My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (hear my previous essays in their archives, or read them here) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. Somehow, it even caught the eye of the Ecological Society of America, which posted about it on their blog. Here’s my original version of the essay, before it was edited down for broadcast.
With the passing of Nelson Mandela last month, we lost one of the strongest needles in humanity’s moral compass.
While many aspects of Mandela’s remarkable life are justly celebrated, one of the brightest moral beacons is surely his establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After 27 years spent behind bars, the world would have understood, maybe even condoned him had he gone after his oppressors seeking retribution for the injustices he and his fellow black South Africans had suffered under the white rulers of apartheid.
Instead, Mandela chose the path of reconciliation, bringing victims and oppressors together in nationwide public hearings to air out the real stories of injustice. Subverting any desire for victor’s justice, he found ways to heal the nation without bloodshed. Someone who had once been labeled a terrorist for supporting the overthrow of an oppressive regime had found a way to not only forswear violence, but to actually forgive his own jailers and the other perpetrators of injustices against his people.
Perhaps even more remarkably, his people followed his leadership, and accepted the path of reconciliation to bring South Africa into the community of nations as a new kind of democracy and a leader in the so-called Dark Continent. Others have since set up their own Truth and Reconciliation commissions to deal with crimes and injustices in their countries.
While this process of seeking truth and reconciling formerly antagonistic parties shows remarkable promise to transform human society, can we extend the power of reconciliation to heal humanity’s deepening rift with Nature?
Ever since the industrial revolution, our relationship with Nature is marked by our increasing exploitation of resources in the interests of profit and prosperity for some members of our species. We have transformed the Earth’s very surface, ushering in a new geological era—the Anthropocene—and have pushed many other living beings to the brink of extinction, if not right over that cliff. Earth’s biodiversity has endured at least 5 other mass extinction events in its history, when various natural forces—from volcanoes to meteors—wiped out over 90% of the species. We, the industrial engine of the ongoing 6th mass extinction, are the first such planetary force to have a moral conscience capable of being troubled by what we wreak.
Even as we justify our actions in the name of economic growth or progress, our morality tells us that something is deeply wrong when they result in the ravaging of the planet, and the devastation of so much life. How can we reconcile our destructive acts with any morality that teaches us to respect life, and to be good stewards of the land for future generations?
Can we expand Mandela’s vision of reconciliation to offer ourselves a shot at redemption from Nature, just like he offered his oppressors? Unlike him, Nature is amoral and lacks any conscience to offer us a path at redemption. It is up to us, therefore, to recognize the consequences of our actions, admit our culpability, indeed guilt, in destroying Nature, and seek forgiveness—through actions which repair the damage we have done—if we are to ride out this Anthropocene extinction crisis with our civilization intact.
Mandela once said
If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.
Nature, of course, is not our enemy, although we’ve been acting like all of Earth is enemy territory we must conquer. In 2003, speaking at the IUCN’s World Parks Congress in South Africa, Mandela also said
A sustainable future for humankind depends on a caring partnership with nature as much as anything else.
Can we make peace with the Earth, start working with Nature and transform ourselves into her partner?
Even as many former supporters of apartheid and critics of Mandela turned around to celebrate his life last month, can we turn ourselves around as a civilization, to reconcile and rebuild our relationship with Nature? That would be the deepest, most meaningful way to expand Mandela’s legacy.