Perhaps the only way we are going to move ahead with respecting the rest of nature is to convey legal rights. Does that mean that my cat and the forest out the back door will now be legal persons? Yes and no. As Mari Margil explains in a piece I just read, there is more to it than that.
She theorizes that our legal universe is made up of two categories: people and property. People have rights and property is something they exercise their rights over. As you may be aware, corporations have won personhood rights for themselves over the course of our country’s history, and we are presently in a battle to abolish or at least curtail those rights. We are doing this because corporations have learned how to leverage those rights and, through the use of their superior wealth, to gain control of governments and subordinate human interests (and those of the rest of nature) to their own advantage.
Our slogan for this campaign has been, “Only people are persons.” Are we now going to turn around and convey rights of personhood on our physical world? The title of Margil’s article is “Legal Rights of the Natural World: Beyond Personhood,” and in it she explains that personhood is a uniquely human condition that human inventions like corporations share. Nonhuman nature will never sue, nor be brought to account for floods or hurricanes.
We also need to recognize that humans are not the only species that tailors the world to their needs. We don’t see weeds or rats as acting cooperatively. Beavers make radical changes to streams. Predators don’t seem to have the best interests of their victims at heart. Yet, we know that all of these behaviors have an inscrutable purpose, even though, in the case of rats, mosquitoes, and the like, we may require a heavy dose of faith. We also know that humans have greatly altered our planet, and not all of it for the worse. We know a lot about cultivating healthy ecosystems and many species have benefitted greatly from our work. Native Americans developed corn and used burning and planting to greatly increase the food production of forests. How that differs from the use of synthetic fertilizers and massive combines is something we need to understand if we are to move forward. We know that the indigenous people in North America had a population equal to that of Europe yet they maintained a healthy and vibrant world for 16 thousand years. Our mainly European culture has decimated it in less than 500 years.
Nature and its ecosystems, including human ones, have a right to exist in cooperation with the rest of existence and, as Margil shows, we have already recognized that. The first law in the world recognizing legal rights of nature was adopted in Manaqua Borough, Pennsylvania in 2006. In 2008, Ecuador wrote rights of nature into their new constitution and Bolivia and Uganda passed similar laws. Columbia, India, Bangladesh, and New Zealand have passed legislation recognizing the rights of rivers and other ecosystems. The Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India, and the Whanganui River in New Zealand have been granted rights of personhood including the powers, duties, and responsibilities thereof. Clearly, legal systems have to evolve to protect ecosystems while not expecting them to respond in a human way.
According to Margil, “The future will recognize the rights of ecosystems. As it does, a new framework is needed in which legal and judicial systems are equipped to properly implement and enforce the rights that nature needs to be healthy and thrive. This new framework – legal naturehood – would focus on upholding the legal rights of nature, such as those found in Ecuador’s Constitution, including rights to exist, regenerate, evolve, and be restored. Implementation means ensuring human activities do not violate the rights of nature, and that our actions become consistent with those rights.” As long as Nature is viewed as property, we will continue to degrade and destroy ecosystems in the search for resources we can profit from.
I might add also that the Endangered Species Act has recognized in a rudimentary way the rights of species of plants and animals to exist. Those rights, though, are still clearly subordinated to the economic needs of humans. They do not have rights as such, but privileges conferred on them by us. Our national park system recognizes the inherent worth of certain extraordinary landscapes, but does nothing to protect the ecosystems we live with everyday.
The problem is how do we grant non-human rights an equal status to our own? Until we deeply acknowledge that our existence is utterly dependent on the rest of nature, we will never give up our role as masters of the world that is the essence of our civilization. This is the radical change we each have to make if we are to survive. It is one thing to admit this to ourselves, but completely another to face the world everyday in that frame of mind.