Righting Institute
  • Date submitted: 1 Nov 2011
  • Stakeholder type: Major Group
  • Name: Righting Institute
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Input for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20

June 2012



The alarming collapse of the biosphere which we are idly witnessing represents the greatest failure of governance of all time, one which places in serious jeopardy all human welfare, permanently.

Many of the ecosystems on which we depend inextricably for life and its maintenance are in a state of such deep crisis that the very future of humanity is called into question.

This crisis apparent scientifically in many aspects of the Earth system, and on multiple levels.

The prospects for maintaining the forms of society in which the lives of most people are embedded and on which they are now completely dependent would appear impossible unless decisive and far-reaching action is taken with the utmost urgency to avert this unprecedented disaster now unfolding.

All conventional development is rendered futile, short-term and meaningless in a context of large scale ecosystem collapse. Such outcomes destroy any advances so far achieved, and can only result in human suffering on a gargantuan scale, vastly beyond anything previously experienced. These are entirely the consequence of our own hubris, ignorance and misplaced priorities.

Worse, ecosystem collapse on the scale which now seems imminent must be regarded as permanent on all meaningful time horizons. This means that not only present, but all future generations will be forced to suffer the consequences of the absolute folly which is being enacted and facilitated now by those invested with the authority to prevent it, and on whom rests an absolute duty to do so.

Part 1 of this paper argues that such a collapse is inevitable under the present model of governance, being the unavoidable consequence of errors in the underlying paradigm, errors which are entirely obvious.

These, in turn, are reflected in environmental governance mechanisms which are fundamentally misconceived as a consequence, and which can only result in ecological collapse, be it sooner or later.

To date, the net results of the old paradigm have been a massive and continuous assault on the biosphere; and governance which in practice has done nothing other than fail to get to grips with a life threatening problem, to recognise it for the unprecedented crisis it represents, or to recognise it at all.

In fact its primary manifestation has been to facilitate and legitimate the destruction taking place in the name of development, progress and economic growth.

Instead, part 2 of this paper proposes a single, simple, transparent and deliverable governance framework as an indispensable expedient in addressing the ecological and humanitarian crisis unfolding. It would address the root causes of the destruction of the biosphere and, if effectively enacted and delivered, would furnish what is perhaps our very best chance of averting the irreversible catastrophe which hangs imminently before us.

In contrast, it would seem that most, perhaps all, of the expedients and responses currently under consideration are embedded in the existing paradigms of environmental governance and of development, sustainable or otherwise.

As a result, while they may alleviate or moderate particular aspects of the multiple crises we face and may well have great utility for that reason, they remain intrinsically incapable of averting large scale ecosystem collapse because they fail to address the problem coherently or comprehensively, as well as being rooted in a model that has failed catastrophically and is continuing to do so.

The paper concludes with concrete recommendations for the outcome document intended to embed the proposed new paradigm in our global governance at every level: the UN, nationally, regionally, locally, in business, NGOs, and ultimately at the level of the individual.

Only by changing our fundamental relationship with Earth at every level can we expect to have any hope of traversing the imminent ecological crisis benignly.




We live on a finite planet with a single life support system, the biosphere, upon which we have been absolutely dependent for our existence since life began.

This situation is likely to continue indefinitely; at least until such time as we perfect either teleportation over galactic distances or time travel and discover as an alternative somewhere habitable, reachable, and where our presence in large numbers would be peaceably accepted.

For a very long time we have been gradually dismantling that life support system because we are enamoured with the comforts, ostentations and fast-living lifestyles we are able to affect with the bits of it we remove.

That rate of dismantling has been accelerating dramatically since industrialisation as a result of the exponential increase in the capacity to do that it has enabled. And still is.


Our biosphere is now in a state of deep crisis. On multiple measures - probably on all measures - we have already reached the point where the integrity of our life support system is critically compromised, to the extent that it is showing serious symptoms of partial or total collapse.

This is the direct result of human actions, cumulative over time.

Examples are well known and overwhelming in number. These include the alarming collapse of ocean ecosystems; the mass extinction episode commencing which we have brought upon ourselves directly as a result of our own folly; the global haemorrhaging of topsoil, loss of soil fertility, and loss of agriculturally productive lands; desertification on a massive scale; disruption of the water cycle, depletion and contamination of water sources; the ubiquitous contamination of the biosphere; and, most prominently, climate change.

Each one of these alone ought be recognised as a danger signal of the utmost gravity. In a world of objective governance, each one, alone, should already have called forth a decisive response to avert a calamity unfolding.

To take a single example, it must be obvious that on a planet that is estimated to be loosing 1% of its topsoil annually1, for creatures which rely on that topsoil for most of their food, for oxygen, for purifying freshwater and moderating the water cycle, for its role in maintaining a stable climate, and for many material needs, the prospects even in the medium-term are catastrophic. Unless stemmed, the prospects for humanity surviving even a century would seem unlikely on that metric alone.

Taken together, these represent an crisis of ultimate severity, the knell of impeding doom which should and must call forth absolutely decisive action at all levels, and with the utmost urgency.

For such a collapse would undoubtedly cause untold suffering to human and nonhuman life forms on a scale that is almost unimaginable, and bring irreversible changes to the extent that a vast number of species would become extinct, quite possibly including homo sapiens sapiens.


Much of the damage we are causing to the biosphere must be regarded as permanent and irreversible. Even at best, it is so long-term in nature that it will affect future generations permanently on all meaningful and foreseeable time horizons.


Further, its impacts upon civilisation would be so catastrophic as to render all more conventional political and policy priorities meaningless and futile. There can be no ?economic progress? under such a scenario, and what has so far been achieved would be destroyed or rendered useless.

The very idea of development - of any type - under such a scenario is rendered meaningless. One is looking at a serious collapse of the planet?s ability to sustain human life which will destabilise existing modes of existence and cause incalculable misery.


That we should find ourselves in such an existential predicament represents the greatest failure of governance of all time. The only other challenge we have faced which offered the prospect of permanent and irreversible damage to the biosphere on a global scale has been the prospect of all out nuclear war.

There governance has so far proven adequate to prevent that eventuality arising. Here, it is not merely that this calamity has been allowed to arise. It not merely that human actions have actually set this in motion. Nor is it merely that now we understand the consequences of these actions we are continuing to prosecute them.

It is that being well informed of the consequences, our governance is incapable of grasping the problem. Instead it is impotently allowing the worst case scenario to develop more or less entirely unchecked through sheer inaction.

To continue exacerbating such a collapse ? which is the net outcome of current policy ? is objectively insane and suicidal.

Given the impacts on present and future generations of humans, of other species, and on the biosphere as a whole, it is also immoral.


This absolute impotence in the face of a critical threat arises as an inevitable consequence of the existing paradigm of governance. Some important elements of this are:

? The prioritisation of the creation of wealth as measured in conventional economic terms over all other policy goals.

? That this prioritisation of wealth creation is inherent in the structure of environmental law, which has failed catastrophically, partially as a result.

? The Westphalian mindset, which inevitably results in states behaving narcissistically, acting for what is perceived as short-term advantage over other states viewed as competitors, even when subordination of their immediate priorities is in their best long-term interests, as well of the global community as a whole.

? This results in a further problem: the haphazard nature of environmental regulation when viewed globally.

? Serious flaws in governance as it relates to corporations with the result that in practice environmental protection is largely subordinated to corporate interests.


It is indisputable that environmental law has failed catastrophically ? we could not possibly be in this predicament if it were functioning even tolerably badly.

The the reason it has done so is the result of fundamental beliefs and values embedded in environmental law as it currently exists. These include:

? that the exploitation and commodification of the biosphere should be maximised for human benefit

? that human welfare is maximised by so doing

? that the biosphere is infinitely resilient such that even the most gross impacts upon it can be absorbed without long-term negative impacts

? the presumption that exploitation and contamination of natural resources is benign unless scientifically proven otherwise

? that environmental regulation should only be used as a last resort. These are exacerbated by a failure to agree and implement effective regulation at the global level, and by the inconsistent and often incoherent pattern of regulation introduced by lower tiers of government that results.


In essence it results in systems of ecological governance and regulation that are adhoc, post-hoc and piecemeal. The inevitable outcome is that we are stumbling into ecological crises one after another because the means to avert them is absent.

In contrast, sensible governance would demand environmental regulation to be permanently in place in anticipation.

It is as practical a position as having to pass legislation to form a fire brigade after the fire has started and is well on the way to becoming an inferno. While still needing to assemble the expertise and wherewithal to design and build the fire engines after that...

Accordingly we currently have a situation where environmental problems go entirely unaddressed other than at an extremely local level until such time as they are not only recognised as being seriously threatening by the scientific community, but have also been accepted as such - almost invariably with the greatest of reluctance - by the political community which holds a monopoly on the power to respond.

Unfortunately that, in turn, is compounded by the sloth-like nature of the political response, which is the result of legislative systems based on a model developed and appropriate to a world which existed several hundred years ago.

The result is that almost every threat is allowed to get entirely out of hand before anything starts to happen; and by the time what to do has finally been collectively decided, the problems are often approaching the point of being beyond control, requiring desperate measures to rein them in.

It is all rather akin to refusing to accept you have an illness until it is already lifethreatening. It really is no way to run a planet.

Dissecting it further, specifically the system is ad-hoc because in practice each problem is perceived as discrete so treated more or less in isolation.

This is entirely a perceptual thing deeply rooted in the mindset of the dominant cultures. Thus we have a problem with fish populations, another with the emission of greenhouse gases, various problems concerning vehicles, with a scarcity of rare earth metals necessary to build enough wind turbines, with deforestation, with the horrendous extinction rates of species and with countless other things ecological.

We fail to perceive that all of these problems emanate from the same source: a fundamentally flawed conception of our relationship with the planet compounded by a reductionist view of life, and the grossly misplaced set of values that results.

Even if not perceived in isolation, the response almost invariably treats the perceived problem as such. So we have ineffective fishing quotas, but do nothing about the catastrophic deterioration of the marine environment; we have various localised measures on silencing vehicles, limit engine emissions but completely undermine the purpose by leave mileage entirely unregulated, and ignore most other forms of pollution such as the 25% of vehicle emissions which emanate from brakes, and so on.

Taking the example of climate change, Kyoto 1 was concerned almost exclusively with greenhouse gas emissions. These were treated more or less in isolation; and only from certain sources, avoiding politically difficult and unpopular choices such as international aviation and shipping, the built environment, and, inevitably, those caused by consumers.

It is post-hoc because we react exclusively to problems after they have emerged, almost invariably long after or way too long after, and only when forced to because they have become so serious it proves impossible to ignore them further without the most serious consequences.

These two reasons combine to produce a piecemeal response, augmented by the massive propensity built into our ecological governance not merely to compromise, but to subordinate entirely ecological interests to economic and political ones. A further factor is the near universal imperative to poodle to consumers on account of their nasty reactions. The result is that measures are taken reluctantly, late, and are almost invariably watered down to please vested interests and minimise the impact on the electorate. This, unhappily, is self-defeating as the less impact they have on these groups, the less impact they have on the problem.

The measures that result may impact the problem to a limited extent but frequently fail to halt it, let alone heal and rebuild the ecological wounds which have resulted, instead leaving a chronic condition which continues to deteriorate, though perhaps at a slower rate or less visibly.

This is further aggravated by the widely generalised perception that once a measure has been taken to address a problem it is fixed, can be dismissed from the political agenda, left to the experts, technical people, bureaucrats and those directly affected, and general forgotten. Thus ineffective or partial responses tend to be accepted for long periods of time, during which the real situation continues to deteriorate.

Finally, environmental regulation varies between different states in a manner which renders it haphazard, when what is required is a unified global system. If an activity or substance is environmentally damaging in one state, it almost invariably is everywhere.

This piecemeal approach further undermines effective regulation because it presents states with an opportunity to seek advantage economically. If a state fails to regulate where others have, it gains a competitive advantage, so environmental regulation is resisted and a race to the bottom ensues. This pernicious practice could be entirely avoided were environmental standards agreed and implemented in common.


A fundamental causal factor is the very serious flaw that exists in governance as it relates to corporations. This manifests at all levels, both in society in general, and in environmental governance in particular.

The fundamental problem lies in the governance of corporations themselves. The primary legal duty upon directors is to maximise profits on behalf of shareholders, which in most circumstances places them under a duty to avail themselves of any lawful opportunity to do so. This obligation is not tempered by any requirement to do so in an environmentally benign manner, nor to do so in one which maximises human welfare.

Therefore the only constraints upon environmentally damaging activities arise as a result of:

? the expressed desire of a sizeable body of shareholders ? which is practice is rare

? marketing pressures as a result of adverse public opinion

? environmental regulation - which is an incomplete, weak, and poorly constructed net which corporations can to a large extent evade with ease.

As a result, the relationships of corporations tend to be predatory by nature - with the natural world, and with other things, too.

A second failure is the inappropriate influence corporations have been allowed to wield in political affairs. It has become apparent that this is now so pervasive as to question the extent to which democracy is still functioning.

This influence is employed with its full force to oppose the introduction of environmental regulation, and to campaign for the repeal or watering down of that which has been enacted, because any such regulation remains an impediment to corporate profits.

This is arguably a rational response by directors, given their primary legal duty. It would not appear to be so from any other perspective. Clearly the corporate behaviour that results is entirely incompatible with a sustainable human relationship with the biosphere.

Closely related to this is corporate control of the media, which is heavily employed to condition the views of electorates in favour of the corporate exploitation of the biosphere and against environmental regulation, primarily by portraying it as a threat to economic progress and hence to the immediate welfare of individuals.

A final aspect is corporate personhood, whereby corporations are recognised as persons before the law, and the corporate rights which are considered to attach to them as a result. This has enabled or facilitated many the corporate behaviours incompatible with a benign relationship with nature.

Suffice to that in reality corporations are nothing more than legal entities, and exist only as legal documents.

Each and every person with an interest in a corporation, be it the CEO, board members, shareholders, or employees, already has their full share of democratic rights as an individual, which they are free to exercise as they will.

To effectively grant them further rights by virtue of being a corporation is entirely incompatible with democracy as it is normally understood. It is all the more so when the massively disproportionate political influence corporations bring to bear is concentrated in the hands of very few individuals.

Accordingly this aspect of governance is extremely corrosive to our future prospects on many levels.

In general, such concentration of power focussed exclusively on the pursuit of profit would seem highly unlikely to result in the desired goals of development being achieved.

In terms of the environment, it seems reasonable to conclude that disaster on a global scale cannot be averted unless the governance of corporations is fundamentally revised such that they naturally behave in ways which are benign.


The inevitable consequence of these failures of environmental governance and law is ecosystem collapse on a vast scale.

This must result because harmful activities will go unaddressed until they have developed into a major environmental problem, quite possibly for a considerable time further while the political will to act and the necessary science are assembled, or quite possibly not at all, because one or the other of these remains inadequate.

This difficulty is exacerbated because the final response is almost invariably inadequate or ineffective as a result of political compromise, inadequate scientific understanding, or misdesign of policy.

As a result, even at best the biosphere suffers a constant war of attrition as new, unregulated activities impact upon it until they are addressed by regulation, and possibly continue thereafter in a reduced form. In addition, sources of environmental damage which are seriously damaging on a global scale can remain unregulated or inadequately regulated for long periods.

Obvious examples that have gone unregulated are emissions from aviation and international shipping, while those from power generation remain unregulated in large parts of the world.

Examples of inadequate regulation are the speed limits for drivers which are at best only vaguely related to the various environmental consequences caused, and the patchwork nature of emissions covered by Kyoto 1.

Given that the biosphere is not infinitely resilient and that recovery, where it occurs, is a slow process occurring on time scales of centuries or longer, sooner or later these cumulative impacts must result in serious collapse.

As the incidence of these incursions is becoming ever greater as a result of the pace of technological development which is increasingly leaving regulation far behind, the prospects of sooner appear more likely than later, and that is borne out by the science.



When standing on the edge of an abyss with the ground starting to collapse under your feet, the only rational response is to retreat to safety as gingerly and rapidly as you possibly can.

What is both insane and absolutely suicidal is to insist on taking further steps in front because that is the direction in which you are fixated on travelling and you somehow believe the support of the ground is irrelevant in that process.


Existing environmental governance shares the same mindset with the Chernobyl controllers who disregarded the alarm warnings and overrode the safety systems because they considered society would be too discomfited were they to shut down.

Viewed more objectively, the only possible conclusion is that we are set on a course which can only lead to ecological collapse on a massive scale, and that that collapse is incipient.

There is no choice but to change our paradigm concerning our relationship with the biosphere if we wish to survive. If we do not do so we are doomed to a terrible fate.


It would seem indisputable that there is a finite limit to the amount of damage which can be inflicted on the biosphere before catastrophe ensues.

Each human incursion produces a loss of ecological integrity. As this declines, a point must inevitably be reached at which the resilience of the ecology concerned collapses, causing the ecology itself to fail completely.

We are very familiar with this process ? the formation of dust bowls and desertification are excellent examples of the total collapse of previously productive ecologies, often robust ones in their natural state. Dead zones in the oceans are another.

Viewed with this in mind, it is abundantly clear that ecosystems more or less globally are in a state of great stress. Many are showing signs of imminent collapse, and others are indisputably collapsing.

Further, we know that through our own folly we have lined up further enormous stressors of a magnitude which will impact the biosphere globally and more or less permanently. This can only exacerbate the problem most gravely.

Climate change and mass extinction are very obvious examples which will cause enormous additional stresses on a global basis, the consequences of which must be regarded as permanent and irreversible. We have no way to reinvent extinct species, nor to remove CO2 from the atmosphere safely, economically or with predictable and risk free outcomes.

At what point each of these is likely to cause ecological collapse on a grand scale is merely a question of judgement. That they have the capacity to do so is indisputable.

Acting simultaneously, we must expect synergistic effects to be pervasive such that the critical point will arise earlier still.


Faced with these facts, we have no option but to conclude that we are already very heavily in the danger zone in this respect, and must act with the greatest of expediency to repair the damage and cease activities which have given rise to it on any significant scale.

If we wish to safeguard our future, it is imperative that the paramount goal of governance must now be to prevent the line at which ecological collapse becomes inevitable from being crossed, while acting with the greatest urgency to facilitate ecological recovery, at least until such time as it is certain that resilience has been robustly re-established.

The only rational response, therefore, is to immediately cease to add to the causes of ecological collapse by contributing nothing further to the stresses already inflicted on the biosphere, while acting to heal the distress. This can be effected by adopting robust and uncompromised policy responses which deliver that outcome universally.

First, that means we must accept - immediately and without equivocation ? our permanent and absolute dependency on the biosphere for life itself and all its necessities.

Second, we must fully recognise the biosphere's vulnerability in the face of human interventions.

Third, we must immediately place the maintenance and amelioration of ecological integrity as the primary determinant of all policy.

Fourth, we must introduce with the utmost urgency a seriously robust policy framework which brings a halt to all activities giving rise to this crisis as rapidly as can be expedited without serious human distress.

Fifth, that framework must be simple, transparent and able to address all threats to the environment immediately they arise.

In concrete terms, it means we must now learn to live on what we already have, in order to leave what remains of the biosphere viable for the life support services it provides and to allow the best chance of recovery. That is the line that must now be drawn. Absolutely, universally, and urgently.

To an unquestioning mind thoroughly marinated in the values of consumer culture that may sound an entirely unacceptable prospect. Viewed dispassionately, it is an absolute prerequisite of survival. If we do not make this shift, and very swiftly, our future would seem sealed.

Our planet is finite; we have nowhere else to go. It is indisputable that at least some part of it must be left intact (or as near to it as we can now achieve given the all-pervasive nature of the damage already inflicted) to fulfil the ecological services we are absolutely dependent upon for life and for survival: the provision of a breathable atmosphere, food, water and a stable climate seeming prerequisites in this respect.

So that line has be drawn at some point if we intend to survive. It is just a question of where and how. All the indications are that we are already perilously overdue in doing so.

On scientific measures we are far, far adrift. Our situation would appear hopeless unless we immediately come out of denial, accept its calamitous nature, and react intelligently and with all the power at our disposal. However unwelcome the prospect may be, that line must be drawn. Unless we do so with the utmost urgency and in a manner which delivers universally we predestine ourselves for assured destruction.

Viewed in those terms, the policy framework proposed is actually very mild. Essentially it constrains us to live on what we already have. To say enough is enough. To accept that we already have more than sufficient resources at our disposal for all to live well and to live happily.


Ecological integrity is the scientific measure of the health of an ecosystem. It can be assessed qualitatively on numerous metrics.

Taken as a unity, our crisis is one of collapsing ecological integrity. All its component crises, such as climate change, desertification and loss of biodiversity, are simply different manifestations of that problem.

This measure must now be placed at the absolute centre of all policy.

We must recognise that all other priorities which have hitherto predominated are secondary: without life and the means to support it, they are entirely hypothetical and, in policy terms, evaporate without trace.

From this it does not take much consideration to appreciate the folly of our existing paradigm of governance, which is presiding over catastrophic declines in ecological integrity on a global scale, and can only deliver that outcome.

A new one is the essential prerequisite for successfully traversing this crisis.


The expression of the new paradigm in terms of governance is very simple. It consists of three principles. These merely express what must be observed to live sustainably, in all circumstances. In its pure form these are:

Actions which harm the integrity of an ecology are unlawful

Actions which enhance the integrity of an ecology are lawful

Actions which are ecologically neutral are permitted only where they are necessary and no more benign alternative exists

This insight is not original. It merely gives expression to the principles which are common to the indigenous societies which have succeeded in living benignly with the biosphere over many millennia ? possibly 40,000 years or more in the case of the Australian Aboriginals, 14,000 years or so by the various American Indian nations, and many others.

It is also more or less ubiquitous in the more elevated teachings of spirituality in all its forms, and does no more than articulate in general terms the principles on which all genuinely spiritual and ecological lives are predicated (indeed if there is a distinction).

Nonetheless it is an entirely practical proposition that deals exclusively with scientifically measurable realities and which demands no belief other than in objective reality.

In contrast, all civilisations which have adopted the domineering, exploitative attitude towards the biosphere which appears to be closely correlated with agriculture beyond the subsistence scale have been of much shorter duration, and have often come to a difficult end as a result of ecological collapse. Historically these collapses have been relatively localised.

In the case of our mass, globalised, industrialised society, it would appear the prospects of it enduring much more than 300 years would currently seem slim.

More critically still, the extreme power to disrupt the biosphere at its disposal places in jeopardy the future viability of the biosphere as a whole, at least in terms of anything we are used to and capable of sustaining us in existing numbers.


Given that the indigenous peoples are the only cultures on the planet with a track record of living sustainably, whilst dominant cultures appear to have one only of destroying themselves in short order, it is instructive to contrast the different approaches.

The fundamental features of governance seen in sustainable indigenous cultures are that it is:

? embedded in the values system such that actions which are ecologically destructive do not form a part of the culture so are rarely contemplated

? ecologically destructive acts are subject to social mores or taboos

? comprised of simple operating principles

? which are universally applicable and can be applied to any circumstance arising

? these are known, comprehended, observed and enforced by all members of society

? and applicable equally and to all

? remediation is immediately accessible, and by all

? with an emphasis on remediating the problem, not on punishing, isolating or alienating those responsible.

The essence is a simple, streamlined form of governance that can deal effectively with any circumstance that arises, when it arises, equitably, and with the support of the majority. As a result destructive acts can be addressed quickly before they get out of hand.

In contrast, dominant forms of society have adopted a reductionist form of environmental regulation in which:

? everything is permitted unless explicitly regulated, no matter how destructive

? no social mores are applicable

? is unknown or opaque to most citizens

? is largely irrelevant in their thinking, and considered to be so

? is viewed as a cost and impediment

? is widely regarded ambivalently at best, if not with hostility

? is not considered to be a benign and necessary part of the culture fundamental to all, to be defended by all in their own interests

? is micro-managed on a case by case basis

? and which produces a system that fails through its own complexity.

This model dissociates members of society from the consequences of their actions and of responsibility for defending their environment from incursion by others.

It must be obvious that regulation can never keep abreast with the development of new technology, the application of existing technology into new areas, or even geographic mobility of harmful activities. All the less so, given the medieval forms of governance more or less ubiquitously practised by modern societies. Indeed, it is inevitable that the gap will continuously widen, unless a new approach such as the one proposed is taken.

The biosphere suffers constant attrition as a result. Striking current examples include nanotechnology, biotechnology and genetically modified organisms, all of which are unregulated or inadequately regulated at present and are likely to remain so for a considerable period at great risk to the biosphere, as well as to human beings more directly.

This can only be addressed by replacing or superimposing a framework which is universal in application, is simple, transparent, under which remedy is immediate, and which can be embedded in the culture and its values system.


Clearly that paradigm cannot be introduced instantaneously into dominant society without excessive dislocation. Therefore it would need to be expressed in a transitional form:

Actions which harm the integrity of an ecology are unlawful unless subject to transitional exemption

Actions which enhance the integrity of an ecology are permitted

Actions which are ecologically neutral are permitted unless subject to transitional measures

In addition, a set of secondary principles would be required. Both these and the transitional arrangements are discussed in more detail below.


Despite its simplicity, this set of principles is sufficient to cover any ecological or environmental issue which may ever arise, whether currently conceived or unimagined.

In that lies its elegance in terms of policy. Also its strength.

It is universal, transparent, equitable, tangible, and readily comprehensible in both justification and application by more or less anyone.

Critically, it finally draws a line beyond which we cannot go. That is its essential purpose, indispensable in any sane strategy for a future.

Universal because it applies to any situation that may ever arise, and to all. This results from framing the criteria in terms of the consequences of an action rather than the action itself. A common pitfall with environmental regulation has been to place the focus on the action giving rise to the consequence rather than the consequence itself. If an action was not anticipated at the time of regulation or its consequences unforeseen, under such a regime it slips through the net. Major problems also arise when the effects have been misunderstood or their magnitude misjudged in the model employed. Critical policy failures of this type are avoided by concentrating entirely on measurable effects.

Transparent because its simplicity provides no possibility to hide from justice behind complexity; by being readily comprehensible by all; and because frequently the cause and the legal responsibility arising from it will be obvious to any observer as a result.

Equitable because it applies equally to all, as much to the individual emptying their used sump oil down a drain, as to the Athabasca oil sands, or oil exploration in the Arctic. In general, what is permitted for one is permitted for all, although limited exceptions will be necessary based exclusively on necessity in the case of acts affecting a sensitive areas, together with a de minimis rule applicable to individuals. This is discussed further below.

Tangible because it deals exclusively with real, scientifically measurable events, rather than abstract concepts such as rights. Also because the events it deals with - ecological enhancement or degradation - are often readily apparent even to the untrained eye, as may be the actions from which they result, and possibly the actors responsible.

As time passes, the effects of policy framed accordingly should allow ecosystems to recover and strengthen, because, leaving aside transitional exemptions, all permitted actions either positively facilitate that end, or at worst are neutral. This should also gradually augment the scale of ecosystems, as the contraction and abandonment of certain activities together with restoration returns land to a more natural state. To a lesser extent this should also apply to the built environment, augmented by the greening of cities and so on. In turn, these responses should help to stabilise climate by sequestering CO2, reducing the planet?s albedo and moderating the water cycle.


The primary principles define the scope of the framework in practice. A number of secondary principles are required to ensure these are maximally effective:

Enabling legislation must be commensurately simple and transparent

Standing in respect of ecological matters is universal

Recourse to justice and final decision must be rapid and timely

The cost of seeking legal remedy must be reasonable, affordable and must not act as a deterrent, nor prevent cases being brought to court or pursued to final decision

Guilty parties must meet the full costs of remediation plus the full value of any loss of ecological value or function resulting from their actions, be it permanent or temporary, entirely separately from any fines and other punitive measures imposed.

The second means that everyone has the right to pursue infringements of the convention in law. It means that anyone can take a case to court to protect any natural entity or ecosystem. This is vital so that violators cannot evade the law through cosy or intimidatory relationships with government, politicians, regulators or enforcement agencies, or through plain lack of public resources needed to pursue offenders.

It is also necessary to close down another way that polluters presently avoid being held accountable: by removing the necessity to have suffered some kind of loss or have some other tangible personal interest in a matter to be able to pursue a case in law.

The first, third and fourth go hand in hand with this, maximising access to justice so anyone can bring a case to defend ecological integrity without being intimidated by costs, technicality, or the obscurity of the law.

The fifth is so that the remedy is effective in protecting the biosphere in practice, not just hypothetically.

It also means that those damaging the environment know they will have to meet the entire costs of the damage they are causing by externalising costs.

This is essential to eliminate situations where damaging activities remain profitable even after cases go against them because the net revenues arising exceed the damages imposed, including the situation where the anticipated fines can be factored into the cost and pricing structures and thus passed on to the consumer.

That outcome is likely to occur more and more frequently under existing regulation as resources become scarcer and therefore more valuable.

Careful consideration will therefore need to be given as to at what point activities should be criminalised, and to the degree of personal as well as corporate responsibility of those involved.


The objective of this framework is not merely to change the way in which people behave towards the environment by altering the legal framework within which they operate. It is to effect a renaissance in their entire relationship with the natural world. This is an fundamental prerequisite for sustainability which has been largely overlooked in existing policy expedients.

Ordinarily, environmental regulation may affect behaviour by making things more expensive or unavailable, or by prohibiting a certain action, but it tends to do so in an entirely practical way which rarely touches our values.

Despite emission regulations on vehicles, for instance, drivers (in the main) still consider themselves to be virtuous people and may smile and wave at pedestrians in a spirit of bonhomie accordingly. Viewed dispassionately, they are actively assailing the health of those same pedestrians at least as actively as a smoker in an enclosed environment, whilst simultaneously damaging the physical and biological environments, causing farreaching stress and damage through noise, vibration, and possibly light pollution, all of which may adversely affect very large numbers of people, other living beings the local ecology, and the biosphere in general. A day will come when drivers are treated with as much opprobrium as smokers, and quite objectively, but the point here is that existing environmental regulation has done nothing to challenge the mindset of the motorist and its conceptualisation of motoring as a perfectly acceptable and respectable thing to do.

Criminalising ecocide is extremely important in changing the way we treat the environment and needs to be introduced as rapidly as possible. However it will make little difference to the way in which individuals relate to it at a personal level, although they may well support the measure wholeheartedly out of a sense of justice or retribution. Just as war crime legislation does not affect them personally because they have no desire to commit war crimes and probably will almost certainly never be in a position to do so, it is much the same with ecocide. It will be considered as something apt only for those in the boardroom and their servants who carry out the crime in practice, so make little difference to how the great mass of the population conceptualise their personal relationship with the environment, and their behaviour in regard to available choices is likely to alter little accordingly.

In contrast, the purpose of the proposed framework is to place ecological considerations centrally in every environmentally significant decision we make. This would first find widespread expression in decision-making in the workplace and administratively, though the framework, however implemented, would also place responsibilities on individuals from the outset. Over time, the ubiquity of the practice should seep in as individuals begin to recognise that they agree with that prioritisation, or if not merely through sheer habituation, until it becomes second nature to consider the environmental impact in every decision people make, and at every level.

In this way it would foster a sea change in prevalent attitudes, from one where the environmental consequences of actions are in practice almost always totally discounted in favour of consumer values even by committed environmentalists, to one where those consequences become primary in all our decision making processes.

This change is an absolute prerequisite if we are to successfully navigate the multiple catastrophes unfolding upon us.


A range of policy instruments can be envisaged to give effect to the framework proposed.

These expedients would be employed to accelerate ecological recovery in order to stabilise the biosphere as quickly as possible, including front loading where necessary.

Obvious measures to this effect would be measures to:

implement large scale ecosystem restoration

convert land to ecologically more benign uses

allow land to revert to a natural state or accelerate it in so doing

combat deforestation and forest degradation

safeguard threatened species

lower demand

localize human activities

transition to low impact lifestyles

re-establish community at a practical level, including the pooling of resources

recover self-reliance and sustainability skills

convert dirty technologies to clean alternatives.

A full range of disincentives would also need to be made available. These would range

from fiscal measures, limits on supply (quotas and caps) and demand (rationing), fines

and other penalties, through to criminalisation, confiscation and the like. At the far end

of these would be the criminalisation of ecocide to deal with the most gross and

exploitative excesses.


Clearly a change of this magnitude cannot reasonably be brought in overnight.

Transitional arrangements would be necessary to allow an orderly transition, to provide time for the necessary learning, investment, social and infrastructure adjustments and so on.

During this period the incentives would be front-loaded and maximised to encourage change as rapidly as possible in order to maximise the chances of restabilising the biosphere before critical thresholds are passed.

Whilst ecocide and the penalties for the most blatant and cynical exploitation of the environment would come into full force immediately, lesser incursions would be subject to gradually tightening regimes to allow a reasonable opportunity to adjust to the new framework. Thus less damaging activities might initially be subject only to fiscal measures to raise prices and costs at the expense of profitability. The next stages might be caps and rationing, followed by direct financial penalties which start light but escalate with time until the activity becomes unviable. Alternatively where an activity needs to be curtailed more quickly, prohibition and criminalisation may be introduced at an early stage.

EXEMPTIONS In practice most human activities, at least as practised outside of indigenous communities, have a negative ecological impact. The framework must take account of this to be workable. It would do so in three ways.

First, there would be a small and limited exemption for each individual to allow the ecological equivalent of a personal space. In practice this would mainly be accounted for by common sense and the disregarding of impacts that are insignificant. However where individuals resort to overtly destructive acts or their impacts become significant on an ecological scale the appropriate measures would apply with full force.

Second, there would need to be a system of permitted activities on a prescribed basis, defined by real need rather than merely demand, profitability or political expediency. An example might be the manufacture of computers, being justified by the massive augmentation in knowledge and communication they allow which in turn makes for better informed and co-ordinated action and less need to travel, resulting in positive impacts environmentally. Public services and public transport are others.

Third, during the transitional period at least, it may be necessary to view impacts from a marginal or net perspective, meaning an activity that is environmentally damaging but significantly less so than one it replaces or displaces would be permissible, if not encouraged. Such an activity could nevertheless be subject to sanctions to encourage further transition to truly benign alternatives, either immediately or at a later stage of the transitional arrangements.


Equity will clearly be major policy challenge. How to distribute, or, more correctly, redistribute available resources such that all have at minimum sufficient for living safe, meaningful, healthy lives is a crucial question in resolving the world?s multiple problems.

But this problem must be tackled anyway. It is transparently obvious that our historical and present development path has failed catastrophically in this respect, and failed the poor in so doing.

It would also seem indisputable that that goal cannot be reached within the context of a failing or deteriorating biosphere. If we are serious about tackling these issues, the first priority must be to stop ecological degradation.

In his Blueprint for a Safer Planet Nicholas Stern courageously and very clearly shows that the solutions to our environmental and development issues are inextricably linked, that crucially we cannot solve one without the other. Human suffering leads directly to ecological destruction as the only option left to people deprived of access to other resources.

So a vital element in both stabilising the biosphere and making the framework equitable would be mechanisms to transfer funds from rich, ecological debtor nations to developing and least-developed nations to recompense for the ecological services they provide, and to compensate for the loss of development potential by forgoing commercial exploitation of their ecologies in a manner which the developed nations have already enjoyed.

This was probably the decisive issue in leading to the failure of the Copenhagen Summit, as well as the most divisive, and has remained highly contentious since.

While not attempting to downplay to any extent the scale of the challenge in this respect, this framework could offer considerably more scope for redistribution within its mechanisms than the UNFCCC does. Given that it would apply universally, if carefully designed, the sums raised by the various disincentive measures could be substantially larger than those available under the UNFCCC proposals - the latter being of limited scope, and applying only to a limited range of economic activities.

Making these funds available for this purpose should help considerably in meeting all goals: to get a binding agreement in place quickly, to stabilise the biosphere, and to address glaring equity issues and the human suffering which results.


It would seem beyond all reasonable doubt that unless the multiple ecological catastrophes which are currently unfolding are averted, all existing gains in development will be swept away in the foreseeable future.

In addition, billions of people currently enjoying acceptable standards of living are likely to be thrown into a state of severe poverty, or worse.

For all policy considerations, all such ecological declines must be considered as permanent and irreversible.

This cannot be allowed to happen. It is absolutely incumbent upon this Conference and upon governments globally to act to avert such an outcome.

This requires that they do so immediately, with absolute decisiveness, and with the maximum of their powers.

The time for words, mere resolutions, further negotiations, or bureaucratic delay is long past. This crisis has merely been allowed to escalate to a level at which, even with all the combined resources at our disposal - intellectual, physical and economic - the prospect of averting it now hangs precariously in the balance.

Further delay or prevarication is likely to result in critical thresholds being passed which will render the possibility of a benign outcome increasingly unlikely, if not impossible.

This crisis cannot be averted merely by further words or further pieces of paper. It is entirely the result of concrete actions taken by human beings at every level, primarily as individuals, or on their behalf by organisations.

Therefore only concrete actions can avert it. Only in acting differently, and consistently so, is their the slightest chance of averting terrible catastrophe.

For many, and for developed world consumers in particular, the changes which are an absolute prerequisite for successfully traversing this crisis represent a major change in values and behaviour.

For this reason it is imperative that governments take a strong and unequivocal lead and stand united on this, globally. Now is the time when petty national interests must be abandoned forever in the interests of the common good.

This is only likely to result from decisive leadership at the top, crucially by the United Nations, and by heads of state acting united in concert. If this does not happen now, the prospects for us all are very bleak indeed.

Therefore the outcomes document must fully reflect this new and realistic understanding of our predicament.

It must announce to the global community that a radical shift in behaviours and values is now demanded of us.

It should also emphasis that such a change may actually represent an improvement in the real and perceived quality of life for many, if not all, as opposed to the false metrics we have been chasing haplessly for so long which have been a primary cause of the predicament we now face.

Therefore the outcomes document must make a powerful and unequivocal statement that:

1 Humanity is a part of the biosphere and is totally dependent upon it for life, and for the maintenance and continuation of life, and is likely to remain so for the eternal future.

2 That dependency applies to each of us as individuals, and as collectives in all forms.

3 The biosphere is in a state of deep crisis that poses a serious threat to the future well being of all of us, permanently, and which jeopardises the prospects of all future generations.

4 This crisis is already impacting with serious adverse consequences on the lives of billions of people.

5 Therefore we must recognise that the well-being of the biosphere is the primary determinant in our welfare and our future well-being.

6 So henceforth its integrity and maintenance must take precedence in all human decision making at every level, from the individual to the global community.

7 Accordingly ecological integrity must now be prioritised before economics in all decision making.

8 Perpetual growth on a finite planet is an impossible and most dangerous myth which must be abandoned instantly if we wish to avert the calamity for which it has predestined us.

9 Hence a rapid transition from a consumer-based to a conserver-based society is an absolute prerequisite for a benign outcome, and must now become the top priority in governance at all levels.

To give practical expression to these aims, the Conference should resolve to implement as a matter of ultimate priority either

? a United Nations Declaration of Ecological Integrity; or

? a framework convention on ecological integrity which would subsume all existing environmental, economic and other UN treaties and conventions to give effect to the three fundamental principles outlined in this paper at every level of governance and decision making, globally. This should incorporate the secondary values and transitional arrangements set out above.

It is critical that such a declaration or convention should be signed and ratified as a matter of the utmost urgency in order to signal to society at large that this change is unavoidably necessary and must happen with the utmost speed.

To avoid the possibility of delay it should first be negotiated and ratified on the basis of the principles alone, which would seem common to all of humanity and indisputable to any reasonable person, in order to decouple it from negotiation of the delivery mechanisms which, on the basis of experience, are likely to be protracted and delayed by narcissistic behaviour on the part of member states.

The statement must include an absolute commitment to provide effective mechanisms to address equity issues, not merely so that new ones do not develop under the new framework, but so that existing ones are ameliorated. With careful design this should be possible within the mechanisms proposed.

It should also recognise the critical importance of accelerating our scientific understanding of ecological integrity and make funding available on a major scale to make this happen.

Particular support should be given to refining the techniques for assessing the health and integrity of ecosystems, especially concerning the critical threshold at which ecosystem decline commences.

Institutional arrangements must be established to pool this work internationally, with the objective of establishing a single yet comprehensive set of methodological tools and standards which must be applied universally and consistently.

To conventional thinking, such a proposal may appear ambitious, possibly unrealistic, perhaps utopian.

What is indisputable, however, is that the critical threshold of large scale ecological collapse exists: to remain viable as a species, humanity must remain on the safe side of that line, or perish.

However inconvenient the changes this demands of us may be perceived to be, what is ultimately more unrealistic is to persist a moment longer in the idea that our existing models of governance and environmental regulation can possibly deliver any other outcome than the ultimate calamity impending. Our present trajectory is very directly for self-destruction, and that outcome is intrinsic in the doctrinaire and outdated beliefs of the existing paradigm.

Neither is it realistic to posit that we shall desist as a result of choices made voluntarily by individuals and corporations. There is simply no evidence for this; rather, a massive body to the contrary.

Therefore that line must be drawn. It must be drawn consciously; and implemented via foolproof mechanisms that ensure it will never be violated. We must either develop absolutely robust governance and policy instruments which prevent us from crossing that threshold, and very quickly; or face widespread, perhaps general, collapse and human misery on an unprecedented scale.

That is our present destiny. To deny that realisation is the most unrealistic position of all.

If the mechanism proposed here is not the means, then it is incumbent on every one of us to find a better one, and quickly enough for it to be agreed and set in motion at Rio+20.

This document is a first draft written hurriedly over the last few days which would not normally be considered fit for submission or publication, and is only submitted in view of the imperative of the situation. Profuse apologies are proffered to all recipients for all imperfections accordingly.

The Righting Institute

01 November 2011

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