Despite the proliferation of environmental laws and treaties, destruction of the natural world still continues apace. One of the key reasons that this occurs is because our environmental laws – which see nature as property – legitimise it.
It starts with the premise that all of life isn’t protected, leaving us with the impossible task of reactively legislating to carve out protections, rather than proactively creating the frameworks needed to create the ecologically thriving world that all wish to inhabit. The laws that we already have – such as the EC Habitats and Species Directive, the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act and the US Endangered Species Act – selectively protect species proven to be under risk.
However, in a radically interconnected world, where according to scientists dozens of species are literally going extinct every day (i.e. species loss at 1,000-10,000 times the background rate); this approach is no longer enough. The process for updating the schedules detailing the protected species takes years. In the time it takes to prove scientifically that another species may be under threat, it is already too late.
Similarly, the proposed biodiversity offsetting schemes which are designed to speed up the planning process, fail to take into account the complex and interconnected nature of our world. Ecosystems are not fungible – destroying one and replacing it with another simply doesn’t work, as is evidenced by the difficulties experienced around the world in the practical implementation of these schemes.
These schemes also bring into question certain ethical concerns – is it possible to place an economic value on life itself? After all, which came first, life or the economy? Strengthening the ‘nature as property’ paradigm and giving piecemeal legislative protection is clearly not the answer – so what is?
It was not long ago that our law also treated women and children as ‘property’. Born out of the civil rights movement, recognising nature – which includes ecosystems, rivers, mountains, species etc. – as having the right to exist, persist, renew and maintain its vital cycles changes the face of environmental law. It starts with the premise that all life is protected – and then seeks to find the balance required to maintain our dynamic relationship with all life – not the other way round.
Why ‘Rights of Nature’?
The highest protection our law gives is in the form of ‘rights’. Law regulates human behaviour, but predominantly between ‘rights’ holders. It recognises broadly two types of ‘rights’ holder – human beings and entities created by human beings such as corporations and countries.
Everything else, including the natural world, is treated as ‘property’. This means that environmental issues are treated as planning issues and are dealt with in most jurisdictions exclusively by the planning and administrative courts, ignoring the wide ranging issues that are really at stake when interfering with ecosystems in an interexistent world. At best all that can be achieved in court is the reversal of a planning decision – only for a new revised application to be submitted and the development usually goes ahead.
Modern law in most countries operates within the following outdated paradigms:
- mechanistic (i.e. viewing the world as made up of separate unconnected objects interacting in a predicable way);
- anthropocentric (i.e. viewing the world as existing solely for the use of human beings – this is where ideas about ‘natural resources’ and ‘natural capital’ derive basing nature’s value on its utility to humanity rather than on its intrinsic value); and
- adversarial (competitive/retributive model where one party wins at the expense of another).
None of these paradigms reflect the full scientific reality of how natural systems operate. This gives rise to the illusion of a ‘power-over’ relationship with nature which has led to our current predicament. Being a part of nature, we cannot harm nature without also harming ourselves. Science has long recognised a fluid and complexly interconnected world.
Intrinsic value, not utility
However, our laws and general cultural attitudes fail to act on this knowledge, to our detriment. We talk about ‘sustainability’ – yet our legal framework’s fundamental alignment is inconsistent with the very idea. It’s time for a change.
Rights of nature laws hold a vision of a world in which our laws facilitate a culture that respects the profound inter-existence of our world and supports healthy relationships with all life. It extends our idea of community to include the whole community of life – a concept also enshrined in the UN’s Earth Charter Initiative.
In doing so we create a legislative framework in which the natural world is seen as an equal stakeholder in maintaining the wellbeing of the planet – an active participant that is worthy of our respect, rather than something inert and solely there for human consumption.
It creates legislation that honours the law of interconnection of natural systems and allows us to protect nature for its intrinsic value rather than its utility value to humans.
These laws also empower citizens to protect nature through community ecological governance fostering responsibility and catalysing positive social change. This is why more and more countries are adopting this approach – and why we are proposing that the European Parliament – one of the most powerful political bodies in the world – does the same.
How feasible is it?
Given that our current legal and the economic models have been ineffective in halting the widespread destruction of the biosphere, more and more countries are looking at rights for nature as a sensible way forward. Ecuador is the first country to have adopted rights of nature in its constitution. Bolivia has adopted rights of nature at the national level and appointed an Ombudsman to deal with environmental issues directly.
Over 3 dozen municipalities in the USA (and counting … ) including Santa Monica and Pittsburgh have adopted rights of nature at the local level. These laws
- recognise the rights of communities and natural communities which include ecosystems and nature;
- grant citizens the right to defend the rights of ecosystems and nature;
- and subordinate the rights of corporations to that of ecosystems and people, insofar as their actions are against the common good.
Additionally, recent court decisions are following this trend such as the one recognising the Wanganui River in New Zealand as a living being with the same rights as a person, and Costa Rican court’s ruling that because the second largest reef in the world is a living being, it cannot be commercially exploited.
In Europe, Switzerland recognises the dignity of all beings in its constitution; Spain recognises the rights of Apes; Romania is proposing a law recognising dolphins as rights holders, and even the UK government has publicly stated that animals are sentient beings and not merely commodities.
How is this different from a ‘Law of Ecocide’?
The rights of nature approach is different from the Eradicating Ecocide campaign and other initiatives because it changes the ‘nature as property’ paradigm. A law of Ecocide would make extensive destruction of the environment, a crime against peace. The focus is on limiting harm, through the use of criminal law.
Any destruction that falls short of the legal definition of ‘ecocide’ would still be dealt with in the current environmental law framework which deems nature to be ‘property’ and we are back where we started – in the planning courts.
How can we bring about this change?
A group of lawyers, environmentalists, academics and others have come together to bring a European Citizens’ Initiative (“ECI”) to call upon the European Commission to make a legislative proposal to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union to take a rights based approach to environmental protection.
The growing team, which currently spans 13 EU countries, is advocating the adoption of laws that recognise the right of nature to exist, renew and maintain its vital cycles. In doing so, all of nature will be granted status and protection under our law that it does not currently have in line with the most recent emerging paradigm in environmental law that is happening around the world.
What is a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI)?
The ECI is a participatory democracy mechanism within the EU, since April 2012, that allows citizens to propose a law. It is therefore a direct way of empowering citizens to put items on the EU legislative agenda.
The legal basis in is Article 11 TEU and Article 24 TFEU. Regulation (EU) No 211/2011 sets out the detailed requirements. It is an efficient way to bring about change – if the EU adopts a proposed Directive then all the member states are required to create laws implementing it within a specified time-frame. The European Commission wants citizens to play a more active role in European political processes and the ECI is a powerful way of doing this.
Call for Support
The ECI is a project that will be run across the whole of Europe – as it is a citizen’s initiative we need citizens to actively participate in the process. If you have skills in the following areas and would like to be involved in co-creating this exciting history-making initiative, please get in touch with me, as representative of the organising committee, at email@example.com. The specific areas we need additional assistance in are:
- Administration/administrative support; fundraising; accounting; research; IT/websites/social media; branding; education; advocacy; lobbying; project management.
- Additional members to join the existing 13 country teams (UK, Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Ireland, Italy, Belgium and Latvia)
- People who would like to lead the initiative in the EU countries where we still don’t have people (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta, Lithuania, Estonia, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Austria, Estonia, Bulgaria and Greece)
- We also have places for self-funding internships in Findhorn and Andalucía.
Offers of skills support could be in a purely ‘advisory’ capacity or more hands-on – (no offer of assistance is too small). To be kept in the loop subscribe at the Being Nature Project.
We look forward to hearing from you and to creating together the legal frameworks needed to form a more resilient, thriving world for all of our future generations.
Mumta Ito is the founder of the International Centre for Wholistic Law. A former City lawyer turned public interest environmental lawyer, she has toured extensively with Amma, one of India’s foremost spiritual teachers and humanitarians. Mumta has also co-facilitated healing workshops around the world and set up an NGO in the Caribbean to create a people’s movement to save an ecosystem of global ecological importance.
In this article she is writing on behalf of the organising committee for a European Citizens’ Initiative on the Rights of Nature. Mumta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.