Extending Rights and Growing Responsibilities

Extending Rights and Growing Responsibilities

The environmental lawyer David Boyd has written a very interesting book about the gradual process of extending the legal concept of ‘rights’ to the non-human world: not only to animals, but also – for instance – to trees, rivers and whole eco-systems.

More than three years ago I wrote a blog, in which I paid attention to the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, the ideas of Cormac Cullinan, and the Urgenda case in the Netherlands. I was pleasantly surprised that in 2017 another important book was published in this field that somehow escaped my attention in 2018. That’s why I’m writing about it now. The book, entitled The Rights of Nature, is written by David Boyd, an environmental lawyer and associate professor at the University of British Columbia.

Ideas preventing the rights of nature

He states at the beginning that there are three entrenched ideas that keep the use and misuse of animals and the natural world going: ‘The first is anthropocentrism – the widespread belief that we are separate from, and superior to, the rest of the natural world (…). The second is that everything in nature, animate and inanimate, constitutes our property, which we have the right to use as we see fit. The third idea is that we can and should pursue limitless economic growth as the paramount objective of modern society.’ Boyd is convinced that we can only establish the rights of nature when we leave these three ideas behind us.

The inclusion of animal rights

In the first half of the book Boyd pays attention to rights of animals and, more in particular, to rights of endangered species – a topic about which I have also written before. He considers these animal rights an integral part of the more encompassing rights of nature, and acknowledges that they are truly revolutionary within the context of Western civilization: ‘The idea that species have intrinsic value regardless of their utility to human beings is a radical departure of modern legal systems’.

A development with a history

The basis for the rights of nature started to enter Western consciousness during the 19th century. In the US there were ecological pioneers like John Muir (1838-1914) and Aldo Leopold (1887-1948). Leopold, for instance, wrote about a Land Ethic, about the fact that we abuse land when we consider it a commodity belonging to us. In this respect Boyd points out that it is unfair that human beings possess 85 percent of the land on our planet, leaving only 15 percent to other species.

Non-human entities

Opponents to the rights of nature have argued that animals and natural entities like rivers cannot be given rights because they can’t talk and defend themselves. Boyd points out that in the 1970s Christopher Stone argued in an article – still discussed in law schools – ‘that there is no legal barrier to granting legal rights to nature, given the fact that other non-human entities such as ships and corporations have legal rights conferred upon them.’ Boyd adds to this, that these can’t talk and defend themselves either. With regard to a case against Pennsylvania General Energy he points out: ‘It is remarkable that PGE’s lawyers could describe watersheds as “artificial constructs”, while simultaneously believing that corporations are real persons to whom rights naturally belong.’

A gradually expanding process

In his book Boyd shows that the recognition of the rights of nature is gradually spreading across the planet. The Indian constitution, for instance, ‘casts a duty on every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures.’ Since 2006 over a dozen local communities across the US have passed local laws that recognize the rights of nature, thereby assuming that these have priority over corporate and property rights. This has, however, provoked a massive legal response from businesses, and courts are striking these laws down because they are (still) inconsistent with federal/state law. So there are backlashes as well.

New Zealand and its Maori heritage

Boyd pays attention to two interesting cases in New Zealand (or Aotearoa, its Maori name) in which the rights of nature have been acknowledged: the Whanganui river, the National Park of Te Urewera. The stories that Boyd tells about them are moving, and he is amazed by the fact that there has been no opposition against the acts that give rights to this river and to the national park. He argues that this ‘legal revolution underway in New Zealand’ shows ‘the path toward re-establishing a healthy, sustainable relationship between humans and the eco-systems of which we are part.’

Indigenous inspiration

These cases and others mentioned by Boyd show that all over the world the recognition of the rights of nature has been inspired primarily by the age-old indigenous traditions – whose views have managed to survive despite the centuries of (colonial) struggle against them. And importantly, they show it is not a case of giving back the land that has once been taken from them. Indigenous people simply want the rivers and other natural environments to own themselves, to be intrinsically valuable, as had always been the case in their culture. In fact, if we dig deep enough in the roots of Western culture, we may find that this conception once existed everywhere on the planet – long before the entrenched ideas of anthropocentrism, private property and economic growth became dominant. We must thank the indigenous people for reminding us.

Moving from rights to responsibilities

The stories in Boyd’s book make it clear that we can see a quite slow but persistent process of moving from an exclusive focus on human rights toward acknowledging the rights of other species, natural environments and eco-systems. Seen from a human perspective this is a movement from the struggle for rights towards feeling deeply responsible for the well-being of the natural world, which (for most of us modern people at least) cannot talk and definitely cannot defend itself in court – but which has been, and still is, the very basis on which our lives depend.


Photo on top: Whanganui River, New Zealand, taken by James Shook


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