In commentary published last week on Seedmagazine.com, my co-editor Lee Billings suggested that Earth Day might be more effective if stripped of its “save the planet” sensibilities. He offered that a better message would be “save the humans.”
This idea immediately rubbed me the wrong way. But upon further reflection, I realized this more anthropocentric view is also the driving force behind the idea of “ecosystem services”—the goods and services that nature provides to humans. Indeed, one of the big ideas underpinning the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was that we might do well to go beyond acknowledging the inherent value of biodiversity; the MEA mostly emphasized the benefits that people reap from a healthy environment, from shared resources like a stable climate and clean water, to commodities like fuel, fiber, and food. The appeal to our species’ self-preserving, even self-serving instincts has arguably gotten even stronger past five years, as behavioral psychologists and behavioral economists have leveraged their insights to help make greener choices more appealing to our status-seeking, myopic brains.
Against this backdrop, it was all the more striking to see events unfold last week in Cochabamba, where Bolivian President Evo Morales opened
the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth with a call for a “Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights.” Analogous to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, this statute would grant nature—from mountains to microbes—protection from annihilation simply by virtue of existing.
This development in Bolivia, which has gained support from indigenous groups, scientists, NGOs, political and religious leaders, and government officials from 107 countries, appears to represent a worldview in stark contrast to the increasingly popular one in the North. The former epitomizes a “save the planet” perspective, while the latter leans towards “save ourselves.” Of course, one might argue that the ends are the same: saving ourselves implies husbanding natural resources and preserving biodiversity. Still, the logical starting point is dramatically different. Does it matter, in the end, which message—“save the planet” or “save ourselves”—we embrace? Does one imply different actions and potentially different outcomes?
Read some critical perspectives on the Cochabamba Conference:
- Evo Morales (LA Times)
- Naomi Klein (The Nation)
- Nikolas Kozloff (Huffington Post)
- Venezuela Analysis
Originally published April 27, 2010