Planetary motions

November 3, 1995

If the question of the values that should govern institutions is complex, questions about the values that might inform the intellectual debate within academic space are at least as knotty. The tangle of issues surrounding the relationship between academic life and human interaction with the earth, which now goes far beyond the agenda of "green politics", is one such area: one explored in a valuable way last weekend at a conference run by ECO, a campaigning body that aims to improve thinking on political ecology.

11 = /Sandy Irvine, a further education lecturer, set the pace by pointing out that even the idea of "human rights" is a recent and fragile one in history. In Roman Europe, slaves could be killed because their owners died. Until the Renaissance, prisoners of war or supporters of the unsuccessful side in a political struggle could be killed out of hand. More recent history shows that the high standards of western humanism are far from being universally observed on the continent where they began.

It might seem excessive to insist not only on these values but on their extension to the other species and systems upon which people depend for their existence. But in a world where up to half of the photosynthetic activity that supports life is being diverted to human use, is there an alternative?

A key question is the scope of "global management". It is the fashion, derided at the conference by John Gray of Oxford, for time-expired statesmen to gather expensively to approve business-as-usual schemes for the future of the world. As Gray sees it, these initiatives are likely to result in worse outcomes than if the planet is left to its own devices.

But those less despairing might wish to explore models of global governance that are not merely based on elevating national politics to a planetary scale. Are there new control mechanisms, learning from ideas like fuzzy logic and non-linear systems, that could produce better results and allow participation to be extended beyond the frequent-flyer elite?

Irvine warned against proposed solutions that blame others for our problems. We may hate company X for tipping a chemical into the river, but what if it does so in the course of making a product that we want to buy, as cheaply as possible? Academics and others have a responsibility to devise ways of making these contradictions visible and setting out the solutions to them and their costs.

Many academics, like Lynn Margulis of the University of Massachusetts, have taken a leading role in pursuing the concept that people have a special responsibility for the earth but cannot manage it or be in control of it. In the long term, a values system that enourages humility about our importance alongside seriousness about our duties would be welcome on a planetary scale - and would do no harm within the academic enterprise either.

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