In My Opinion – Moving From An Industrial To An Ecological Age

By: Jeremy Barnes

Dr. Mark Winston ended his report on the recent Bee Audacious Conference (Bee Culture, June 2017) with the exhortation that “We are at our finest and most effective selves when solitary becomes communal.

It is through collaboration that our future prosperity and the health of pollinators will be best assured.” I would argue that communal collaboration is ultimately an audacious, global, inter-species challenge.

In the preface to Nature Wars: People v Pests, Dr. Winston writes that “Every kind of organism has defining characteristics by which it can be identified as an entity different from all others.” The upward turned wing tips of the  turkey buzzards that fly overhead; the square lip of the white rhinoceros that identifies it as a grazer, separate from it’s hook-lipped, browsing ‘black’ cousin; the flashes of color as a family of bluebirds takes flight; the tail of a fox so distinctive from a distance; the strong smell of the Matabele ants so vivid in my childhood memory; the bouquet of frangipani or brunfelsia flowers; the contrasting barks of different oak species – each signals membership of a distinct group.

These characteristics have been misinterpreted, sometimes with fatal consequences. The medieval Doctrine of Signatures, for example, held that every plant and animal was put on earth by the creator to serve human beings and was marked with a signature that indicates the use to which it can be put. Thus the liver-shaped leaves of the liver wort indicated it could cure liver problems, and the ear-shaped hindwing of the earwig was a sign it could cure earaches (crushed, and mixed with the urine of a hare!)

Humans too have signatures that make us distinctive to other species – an upright, bipedal posture, forward facing eyes and relatively hairless bodies. These too have been abused, and variations within those characteristics – skin color, hair texture, eye shape, gender – have led to judgment and divisiveness.

The most unusual aspect of being human however, as Dr. Winston describes, is that we live simultaneously inside and outside of nature. We are subject to the same laws as other animals – our life span is finite, we vie for mates, we respond to variations of temperature and climate – yet unlike other species we consider ourselves not only separate from nature but superior to, and more important than, the rest of life.

Justification for these feelings of eminence was found in the translation of the Hebrew word memshalah as dominion, as in having “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Does dominion mean ‘plunder and subjugate,’ or does it mean ‘care and look after’? A pronouncement by the Imperial Conference of 1926 described Great Britain and the dominions as “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs . . .”   Thus Canada was declared a dominion in 1867, as was Australia, New Zealand and South Africa within the next 50 years.

“Equal in status, in no way subordinate to another . . .” Our relationship with fish, fowl, cattle and every creeping thing ‘doth changeth’ in the light of this interpretation  compared to  a definition which justifies the conscious and deliberate remodeling of the globe to suit our needs and which is the core of our current environmental crisis.

Just as every organism has a defining characteristic so does it have a habitat, a niche with food, water and shelter. We, by contrast, not only thrive in different habitats but can invent our own, whether it is the complexity of a city or the recent bio-dome built to test humans’ ability to survive in a Martian environment.

If we accept civilization as beginning 10,000 years ago with the development of permanent human settlements in at least four different areas of the world, then our society was essentially agricultural for 97% of that time, before the scientific revolution drastically re-shaped our living standards and our environment.  For more than 9500 years humans carved a few fields out of the forests and woodlands and fertilized them, if at all, with natural products. They burned a sustainable amount of wood and traveled by foot, horseback or cart along essentially dirt tracks. Today we have token patches of natural vegetation which we need legislation to protect, despite which  more than 150 million acres of pollinator habitat have been destroyed in the United States in the last 20 years. We burn sufficient fuel to modify the earth’s climate and asphalt highways are traveled by vehicles, the emissions of which threaten the very quality of the air we breathe.

Honey bees are not indigenous to north America and were first introduced in the early 1620s as part of a western-based agricultural system. In the last 50 years they have been inundated with a number of viruses and parasites – tracheal mites, nosema ceranae, Varroa mites, chalk brood and small hive beetle, with more to come – which not only straddle the world as the result of global transportation but exist in an increasingly toxic environment, as indeed do we. Speaking at the Pennsylvania Beekeepers’ Conference last November, Mark Winston stated that 1.3 billion pounds of pesticides are used in this country every year, which equates to about four pounds per person. Considering that most pesticides are toxic to humans in doses of one hundredth thousand to one millionth of a pound, that’s a lot of poison.

If we are to be effective perhaps we need to agree on dominion as stewardship rather than as pillage, on interdependence rather than independence, on a web of life rather than a hierarchy. Action can be effective in a crisis – the response to the depletion of the ozone layer is one example – but stewardship means being proactive rather than reactive; it means respect for all forms of life, it requires humility and requires a re-examination of what we mean by quality of life.

Rachel Carson concluded Silent Spring by writing that “the control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”

The theme for the PSBA conference in 2016, “Audacious Ideas for the Future of Beekeeping,” was inspired by Mark Winston’s Manifesto, first published in 2015, in which he argued for a new paradigm “that recognizes beekeepers as stewards of both managed and wild bees, promoters of healthy environments, managers of economically sustainable apiaries and paragons of collaboration and cooperation. It’s time for some audacious thinking about the future of beekeeping.” Indeed, it’s time for a BHAG.

In 1994 James Collins and Jerry Porras published Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, in which they devised the term ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’.  BHAG, as it is customarily referred to, is a strategic business statement designed to focus an organization on a single goal which is audacious, likely to be externally questionable but not internally regarded as impossible.

Let’s return for a moment to the term ‘dominion’ as meaning either plunder and subjugate or caring and looking after. In describing the different approaches to beekeeping in the U.S., Europe and Oceana, as compared say to Africa, Maryann Frazier uses the terms nursing versus nurturing. In the former the management objectives and styles are mostly economically driven, with the maxim that increased yields means increased profits for the beekeeper. The bees are expected to adopt to our needs despite the fact that they are exposed increasingly to diseases, pests and parasites, they exist increasingly in monocultures, we treat even weak colonies for survival, and the bees are expected to use and re-use old comb, which as Keith Delaplane explained, “forces the bees to use their liver as their uterus.” It’s hardly surprising that pollinators are in decline in so-called ‘developed’ countries.   

In many parts of Africa, Asia and South America beekeeping is more biologically driven. It is nurture more than nursing, and we are expected to adapt to the bees. Although this is changing, there is less use of pesticides, less exposure to pests and diseases with minimal intervention by the beekeeper, a diverse environment for foraging, and Apis mellifera scutellata is allowed to exercise its need to swarm frequently which not only interrupts the Varroa cycle but allows for the frequent building of new comb. Honey bees are not declining in these areas; indeed they are increasing.

There are other examples of this comparison not immediately connected to honey bees. Dr. Mai Van Trang, an Indonesian, in a poem entitled An Asian View of Cultural Differences, describes Asians as always at rest compared to Westerners who are always on the move. “We are passive; you are aggressive. We like to contemplate; you like to act. We accept the world as it is; you try to change it according to your blueprint. Religion is our first love; technology is our passion. We delight to think about the meaning of life; you delight in physics . . .” Obviously these are generalizations but you get the picture.

So what if the BHAG is to move consciously from the current Industrial era to an Ecological era?  Using comparisons developed by Riane Eisler and David Loye in The Chalice and the Blade, what if we were to move from an emphasis on material progress to one of a balance between materialism and spirituality; from a consumptive, self-serving behavior to a more cooperative, life-serving behavior; to an identity defined by possessions and social status which leaves us feeling separate and alone, to an identity defined by our participation in life which leaves us feeling connected to a larger universe?

Recent elections in Europe and the USA suggest a retrogression to divisiveness, confrontation, fear, judgement and the elements of domination associated with control and subjugation. Nurturing, by contrast, challenges us to view the world as a living organism of which we are a part rather than an object to be conquered and exploited.  Our interactions would be based on a win:win philosophy and rather than operate from a base of competition, control and fear  we would place our trust in cooperation, partnership and love.  “These words are hard to keep still within definitions,” said Wendell Berry during the 41st Annual Jefferson Lecture, “but they make the dictionary hum like a beehive.”

So, the question remains, what’s to be done?  In 2003 Jane Goodall and Marc Bekoff published The 10 Trusts : What We Must Do to Care for the Animals We Love, which can be tweaked for honey bees:

  • Recognize that we are all connected and interdependent.
  • Respect all life.
  • Open our minds in humility and learn from the bees.
  • Teach our children to love and respect nature, starting with all insects.
  • Be wise stewards of this earth.
  • Realize that every action has consequences that last for seven generations.
  • Have the courage of our convictions.
  • Recognize and help those who work for the benefit of the natural world.
  • Act knowing that we are not alone.
  • Live with hope.

Is there, perhaps,  a BHAG that incorporates a definition of dominion as  stewardship, interdependence and a web of life, that places trust in cooperation, nurturing and partnership and which will lead to a shift of our world view for the benefits of all living things, not least our planet?

The U.S. Declaration of Independence, in words composed by Thomas Jefferson, proclaims that   “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What if the Creator (whatever that term might mean) believed that these unalienable rights are endowed not just to human kind but to all living things, just as ‘dominion’ does not justify self serving pillage so much as demand the protection and nurture of all life?

Unfortunately, legal systems around the world are not designed to protect nature. Rather, laws and governments are focused on how to use the natural world and it’s resources as fast as possible for maximum financial gain. There are numerous examples of CEO’s who are contractually obligated to make a profit for the benefit of the share holders even when the product is proven to be environmentally harmful. International trade agreements empower corporations to sue governments in order to obstruct or restrain the reach of environmental laws. Global climate agreements remain largely non-binding and unenforceable.

But there are signs of change, and as with many effective movements, they are evident in small groups of passionate people  from all around the world.  It might be called The Rights of Nature and is described by Mari Margil on a new website, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, in an article titled Nature and the Law (20th December, 2016).

I first got to experience it in Costa Rica some ten years ago. In lieu of a standing army Costa Rica devotes equivalent funds to education, health care and conservation, to the point that small schools and clinics cover the countryside, 25% of which has been preserved as national parks.  The passion and pride of Costa Rican citizens for the natural world is evident in their daily actions. 

Margil cites other examples. Ecuador, in 2008,  was the first country to recognize the rights of nature in its national constitution, which was tested when a provincial court found that the rights of the Vilcabamba river were being infringed by road construction that was impacting the river’s flow. Similarly in the Galapagos, a judge cited the rights of nature constitutional provisions in ruling that road construction must stop until a government review could guarantee the protection of iguana and other species’ habitats.

Here in the U.S., in 2013, Highland Township, PA,  passed a local law prohibiting frack wastewater injection wells, recognizing that the wells would violate the rights of people and ecosystems. The township supervisors repealed the ordinance in 2016 under pressure from an oil and gas company, community members voted in November 2016 to reinstate the prohibition and the township was sued a second time. The case is currently before a Court of Appeals.

In February of 2016 the Green Party of England and Wales adopted a national policy platform on the rights of nature, and in September 2016, the General Council of the Ho-Chunk Nation, based in Wisconsin, introduced an amendment to their tribal constitution to recognize the rights of nature. If passed by a vote of the full membership later this year the Ho-Chunk would become the first tribal nation to enshrine the rights of nature in its constitution. Similar initiatives are evident in Australia and India, and as late as March 15 of this year, after 160 years of pressure from local Maoris, the New Zealand parliament has recognized the Whanganui River as a living entity which can be represented in court proceedings by two appointed people.

Mari Margil points out that although these laws may be relatively new, the ideas behind them are not. In the nineteenth century environmentalist John Muir wrote that we must respect “the rights of all the rest of creation.”  More than a century later Pope Francis, in calling for a new era of environmental protection, declared, in a speech before the United Nations, that “[a] true ‘right of the environment’ does exist…”

As past movements have demonstrated, recognizing rights of the disadvantaged and disposed is difficult, lengthy work, and as current movements show, years of work can be undone by the stroke of a pen.

What it means for honey bees and other threatened species is that instead of trying to rescue individuals we turn instead to the larger environment in which they exist, and in so doing, accept responsibility for having caused it.  Like the story of the sage in India who came across villagers pulling a never-ending series of individuals from the river, it’s equally important to find out why they were falling in in the first place.

Changing the hubcaps on a Model T Ford and calling it a Cadillac does not deceive anyone. We need to stop tinkering and go back to big issues.  As Margaret Meade famously asserted, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”   We cannot stand by much longer.  “Our ability to radically transform the world,” Dr. Winston wrote, “has caught up with our historical, human-centered sense of dominance and distance,” or as Wendell Berry argued in the 41st Annual Jefferson Lecture, “Ecological health, in a land dying of abuse, is not worth ‘something’; it is worth everything.”