When the economy is mentioned, the current crisis is likely what comes to most people’s mind. For Professor Peter Brown of the McGill School of Environment, the crisis goes deeper than that.
“We’re in a tough time in history,” Brown remarked during a speech for the Food for Thought lecture series at Macdonald campus last Tuesday where he asked the audience “is the situation dismal, or could this be our moment of grace?”
Professor Brown believes that we now have an enormous opportunity to rethink our relationship with the earth and what it means to be human. His new book, Right Relationship, Building a Whole Earth Economy, explores this question by analyzing what a good and bad relationship with the earth entails.
“A thing is right if it preserves the integrity and resilience and beauty of the commonwealth of life,” Brown said, “it is wrong when it is otherwise.”
The tar sands, he explains, are a perfect example of a wrong relationship with the earth: “It is shameful conduct and a huge stain on the face of Canada…We have an indifferent attitude towards the earth rather than one of stewardship. Our culture doesn’t have respect of affection for the land,” he argued, then warning that “the course we’re on is suicidal.”
Peter Brown described the current global situation, including all concurrent crises, as having its roots in a Judeo-Christian belief system, which also gave rise to the current political and economic order.
“If you subject the present economic order to the test of what is moral and right, it fails completely,” he stated, “Christianity has created a belief system that someone else will solve all our problems for us. Nature is something out there that we’ll fix when we get around to it.”
The present crisis is a result of using the world as our object of pleasure. Brown argued that getting out of this mess requires re-thinking the human situation in very thorough and profound ways. The first step in re-thinking this relationship calls for regarding the processes of the universe as being creative, rather than something that was created. “The universe is an open process where we are very small,” Brown said.
Brown believes that we have lost our inherent dignity because our lives are framed by the cost of commodities, such as oil and food “and this is the way we are treated by the government,” he said, explaining that “one characteristic of citizenship is to see yourself as a player in an infinite game, keeping culture and knowledge going. We’re snuffing out that game by decreasing biodiversity on the earth and regarding ourselves as consumers rather than citizens.”
The process of re-thinking what a right relationship is with the earth includes asking the right questions. Brown’s questions are about the economy: What’s it for? How does it work? How big is too big? What’s fair? and finally: How should it be governed?
“The current economic order can’t answer these questions in a remotely satisfactory way,” Brown said, “the economy is too big when it overwhelms the earth’s ability to support complex life. Because of the laws of thermodynamics, the earth has been able to develop complex systems that we are in the process of destroying.”
A major solution for these questions lies in getting something like the European Union that has power to require nations to live up to minimum standards in environmental, human rights and labor issues.
“We need to think about the earth in whole system terms and fit the economy inside that understanding,” Brown stated, “we’re up against very powerful adversaries who don’t want to listen or change. We haven’t connected our morals with scientific discoveries and our understanding of the world.”
These issues are great and the challenges, enormous, but Professor Brown says that the alternative is unthinkable. “Could this be our moment of grace?” he asks, “we need to get rid of the present economic situation.”
We’re at our planetary limits and Professor Brown wants to know if we want to keep depending on a finite economy in an infinite system. One audience member commented that it is imperative that we create a new economic system that incorporates environmental stewardship and social stability.
Change is constant and Professor Brown said that we need to redistribute what’s already here. “It’s all a matter of scale,” he said, “let’s hope the scales start tipping towards morally just leadership.