In his search for gnoseological definition, Lucretius, the ancient Roman poet and philosopher, sounded a dire warning about the connection between war and Nature in his epic poem, ‘Re Rerum Natura’ (‘On The Nature of Things’).
The poem is not an easy read: it totals 7,400 lines, being written in hexameters with unrhymed six-beat lines in imitation of Homer, and is divided into six books which range across many subjects, from reflections on lyrical beauty, religion, pleasure and death, to sex as well as theories about science and disease. However, it is the human-Nature relationship that is the poem’s main focus.
At the heart of ‘On The Nature of Things’ is Lucretius’s message, heavily influenced by the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, that life is for living: humans should not only be unafraid of death but also pursue a life of pleasure, in the best and highest sense which involves embracing a life in harmony with the natural word – a key point. That sense of harmony would be upended should animals be killed or attacked, being in effect a declaration of war against Nature by humans, who in the process become brutalised and lose all sense of human dignity – meaning in effect humans would be at war with themselves.
If Lucretius’s message might seem rooted in a philosophically misty, difficult-to-imagine past as well as being hard in practical terms, religion is just as opaque by sending mixed messages about the relationship between humans and the natural world, hinged on the idea of ‘stewardship’: in the classic religious conundrum, when religious adherents are asked to protect Nature, is it to benefit Mankind first and foremost, or Nature for Nature’s sake?
The sensitivity and confusion over the issue of ‘stewardship’ came to the fore when renowned medieval historian, Lynn White jnr. provoked a fire-storm of debate in the mid-Sixties with his article ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’, which included the phrase: ‘the victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture’.
While all the other main religions exhibit variations on the stewardship conundrum, Jainism, the lesser practised religion of Indian origin adhered to by Gandhi, unequivocally reflects Lucretian principles with its central idea of Ahimsa, non-violence, with an important part being its application to the natural world.
War and conflict are high impact events that pose unique challenges to conservationists: usually a rapid response is needed to mitigate both their environmental and human impacts, and in their aftermath war and conflict often leave not only devastation but also a management and institutional void that hinders rehabilitation.
The idea of linking the restoration of the environment with peace-building – ‘environmental peace-building’ – has been around for some time, with cross-border water management being a prime example and more latterly the idea of ‘peace parks’, especially in southern Africa with the emphasis on wildlife preservation.
‘On The Nature of Things’ sees the universe as an infinite number of randomly moving atoms that continually bring unexpected and unpredictable changes of matter; Lucretius called this process clinamen, roughly translating as a ‘swerve’ , which could include ‘peace parks’.