Somewhere Out There: Sustainable Development and Direct Experiences

Patrick Shannon is a third year law student at McGill University, and the layout editor for the JSDLP.

Our Editor in Chief, Jessica Magonet, started off Saturday’s Arctic Law Colloquium with a story from her trip to the Arctic through the Students on Ice Program. For her, the experience was a jarring confrontation between the vast, empty frontier most people think of when they imagine the arctic, and the complex and beautiful region that actually exists. This psychological disconnect is at the heart of many crises in sustainable development.

Adults should be encouraged to confront the natural world and the impact of human behaviour on it. The Columbia Icefields, seen from Wilcox Pass, Alberta, original photo by Patrick Shannon

Adults should be encouraged to confront the natural world and the impact of human behaviour on it. The Columbia Icefields, seen from Wilcox Pass, Alberta, original photo by Patrick Shannon

In “The Natural Contract,” Michel Serres offers a distinctly psychological portrait of the climate crisis, describing with a certain acerbic resignation our “individual cultures […] living only indoors […] piled up in cities […] indifferent to the climate, except during vacations when we rediscover the world in an arcadian and clumsy way, naively polluting what we do not know, which rarely hurts us and never worries us” (at p. 3).

These are difficult words to swallow, but they are perhaps a necessary slap in the face to those of us who continue to struggle against Canada’s transformation into a petrostate. If we continue to ignore the psychosocial disconnect between our 21st century culture and the world groaning beneath the weight of our civilizations, we are certain to fail in any attempt at selling the promise of sustainable development. This is particularly important in a psychological milieu so entirely dominated by western consumerism. The Canadian consumer is carefully guarded from the long-term impacts of her purchases. Brand profiles are constructed to exclude anything that might sour the idealized lifestyles these products promise to buyers.The realities of the world have not changed since the advent of the television advertisement and marketing firm. Human beings are still dependent on this planet for their survival. What has changed is that, for the first time in centuries, the vast majority of our species are entirely unaware of even the most basic impacts their everyday choices will have on the earth. This knowledge has been excised from our collective consciousness to the extent that even something as simple as a meal purchased from the local supermarket has become a mystery.

A vast empty frontier? An inlet off the Davis Straight, near Auyuittuq National Park, Nunavut, August 2010. Original photo by Jessica Magonet.

A vast empty frontier? An inlet off the Davis Straight, near Auyuittuq National Park, Nunavut, August 2010. Original photo by Jessica Magonet.

The eco-feminism that emerged during the 1980s acknowledged the need to examine the importance of our psychological standpoint. In the words of Greta Gaard, foundational texts like Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sought to bring light to “the linked oppressions of gender, ecology, race, species, and nation” (at p. 28).

This vacuum of human contact with the natural world is a roadblock on the path to convincing Canadians that our relationship with the environment is one that needs repairing. For students, a solution could involve the integration of experiential learning into their curriculum. Adults should be encouraged to confront the natural world and the impact of human behaviour on it. In the realm of international policy, the inclusion of sub-national and experiential expertise into the deliberations of governing bodies like the Arctic Council is a necessary step towards acknowledging the importance of a human perspective.

Michael Bayers, challenging people to go out and see for themselves the beauty of the arctic, to really get to know the people who call it home at the JSDLP Arctic Law Colloquium on offshore resources and international governance, 25 January 2014. Photo courtesy of Patrick Shannon.

Michael Byers, challenging people to go out and see for themselves the beauty of the arctic, to really get to know the people who call it home at the JSDLP Arctic Law Colloquium on offshore resources and international governance, 25 January 2014. Photo courtesy of Patrick Shannon.

For my part, I am committed to encouraging the JSDLP’s mission to include a plurality of voices and perspectives. Although the journal has strong editorial standards, it has always recognized that firsthand experience and a diversity of content is just as important as Academic rigour. In the latest edition of our journal, The Honourable Eva Aariak, Former Premier of Nunavut, provides her unique insight into the impact of the melting arctic on Nunavut hunters. I would invite anyone with experience to share to submit an article to our team. Michael Byers, in his talk during last week’s colloquium, provided a powerful piece of advice. He encouraged everyone to go out and see for herself the beauty of the arctic, to really get to know the people who call it home. Once the gap between information and experience has been bridged, the science and policy of sustainable development will never read the same way again.

 

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