Apocalypse Now is more than a movie title. The list of present dangers is long and getting longer: deserts spreading, wetlands lost, habitats shrinking, oceans overfished and choked with plastic, dying coral reefs, one million species at risk of extinction, record floods, extreme hurricanes, oil spills in sensitive areas of the oceans, air pollution killing nine million people a year, deadly wildfires, half the world living with severe water scarcity . . . .

Scientists have been warning us about this for decades. Now we are beginning to hear from other quarters. In a recent speech on ‘The State of the Planet,’ António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, claimed that “Humanity is waging war on nature.” Pope Francis declared in his recent apostolic exhortation: “ . . . the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point. In addition to this possibility, it is indubitable that the impact of climate change will increasingly prejudice the lives and families of many persons. We will feel its effects in the areas of healthcare, sources of employment, access to resources, housing, forced migrations, etc.”

Increasingly, the message from voices like these is that we humans have yet to acknowledge the severity of these threats sufficiently to respond seriously and appropriately. Perhaps our lack of meaningful responses has resulted from the ubiquitous use of scientific language which, alone, fails to capture the urgency. Or, perhaps our lackadaisical response springs from our generally romantic view of nature, expressed, for example, in poetry over the ages, poems that extol her beauty her mystery, and sacredness.

Nature has responded to our aggression with a war of her own! She is angry with humanity for failure to show proper respect to her dignity, for taking her for granted, for throwing our trash at her face, for stealing her precious belongings. . . . She has begun to use all the weapons she has at her disposal, and they are very powerful indeed. Even more than our arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

This is a war like none other faced by our species. We cannot placate nature with our empty promises like those made at global conferences like COP28 and all those that preceded it, say, to reduce carbon emissions. In any case, she is not likely to believe us, given our modern view that she is there to provide us with whatever we choose to take from her. She might have looked more kindly at the indigenous and ancient cultures that understood they were connected with and respected her. Our native American forebears and other indigenous cultures around the globe used the metaphor “Mother Earth” to characterize their intimate relationship with nature.

It is truly a global war, unlike any conflagration before, endangering the globe, itself, and every nation on its face. Every nation is affected, some more than others, but all are needed in a global response to join the battle. It is, perhaps our last chance, to fight back. But not to seek victory through winning as it is usually defined as overcoming the adversary. Nature is fighting a defensive war and would stop as soon as she feels her rights are being respected. She has a moral code that is the envy of humanity. limited to acting as a loyal friend and servant.

It is time to put aside the hubris of nationalism that has stood in the way of mustering the global army necessary to crush the practices that nature abhors, to find proper ways to share her largesse, and to nurture her to maintain that largesse for generations to come. Nationalism reinforces the perception of boundaries and pits state against state. It is much too late to revert to the kinds of cultures that lived in harmony with nature; we are already too many and too embedded in modernity to take that route. All political economies, as presently constituted, are seriously flawed and cannot simply be fixed by tweaks here and there. Our global addiction to consumption has to be kicked along with its related addiction to growth. Change must come at the heart of our beliefs about our place in the world. Time is running out.

The collective strategy for our global response is not clear, but we do have some clues as to where to begin. Science can help, but cannot be the sole savior. Nature is herself complex and has secrets unavailable to natural scientists. Our human cultures add to that complexity and cannot be limned by social scientists. We can and should take a lead from those indigenous cultures that lived at peace with nature, and seek new norms, especially eschewing growth—norms that conflate the existential needs of both humans and nature. Whatever we choose must be consistent with the innate features that maintain both our species and the global system we inhabit. In other words, it must support the sustainability of both parties in this conflict.

My work has led me to see flourishing as that new norm, satisfying the existential potential of our species—becoming all we are destined to be, ultimately that which is given by our genes. These genes have given Homo sapiens a unique cognitive structure—our brains and nervous system—that permit us to connect empathetically to nature’s world, to read her mind, so that we, unique among species, can show her the respect that will keep her happy. We know that this means staying within her limits, many of which we have already exceeded. Flourishing arises out of the way choose to live our lives. It is not something we can amass or own.

Most of all, we must recover the sense of awe and wonder our ancestors found in nature. She holds mysteries that shape us, but are ineffable and undiscoverable. Nature has given us beauty and the words to experience and express it, and to bring it into our mundane lives. Nature has taught us what is important, and given us the means to construct our own systems of right and goodness. We are dangerously closing to losing our home on the Planet. We can preserve it only if we act in concert and quickly. Nations of the world unite!

If this post resonates with you, please tell others about it, so that the message can spread. Places where it should appear pay little attention to this critical issue.

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