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Call of Life: Facing the Mass Extinction

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

Call of Life: Facing the Mass Extinction is a documentary film that “explores the mass extinction, its six main causes, the cultural myths and values that drive it, the psychology that underpins it, and the latest insights into natural systems that could help us turn back the tide”. There is a ten-minute teaser. The first two thirds of this cover familiar and depressing territory – a reminder that we are in the throes of a mass extinction. In the last third, the film purports to “explore the ways in which culture and psychology have conspired to determine our collective and individual response to this situation.”

Here, the film locates the source of our environmental crisis not in our failure to recognise the business case for more efficient use of natural resources, but in our denial of the scale of the challenges that face us; in the imperative for us “re-connect and re-relate to the fibres of our world”. This, it suggests, requires an uncovering of human values that are latent in us all, but that are currently suppressed.

It seems to me that our paralysis in the face of today’s environmental challenges has two components: the imminence of the changes that we can foresee, and their magnitude. The imminence of these changes leaves me feeling that our best hope of addressing them is by working with current societal values – demonstrating the economic imperative to address climate change, for example. But the magnitude of the changes we confront – and therefore the scale of the behavioural change we must effect – leads me to feel that we must work for a realignment of our relationship with the environment.

It seems difficult for environmental organisations to hedge their bets on this one.

To focus on the business case for sustainable development leaves us flat-footed when this case simply doesn’t get us to where we need to be. Frequently, and happily, economic interest and environmental interest often coincide. But what happens where, in the course of meeting those challenges, they ultimately diverge? What do organisations that have built their credibility upon making the business case find to say if it becomes clear that we need to depart from this economic case in order to meet these challenges? Can we simply look to tweaking the numbers – suggesting, for example, that we should use a different discount rate (as some have argued about the Stern Review)? In this instance, upon what values would we be basing this argument, and what will we have done to legitimise those values if we have, until then, based our arguments on economic analysis alone?

Tom CromptonCall of Life: Facing the Mass Extinction

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  • Eivind Hoff - July 16, 2007 reply

    Yes, that’s the scary implication of the buzz the Stern report managed to stir with its magics of economics. But I am optimistic that economics are malleable enough to twist them to get the “right” answer as long as political momentum is created in the first place.

    But what I am more dubitative about is another, and very attractive, tendency of environmentalists: To deal with problems one by one, as befits a movement without political or religious affiliation. So smog is eliminated, water basins managed responsibly, ozone hole repaired, and climate change mitigated, all of this as a reaction to the risk of social upheavals (whether by quiet protests by urban residents wanting green parks or by mass migration destabilising regimes). The question I ask myself is whether this is a feasible course in the long run given the magnitude of our impacts and the risk of non-linear evolutions/collapses. It would be foolish to bet on that, yet the only alternative is to turn environmentalism into something much broader than attributing intrinsic value to nature, which has been hinted at by several speakers on this site: essentially we want to rid ourselves of the religion of consumerism, but also, i suspect, a few other fundamental values that have pervaded increasing parts of humanity for a good 2,000 years (cf. Saint-Paul’s call for believers to populate the world).

    So, as has already been asked: What do we offer as a substitute? One that offers coherence and appeal to all walks of life? With the risk of sounding ridiculously trapped by “l’air du temps”, I think the best guidance is the philosophy and values of the complex human society that has subsisted for the longest period of time with an intact set of core values – China. Its religico-philosophic blend has in common a totally different attitude to conquest, growth and social relations (though the last few decades have demonstrated how these can also be changed!) that to me suffice to make it worthy of further investigation. Will stop here to see if this “new age” contribution triggers comments that bring me down to my western feet.

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