Should Nature Have Rights?

I'm not sure if you've heard yet, but the Orange Lord has taking office, and he's here with a mind to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency and essentially demolish all environmental agendas put forth during the Obama Administration. This all is of course took place amidst the birth of the Paris Climate Agreement, where leaders from around the world had finally gotten together to put forth REAL solutions to climate change.

It would appear that the future for our planet is unsure, and more radical attitudes towards mitigating climate change ought to be pursued. 

An important consideration when looking to the defence of our planet is whether or not nature should have specific rights, and what effects those rights may produce when put into practice. 

Pumpkin Hill Beach, Utila, Honduras

Pumpkin Hill Beach, Utila, Honduras

I took this photo this summer when I was volunteering with a conservation NGO in Honduras on the island of Utila, a beautiful little place that is home to nesting endangered sea turtles. I couldn't believe the amount of garbage these white sandy beaches had managed to collect, despite the tiny size of the island and small number of inhabitants. It turns out that garbage from countries all over the Caribbean is carried by currents to these beaches, making turtle nesting even more challenging and lethal.

What should the rights of nature be?

I've drawn largely from the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution and the 2010 Bolivian Rights of Mother Earth to suggest a basic platform of rights for nature. These documents reflect the rather anti-colonialism, anti-transnational capitalist sentiments of Latin America:

1. Right to diversity of life (biodiversity)

2. Freedom from pollution (atmospheric, water, and land-based)

3. Right to NOT be degraded anthropologically beyond ability to restore by natural means

4. Right to take legal measures against entities who violate these rights

Assigning legal rights to nature, while perhaps imperfect in practice, is a productive and prudent step towards a more sustainable global future.

I should point out that these suggested are meant to be ideally global in nature, meaning that they are not bound by national borders or jurisdictions. Natural ecosystems both oceanic and land-based are not bound by political borders and cross national lines freely. It follows then that the rights and freedoms afforded to nature in one jurisdiction would apply globally. If we accept the personhood of nature and allow for, say, ‘freedom from pollution’ to apply to the rivers of British Columbia, we ought to extend this freedom to rivers and waterways worldwide. This may not realistically be the case, though, as I'll show shortly.

Rights TO nature vs. rights OF nature

Christopher Stone was probably the first proponent of the idea that nature itself ought to be granted rights. He famously stated,

“Each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new “entity,” the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable. This is partly because until the right-less thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of “us”- those who are holding rights at the time”.
— Christopher Stone, 1974

 Various ‘crusades’ for rights have played out over the last five decades, with the points of contention being the rights of slaves, women and children in different points in history.

Historically, these debates have implied a debate of personhood, with the granting of rights representing the emergence of a group as ‘persons’ by the dominant society. This matter of personhood is particularly of interest when considering the relationship between nature and rights, as the granting of personhood certainly suggests a more ‘radical’ perspective of environmental protection.

More conventional frameworks place the rights with, as Stone described, “those who are holding rights at the time”, namely humans.

The 1994 ‘Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment’ out of Geneva, serving as an initial foray into human rights as they relate to the environment. This declaration outlined human rights to “a secure, healthy, and ecologically sound environment”.

This suggests that humans have a right TO nature, and therefore nature should be preserved for the use and enjoyment of humans. I would argue that this framing of environmental rights was probably a necessary ‘first step’ in the evolution of nature’s rights, however fails to consider the value of nature in absence of human need.

A more productive and perhaps ‘radical’ approach to connecting rights to our environment is by assigning rights to nature itself, instead of the humans who enjoy it. In this way, hopefully we may depart from the presumption that nature is, as Stone describes, a ‘thing for the use of us’.

Could we enforce this?

An important inclusion of the suggested rights addressed here is that they are legally upheld, implying that an entity is able to legally and morally assume the voice of a biological entity. Understandably, this raises question with who is morally and practically able to assume this position, when, and under what jurisdiction.

The Ethics Tribunal for the Rights of Nature was assembled first in 2014 as an initiative that allowed citizens from around the world to publicly testify to the destruction of nature. Its panel of judges consist of internationally renowned lawyers and leaders for planetary justice, and hears cases like the 2010 BP oil spill to assess violation of nature’s rights. 

Assigning rights to an entity that can not represent itself poses challenges, and perhaps enforcing these rights globally may impose unacceptable risks to some states. It is important instead to consider that the Ethics Tribunal for the Rights of Nature is still in its infancy, but represents potential for the enforceability of nature’s rights.

Can this really be universal?

All of the suggested rights, if legally enforced, would realistically end the significant extraction of natural resources in many parts of the world. The reality is that countries of the developing Global South like Nigeria rely almost exclusively on crude oil exports as national income.

If enforcing nature’s rights would collapse the nation’s economy, it is clearly unethical to assign these priorities without a proper 'phasing' out of the industry into a more sustainable source of income.

This similar scenario is currently playing out in Ecuador. Despite an established constitutional ‘rights of nature’, the realities of the countries finances have emerged as priority and campaigns to resist oil extraction in the region have been thwarted.

Whereas the Ethics Tribunal for the Rights of Nature supposes that nature’s rights can be considered on a global scale at a global stage, all current environmental constitutions function at a national level. 

I definitely concede this point that there are great inequalities when considering rights from a global perspective. In some contexts, the prioritization of nature’s rights would cause unacceptable harm to the good of the nation and unfortunately, often governments are either unable or unwilling to resist great economic pressures to capitalize on resource extraction

. Regardless, it is important to consider the rights of nature within the context of a larger paradigm shift towards the protection of natural resources and a more balanced relationship with nature. While ideally universal, as with human rights, the manifestation of nature’s rights may be necessarily bound to the realities of the state.