Making sure the voice of nature is heard
Humans make decisions about what’s going to happen. That’s how it has always been. Nature – animals, plants, geographic features, bodies of water – is never formally invited to the discussion. This non-inclusive decision-making has led to great environmental threats to our planet. What if we changed that? And what can we, as scientists and LCA practitioners, do about this imbalance?
Better representation for all: the Parliament of Things
In the late nineties, the French philosopher Bruno Latour started writing about the need for a Parliament of Things, consisting of not just humans but nonhuman organisms, systems and objects as well. Because how can humanity make decisions in the interest of not just other humans, but the planet and all life upon it, if those elements don’t have any representation in our decision-making?
This sounds radical, but not so long ago men thought it was unnecessary to give women a vote. That was obviously ridiculous and got more or less corrected, at least in most parliaments. So, let’s take this concept wider: is it fair to let just humans decide on issues that seriously damage the planet and its nonhuman inhabitants? Or should we give room to nature in parliament?
Scientists understand but politicians decide
Latour’s idea brings up the question: who can legitimately represent nature in the parliament of things? Latour postulates that this should be the scientists, as scientists understand the needs of and threats to nature. In his words:
Scientists understand, but cannot decide; and politicians can decide, but not understand.
This abstract idea is slowly getting traction. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may be an early example of a body where scientists and politicians sit together and at least try to understand each other and come to agreements on how to proceed for the benefit of the entire planet; for instance in the recent Glasgow climate convention. Some time ago, the Embassy of the North Sea was established as an NGO with the objective to try to give all actors in the North Sea a voice. Recently, the World Economic Forum (the organizers of the Davos summit) and Reuters wrote about the need to give rivers, lakes and other objects a legal position, referring to the seven countries that have already given elements of nature a legal voice.
The role of LCA practitioners
If scientists are to become the voice of nature, that has much significance for the life cycle assessment (LCA) community. This is an idea that matches how I embarked on my journey into LCA some 32 years ago. I thought then – and still think now – that LCA is excellently suited to be the voice of both humans and nature on a global scale. For decades, we have been developing this voice through concepts such as impact categories and endpoints, hoping we would be heard. Hoping that decision-makers in policy and companies would no longer decide without knowing. That they would listen to us: those who know, but cannot decide.
This all sounds great in theory, but until recently it has not really worked. Although it’s becoming more and more recognized, LCA has not revolutionized the world.
Where can we land?
Bruno Latour recently wrote a new book, titled “Where can we land?” In this further analysis, he investigates why humans have not really changed course, although we are potentially heading to a disaster.
Apparently, we still do not completely grasp that we are dependent on nature and things. We are discussing old concepts over and over again, like right-wing versus left-wing politics or whether we should act locally or globally. These topics are not irrelevant, but they are still a distraction. The key thing we need to do is to “land on earth” and understand we are dependent earthlings.
With the looming climate and biodiversity crises in sight, I call on LCA practitioners to also “land on earth” and try to become active influencers. We have so many essential and valuable insights to give to decision-makers. We cannot sit still and let uninformed people make the decisions. Not without understanding the impacts on non-humans and the things and systems that are essential for the future of all living organisms on Earth.
Are we fundamentally free or fundamentally dependent?
In “We have never been modern”, Latour describes the fundamental error philosophers made during the enlightenment. The idea emerged that people can be completely independent of beliefs and nature; that humans are autonomous. Many other philosophers, such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, already discovered that humans are not at all independent, but very much dependent on other humans and even infrastructure (things) and nature. The Enlightenment brought freedom, but also disconnected us from the earth we are living on.
When I established PRé in 1990 I ran a design consultancy, then I decided to do ecodesign. But, how do I tell the good from the bad? And how can I measure ‘eco’? So I started on a journey together with a few pioneers in the emerging LCA scene and gave up designing. I realized then that these same questions need to be answered by any company embarking on the route to more sustainable products and services, preferably in a scientific, honest, and businesslike way. Providing good transparent tools, data, and methodologies to empower organizations to make the transition to sustainability, that is my drive.