Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: War and our treatment of nonhuman nature

Our ruination of the biosphere, which day-by-day undermines the long-term survival of humankind, has much in common with the use of violence, particularly in war.

The causes of war and ecological destruction are not incomprehensible as they are the result of a given set of ideas. The blue-green algae which is extinguishing the bio-richness of our loughs, most noticeable in Lough Neagh and Lough Erne, is a direct result of society regarding nonhuman nature as a collection of inanimate discrete things which we feel entitled to do with as we wish, rather than, as a sensitized, interconnected community of life-forms.

This belief about nonhuman nature is so hardwired into our culture that few are aware of the part it plays in their reasoning and behaviour. This means that when we look at a forest we don’t see trees but timber, when we see non-domesticated animals living on the land, in water and in the air we readily categorize them as prey or pest. Sand extracted from the bed of Lough Neagh or from a sea shore is regarded as building material rather than habitat that plays a vital role in the overall health of the lough or seashore.

As a society we take what we want from the natural world and drop, dump, pour and emit our waste into it without regard for the consequences. If we clear-fell trees from hillsides, rather than harvesting them in an ecologically sustainable way, we should expect the inevitable, which is that our towns and cities are liable to flood after a long spell of heavy rain.

If we want to live in a world with a tolerable climate, rich in biodiversity, free from noise and light pollution, with plentiful supplies of fresh water and nutritious food then we have to change our understanding of our place in nature and rapidly transition to a way of life that respects the integrity of the living world. We, in other words, have to reconfigure our mental landscape. Or as Albert Einstein said “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive.” (New York Times, 25 May 1946)

In spite of the science, we are unfortunately not doing this. This is illustrated by the main Irish and UK political parties, who with an eye on the next general election, talk of real change whilst promising us more of the poison that is killing the Earth and ourselves which is infinite economic growth. Their cogitative dissonance makes it seem as if they the are living inside a fairytale.

Our fixation on the idea that nonhuman nature as a collection of discrete things is of the same genera as the mindset that underpins wars such as those being fought between Russia and Ukraine and between Israel and Hamas. Each of the warring parties regards the other as existing outside the fold of humanity. As with the predominant view of nonhuman nature the perceived enemy is regarded as alien and therefore can be subjugated, if not eradicated, with a free conscience not least because the warriors are convinced that their mission is endorsed by God.

This is what Europeans did in the Americas, Australia and elsewhere. As with the two major ongoing wars the end goal was land and as the Indigenous people could not be wished away, war was made upon them. The mental trick that enables people to do this with a clear conscience is their sense of entitlement for which a rationale can always be found.

In regards to abuse of nonhuman nature there is the self-justifying refrain ‘if I don’t someone else will’. Thus, a forest, which is home to a multitude of species, is felled for wood or to provide land on which to grow soya for livestock which is eaten for dinner. The religious can find permission for satisfying their sense of entitlement in a sacred text. Reference is frequently made to Genesis 26-31:

And God said …. let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and all of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

Most Israeli people base their right to live on land taken from the Palestinians on the Torah which says that the land was given to Abraham and his descendants by God. President Putin’s claim to Ukraine is based on the belief that Russians and Ukrainians were always “one people”. He thus sees himself as divinely appointed to right an historical wrong.

The European colonization of Turtle Island, which today is called the United States, was based on a sense of entitlement which became crystalized in the mid-19th century in the idea of manifest destiny. The idea, which holds that the country was granted to the European settlers by Providence, was articulated by John O’Sullivan who in a newspaper article in December 1845 argued that manifest destiny was a moral absolute that outweighed all other considerations.

The way out of our deeply ingrained sense of entitlement, that our needs have priority over the welfare of others, including nonhuman life, is through education. This not only involves learning about such things as climate breakdown and history but includes expanding the circumference of who we feel empathy for, improving our ability to make connections and consider consequences, learning to listen to others in the context of their circumstances, and regularly testing our views and behaviour against the right of communities, cultures and most life-forms to live unmolested.