Saving ourselves….from ourselves

18 September 2009 Santam

It is easy to sit back and dismiss as alarmism the activities and activism of ‘eco-warriors’ while comfortably getting on with our destructive lifestyles. But alarmism may be exactly what is required. That much was abundantly clear in something of a philosophy lesson presented by Cormac Cullinan, of Cullinan and Associates Environmental Law at the Ecocentric Journey Conference, hosted by Santam, UCT's Centre of Criminology and Partners for Change, in Cape Town.

Simply put, Cullinan said our civilization is en route to collapse. “That may seem an extravagant statement, but we are on paths that cannot be sustained indefinitely. If we are to survive as a species, we need to correctly perceive the threat and choose to respond appropriately. If we don’t take climate change seriously, we will be heading towards failure,” he explained.

Underpinning the human systems which contain the seeds of their own doom is a deeply faulty world view. The view of antiquity was of ‘earth as mother’, which has given way to one of ‘earth as possession’. With that comes a separation of human and earth systems, in terms of which people see themselves as fundamentally independent of the earth. “This thinking is hard wired into our systems of governance. Law defines everything that is not a person, as a thing to be possessed. As a result, we have an explicitly exploitative relationship with the earth. Our systems are designed to increase human wealth by exploiting the earth,” Cullinan stated.

What we consider progress is wealth-based, with the concept of infinite growth built into companies – despite the obvious reality that with limited resources, such growth is impossible. “Infinite growth is, unfortunately, how cancer works. It grows until it kills the host.”

Cullinan drives home the point. “We have a systemic crisis, reflected in the fact that everything that causes climate change is legal. It is an incredibly difficult issue with which to deal. We cannot externalise the blame and say ‘there are the bad guys’, as all of our hands are dirty. What lies at the heart of the problem is our culture which is centred on a magic potion of oil and coal to which we are addicted.”

So why should alarmism and activism be necessary? “The first step in dealing with addiction is overcoming denial. As a culture we are deeply in denial, despite the fact that the symptoms of an unsustainable system surround us. Climate change is just one of these; we are seeing changes in the oceans, on land, and in forests. Ours is a destructive culture,” Cullinan explained.

The big question, the answer to which the survival of the human species may depend, is how to change this.

If it sounds dire, that’s because it is dire. “There hasn’t been extinction like this for 15 million years,” Cullinan said.

“We have to make a quantum leap; we are in such a mess that we cannot get out of it with mere tinkering. The choice is to fail….or survive.”

The centre cannot hold, and things are falling apart, and mere anarchy may be the least of our worries, to borrow the words of WB Yeats. Turning and turning in a widening gyre is perhaps an appropriate metaphor, as Cullinan says it is imperative that people start to see themselves as integrated systems within nature.

But Cullinan pointed out that humans have made quantum leaps before. “We need to take a journey from a belief that everything revolves around us to one where we see ourselves as part of a system in which we play only a minor role. Humans have to move from the notion of dominance and managing the machine which is earth, to one of participation and seeing the planet as a community.”

The key issue relates to a shift in the philosophical underpinnings of society. “Interrelationships in which the human species finds an ecological niche where we can play a reciprocal role with earth systems – not just taking out, but putting something of value back into these systems – is needed,” he said.

“Santam knows that we are part of a larger system, hence our initiation of the Ecocentric Journey to foster dialogue across disciplines. We alsoknow that as an insurer we need to understand and analyse the risk and opportunity related to climate change,” says Vanessa Otto-Mentz, Head: Santam Strategy Unit. The company has committed to take this initiative forward and step up to play a role in managing the risk associated with climate change. “We hope others in the SA insurance industry value chain, insurers and intermediaries, suppliers and beyond will join us,” concludes Otto-Mentz.

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