It’s time for academia to adopt an ecocentric world view


Due to increasing anthropogenic pressures on the environment, biodiversity loss has been accelerating, as reported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Recently we have seen the ‘Leaders’ Pledge for Nature’, issued in anticipation of the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity in September 2020, and signed on to by 93 countries. The pledge promises to “step up global ambition for biodiversity and to commit to matching our collective ambition for nature, climate and people with the scale of the crisis at hand”.

This pledge also highlights the key drivers of crises and the interdependent nature of environmental degradation and the decline in social and economic indicators of well-being.

It states: “We are in a state of planetary emergency: the interdependent crises of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and climate change – driven in large part by unsustainable production and consumption – require urgent and immediate global action. Science clearly shows that biodiversity loss, land and ocean degradation, pollution, resource depletion and climate change are accelerating at an unprecedented rate.

“This acceleration is causing irreversible harm to our life support systems and aggravating poverty and inequalities as well as hunger and malnutrition. Unless halted and reversed with immediate effect, it will cause significant damage to global economic, social and political resilience and stability and will render achieving the Sustainable Development Goals impossible.”

This pledge suggests that governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are in the process of thinking through what ‘nature positive’ conservation would look like. It is thus a critical time to consider what ‘Nature Positive’ should be if it is to turn around rapid biodiversity decline.

An important related document is the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) 2021 report Creating a Nature-Positive Future, which outlines the need for scaling up equitable, representative and effective protected areas and other measures to halt and reverse the continuing loss of global biodiversity.

We would note that ‘Nature Positive’ is not clearly defined by the UNDP but seems to refer to a world where nature is visibly and measurably regenerating by 2030 (rather than in decline) and has fully recovered and is thriving by 2050.

We should consider the history of ‘sustainable development’. Sustainable development strategies were outlined in Our Common Future in 1987 and largely adopted by the UN. This saw the primary purpose of preserving the environment as for people’s welfare and poverty alleviation (including restoring ecosystems but only for human benefit).

Reflecting this strategy, the ‘Leaders’ Pledge for Nature’ highlights the fact that since “nature fundamentally underpins human health, well-being and prosperity”, we need to “recognise that the business case for biodiversity is compelling”. Put in monetary terms, they argue the “benefits of restoring natural resources outweigh the costs 10-fold, and the cost of inaction is even higher”.

Nature positive

However, this focus on human economic development and economic growth, central to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), often in practice means increased production and consumption of natural resources.

The SDGs fail to discuss that ongoing growth itself would put great pressure on biodiversity. With the additional billion people populating the planet between the 1980s and the time of writing this article, sustainable development policies have been woefully inadequate in addressing biodiversity loss and habitat destruction.

The key issue is that sustainable development policies have sought to grow their way out of the environmental crisis – thus exacerbating it, as endless growth is a direct driver of biodiversity loss.

Part of the challenge of how to reach an ecologically sustainable future is how biodiversity conservation spending can be altered to support truly ‘nature positive’ approaches. The current ‘nature positive’ policies include the Global Goal for Nature – in parallel with the UN Climate Convention’s ‘net-zero’ emissions goal. The former would commit governments to be nature-positive by 2030 by taking urgent action to halt nature loss.

Thus, there is a need to reflect on how to square ecocentric values and moral obligations to nature with a focus on people and poverty alleviation (such as promoted in the SDGs and the ‘Nature Positive’ vision).

We would point out that ‘nature positive’ does not foreground ecocentrism or ecological ethics. Some definitions see it continuing to promote the growth economy (its fundamental basis is thus arguably confused). Since the ‘Leaders’ Pledge for Nature’ highlights the business case for biodiversity conservation, the question of environmental education for biodiversity comes to the fore.

Environmental education

Based on the Limits to Growth report’s warning issued in 1972 about the negative effects of industrial development, economic growth and human population growth associated with the increase in production and consumption, early environmental education was designed to inform and motivate students to develop ecological literacy.

This education was promoted by the Belgrade Charter which underlined the need for teachers and students to develop an understanding of basic ecology, an awareness of the natural world and its current plight, sensitivity to the need for protecting nature and the acquisition of understanding and skills to help address environmental challenges.

Following the Belgrade Charter, the Tbilisi Declaration was developed in 1977, which emphasised more concrete goals, objectives and guiding principles for environmental education.

However, in less than a decade, a shift towards Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) based on the UN’s Our Common Future report gained prominence, with the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development proclaimed to be a success when it came to educational initiatives popularising sustainable development.

Consequently, Education for Sustainable Development Goals (ESDG), including SDG 4 on quality education, emphasised that every learner should acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development.

This assumes, of course, that ‘sustainable development’ is desirable. Thus, we need to ask whether the current aim of ESD and ESDG is sufficient for addressing biodiversity crises and engaging with the vision of a shared Earth.

Several scholars argue the focus should be on sustainability and not further development, and the lessons of the Tbilisi report, based on the Limits to Growth approach, can be instructive here.

Some elephants in the SDG room

Mainstream ESDG can be seen as a step back from the Limits to Growth approach. For example, most SDGs’ sub-goals, if closely examined, name economic growth (without discussion of its effect on natural resources) as a solution to sustainability challenges, with SDG 8 being entirely focused on ‘decent work and economic growth’.

Such focus is at best irrelevant and at worst incompatible with or negatively correlated with the objective of environmental sustainability, particularly preserving biodiversity.

The next elephant in the SDG room is the complete avoidance of discussion about the global population, even though it is a major factor in the increasing consumption of resources.

Population Matters, a charity that focuses on human rights, equality and sustainability, has emphasised that the SDGs conspicuously ignore the question of population growth, assuming that, magically, the health and wealth of eight billion consumers will not come at the cost of environmental integrity.

Ironically, according to environmental campaigner Robin Maynard, while the (one could hypothetically assume, privileged, highly educated) liberal left rallies against “oligarchs, capitalists and free-market economists”, these are precisely the groups “who gain most from the denial of population growth as an issue of concern”.

One could also hypothesise that it is precisely the elites (particularly corporate and political ones, thus the most powerful) who “have a vested interest in a growing population, seeing expanding markets for their goods and services, boosting consumerism globally and seeding exaggerated fears in the public’s and politicians’ minds that without fresh cohorts of young people as labour, social services and pension funds will collapse”.

The denial of the longer-term effects of population growth on the ability of future generations entirely ignores the ability of billions of non-human species to meet their own needs.

The SDG text suggests that both poverty and hunger reductions can be achieved through economic means, as well as technological progress, including the intensification of agriculture. This intensification does not consider negative effects such as toxicity, the creation of monocultures that threaten biodiversity, and increasingly poor farm animal welfare.

The upshot of all this for education is that a much harder discussion is needed rather than discussing the supposedly easy ‘win-wins’ of the SDGs in education, which amounts to basically embracing the ‘having your cake and eating it too’ possibilities (combining poverty/hunger reduction with somehow miraculously avoiding increased consumption of natural resources and curbing environmental degradation).

Ethically, a major impediment to addressing climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution is the dominance of anthropocentrism, which positions humankind as separate from and ‘above’ the non-human world. In a broader conception, ‘sustainability’ refers not just to natural resources but the lives and flourishing of all beings on a finite planet, while ‘development’ typically in the UN lexicon refers to the growth of industry and the economy.

Within the larger problem of anthropogenically caused climate change, overusing fresh water and degrading waterways places the surrounding ecosystems under increasing strain, threatening water, food and energy security.

Problematic trade-offs

We should return to the questions asked at the start of the article about what ‘nature positive’ initiatives should look like.

In some areas, policies are potentially win-wins, but there are other more problematic trade-offs and bottlenecks. For example, when money is spent on sustainable innovation (for example, developing better battery storage or transfer grids for renewable and intermittent energy sources is a win-win for both social/economic sustainability and nature) along with the trickier questions like: Can poverty alleviation be achieved without economic development, which typically requires even more resources to be consumed (or does it require redistribution of existing wealth, a question largely avoided in many circles)?

There is also the need to rethink development priorities, emphasising the need for voluntary non-coercive means of addressing population growth to achieve a smaller ecological footprint.

Simultaneously, the need for resources for other species has to be considered (most of which, in terms of the total biomass on this planet, are presently used for human consumption, while wild species and their habitats are destroyed).

Priority spending in society currently tends to be on projects that focus on a circular economy, while ideas such as the steady-state economy, degrowth and de-materialisation are sidelined. These sidelined initiatives, alongside family planning measures and the circular economy, emphasise the so-called production-to-service shift.

This shift suggests the use of products that are leased rather than owned, thus having more users for one product and thus minimising the need for use of new materials. As these products (such as washing machines) need to last longer to satisfy multiple consumer needs, cutting production costs, ideally they are of better quality, eliminating consumer need to keep buying new products and thus countering the built-in obsolescence.

The win-win sustainability scenarios include an emphasis on production for making better-lasting – and ideally fully reusable – appliances, but also the development of products in material categories that are difficult or impossible to make ‘circular’, such as food (lab meat and vegetarian diets) and clothes – textiles made to last and be reused, etc.

Most significantly for education emphasising ecological literacy (as in the earlier forms associated with the Belgrade Charter), environmental education needs to return to the objectives of making “an effective contribution towards improving the environment… [E]ducational action must be linked with legislation, policies, measures of control, and the decisions that governments may adopt about the human environment”.

Supporting all life on Earth

Creating a world in which humans and all other species can flourish means ensuring sufficient habitat for other species while living prudently and justly (for both the human and non-human) in what is left.

It also means choosing to limit our numbers so that this is possible. Such a moral commitment is owed not only to non-human beings but also to future human generations, who will otherwise face a severely degraded planet.

The combination of clearly articulating non-human needs and interests; providing legal protection for their rights; and, above all, promoting a vision that relocates humankind within a world of our living kindred, can and do provide more sustainable ways of thinking.

This is therefore a plea for education that supports all of life on Earth. We also believe it is time society (and academia) adopted an ecocentric worldview and ecological ethics, two things rarely discussed concerning this topic.

Dr Helen Kopnina is assistant professor, sustainable business, at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, United Kingdom. Twitter: @hkopnina

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