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BBC debate asks: Has humanity's dominion been good for the planet?

June 3, 2013:

The Big Questions debate

Are people good or bad for the planet? That was the subject of a lively BBC TV debate featuring ARC Secretary General Martin Palmer - who argued that the question itself was flawed.

The debate, which asks whether humanity's dominion has been good for the planet?', which was broadcast on Sunday June 2 as part of the BBC's The Big Questions series presented by Nicky Campbell, certainly prompted an absorbing and at times heated discussion by the participants which included environmentalist Tony Juniper, Will Travers from the Born Free Foundation; Richard D North, author of Life on a Modern Planet; Mark Lynas, author of The God Species; imam and broadcaster Ajmal Masroor; Rev Philip Foster, author of While the Earth Endures; and Vinod Kapashi, a Jain who sits on the World Congress of Faiths, among others.

But Palmer suggested the very question itself was based on a set of assumptions that was not shared by around half of the world's population, and that because of the way it was phrased, the question had led to a discussion focussed on dominium and corruption.

"An awful lot of our language assumes that we are a curse, partly because in the Abrahamic traditions, the relationship of humanity to God - and therefore to the rest of creation - is considered to be a curse," he said. "There are other traditions which offer us a very different way of looking at things."

Some of the Eastern traditions, for example, see humans as part of the natural order rather than in charge of it or bearing particular responsibility for managing it. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, but not in the Protestant or Catholic traditions, there is a sense that "we are part of something... that we are here to be channel of blessing".

He also criticised the use of the phrase 'ecosystem deliverables': "We're immediately making the planet something we just manage rather than have a relationship with. I find 'ecosystem deliverables' a very disturbing phrase. We're part of it."

The debate came after a week of bleak news on the environment. Last week, the State of Nature report compiled by 25 wildlife organisations found that 60 percent of the UK's animal and plant species had declined over the past 50 years. And Kenya experienced its bloodiest week of rhino poaching, with seven killed in different reserves. If this rate of slaughter continues, Kenya will lose at least 55 rhino in 2013 - an increase of nearly 100% on 2012, when 30 were killed.

'A mass extinction at the global level'

The figures reveal the stark reality facing us all, said Tony Juniper: "We're undergoing a mass extinction of animals and plants at the global level on a scale not seen since the time the dinosaurs went extinct. That's an evolutionary memory that's accumulated over hundreds of millions of years that's being wiped out in an instant by our demand for natural resources, for space for agriculture and now on top of that... by climate change."

We have, he added, embarked upon a short-term project: "Nature is the source of all our economic welfare and the more we destroy nature, the more we imperil future generations' ability to have decent lifestyles, because everything we rely upon is put there by nature."

Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation said we were "taking out 140 percent of the world's ability to replenish the environmental capital, so we are running down the environmental capital that we all survive upon at a rate that is entirely unsustainable".

He added: "If we are unable to find enough room in the world for wild species like lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos, great apes, etc, then nothing else is safe because if we are prepared to let those species go, there is no other line to draw in the sand.

"In other words, it will eventually, and quite quickly, become all about us - and it's already almost all about us - to the exclusion of everything that does not provide some sort of service to us alone."

  • If you're based in the UK, you can watch the debate on the BBC iPlayer for the next six days.

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