Humility – the foundation for an environmental tipping point towards dialogue for positive change?

This is the post excerpt.

“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility” – Rachel Carson

I recently traveled to Auckland for the Environmental Defense Society’s conference Tipping Points.   The presentations and discussions at the conference focused on various ecosystem tipping points associated with the cumulative degradation of terrestrial and aquatic habitats.   I came away from the conference with mixed feelings, delight that people were having these discussions, hope for positive change,  frustration at the pace of research in New Zealand, disappointment in the near absence of systems thinking (function and structure) discussion, and empathy for people impacted by a history of disregard for the environment.   I waited to write a piece about the conference to provide time to process the information and to understand what continued to consume my thoughts for the days that followed.   There were three very clear topics that stuck with me 1) the call for humility in collaborative approaches towards environmental change 2) the growth of the cellular agricultural industry 3) a question from my former coworker about what knowledge from this conference can landscape planners take back with them.   Obviously, way too much to cover in a single post, so a three-part series will ensue.

I am starting with 1) the notion of humility, as this is nearest and dearest to my heart and perhaps, the cardinal environmental virtue.   Peter Hardstaff,  a campaign manager for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) had delivered a stimulating talk about the need for humility in environmental discussions involving multiple stakeholders.  While his talk focused on marine protection, his message was transferable to other environmental issues and habitats.  He suggested that humility, when combined with curiosity, were foundational to collaborative discussions to reveal opportunities for positive environmental change.   Without the presence of humility, discussions would not focus on shared values, but rather threats, immobilized by blame and finger-pointing.  For those more graphically minded people, maybe my notes can provide greater insight.

graphic note taking is a doodlers dream

Ok, well that was probably wishful thinking, but I felt inclined to include a picture so this blog post was not too dry.   Honestly, his message seemed quite simple to me.  I interpreted it as; we do not know everything, we have made some very bad decisions often led by singular motivations, and that it is time to come together as a community to learn from each other and our shared environment, to do better and make more approapriate decisions to improve the health and wellbeing of the collective community.

Peter never directly tied humility to wilderness, but instead to collaboration.  However, the use of the word brought my mind immediately to environmental ethicists, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold.   Although these scholars wrote of humility differently, they are both resolutely non-anthropocentric with shared ideas grounded in the notion that people were ‘of nature’ and that repeated attention to the nonhuman world was necessary.  Leopold suggests that raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to humans and Carson extends this idea to emphasize our existence as part of a system much larger than ourselves, with ‘us’ within a tiny blip in time of its cyclical turnings.   In her work she writes about the role that wilderness plays in teaching us this humility and the need to focus on and learn from its wonder so that we have less appetite for its destruction.  The following clip provides a glimpse into Carson’s work with the acknowledgement of her attempts to humble us.

In recognition that a sense of wonder and humility of the world is necessary to discover intrinsically valuable nonhuman elements, might humility foster this same altruistic focus in collaborative discussions?  Environmental virtue ethics assumes that our self-interest does not always coincide with interests of other nonhuman elements.  It seems this ethical position can easily be extended to the concept of conflicting values of stakeholders in environmental discussion and decision-making.   It was clear to me that this call for humility, so simple, was yet so necessary.  It was such an important intention to hold close when moving forward.

Apparently, not everyone was as enthusiastic about this idea as I was.  In fact, most of the speakers that followed argued against it, as did some of the audience members taking to the microphone with questions, suggesting that pride in what New Zealand has accomplished is most important and it will distinguish them as leaders toward effective outcomes.   Volker Kuntzsch, the CEO of Sanford Limited, a commercial fishing company, was quite outspoken about the need for pride.   In his presentation addressing marine protection in New Zealand, he urged the nation to look at themselves in this field the same way they do their rugby team, the All Blacks; a leader and dominator of their sport.   He advocated for pride, rather than humility to lead conversations moving forward.

Before sharing my thoughts on Volker’s promotion of pride over humility,  I should note that less than 0.5% of New Zealand’s marine environment is ‘full not take’.  This is well below international commitments and far from ‘leading’.  Returning to notion of pride… this was intuitively very unsettling to me, but I wanted to understand why.   Being a person that possesses ‘a limited vocabulary palette’, I began as I typically do, by interrogating the definition of each word, pride and humility.

Pride definitions:

  1. the quality or state of being proud: such asa : inordinate self-esteem : conceitb : a reasonable or justifiable self-respectc : delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship parental.
  2. A feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of one’s close associates, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.

Humility definitions:

  1. freedom from pride or arrogance :  the quality or state of being humble.
  2. the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance.

These definitions solidified my initial displeasure for two reasons; 1) a focus on achievements (particularly in conflicting value discussions) often inhibits change, discourages team building and can render one ‘unteachable’ 2) lowering one’s view of self-importance can open minds to other people’s’ views and enable one to share mistakes and learning outcomes, which can improve transparency, build trust and invite honest dialogue.  I should also note, that humility is often tied to self-reflection and empathy that are important attributes that encourages movement from experiencing to understanding.  Finally,  it has also been suggested that altruistic behavior promotes problem solving and leads to innovation.

As someone whose environmental education and view of the world is so heavily influenced by the works of Carson and Leopold and their call to be humble in order to recognize our place within nature, it seems that extending this humility to the foundation for collaborative environmental discussions is worth serious consideration.   Humility, empathy and self-awareness appear to be in short supply today.  However, a conscious effort to embrace these attributes has to great potential to lead to immense learning, understanding, and ultimately meaningful rewards.  Its time to view collaboration and our environment in accordance with Aldo Leopold “when we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”…its time to see our neighbors in the same way.


Author: angie campbell

I am an expat from the United States living in Wellington, New Zealand. My love affair with landscape, culture, and learning has led to a life filled with travel and academic institutions. Endowed with endless curiosity, I spend a great deal of time philosophizing about anything and everything, but very often pertaining to environmental issues. I should note that I am not formally trained in environmental philosophy, nor do I have the vocabulary competency to pass for someone who has. My writing is a somewhat tongue and cheek. I am using this blog as a means to work through some of this thinking and to follow my own pathway of inquiry, while providing (hopefully) some meaningful insight of what it is like to live as an American in Aotearoa New Zealand. I am sure at some point there will be some interesting travel photos once I make the leap from iphone to fancy camera. There is a secondary tab to the this blog spot. Reflections of the Watering Hole is an old blog I started during one of my academic stints studying the social and environmental impacts of oil and natural gas development in the Denver Julesburg Basin in the United States. While some of the information is a bit 'dated' (I started it in 2013), many of the conundrums remain relevant today.

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