Monday, May 20, 2024

The EU Rights of Nature Initiative

“Our planet Earth in its present mode of fluorescence is being devastated. This devastation is being fostered and protected by legal, political and economic establishments that exalt the human community while offering no protection to the non-human modes of being. There is an urgent need for a system of governance which recognizes that the well-being of the integral world community is primary, and that human well-being is derivative - an Earth Jurisprudence.” - Thomas Berry

Why we need the Rights of Nature Enshrined in European Law

The State of the EU Environment Report 2015 stated that “60% of protected species assessments and 77% of habitat assessments recorded an unfavourable conservation status. Europe is not on track to meet its overall target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020, even though some more specific targets are being met. Looking ahead, …….. climate change impacts are projected to intensify and the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss are expected to persist.” From this statement it is clear that all the many EU policies and laws are failing to protect nature – the basis of our human health and well being.

One fundamental reason is that EU law doesn’t recognise a relationship between us and the rest of nature. Law governs relationships – but only between “subjects” of the law – so there are no obligations or legal duty of care towards nature. As a result anybody has the right to destroy nature that doesn’t belong to anyone. And property owners have the right to destroy ecosystems on their property – unless the law specifically says otherwise. This leaves nature “outside” the system – fundamentally unprotected. So we are left with the impossible task of reactively legislating to carve out protections, rather than proactively creating the legal frameworks needed to create true sustainability. Furthermore, environmental decisions are made exclusively at the micro-level under individual planning cases – with no regard to the cumulative effect of such decisions in eroding ecosystem and earth system resilience as a whole. So we end up with piecemeal protection and a reductionist approach. This ignores the uncertainty and unpredictability involved in dealing with interconnected living systems. A good example of this is our endangered species protection system that relies on listing which species are under threat – which takes years of scientific research. However, scientists say we are losing literally dozens of species each day – in the time it takes to update the lists it’s already too late. Also, environmental decisions are made exclusively at the micro-level under individual planning cases – with no regard to the cumulative effect of such decisions in eroding ecosystem and earth system resilience as a whole.

Rights of nature shifts the paradigm by reversing the structure of law that treats nature as an object separate to us by recognising nature as a rights-bearing subject of the law equal to humans and corporations. On a practical level it brings about the following changes in the way our legal system operates:

  • It provides an overarching context for our existence as part of the earth as a whole, enshrining interdependence in law – and a legal requirement for this context to be embedded in all levels of society. It recognises that the economy is a subsystem of human society which is a subsystem of the earth.
  • It empowers people to pro-actively reject governmental actions which permit unwanted and damaging development to occur – by enabling us to assert the rights of those ecosystems that would otherwise be destroyed.
  • It goes to the heart of our economic system by valuing nature intrinsically. Property rights are no longer absolute – they are qualified by the rights of the ecosystems and species living there.
  • It creates a relationship in law with the rest of nature – a legal prerequisite for a duty of care. This enables obligations towards nature – including the obligation to restore.
  • Rights are a legal tool for addressing power imbalances (eg. slaves, indigenous people, women, children). Currently the imbalance is between the corporations, financial institutions and everyone else. It is the only effective counterbalance in the face of policies that concentrate corporate power such as TTIP and financializing nature.
  • It creates a fundamental basis for the human right to life because without nature we cannot exist.

Nationally, Ecuador and Bolivia have enshrined Rights of Nature in their constitution. The Green Parties of Scotland and England and Wales passed a proposal to enshrine the Rights of Nature into law if elected to office. Thirty six municipalities in the US have already brought in a Rights of Nature Approach at the local level.

For a thorough explanation on why the Rights of Nature approach will change fundamentally our ability to protect the environment you can listen to a talk  given by Mumta Ito, a lawyer who is coordinating the ECI (EU Citizens’ Initiative).  Or you can read the Being Nature article in the Ecologist.

In 2017 the Rights of Nature ECI will be launched to get one million statements of support across 7 member states which will enable us to put the collective rights of nature on the legislative agenda of the EU.  If you would like to stay informed on this campaign then sign up to the mail list at If you would like to get involved in the Rights of Nature Initiative you can send an e-mail to

Excerpts reproduced here by kind permission of the author, edited by James O’Donovan.


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