2012-04-16

Protecting the Life of Commerce

A couple years after LoraKim and I had "the rock argument," I encountered Thich Nhat Hanh’s five mindfulness trainings. These are elaborations of the basic five precepts of Buddhism: (1) don’t kill; (2) don’t steal; (3) don’t have sex outside a committed relationship; (4) don’t lie; and, (5) don’t drink. Pretty generic commandments. Thich Nhat Hanh elaborates these five precepts into what he calls five mindfulness trainings. The first one, “do not kill," he expands into this:
“Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.”
Nice. I like the extension of “do not kill” to not letting others kill, and I like the attention to the roots from which the impulse to kill would come. I like that it goes beyond “do not kill,” to a positive requirement actively to protect life, and to learn how to do so effectively. And I understand protecting the lives of people, other animals, plants. But how does one protect the lives of minerals? What does that mean? "Protect the lives of minerals"?

I imagine that for some of this blog's readers, it is obvious how to protect the lives of minerals. For other readers, I would guess it is equally obvious that “protecting the lives of minerals” is a meaningless, self-contradictory concept.

Bear with me. Let’s approach this by thinking bigger than an individual rock. Let’s think of an overall ecosystem. An ecosystem has trees and animals, and also has dirt, rocks, rivers, clouds and rainfall – all interacting, and all necessary parts of a whole. If our legal system says that corporations are people (and it does); and if corporations have no flesh, no blood, no feelings, no heart, no relatives, and no conscience (and they don't); then is it such a stretch to say that ecosystems have rights? If human moral imagination can extend to corporations, then it can also extend to protection of the lives of ecosystems. Such protection includes ensuring that minerals -- soil and rocks and water and air -- are sufficiently plentiful, balanced, nutritive, unpolluted, and within the right temperature range to engender the ecosystem's health. The "life" of a mineral is the role it plays in the life of a vibrant ecosystem, so "protect the lives of minerals," means "preserve them in playing their vital function for ecosystems." Preserve their place in the order of things.

This way of thinking about ecosystems has not, however, been the basis of environmental protection efforts. Historically, we have thought of the environment as property. The history of environmental protection in this country is based on the idea that lakes, rivers, soil, mountains, oceans, and beaches are property, commodities, items of commerce. Congress’ authority to protect the environment and wildlife has its legal grounding in the interstate commerce clause of the constitution. That’s the basis of the Environmental Protection Agency when it was formed in 1970.

The standard dualism around conservation and environmental stewardship is that there are "the protectors" and "the exploiters." "The protectors" are represented by the Lorax, Captain Planet, Rachel Carson, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Environmental Protection Agency. "The exploiters" are the heads of business who turn resources into the wealth that I enjoy. Like many of us, I say "boo, hiss" to "the exploiters," but I go right on enjoying the cheap products they produce.

It turns out it's "the protectors" who have been basing environmental protection on the commerce clause. Waters and parks are worth protecting as property, as commerce – not intrinsically for their own sake. And that’s “the protectors”!

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Part 2 of 5 of "Earth Justice, People Justice"
Next: Part 3: "When Does a Tree Stand Without Standing?"
Previous: Part 1: "The Rock and The Mountain"