Planetary stewardship:

Jon Nevill                                                    revised  18 February  2010


The single most important issue the world faces today is the need to develop an ethic of planetary stewardship, underpinned by a reverence for the beauty and complexity of our "water planet" and its diversity of life forms. Without this ethic, the forces behind our industrial consumer societies are pushing global resource consumption to higher and higher levels, eroding the essential life support systems of the planet

Politicians world-wide display little comprehension of the severity of the planetary crisis (which has already begun). While many politicians are now acting on climate change, actions implemented so far are too little too late - by a huge margin. A major tipping point is approaching - if not already passed. Moreover discussion of the biodiversity crisis in international political arenas - of equal importance with climate change - has so far not resulted in effective action at a scale necessary to reverse (or even slow) the destructive forces behind this crisis. The planet is now entering its sixth global extinction event, this time driven by the actions of its human population.

Three of the main drivers behind these crises also remain outside the understanding - and even the discussions - of our political leaders. The first is continued growth in the human population, partly driven by poverty and lack of education amongst women in poor countries, but also partly due to active promotion of population growth in developed countries. As the planet's human population expands, people want space to live, to grow food, to work and to play. Inevitably this space is taken from the little that remains of the natural world. The simple fact is that Homo sapiens is the planet's major predator. Humans feed on other living organisms; we need to eat them to live. Our population has already overshot the carrying capacity of the planet (see references listed below). In the 1960s UN demographers predicted that the planet's human population would stabilize at around 10 billion by 2100, as the effects of education, improvements in health, and economic development spread throughout the world. These assumptions proved to be wrong, and today, new estimates place the 2100 population far above that estimate, and the earlier confidence that the population would stabilize has evaporated. 

The second driver is the way in which democratic political systems provide advantages to politicians advocating short-term approaches - especially when the long-term care of the planet demands financial and social sacrifices. While it must be acknowledged that democratic governments have been successful in many ways at protecting the interests of the current generation, the inability of our governance arrangements to make difficult decisions to protect the planet must be acknowledged and addressed. Unfortunately, our present arrangements - using short electoral terms, discounting consensus, with no qualification on who can stand as candidates - has resulted in systems which will continue to fail to produce wise long-term decisions. Worldwide, an urgent discussion is necessary concerning ways in which democratic governance systems can be modified to facilitate decision-making for the long-term. Length of political term, use of rolling elections, and the use of bipartisan and consensus decision-making mechanisms all need urgent discussion within a broad public debate. Within decision-making processes at all levels, influence must also be given to people who have the specific task of representing the needs of future generations - these men and women must be appointed as advocates for our grandchildren as yet unborn, and advocates for the planet.

The third driver is the now-worldwide reliance on financial systems highly dependent on credit - and their need for continued growth to remain healthy. The 2008-09 global financial crisis should have taught the world a lesson, but instead we looked desperately for ways to bolster credit available to our economies. The promotion of economic development underpinned by high credit levels (here I mean any project funded over 50% by credit) is like running a train without brakes:  you hope the track ahead is clear... but if it isn't, you're in big trouble, because you simply can't slow down. 

The planet desperately needs humans to find ways towards a 'sustainable retreat' - involving:

  • explicit acknowledgement of humans' moral responsibility to protect other life forms, whether or not they are useful to us;
  • reducing human populations over time;
  • consensus-based political decision-making frameworks which can make 'hard' decisions to achieve long-term goals, and 
  • financial arrangements which can maintain a relatively healthy economy in the face of declining population and declining use of the world's resources.

These are huge challenges - yet they remain largely undiscussed, even at academic levels. 

A closer look:

Outside nature and wilderness reserves (covering about 13% of the planet's terrestrial areas) we have already modified and damaged almost all terrestrial and freshwater habitats. Only 40% of terrestrial ecoregions have 10% or more of their area within 'protected areas'. About half of the planet's natural terrestrial ecosystems have been destroyed (with this percentage escalating) with most of the remainder significantly degraded. Over half of the world's wetlands were destroyed in the twentieth century, mainly for agricultural and urban development - with most of the remaining wetlands now heavily degraded. In heavily populated areas, the destruction of natural wetlands approaches 100%. About a quarter of the world's bird species existing prior to the advent of Homo sapiens sapiens (modern man) are now extinct, with one in eight current bird species now listed as endangered. We are gradually destroying the non-human inhabitants of our planet. 

The last twenty years have witnessed accelerating inroads into marine habitats, which are now broadly entering (or in) ecological collapse - when compared with their pristine state. Only 1.6% of the earth's marine realm is designated as protected area, and only 0.18% is protected through no-take controls. Unfortunately, only a tiny fraction of designated protected areas are effectively policed. Over half of the world's mangrove forests have been lost, and estuaries and coral reef ecosystems have been severely degraded around the planet - mainly by overfishing, pollution and the introduction of alien species. The dramatic decline of coastal fisheries over the last century is the signal we see. Even the ecosystems of the open ocean are now in deep trouble worldwide, largely due to overfishing with its attendant effects of habitat damage and bycatch. 

Worldwide, destructive fishing practices remain in widespread use, despite an international agreement for their phase-out by 2012. Bottom trawling remains in widespread use, despite a realisation that the practice causes dramatic (and in some cases effectively irreversible) damage to benthic habitats. It has been likened to clear-felling a forest to catch a herd of deer. 

As Professor Duncan Brown puts it: "we are destroying our own habitat".


Brooks et al. (2004) 'Coverage provided by the global protected-area system: is it enough?' Bioscience 54(12):1081-1084. [Note that less than half ( 6%) of reserves are highly protected (IUCN classes I-IV). The 12% and 6% estimates exclude Antarctica, which in theory is fully protected.]

Jackson, JBC, Kirby, MX & Berger, WH (2001) 'Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems.' Science, vol. 293, pp. 629-38.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Ecosystems and human well-being: synthesis, Island Press, Washington DC .

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Ecosystems and human well-being: biodiversity synthesis, World Resources Institute, Washington DC .

Postel, SL, Daily, GC & Ehrlich, PR (1996) 'Human appropriation of renewable freshwater', Science, vol. 271, pp. 785-8.

Rojstaczer, S, Sterling , SM & Moore , NJ (2001) 'Human appropriation of photosynthesis products', Science, vol. 294, pp. 2549-52.  

SCBD Secretariat to the Convention on Biological Diversity (2006), Global biodiversity outlook 2, SCBD, Montreal Canada.

UN Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea (2001) 'A sea of troubles'. GESAMP publication 70; United Nations, New York.

Vitousek, PM, Mooney, HA, Lubchenco, J & Melillo, JM (1997) 'Human domination of the Earth's ecosystems', Science, vol. 277, pp. 494-9.


The planet in crisis:

Our biological world is already in crisis. Driven by an expanding human population, together with the resource demands of our industrial-consumer societies, the planet has already entered a period of environmental catastrophe. We need to realise that, with something as big as planet earth, the signs of catastrophe do not 'happen' suddenly: there are no front-page headlines. Look to the world's most vulnerable ecosystems if you want to see the signs: wetlands, coral ecosystems, estuaries, deserts, our rivers and lakes, rainforests, mountain environments, and even our open oceans and seamounts. They are being plundered and they are slowly dying. The time-scale of the collapse is just outside the time-scale of a human life; we need to look backwards carefully (the 'sliding baselines' problem referred to in fisheries literature). Without seeing the detail we will be unable to understand the signs and the processes of destruction.

We are now eroding the planet's fabric which sustains life on earth - consuming the capital on which the future of our children depends.

The human effects of environmental degradation are being felt most clearly today in ecologically fragile areas: sub-Saharan Africa, the steep erodible hillsides of Asia, and waterways and coasts over much of the third world. Each year, over 15 million children under the age of 5 die from "preventable" causes: around half from water-borne diseases and the effects of water pollution, and around half from diseases exacerbated by poor nutrition and outright starvation. The gap between rich and poor continues to increase.  (For more information, refer to the reports of United Nation agencies, many available on UNEP and related web sites).

Our evolution from tribal hunter-gathers has provided us with a remarkable ability to respond to immediate challenges. We react well to short-term problems in our immediate vicinity.  As a species, however, we do not have strong abilities to construct effective social responses to long-term or global crises.  Our survival on this planet depends on our ability to construct cultural and institutional mechanisms which will compensate for our inherited focus on short term immediate issues.  This is the challenge we must face today

Humans are the ubiquitous and powerful predators on planet Earth, and our actions (as a species) are now well outside what appear to be the ecological survival limits of the environment we inhabit. We have moved from destroying individual plants and animals - as every predator does, to destroying whole ecosystems. 

No population can continue to grow indefinitely in a finite environment. Unless we take action to limit and then reduce our population, famine and disease will almost certainly become increasingly prominent. Many humans, as well as the planet's ecosystems, are already paying the ultimate price for our erosion of  the planet's life support systems.

As a species, I think we can relate to our planet in three basic ways.

The first is as hunter-gatherers. Here we basically take what we want from our environment. "Primitive" hunter-gatherer societies (increasingly disappearing) on closer inspection were not primitive at all, and generally embodied cultures and traditions which saw these societies care for their environment in various ways - driven by spiritual values and beliefs. It is "industrial" hunter-gatherer societies which are now out of step with the capabilities of the planet. Malaysian logging companies, Australian fishing operations, Japanese whaling ships… are all plundering the earth's resources.

The second way of relating is "on a business footing". In this scenario, humans recognise that their propensity for short-term exploitation of the planet does not bode well for their long-term survival. They recognise that they must use the earth's resources in a 'sustainable' way. The philosophy is: "we need to look after the productive ecosystems of the planet in order to ensure our children's' survival".

In the third way of relating, humans develop a loving relationship with their planet. They live in awe of its beauty, its fragility, and its power. They recognise that, as the most powerful animals on the planet, they have a responsibility to look after other inhabitants as well as themselves, for their own sake. Again, through institutions and cultures, they develop programs to care for the earth and all its life-forms, often at the expense of immediate human needs.

An example:

The largest of all cuttlefish, the Giant Australian Cuttlefish, inhabits Australia's southern seas. Each year, around May, these impressive creatures massed in great numbers in shallow water off Point Lowly, in the Spencer Gulf,  South Australia. For some reason, they chose this special place to meet and mate.    Today, they still gather there, although in hugely reduced numbers.

As you might expect from an "industrial hunter-gatherer" society, once this annual massing became known, fishers took their boats and plundered the cuttlefish. And of course it wasn't long before cuttlefish numbers dropped dramatically.

Now the "business footing" approach came into play. The South Australian government placed a temporary moratorium on cuttlefish harvesting within the most concentrated spawning ground, and proclaimed restrictions on fishers to limit their catch. These latter restrictions remain largely unenforced.  (More information on the cuttlefish of Spencer Gulf)

Is this enough?  I believe that it is not.  If we, as a society, could move towards the "third" approach, how would we handle this situation? Firstly, we would marvel at the forces which bring the animals together, with such precision in time and place. We would marvel at the beauty and intelligence of these molluscs. We would instantly recognise that this relatively small area is a sacred site to cuttlefish. To the extent that cuttlefish can have such a thing, this most certainly was, and is, a sacred place. We would recognise that only we, as humans, can protect this site, and we would place it "out of bounds" to all harvesting activities, for all time. Let the fishers have a good part of the rest of the ocean, and the rest of the year, but let this area be protected as a sacred site.

And so….

In creating this web site, I wish to do something, however small, to assist us to move towards a society in which we care for the planet because we love it. And it is my view, though clearly I can't support it, that we need this approach. I don't believe the "business" approach will ever be enough to protect this planet to the extent that it will provide our species with a home for indefinite generations to come. I believe that, unless we can love and protect the planet, we will destroy it.

Our species must learn to live in harmony with the other living inhabitants of our planet.  If we cannot place strategic limits on our incursions into the habitats of other species, we will, I believe, destroy both their world and our world.  It is crucial to limit our human population, and limit our consumption of resources.  But this is not enough.  We must, as a species, take this action not to protect ourselves, but to protect other species.  This action must come from a deep respect for other forms of life, and for the beauty and diversity of this planet.  Our most serious global problems stem in large part from the fact that humans are acting as if they own the planet.

Our intent is critical.  Our intent will derive from our values, values which at present are driven, unintentionally, by the forces of global consumerism and media.  This must change if the planet is to survive in anything like its present beauty.  As a species, we must find different values.  There is not much time left...

While mouthing concerns about sustainability, humans are killing the other living inhabitants of our planet, and destroying the places in which they live. This is happening across the entire globe. We are silent witnesses to the rapid destruction of the ecosystems of our planet.  By far the most important social, economic and environmental issue of our times is the need to create a global culture of respect for the planet.  If our planet is to survive in anything like its current form, we must also create and support political parties which will make, at our cost, decisions which will (in the long term) reduce human population levels and drastically reduce our impact on the other living residents of this planet. 

From the point of view of the other living inhabitants of this planet, the human population over-shot the Earth's carrying capacity sometime in the last century - with a momentum which can be slowed but not stopped within this century.

Governments, business, but most of all the community - each of us, must act now. We must act to slow, and ultimately reduce, the size of the planet's human population. We must call into question the need for never-ending economic growth, which locks us into increasing impact on the Earth's survival systems. And we must call on our politicians to move to a different form of democracy better able to handle the difficult tradeoffs involved in short-term sacrifices for long-term planetary survival. No one else is going to save the planet - it's up to us. As Paul Gilding has said, we are the people we've been waiting for.


There is in the community a view that the conservation of biological diversity also has an ethical basis.  We share the earth with many other life forms which warrant our respect, whether or not they are of benefit to us. Earth belongs to the future as well as the present; no single species or generation can claim it as its own.

Source: Government of Australia (1996:2) National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity.  Department of Environment and Heritage, Australia;  Canberra.  

The Earth Charter was developed over many years following a 1987 initiative of the United Nations. An Earth Charter Commission was formed in 1997 with help from influential UN figures and funds from the Dutch Government. The Charter was endorsed by the Commission in 2000, and was put to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg - with a view to it being endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly (much as the World Charter for Nature was in 1982). The Earth Charter is important, as it embodies an explicit ethic of respect for the planet. Although it is a conservative document, shying away from important issues such as the need to reduce the human population of the planet, and the need to reform democratic governance processes, it nevertheless has failed - so far - to get widespread nation-state endorsement. It has, however, received endorsement by the IUCN-sponsored World Conservation Congress 2004, and has wide support amongst the thinking public worldwide. I urge you to visit the Earth Charter website, and, if you feel you can, add your name to the endorsement. 

Wandering in the wood, Alice heard sawing and walked that way, hopeful of getting directions. Halfway up an oak, a hedgehog in a frock coat and silk hat was sawing off the limb it sat on.
"I say," she cried, "you ought to stop that!" The hedgehog looked at her but kept sawing.
"Why should I?" it snapped.
"You'll fall!"
"Why should I fall?" the hedgehog shouted, turning pink. "Explain!"
"When the limb you're sawing falls, you'll fall too," Alice replied, with, she thought, admirable conciseness.
"That's not an explanation," the hedgehog shouted, still sawing. "It's just proximate cause. You'll have to give ultimate cause!"
"I shall never get home for tea," Alice sighed.

Our present use of democratic principles must be improved. At present our narrow vision of democracy is a major driver pushing the human population past the carrying capacity of the planet.

Democracy and global sustainability - a need for fundamental change (Jon Nevill)

Paul Gilding - Australian Broadcasting Commission, Background Briefing 2009

Deep ecology

World Pantheist website

Henry David Thoreau

John Muir - the "first great American advocate of wilderness". Sierra Club

Aldo Leopold Foundation

Gaia theory

Marston Bates 1961

Statements of intrinsic value

Sacred sites for marine animals

Related Philosophy

David Attenborough




(cuttlefish): Victorian Regional Ripples, newsletter of the Marine and Coastal Community Network, June 1998, Also: Pip Moran Giant Australian Cuttlefish in Australian Geographic No.51 June 1998.

State of the planet:
Diamond, J (2005) Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive, Viking Books, London .

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005-2006 (World Resources Institute)

Wright, R (2004) A short history of progress, Text Publishing, London