The UKELA conference was extraordinary. More than forty practical lawyers, academics and students met together at the Magdalen Project, an educational organic farm in Somerset, to deepen their sense of connection with nature and discuss how that connection might influence formal law. Dr Stephan Harding, holistic scientist and author Animate Earth led the discussions with an outstandingly clear and effective exposition of the scientific view that Earth is a living system and that we ignore the living, self-regulating powers of the Earth at our peril. Tracing the development of the modern scientific view from the Galileo [“The book of the Universe is written in the language of mathematics” – the error is to think it is the only book] and the much-maligned Descartes [“I have described the Earth and the whole visible universe in the manner of a machine”] he reminded us that this view has obscured the older understanding of anima mundi, the world soul with its sense of the cosmos as an intelligent psyche which Western culture no longer acknowledges and indeed denies ‘murderously’. From there he reminded us of Thomas Berry’s observation that the ‘Universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects’ and that we need to relearn how to live as members of a holistic Earth community.
This is possible if we fully integrate and use the four ways of knowing described in the ‘Jungian mandala’:
The great thing with Stephan is that he does not cling to the lecture hall. Having given his exposition, out we went into the countryside to lie in the grass and experience gravity as a force of love holding us gratefully to Earth’s surface and to engage with trees as living, breathing fellow-travellers in the journey of life, often with much longer tales to tell than we have – not the usual fare of legal conferences, but quite a lot of them would benefit from this sort of treatment.
This is not to say that there was no place for conventional law. Practical discussions centred on the use of private and public law to help regulate our relationship with nature. No laws can force people to love nature, but they can apply regulation based on a duty of care, just as is done with the law of negligence. One discussion centred on property law. Why should there not be public duties applied to landowners akin to those that landowners apply to tenants? Public covenants not to damage the land and to maintain it in good condition; not to commit acts o waste or nuisance; would be examples. Since private land ownership inevitably involves private ownership of the environment which is entirely a shared habitat, there can be no doubt that it is in the interest of nature and the human community that it is treated with due respect. By use of legal devices such as the public trust doctrine or guardians ad litem, it is perfectly possible to enable people to take legal action in behalf of nature to enforce duties of care against those who claim exclusive dominion over parts f the environment.