Anthropocene and to transform the logic of profitability that continues to control economic activity. If this kind of transition is to have systemic effects it must also challenge the dominance of neoliberal capitalism and the ideological predispositions of nationalism. Earth-centeredness also implies wholeness, conceiving of the species and world as forms of unity, and rejecting the logic that now gives priority to the part as distinct from the whole whether it be the individual versus the community or the state versus the world.



  1. What are the top recommendations for priority, near-term action to move Philosophy/Ethics toward an Earth Jurisprudence approach? What are the specific, longer-term priorities for action? (Note: give 3 to 10 priorities for action).


I begin with a reflection questioning whether an emphasis on disciplinary orientation is not itself as aspect of the prevailing imaginary that privileges the part over the whole. Whether we can see holistically, yet remain within the confines of our particular discipline, informs the search for the contours of an Earth Jurisprudence. What is important is to establish a moral epistemology that is guided by a post-Anthropocene imaginary.

With respect to philosophy and ethics I am not sure that it is helpful to posit priorities for action until the recommended orientation emerges with coherence and is supported by a consensus of those deemed wise and respected in different world civilizations. 4


For longer term, the obvious emphasis should be placed on creating balances between resources and carrying capacity of the earth with suitable attention being given to beauty as an integral aspect of achieving harmony with nature and to the spiritual appreciation of living within the confines of an ecological civilization.


It seems to me that the short-term priorities are a matter of acknowledging that a planetary state of emergency exists, and calls for urgent responses to avoid raising risks of catastrophe brought about by irresponsible behavior. Such responses include the following:

–imposing a carbon tax to reduce the global warming effects of rising levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere; creating a monitoring and verification mechanism that ensures that the behavior of all states is established and efforts made to restore compliance with pledged reductions;

–a crash course to educate the peoples of the world as to the waste of resources associated with the war system, including costs in terms of human suffering that derive from uses of force to resolve conflicts among states;

–establishing a tribunal to determine all claims by governments and civil society actors relating to questions of ecological sustainability.


For the longer term, the development of an earth-centered imaginary that replaces current reliance on a state-centric geopolitical agency is a vital task confronting 21st century philosophers. Such an imaginary would permit the reformulation of international law as global law that embodied an ethical imperative to serve the human interest as transcending in normative authority the national interest that currently steers public policy.