Reimagining the Human-Environment Relationship
In the lead-up to Stockholm+50, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) partnered with UN University Centre for Policy Research (UNU-CPR) on an initiative to capture, interrogate, and bring in alternative voices into the global policy to create space for alternative, transformative paradigms that recast our relationship with the environment. This “Reimagining the Human-Environment Relationship” project is an opportunity to recognize other interesting and valid cosmologies, based on the belief that a sincere engagement with them will introduce ideas into the public discourse and, through such engagement, hopefully evolve a new ethics for human well-being.
Stockholm+50 is a commemoration and a time for reflection on the interconnectedness of humans and the environment. It is an opportunity to take stock of the progress achieved in the 50 years since the 1972 Conference on the Human Environment, and instigate serious reflection on today’s environmental crisis. Just as it did in 1972, Stockholm+50 can help broaden public discourse by inviting alternative thinking, models, conceptions, and solutions to the environmental challenges of our day.
There remains a significant gap between the urgency of the challenges facing humanity and the willingness to undertake the kind of radical action necessary to collectively shift towards more sustainable forms of consumption. Most proposals by the world’s largest emitters remain framed by longstanding models of infinite growth, exploitative energy production, and a belief that human survival will come by way of technological innovation. Current public discourse features limited propositions to tackle pollution, biodiversity loss, and the degradation of our natural environment — the triple planetary crisis that threatens humanity.
The sources of alternative paradigms are both extraordinarily diverse and still unfamiliar to most. Widely differing religious practices offer a range of environmental ethics that could underpin a shift in how the human-nature relationship is conceptualized. Forms of traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous knowledge propose sophisticated and deeply symbiotic frameworks that can also broaden understandings through key ideas such as reciprocity and intergenerational fairness. Paradigm shifts may also come from innovations in more traditional domains. Legal scholars and some states are exploring how the environment and the interests of future generations might be given a legal personality, alongside contemporary humans. Biology and ecosystems research offer non-anthropocentric models for sustainable coexistence, while astrophysics can shift the starting point for many of these conversations, moving beyond the human-environment binary as we identify potentially infinite forms of life.
This curated collection of ideas captures, interrogates, and elevates alternative paradigms of the human-nature relationship - existing and new, and from various disciplines and societies – creating a space to recast our relationship with the environment and inform future policymaking. It has been made possible through a grant by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
A New Political Economy for a Healthy Planet
By Jason Hickel
Abstract: The global economy, which is organized around and dependent on perpetual expansion or “growth”, is presently overshooting several critical planetary boundaries – not only in terms of climate change, but also land-use change, biogeochemical flows, chemical pollution and species extinction. Empirical research has demonstrated that GDP growth is tightly coupled to resource and energy use. This rising energy use makes rapid decarbonization more difficult to achieve, while rising resource use is driving ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss. Additionally, ecological overshoot is being driven overwhelmingly by high-income countries who rely on a large net appropriation of resources from the rest of the world, achieved through patterns of unequal exchange in international trade.
Recognizing these problems, the dominant policy response for the past half century has been to call for “green growth”, hoping that GDP can be absolutely decoupled from resource and energy use such that income can continue to rise while resource use declines to sustainable levels. However, existing modelled scenarios find that sufficient absolute decoupling is not feasible. Ecological objectives are therefore unlikely to be achieved so long as high-income countries continue to pursue growth at usual rates. Ecological economists therefore call for a different approach: high-income countries should actively scale down less necessary forms of production and consumption and re-organize the economy around human well-being. New models indicate that this approach could allow us to achieve our ecological goals while at the same time improving social outcomes as well as ensuring the possibility of global justice and international development.
Environmental Ethics and Policy
By Workineh Kelbessa
Abstract: This paper explores the nature of Western and African environmental ethics and their impact on environmental policy. In the past, it was believed mistakenly that scientists and engineers could solve problems created by progress. Neither science nor engineering can supply moral conclusions which are involved in policy decisions. It has gradually become clear that philosophers can also contribute to the solution of environmental problems. Various environmental problems have prompted Western environmental philosophers to systematically reflect on the human-nature relationship since 1970s. They have advised human beings to reconsider the human-nature relationship and undertake fundamental structural changes and replace the anthropocentric worldview with a non-anthropocentric worldview.
As Western philosophers have been developing the field of environmental philosophy, nonwestern environmental philosophers have studied the ecological insights of various cultural groups. Many indigenous people and their sages throughout the world have developed diverse traditions that are environmentally friendly and sustainable. Unfortunately, modern societies have neglected indigenous knowledge systems, and some destructive forces have brutally assaulted the custodians of indigenous knowledge in the world.
This paper shows that humanity has not yet fully benefitted from the teaching of indigenous and Western environmental ethics and philosophy. Vested interest groups have tried to oppose climate science and environmental ethics. Thus, this paper suggests that humanity should use multiple perspectives to deal with the burgeoning local and global environmental challenges. This paper stresses that if humanity is not willing to change the current destructive trends, the future of mother Earth and its inhabitants will be in jeopardy.
From Re-Imagination to Action: Incentivizing Change
By David Passarelli and Adam Day
Abstract: Building on the perspectives of the authors in this collection, we address the question of how to generate political will at the global and local levels, how to catalyse the kind of shift that could eventually reverse climate change trends and move us towards a state of equilibrium with the planet. To do this, we argue, we must re-evaluate what kinds of processes and approaches tend to generate behavioural changes among individuals, communities, and our increasingly networked global society. Specifically, we examine the current framework of penalties and restrictions that dominates today’s climate response, asking whether a system of rewards might generate a more effective, globally scaled response. Drawing from advances in behavioural science, we argue that the Stockholm+50 conference and its follow-up should help to develop a “choice architecture” that offers clear rewards and incentives in three areas: (1) unlocking data monopolies around climate science; (2) strengthening accountability via networked forms of governance; and (3) building momentum against climate apathy. Such an architecture stands a much better chance of triggering the kind of radical changes in global behaviour and decision-making proposed by the other authors in this project.
Governing Prometheans in the Anthropocene: Three Proposals to Reform International Environmental Law
By Louis Kotze
Abstract: This paper discusses the deeply intertwined role of international environmental law (IEL) in creating and exacerbating the Anthropocene’s socio-ecological dilemma, as well as IEL’s inability to address this dilemma and to offer regulatory interventions that can meaningfully craft sustainable and just futures. For the purpose of context, the paper first explores the notion of the Anthropocene, and shows how it represents a new context for thinking about IEL and governance at a planetary scale. The discussion then reveals how IEL, despite some victories, has been unable to ensure planetary integrity and address injustice on a global scale. It specifically focuses on the inability of IEL to embrace systematicity; the anthropocentrism of IEL; and IEL’s lack of ambition. The final part explores possible reformative pathways in pursuit of IEL for the Anthropocene. For this purpose, the paper explores earth system-oriented paradigms of law and governance that are based on earth system science. The discussion then explores alternative ecocentric-oriented approaches of seeing, being and knowing that can replace the anthropocentric epistemologies of exploitation that IEL explicitly embraces. The discussion finally reflects on ways in which IEL could raise its normative ambition.
Indigenous Philosophy and Intergenerational Justice
By Krushil Watene
Abstract: This paper details several insights for the pursuit and realization of intergenerational justice that Indigenous philosophies contain. Following an explanation of some key Māori concepts in particular, the paper outlines an intergenerational orientation that situates these concepts in ways that chart pathways through complex intergenerational challenges. In this manner, the paper describes how Indigenous philosophies: enhance relationships through regenerative practices, invest in relational repair, and enable the ongoing transformation of concepts and ideas toward new imaginaries. This paper ends by articulating several practical implications that follow-on from these philosophical insights. The paper highlights how Indigenous philosophies support: empowering local communities, rethinking responsibilities, and enabling innovation. In so doing, the paper notes some of the ways that policies and processes can be such that they function to realize intergenerational justice and ground an enduring sense of responsibility to its pursuit and realization.
Navigating the Dynamics of People-Planet Relationships: A Social-Ecological Systems Perspective
By Elena Bennett and Belinda Reyers
Abstract: People-planet interactions and interdependencies connect sectors and scales in complex, changing ways; those changes can be incremental or abrupt, expected or surprising. Climate change, rising inequalities, biodiversity loss, food insecurity and other global problems involve interlinked cross-scale systems driven by feedbacks that connect far-flung localities to one another and link local to global, such that actions in one place often impact far distant places or social groups. Experiences from social-ecological systems research holds some lessons and offers some practices for shifting the focus of sustainable development from static outcomes to the dynamic relationships that connect people and planet and drive cross-scale sustainability pathways and outcomes. We explore what social-ecological science offers in terms of new ways to account for the driving force of cross-scale interactions which are neither local nor global, isolated nor additive. Across these lessons and examples, we find that transformations to sustainability require the reconnection, regeneration, and reconfiguration of people-planet relationships. Such reconfigurations will likely emerge from the interactions among a patchwork of geographically distinct, but interacting, pathways of change and will hinge on our ability to acknowledge complexity, change, and the unknowable; to experiment and collect and share information on which experiments work and why; and to hold fast to empathy and caring for ourselves, for other people, other species, and for the planet.
Our Copernican Revolution: Climate Change and the Astrobiology of the Anthropocene
By Adam Frank
Abstract: Our ability to marshal the collective will to deal with climate change depends in part on the stories we tell ourselves about it. The study of Astrobiology, which addresses life in its full planetary context on any world where that life might occur, offers a new and potentially revolutionary perspective on what is happening to Earth and humanity now. Astrobiology demonstrates how Earth has co-evolved with its life for more than three billion years. It also shows us other planets that have already experienced significant episodes of climate change such as Mars, Venus, or Saturn’s moon Titan, which also tells us a story about planetary climate and dynamics that we can learn from. Taken together, these studies allow us to construct a new story about humanity and its host world at the dawn of the Anthropocene. Rising beyond seeing humans as a kind of virus the planet would be better ridding itself of, we can instead understand ourselves and the global civilization we’ve build as part of the biosphere’s ongoing evolutionary experiments. Seeing climate change from the Astrobiological perspective allows us to see our proper place in the long story of life and the planet. It reveals the need to weave the technosphere we continue to build back into biosphere in a way that allows both to thrive. In this way, climate change may be our Copernican Revolution, a moment when a new truth about planets ushers in new possibilities for human history.
Reimagining the Human-Environment Relationship Through a Kaleidoscope
By David Passarelli and Adam Day
Abstract: This paper provides a framing for the collection of papers in this collection. The narratives in this collection are an attempt to retell our relationship with the environment and begin to recalibrate how power is distributed. They speak to the need for a radically different set of perspectives if we are to galvanize meaningful shifts in our approach to the environment. Indeed, if the decades of COP flops shows us anything, it is that consensus within the climate science community on the urgency of addressing our planetary trajectory is (absolutely necessary but) insufficient to drive broad behavioural changes. What is needed, and what this project attempts to offer, is a broader range of understandings of the human-environment relationship, a kaleidoscope of views that expose widely differing understandings of the place of humans in our ecosystem, our ethics, our economy, and our galaxy. It is our central argument that today’s Anthropocentric, humanist understanding of the environment is a dangerous form of myopia that fails to capture the different – at times contradictory – perspectives necessary to generate change at a global scale. Instead, we offer a transdisciplinary narrative, looking for commonalities across widely divergent practices, including law, ethics, religion, philosophy, resistance politics, complexity science, astrobiology, and indigenous traditions.
Reimagining the Human-Environment Relationship Religion and the Environment
By Iyad Abumoghli
Abstract: Belief systems, including culture, ethics, and religion hold enormous power over both individual and societal behaviors, norms, and laws. Religious values, together with environmental ethics, have, since Stockholm 1972, grown in importance as being vital for promoting environmental action. There are two important powers that religions have that can influence a new development paradigm that provides for a healthy planet and the prosperity of its people. The power of convening and convincing where more than 84% of people believe in a religion or a spiritual belief and the economic power as the fourth largest economy in the world.
Although religions come from different belief backgrounds, all agree on the human spiritual and moral responsibility towards Earth. Studying the nexus of belief systems and environmental policy affirms the imperative of bringing religious actors to the forefront of environmental governance.
Many religions dictate what people eat, drink, and how they should walk on Earth, thus, not only should they address issues of sustainable living, food security, waste, and overconsumption, but also issues of poverty, hunger, quality of life, equity, and education. Furthermore, religious organizations are the first respondents to provide needed assistance, during and after disasters and conflicts, which makes them essential actors in peace and security issues.
The paper discusses the need to bridge the gap between religious scholars and scientists and maximize common ground on the human responsibility towards nature. It also discusses institutionalizing the engagement of faith actors in environmental governance.
Socioterritorial Voices for Climate Justice: Protest and Resistance in the Andean Amazon
By Maritza Paredes
Abstract: This article explains how and why territorial movements have become central to climate action in the Global South. It also analyzes how these movements interact on multiple scales with the global climate justice movement. Furthermore, the analysis zooms in on indigenous movements in the Amazon, with a particular analytical lens on their contributions to climate justice. This includes the recognition of indigenous peoples’ history and suffering of dispossession and exclusion of territories of extraction, and how climate policies can be unsuccessful if they continue to mirror the discriminatory practices that have led to the large-scale dispossession and exclusion of vulnerable peoples. Finally, the article concludes by calling for a more systematic integration of the voices of territorial indigenous rights groups in the global climate debate and how the experiences of these groups related to global climate justice should be the basis for global governance policy.
Why Climate Change Matters for Human Security
By Janani Vivekananda
Abstract: Why does climate change matter for human security? To date, climate change has been seen largely as an environmental challenge, but it is increasingly evident that it is one of the most pressing political and security issues of our time. While science highlights the unprecedented nature and scale of its impacts on ecosystems and economies, a critical dimension of climate change is its impact on human security and peace. These are not simply future security risks, but already visible and projected to increase.
This paper outlines the state of knowledge regarding security risks related to climate change, synthesising the existing scientific evidence to set out five broad pathways of risk. Climate change itself is rarely a direct cause of conflict. Yet, there is ample evidence that its effects exacerbate important drivers and contextual factors of conflict and fragility, thereby challenging the stability of states and societies. Climate change impacts such as coral bleaching, diversity loss and erratic rainfall can stress livelihoods, drive displacement, increase resource conflicts, and challenge the security and stability of people and states worldwide.
Managing these security risks requires action across the entire impact chain: work to mitigate climate change; reducing its consequences on ecosystems; adapting socio-economic systems; better management of climate-induced heightened resource competition; and strengthening governance and conflict management institutions. And every dimension of the response must be conflict-sensitive and climate proof. Without the right responses, climate change will mean more fragility, less peace and less security. But this paper sets out illustrative examples of how, with a greater understanding of how climate change interacts with social, political, economic and environmental drivers of conflict and fragility, we will be better placed to make the kind of risk-informed decisions is integral to achieving international peace and security.
About the Authors
Dr. Iyad Abumoghli, Founder and Director of the Faith for Earth Initiative, has more than 35 years of experience with international organizations, the private sector, and scientific institutions. Dr. Abumoghli’s expertise focus on strategic planning, sustainable development, natural resources management, interfaith collaboration and knowledge and innovation. Dr. Abumoghli is currently the Lead Principal Advisor on Engaging with Faith-Based Organizations at UNEP. Previously Dr. Abumoghli held several leading positions including the Regional Director and Representative of UNEP in West Asia, Director of Knowledge and Innovation at UNDP’s Regional Office for the Arab states, Senior Environment Advisor at UNDP’s Sub-Regional Resource Facility in Beirut, Global Practice Manager for the Energy and Environment Group in New York, Assistant Resident Representative of UNDP in Jordan. Dr. Abumoghli holds a doctorate degree in Bio-Chemical Engineering from the University of Bath/UK, and an outstanding graduate of the Virtual Development Academy - Johns University.
Dr. Elena Bennett is Professor and CRC (Tier 1) Chair in Sustainability Science at McGill University. Her work focuses on the interactions among ecosystem services and how we can manage these interactions for multifunctional working landscapes. She was the leader of the Montérégie Connection project that worked with stakeholders to understand the role of landscape connectivity in the provision of about a dozen ecosystem services and how those might change across a range of future scenarios. Her most recent work focuses on using radical transformative experiments in society as ‘seeds’ to improve storytelling and sensemaking about how we might achieve a “good Anthropocene”. Dr. Bennett was a Leopold Leadership Fellow (2012), and a Trottier Public Policy Professor (2013-2014). She won the Macdonald Campus Award for (Undergraduate) Teaching Excellence in 2012 and the Carrie M. Derick Award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision in 2013. She was an NSERC EWR Steacie Fellow (2017 -2019).
Dr Adam Day is Director of Programmes at United Nations University Centre for Policy Research in New York, having joined United Nations University in Tokyo in January 2017. In this role, he oversees current research projects and the development of new programmes. Prior to UNU, Dr Day served for a decade in the UN, focusing on peace operations, political engagement in conflict settings, mediation and protection of civilians. He served as Senior Political Adviser to MONUSCO (the Democratic Republic of the Congo), in the UN Special Coordinator’s Office for Lebanon, in the front offices of both UNMIS (Khartoum) and UNAMID (Darfur), and was a political officer in both the Department of Political Affairs and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York. Dr Day also has substantial civil society experience, working in Human Rights Watch’s Justice Program and for the Open Society Justice Initiative in Cambodia. Dr Day was an international litigator in New York, where he also worked pro bono for the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Guantanamo detainees in their suits against former US officials for torture. He also supported the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
Adam Frank is the Helen F. and Fred H. Gowen Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester. An astrophysicist and astrobiologist, Frank’s computational research group at the University of Rochester develops advanced supercomputer tools for astrophysical gas dynamics and magnetogasdynamics. Much of his current work focuses on how life and planets evolve together. This has led him to the study of possible planetary “technosignatures” that exo-civilizations may produce. He has also led work in exploring climate change and the Anthropocene through an astrobiological perspective. Frank has been a regular on-air commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered and was co-founder of National Public Radio 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog. He is a contributor to the New York Times, The Atlantic and other media outlets and currently co-runs the 13.8 blog on BigThink.com. Frank was also the science consultant for Marvel’s Doctor. Strange.
Dr. Jason Hickel is an economic anthropologist, author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is Professor at the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics. He is Associate Editor of the journal World Development, and serves on the Statistical Advisory Panel for the UN Human Development Report, the advisory board of the Green New Deal for Europe, and the Harvard-Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice. Dr. Hickel’s research focuses on global inequality, political economy, post-development, and ecological economics.
Workineh Kelbessa is Professor of Philosophy at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. Kelbessa has taught philosophy at Addis Ababa University since 1988 and held the position of chair of the Philosophy Department for several years. Kelbessa has received several research grants, and authored two books, numerous articles in refereed journals, encyclopedia articles, book chapters and invited reviews. His research focuses on environmental philosophy, environmental ethics, development ethics, climate ethics, water ethics, globalization, philosophy of love and sex, African philosophy, and indigenous knowledge. In 2012, he was appointed by the Director-General of UNESCO as a member of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, on which he served until 2019. He was a member of the International Panel on Social Progress. He is also a former Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany, and a member of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences. Moreover, he was a member of the editorial board of Environmental Ethics and has served on the editorial boards of various journals including Health Care Analysis, the African Journal of Environmental Ethics and Values, and Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. He is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford, as part of the Africa Oxford Initiative's Senior Visiting Fellowship Programme.
Louis Kotzé is a Research Professor of Law at the Faculty of Law, North-West University, South Africa, where he teaches International and African Regional Environmental Law in the LLM program. He is also a Senior Professorial Fellow in Earth System Law at the University of Lincoln, United Kingdom, as well as the assistant editor of the journal, Earth System Governance, a member of the South African Academy of Science, a Senior Fellow of the Earth System Governance Network and member of its Scientific Steering Committee, and co-convenor of the Network’s Taskforce on Earth System Law. His research broadly encompasses three interrelated themes that he approaches from a transnational perspective: human rights, socio-ecological justice and environmental constitutionalism; law and the Anthropocene; and Earth system law.
Maritza Paredes is a Political Sociologist who specializes in the politics of the environment. She researches and publishes on environmental conflicts, the local politics of climate change, the political economy of extractive industries, illegal economies, and indigenous peoples' mobilization. She is the director of the Ph.D. Program in Sociology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, and an Associate Professor in the Social Sciences Department. She received her doctoral degree in International Development from Oxford University and her master's degree from Columbia University. In the last years, she has published relevant work related to the political impacts of the global extractive industries on local and indigenous communities, focusing on the legal mining industry and the illegal global market of cocaine. Currently, she is working on a climate justice research project looking at the local political effects of international climate policy regimes in the Peruvian Amazon.
Dr. David Passarelli is Executive Director at UNU-CPR and its chief academic and administrative officer with overall responsibility for the direction, organization, administration and programmes. He currently leads projects addressing the evolution of migrant children’s rights in the context of climate change, effective multilateralism, and UN development system reform. He has published on a range of topics, including the multilateral system’s response to the Triple Planetary Crisis, UN crisis prevention, as well as human mobility and statelessness from the vantage of moral and legal theory. He has held several roles at UN University since 2008, including as UN University’s Executive Officer, advising the UNU’s Rector and Under-Secretary-General on management and strategic development initiatives at UNU Headquarters in Tokyo and across the UNU global system. He also served as the Secretary of the governing board (the UNU Council) and as a member of the UNU’s Management Group. From 2013 to 2016, he served as Chief of Staff, during which time he also contributed to the research programme of UNU Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility as an honorary associate research fellow. Prior to joining UNU in 2008, Dr Passarelli worked as a research assistant at the Global Institute for Asian Regional Integration at Waseda University, where he graduated with a Master’s degree in international relations. He has published in the areas of migration, political theory, and comparative international higher education. He holds a Doctorate in International Development from the University of Oxford, where his research focused on the rights of irregular migrant children.
Belinda Reyers is a Professor of Sustainability Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa and Senior Advisor at the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Sweden. Her work bridges sustainability science and development practice. Together with collaborators from research, policy and practice, she focuses on co-producing and mobilizing knowledge to help build understanding and capacity to navigate the complex social-ecological development challenges facing Africa. These experiences also directly shape her research. She holds several leadership roles on international bodies including: past Vice Chair of the Science Committee of Future Earth, Coordinating Lead Author of the Intergovernmental IPBES Assessment and a member of UN Expert Groups on the SDGs.
Janani Vivekananda is Head of Programme Climate Diplomacy and Security at adelphi, where she specialises in climate change and peacebuilding. As a peacebuilding practitioner with a background in peace and disaster risk reduction field research and operations, the aim of her work is to connect ground realities with policy processes and vice versa to promote the linked goals of peace and climate action. Her work to-date involves designing and conducting participatory and inclusive research on climate-related security risks and responses, promoting risk informed responses, and increasing the capacity of governments and civil society to integrate climate and conflict risk into policies and field projects. Her particular interests and strengths lie in understanding the complexities of climate-, conflict- and natural-resource-related risks from a local contextual level and feeding these nuances into policy work. Janani holds master’s degrees from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and from the University of Oxford.
Krushil Watene is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Massey University in Aotearoa New Zealand, where she specialises in moral and political philosophy. She has been a member of the UNDP Human Development Report Advisory Board since 2020. She has published on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Intergenerational Justice, and Indigenous contributions to local and global change. She is a member of the Māori tribal communities of Ngāti Manu, Te Hikutu, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, and the Pacific island of Tonga (Hunga, Vava’u).