1. The Apocalypse as Revelation
By the time the Fogelstad women (*1) were gathering on their carpet, the growth-based industrial society was about to enter into its crescendo: the so-called Great Acceleration. After the second world war this society, our society, went extracting resources at a furious speed and efficiency, consequently, by the end of the century, running up against boundaries at a planetary scale. The signs are now everywhere: just as Elin Wägner, ideologist of the Fogelstad group and maybe the world’s first ecofeminist, foresaw. I can’t express it with more clarity than she did in 1941:
“The world can be conquered now, we have come that far. But never the splendour of it. When the conquest of the world is complete, its splendour is also gone. With this understanding of the situation, one fears nothing more than that the firm Western civilisation Inc., as after the first world war, would try to resume its principles, albeit after more grand, modern and more continental design. Even if the disputes between the shareholders of the firm could be cancelled before the whole project was compromised, everything would not be well. The vision of humankind, perpetually and restlessly busy with taking advantage of every spot and every seed, to find every source of energy not yet used, makes one flinch. It may be theoretically possible that the male intelligence would succeed in such a task. But that dream come true would just mean that we would faster win the world and loose its splendour. The question is if we are living in the beginning of civilization or in the end of the era of domination. All times are simultaneously endings and preparations. Our surface is characterised by dissolution, closure, but underneath preparations for something new is underway. But while you stand in the middle of something, you are unable to assess how fast or slow this shift is happening. Posterity can understand a process as fast and concentrated, which to us seems broken and confused, slow like the sleepless hours before daybreak.”(*2)
She was before her time, Elin Wägner. I believe she was one of the few who sensed that we were nearing the end of the era of domination. A century ago, she described where we were heading, where today the splendour of the world is running through our fingers as seas acidify, starlit skies get dissolved by artificial light and 200 species go extinct – every day. The Earth is not even enough for our conquest – mining of the Moon is on the agenda. And the forests? We are felling the trees faster than they can grow. There is a lot of trees in Sweden, but we scarcely have forests anymore. And the rainforests are burning.
Sometimes it feels as if we are living through the apocalypse.
Apocalypse; the word means revealing, unveiling. What is being revealed? Maybe the paradigm?
According to physicist Frithiof Capra, the ecological, economic and social crises we see today is not separate phenomena, but consequences of a crisis of perception. We perceive the world as separate from us, and humans as superior to the rest of Life. We perceive Nature, forests, mountains, all living beings as our property, as “resources” for us to measure, use and manage. We cannot respond to the forest calling. We cannot even hear it, as according to our paradigm there is no one there. The trees, the soil, the woodpeckers, the moss – they are mere objects. This perception is so ingrained in our culture that it’s almost invisible. And so we industrialise the landscape. Convert forests to plantations and call it ”development”.
This misperception has been instrumental to a paradigm of control and domination. A conquering culture. Not until the paradigm is falling apart is it revealed. When the attempts to control, to domesticate, the living world has taken us to a very chaotic space. Where catastrophic events like fires, floods and storms make the notion of control seem foolish and vain. Nature cannot be governed. And so we wake up to a world which is complex and alive and hence uncontrollable. Wild. There are more-than-human subjects with interests and needs to take into consideration.
The revelation: we are alive in a living world.
2. The Dance of Life – what is a Forest?
It is time for a radical shift in perception. Radical in the original sense of the word: coming from radix, the root. And a revolution has been taking place in the scientific understanding of forests. Forests are not a mere collection of trees (or cubic metres of wood if you ask the forestry industry). They are living, communicating communities, where trees of different species have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships with each other. Underground fungal networks, mycorrhiza, connect the roots of trees and make sharing of water and nutrients between them possible. About a third of the energy the trees gather from the sun, goes to feed these fungi – a totally different life form! They form a wood wide web through which trees communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive them. These messages are chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals, much like our nervous system. New research indicates that trees also hear, smell and taste.(*3)
Forests are the most biodiverse systems on Earth. The trees and fungi form a kind of superorganism, creating a home for countless other species. An ever changing, ever evolving web of relationships, like a dance of Life. When I studied for my masters degree in forest ecology at the turn of the millennium, what we today understand about forests as living systems was simply not known.
What else don´t we know, that we don´t know?
3. Rules for a wild relationship
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Albert Einstein
So where do we go from here? In the Apocalypse, when the veil has fallen, when we see the world in a different light, what do we do? Can we imagine a healthy relationship with the living world? How do we transform the systems and institutions of our paradigm to make them able to relate to Nature, to listen to the forest?
Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist of North American indigenous heritage, writes about how her third year students in environmental science were asked to rate positive interactions between people and land. The median response was: none. “I was stunned, she says. How was it possible, that after twenty years of education, they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people and the environment? … As the land becomes impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision. As we talked about this after class, I realised that they could not even imagine what beneficial relationships between their species and others might look like. How can we begin to move forward toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we can’t even imagine what that path feels like?”
She continues (quoting Gary Nabhan): “It not just the land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to land. We can´t meaningfully proceed with healing, with restoration, without re-storyation. In other words our relationship with land cannot heal, until we hear its stories.”(*4)
A new story of the land, of Nature, is now emerging. A worldwide movement, inspired by indigenous ways of knowing, is re-imagining the relationship between humans and more-than-human beings. Acknowledging that not just humans, but all of Life, has the right to exist and thrive and that this right can be enshrined in law, this movement is beginning to transform how we collectively perceive Nature.
Ecuador was the first country to include the rights of nature in the Constitution, in 2008. Their example has been followed by many others, with rivers, mountains, lakes and forests as legal persons with rights in Mexico, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Uganda, USA and many other places. In Colombia, a group of children and youth sued the State for not addressing climate change by allowing deforestation of the Amazon forest, thereby threatening their right to life and health. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court where the judge agreed with the children, but said he could not protect the forest as it did not have the right to exist, according to law. Since he was the judge of the Supreme Court, however, he used his super-powers, and decided that the Amazon forest of Colombia had the legal right to exist. I have met this judge. I asked him if he was criticised; how brave he had to be to do such a thing. He said that yes, it was a controversial decision – but sometimes you just have to do the right thing. (I thought about Pippi Långstrump when I heard him: some things you just have to do, else you are just a small piece of dirt).
These are just a few examples of how the Rights of Nature framework is developing fast worldwide. In Sweden I was part of drafting a parliamentary motion last fall on Rights of Nature in the Constitution. The motion proposes a new article in the Constitution:
Article 26. Nature, including ecosystems, natural communities, and species, shall be guaranteed the following rights and freedoms:
1. rights to naturally exist, thrive, regenerate, evolve, and be restored; and
2. freedom to exercise, enforce, and defend these rights and freedoms.(*5)
The human rights are defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, right in the beginning of the Great Acceleration. Maybe the most important international agreement we have. As soon as Rights of Nature is mentioned, an anxiety arises: if the rights of Nature is acknowledged, might not human rights be compromised? This fear is a symptom of the perceived separation between humans and nature. As there is no human health, indeed no human life, without Nature, human rights are meaningless if the rest of nature is right-less. Rights of Nature helps us perceive humans as parts of a living whole. From our first breath to our last, we are totally dependent on Nature. Our inhalation, or inspiration, is the exhalation of the forest. It is a conspiration. We are breathing together.
Our current legal, political and economic systems do not reflect this understanding.
The greatest threat against human rights is the destruction of our larger selves, our living whole. To find our way to a culture which is healthy, capable of living in peace with the Earth we need urgently to find rules to balance the rights of humans with obligations toward nature. Rules to support us in governing ourselves in relation to the living world, instead of trying in vain to govern nature. To make it possible to listen and respond to the forests it is time to balance the Declaration of Human Rights with a Declaration of Rights of Nature.
Rights of Nature as a vision, an idea, a framework is very practical and concrete; our legal systems are capable of working with rights of lakes and forests, just as they do with human constructs like corporations. Simultaneously it is paradigm-shifting, as it challenges the fundamental idea of separation, control and domination. It does it through law, which, according to South-african lawyer Cormac Cullinan is like the DNA of our society, with a direct influence on values and norms; what we collectively deem as important or non-important, right or wrong. When we change the DNA, everything else is also subject to change.(*6)
The women of Fogelstad gathered to effect change, share their true stories and create a space to imagine what it might mean, as a woman, to be an agent in society. We now need spaces, carpets to sit on, to imagine what it would mean if forests were agents in society. To listen to their call and learn from the trees, about long time perspectives and mutually beneficial relationships, about the wide web we are a part of that nurtures us and sustains us. To create rules for wild relationships. To re-storify the land.
*1. A Swedish feminist group active in societal debate around land, womens right to vote and other things and founders of a Women’s Citizen School at Fogelstad (active 1922 – 1954) with the purpose to educate women in their new rights and responsibilities as citizens after women suffrage had been achieved in 1921.
*2. Väckarklocka, 1941, my translation
*4. Kimmerer, Braiding sweetgrass, 2013.
*6. Cullinan, Wild law, 2011.