by Joseph Lambert
“There is an urgent need for society to replace the current anthropocentric worldview with a holistic system of governance, in which humanity plays a different role in how it perceives and interacts with the natural world.”
—Experts Summary, United Nations’ “Harmony with Nature” Dialogue, 2016
I am, and have always been, fascinated by the place of language and art in listening to, respecting, and protecting Mother Earth. I imagine I am not alone in holding fascination. In changing societal attitudes and global perceptions towards Mother Earth, language is both a reflection and an agent—a mirror and a maker.
In changing societal attitudes and global perceptions towards Mother Earth, language is both a reflection and an agent—a mirror and a maker.
The language of the establishment, whether it be mainstream media, politicians, or global bodies (including the United Nations), is often reflective and protective of dominant language—anthropocentric and perpetuating the myth of a fundamental distinction between humanity and nature. For example, if our laws talk of “land rights” and “property,” then that will affect how we relate to nature; it will make us treat nature as something we have no obligations toward, only rights over.
Even where the language of the establishment is more radical—Earth-centered and holistic—it can be redolent with platitudes and token compromises (so “sustainable development” can mean “sustaining our current consumption”). But this does not have to be the way. We can co-opt establishment discourse, make it listen to Mother Earth, and magnify the voices of those most in harmony with nature. In doing so, we can affect how society actually and meaningfully acts in relation to the rest of nature.
The United Nations (UN) has been hosting dialogues on “Harmony with Nature” since 2012, but this year was the first time the event was opened up significantly, through a two-month online dialogue that brought together 127 experts from 33 countries. Sorted loosely by discipline, the participants all piled in with their thoughts and recommendations on transforming our society from being destructive and anthropocentric to being holistic and Earth-centered. As one of the discipline facilitators (for the humanities), I attempted to draw together the dialogue into discipline summaries and an overall dialogue summary, the latter of which was presented at the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly in September 2016.
The dialogue was limited in language; awkward in dubbing the mix of academics, Indigenous Peoples, and activists as “experts” (technocracy and “expertise” were issues frequently brought up during the dialogue); and quite possibly over-ambitious or, rather, underfunded. That being said, it was an impressive gathering of voices of those at the forefront of trying to change humanity’s relationship to Mother Earth—a sharing of language and ideas and a forging of alliances across continents and disciplines. What did we do and what can we do? How can our ideas and language take root in the UN, and why should we want them to?
The first thing to bring up is that the UN, like international establishment bodies more generally, does have a certain “brute-force” ability to bring language, and the associated social change, into the global psyche. A prime example of this is the word genocide (the height of neologisms: using both Greek and Latin roots), which was first coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin and then gained full force in the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention, the Nuremberg Trials, and other regional and international fora. Originally it was “a crime without a name,” as Churchill described the mass slaughter enacted during the German occupation of Russia. When the word arose and then permeated the global human consciousness, it fundamentally altered humanity. We came to understand the full extent of our ability to systematize and scale up the destruction of each other, and this realization has been central to all international relations since. The UN and other establishment bodies played a vital role in bringing about what was a change in the global psyche. This power to thrust new language and its accompanying set of ideas onto the world stage, or to support their rise, applies just as much for language around nature, Mother Earth, and biocultural diversity.
The UN does have a certain ‘brute-force’ ability to bring language, and the associated social change, into the global psyche.
We have already seen the UN Harmony with Nature dialogues achieve this to some extent. In the 2015 dialogue, the term “Earth Jurisprudence” was brought up, which refers to a practical philosophy describing how humanity is a subject in communion with the rest of nature and how we must derive our laws and governance systems from Mother Earth. “Earth Jurisprudence” was then picked up by the General Assembly, and a resolution was passed to make it the centerpoint of this year’s dialogue. As an Earth-centered re-appropriation of the traditionally anthropocentric term “jurisprudence,” having such a term and its surrounding language and worldview get a spotlight at the UN is, while not a revolution, certainly the sowing of some quite powerful language.
What has come and taken root already is all well and good, but during the course of this dialogue I watched Earth-centered language collide and swirl together. Participants and groups brought with them all the neologisms, sayings, Indigenous thought, and wisdom of their lives, study, and work. All this spectacular language is what helped make the dialogue so powerful, and it is certainly worth drawing some of it out.
Much as with Lemkin and genocide, many of us take delight in the self-aware creation of new language or in finding new meaning in old language. Neologisms abounded in the dialogue—such as Glenn Albrecht’s use of the term “sumbiology” from the Greek sumbios (living together) to indicate the study of humans living together with the totality of life. Another term that found its way into the final summary was “Symbiocene”—looking beyond the Anthropocene (the epoch of humanity’s impact upon the Earth’s geology) to envisage an epoch of humanity symbiotically living among the rest of nature. Other participants re-read old words, with theologian Konrad Raiser drawing on the word “Earthling” and how it emphasizes that we are “inseparably related to, and dependent on, the community of all created life.”
Even with the language limitations, the dialogue brought in several Indigenous persons, as well as academics who work with Indigenous language and worldviews. Those of us who work to preserve biocultural diversity are always keenly aware of the centrality of Indigenous communities, and Indigenous language often paints our task in clear strokes. Drawing on the Andean heritage of the Harmony with Nature programme (initiated by the Plurinational State of Bolivia), Natalia Greene spoke of the power of the Kichwa notion of Sumak Kawsay—a “full life,” which she explained as “a model of development based on cooperation and reciprocity” and one that held no place for endless consumption. The Afro-Brazilian sociologist Bas’ilele Malomalo spoke of Ubuntu, the word and philosophy common to many Bantu peoples that indicates a strong variety of communalism.
As well as Indigenous language and neologisms, there was much re-appropriation of what one might consider to be “establishment” terms. Obviously this is most clearly seen in “Earth Jurisprudence” itself—making law something that emerges from nature rather than being directed toward it. Other re-appropriations of language that emerged in the dialogue were highly prevalent among those discussing the discipline of law—with the traditional “duty of care” going beyond the producer-consumer nexus to the duty of care owed between all members of the Earth community.
These examples are the tip of the iceberg in the radical, inspirational, critical, and Earth-centered language brought out in the dialogue. Much of it made its way into the final summary that was disseminated at the General Assembly in September 2016, and may well appear in a Resolution—with all the potential to sink into establishment discourse and the world psyche, as “genocide” did 68 years ago.
Yet, we are giving the UN too much credit here, or perhaps placing too high a burden on it. Among its many problems, the UN is an institution that is chronically underfunded in many areas, often cripplingly tokenistic, and fundamentally tied to twentieth-century state-oriented politics. These very issues were brought up repeatedly during the dialogue. It is important not to rely on the UN or other global bodies alone to achieve the radical work of re-orienting our language to an Earth-centered mode. While I, and many of those in the dialogue, will work with the UN for the language to become policy and the policy to have bite, we are not so naïve as to put all our hope there. As much as we can work through the UN, this dialogue is also a perfect exercise of how we can work around it.
The dialogue called for experts, and we brought on board those who often listen to the Earth more than many academics do—Indigenous voices and activists. The UN structure provided limited opportunity to submit in languages other than English, so we helped translate submissions and broaden the input. This is the power of dialogue. Whereas the UN hosts these dialogues largely for a “report to resolution to dialogue” cycle, I value the power of the dialogue itself. It was quite an achievement to hear dozens of voices, coming from vastly different places in all meanings of the word, sharing the ways we can transform from an anthropocentric society to an Earth-centered one. We all had a spectacular opportunity to bolster each other’s language; to critique and challenge each other; to develop lasting and profound relationships in our collective and connected journeys. It was as though a hundred rivers converged in one place, and you could not help but be swept into new ways of thinking and seeing—and new ways of listening to the Earth.
Joseph Lambert does research and communications work for the Gaia Foundation, where he has been particularly involved in facilitating the 2016 United Nations’ “Harmony with Nature” Dialogue. He lives in Brighton, England, and is also studying for a master’s degree in Environmental Law.
Albrecht, G. (2016). Sumbioculture in the Symbiocene. Retrieved from https://glennaalbrecht.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/symbioculture-in-the-symbiocene/
United Nations. (2016). Harmony with Nature. Retrieved from https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/821075/files/A_RES_70_208-EN.pdf
United Nations. (2016). 2016 Virtual Dialogue on Harmony with Nature: Theme Earth Jurisprudence. Retrieved from http://files.harmonywithnatureun.org/uploads/upload460.pdf