Sustainable Development

“Today the regenerative rights of the earth and its web of life are constantly abused. Man-made chemical fertilizers and pesticides are forcing Nature to unnaturally intense fertility cycles, preparing the ground for inevitable and catastrophic consequences. Who doesn’t respect the rights of the earth represents a menace to the future generations and to the existence of life as a whole.”

The objectification of nature, seen as a totally measurable and disposable resource, has been one of the fundamental axioms of the industrial age.

In the eyes of the fathers of the modern scientific method, such as Sir Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei and René Descartes, nature looked like a huge mechanical clock. Given enough knowledge, everything natural could be explained rationally — hence the knowledge=power equation.

In some infamous passages, Bacon and his followers argue that nature “must be taken by the forelock”, “bidden to your service” and “made your slave”. The work of the scientist is to “shake her to her foundations” in order to “conquer and subdue her”. She has to be “put on a rack”, and “her deepest secrets must be tortured out of her”.

That’s why knowledge was seen as the ultimate power: by methodically extracting all of her secrets one by one, nature could be totally subjugated by the human race, whose ultimate goal was the achievement of a supreme intelligence, instrument of its absolute domination over the world.

But those were only the delusions of our young and arrogant mind: first Einstein’s relativity theory and then Heisenberg’s discovery of the uncertainty principle in quantum physics completely debunked the old mechanistic models of reality.

The problems began because the old paradigm was inadequate to grasp the structural interconnectedness between humanity and nature, which is not reducible to the simplifications of a purely quantitative method.

Nature’s breakdown, following the intensive manipulations to which humanity has put her through, is the warning sign that something essential eludes our mind when we try to define reality by cutting out linear chains of cause and effect isolated from their ecological context.

The reality of a natural element isn’t in its detachment, but in its correlation with the other elements. Rational analysis, in its proceeding from the complex towards the simple, loses along the way the living web of reciprocities, a web that won’t be possible to recompose later on by the synthetic association of the simple (but now dead) parts.

The complex nature of the web of life derives from the fact that, in each one of its parts, the system is operating as a whole. This fundamental property is called holism, for which every element assumes its significance in relation to the entire set, and the entire set is constantly re-defined by the interactions between its parts, in a reciprocal continuum that doesn’t allow for any substantial dualism of sorts between thought and reality, consciousness and matter.

Us humans, blinded by the power of our own mind, have lost ourselves in ego-centric delusions of grandeur that made us forget where we’re coming from. Our intelligence is not something supernatural, alien or extra-terrestrial: it was born here on Earth, between our sisters plants and our brothers animals, in this planetary macro-organism we call Nature and Life. Our intellect has outgrown itself, and now needs to be balanced by a ecological conscience that is fully aware of the structural symbiosis that ties us together with every other creature.

Nature is our home, this tiny region of space where, around planet Earth, emerged a vital belt — the Biosphere — this wonderful twine of elements that make Life possible. Between humanity and nature exists a level of reciprocity that stands before the utilitarian level of the production system. Between humanity and nature there is a free-loving relation analogue to that running between two human beings, that before the imprisonment in a master/slave relationship were facing each other as equal subjects.

More than a century later, it’s possible to trace back the original act of this utilitarian escalation that has eventually led humanity to enslave itself: the moment when man felt so alien to nature to the point of seeing it as a passive object, fully masterable by his own will.

When in the ancient religious language it was said that the World belonged to God, it meant that the power of man on nature has a limit that must be respected. And to incentive the respect of that limit, God had given the people of Israel a sabbatical legislation whose profound meaning we can easily recognize.

Once a week, and one year out of every seven, the soil would be left virgin to regenerate. “This was — writes Jurgen Moltmann — the sabbath of the earth. Those who respected the sabbath of the earth would live in peace, while those who didn’t care would get hungry and sick, since they had compromised the fertility of the soil. According to that old biblical story, Israel is abandoned by God and left for seventy years in slavery in the land of Babylon, ‘until the nation of God had paid all its sabbaths’ (2 Cr. 36).

As clearly shown by the recent ethnological research, the same sense of respect for the limit was already found and ritualized in almost every tribal society on the planet, through a recurrent constellation of sacred taboos every member would learn to comply with from a certain age.

Significant is the case study reported by Vittorio Lanternari, in rural Ghana: “When the soil of a plantation has been cultivated for many years and has lost its humus, the community needs to prepare a new crop field, which has to be inevitably subtracted from the forest. The local farmers perform a prayer and libation ritual on the chosen spot, asking the many spirits indigenous to the forest for permission to cut down the trees where they live, and imploring forgiveness for forcing them to move”. Behind this apparently naive behavior, lies a deep awareness of what Lantenari calls ‘social pronosticability’, the realization that any form of aggression to the natural environment introduces and element of uncertainty and precariousness in the future of the social group: hence the necessity of self-limitation.

The profound anthropological truth of such laws and customs becomes understandable rationally only when we consider Nature as a Subject, and our condition of humans as natively interdependent within an infinite plurality of living subjects ready to ripe open to our fruition if we approach them with love and respect, but that instead close themselves — or better extinguish themselves, preparing our extinction — if our approach is aggressively utilitarian.

Today, scientists warn us that the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is underway, and humanity is largely the cause of it. Studies show that species are becoming extinct at a significantly faster rate than the previous millions of years, with about 50% of all individual animals on the planet which have been lost since the 70's. Experts talk of “biological annihilation” and add that the time to act and reverse the damage done is very short.

A new, life-sustaining model of development is therefore urgently needed.

The primary sector, that which makes direct use of natural resources and thus includes agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and energy production, must be radically redesigned to promote long-term sustainability and preserve biodiversity.

One of the most interesting concepts that emerged in the last decades is that of permaculture. As co-founder Bill Mollison explains, “permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.

Permaculture is a holistic approach in the sense that it doesn’t focus on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among the elements by the way they are placed together in: the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture design principles aim to minimize waste, human labor, and external energy input while and maximizing beneficial interactions between elements of an eco-system to achieve a high level of overall synergy.

The three core tenets of permaculture are:

  1. Care for the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  2. Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  3. Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes recycling waste back into the system and redistributing the eventual surplus production to those who need it. The third ethic is sometimes referred to as ‘Fair Share’ to reflect that each of us should take no more than what we need before we reinvest the surplus.

A healthy, vibrant and sustainable first sector must revolve around a distributed network of self-sufficient permaculture farms that freely exchange their surplus food and energy in the local and global markets.

The Secondary, or manufacturing sector, which involves the production and construction of artificial objects, must also go through some drastic restructuring. Emerging technologies such as 3d printing and robotics are coming to our aid: soon local cooperatives could be able to supply most of the necessary furniture, tools, household appliances, clothing etc needed within their radius of influence.

The key here is to provide open access to technology and designs. The new distributed manufacturing sector will enable virtually every community to access the most efficient means of production available and therefore transcend material scarcity altogether.

The new industry, as stated by Marcin Jakubowski, founder of the Open Source Ecology project, will be “an eco-industry, on a human scale and serving the needs of people, not centralized industries competing for world domination.”

Here’s a rough sketch of how a typical ecological community could look like:

Feel free to leave any comment or question below, and join the discussion on the dedicated forum.

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