United Nations Dialogue: Harmony with Nature
By Ian Mason, School of Economics, London, UK.
In April 2014, the School of Economic Science had the honor of joining U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and General Assembly President Vuk Jeremić for an Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature to commemorate International Mother Earth Day. New York Times journalist Andrew Revkin moderated the discussion involving invited panelists and member states on alternative economic approaches that further a more ethical relationship between humanity and the Earth.
Our collective responsibility to promote harmony with nature
Today is a “chance to reaffirm our collective responsibility to promote harmony with nature,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, urging the UN General Assembly “to confront the hard truth that our planet is under threat.”
Mr. Ban also noted the growing momentum among world leaders to support sustainable development, citing in particular the efforts of Bolivia, whose Constitution specifically adopted a legal framework that protects Mother Earth.
The General Assembly’s President, Vuk Jeremic, emphasized that “the irreversible torrent of physical and ecological transformations across the globe is threatening us with a future reality that is profoundly different from anything that we have experienced until now.” As a result, the General Assembly is planning for a series of events to boost the efforts towards the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and is seeking proposals for the post-2015 agenda.
The School’s proposal was to start form the principle, One World, One Wealth. The test is Economics with Justice – the view that the real measure of economic success is whether the outcomes of economic policies and practices is justice for all participants. Against that test, contemporary understanding and practice of economics fails.
Mother Earth and human effort applied to land
The link with Mother Earth is to realise that all material wealth has one common source: human effort applied to land. Every single atom of material used for human production and consumption has its origins in the Earth. As we hear from the Indian epic, the Mahabharata: “Earth, if its resources are properly developed according to its qualities and prowess, is like an ever-yielding cow, from which the three-fold fruits of virtue, profit and pleasure may be milked. If Earth be well looked after, it becomes the father, mother, children, firmament and heaven of all creatures”.
Yet land is usually treated in economics text books as though it is no longer important, with devastating consequences. Land, in economics, becomes an abstract concept or merely a commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand like every other commodity. But this is not correct. The supply of land cannot increase just because the human population, and therefore demand, increases. The only thing that can increase is the price of land because the supply is fixed.
In his book, The Landgrabbers, Fred Pearce shows that wherever we look in the developing world land is being privatised just as it was centuries ago in Europe and North America with little or no regard for the local economies of the real living breathing loving people being displaced by the new landlords.
But land is the whole natural environment. Whoever owns the land therefore, owns the means of subsistence of everyone and everything dependent on it. The owners of land are the owners of the environment and the masters of the economy.
This matters because human beings can destroy as well as enhance their surroundings. Living in harmony with Nature demands a mutually enhancing relationship that gives rise to a human duty of care for Mother Earth. The need in the present time is for this to be recognised so that it is enforceable in law.
This could be done by recognising rights for Nature and enforcing them through laws that apply to individuals, corporations and governments alike. Hence the many calls for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Nature and the adoption of such codes in several countries.
Economics with Justice
Economics with justice also proposes to introduce measuring economic success not only in terms of economic growth, but more importantly in terms of the eradication of injustice. The real aim of economics is to establish justice and equity for the welfare of humanity so as to make it possible for all human beings to flourish without harm to anything else.
A third proposal is to recognise that all ownership of land is a privilege that carries attendant duties. These include duties to keep land in good condition, and look after it well; to leave land in as good or better condition than we find it; and also to recompense surrounding communities for the benefit that private occupation of land confers.
If we do this we may find that the ancient wisdom speaks the truth: “The one who can see all creatures in himself, himself in all creatures, knows no sorrow.” But the test of that is to act accordingly.