Today’s blog is the latest in a series from Richard Jurin who, before his retirement, ran the Environmental Studies programme at the University of Northern Colorado, launching a degree in Sustainability Studies.  His academic interests are environmental worldviews and understanding barriers to sustainability.  As ever, with our blogs, Richard’s views are not necessarily shared by NAEE.

If you stand in a wheatfield in Gloucestershire or a corn field in Iowa, your immediate world is bounded by a horizon of about 15 miles.  Yet, we put so much store in our boundaries.  For most of us, the immediate horizon defines the edges of our ‘local’ world, but we find that our local actions do indeed have global consequences, especially when billions of us live with the same faulty paradigm of competition and endless growth in a finite world.  

There is a story of two WWI soldiers that grew up on farms whose boundaries were a mere 50 meters from each other.  Each joined the call to arms in 1914 and found themselves in trenches facing each other.   They had completely different languages, cultures and even types of diet, because one was German and the other French, farming on opposite banks of the Rhine River border.  The 2014 BBC series, The Passing Bells, illuminates the absurdity of these perceived differences.  We humans are more alike than we are different. Yet, we live in a sociocultural paradigm in which our economics promotes scarcity, boundaries, and hence intense competition for survival.  Within a paradigm of cooperation, however, abundance exists.  The greatest problems we face are not just the consequences of our current technology, but how we interact and live with each other.  Contrary to our Darwinian misinterpretation of natural interactions, nature thrives because of cooperation, not competition.  A cooperating and complete biodiversity shows us all of us how cooperating with each other is critical to our species survival.  

In 1983, NASA coined the term The Overview Effect.  This term describes a cognitive, even spiritual experience by many astronauts, of a planet that projects a wholistic beauty and also an air of fragility.  It’s a profound change, incapable of being fully captured in words, yet one that many millions felt a December day in 1968 when humans saw Earthrise for the first time.   Astronauts describe looking down on our blue-green world and its thin veneer of an atmosphere and recognize the fragility of the planet and the difficulty of recognizing human borders.  Carl Sagan’s long quote encompasses human folly well in trying to divide up the planet through the millennia.   We’re still not aware of all the psychological processes at play in the overview effect, but it is accompanied by a strong emotionality and a sense of vast connection beyond one’s own senses.  We humans can recognize localized boundaries, but as yet, still fail to recognize that nature is bounded only by its adaptations to the varied ecosystems and the planet itself – all life is just one ecosystem.        

For millennia, human cultures acted as if what they did was inconsequential to the planet, and to our growing chagrin, acted with impunity towards the natural world.  Conservation philosopher Aldo Leopold emphasized this through his ‘Land Ethic’ (A Sand County Almanac, 1949): 

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. … All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.”  

Leopold’s visionary thinking still guides today’s environmental stewards.  “It is not only boundaries that disappear, but also the thought of being bounded.”   To whom or what are we responsible?  Do we have rights or obligations?  As we consider local and global boundaries, the deeper question of our place in the world becomes crucial as we ponder the future of humanity.


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