Many of us realize that we are at a crossroads both as a species and as a planet. On the current trajectory, our very survival and that of all future generations is at risk. Pivotal to successfully navigating this particular human-made strait of dangers is our ability to transform our relationships with each other and the ecosystems upon which our lives depend. Within this context, it is paramount that we swiftly transform our legal and economic structures and institutions to better align with the natural laws of our Earth and the deeper core values shared by humanity.
Rights of Nature
I want to address Rights of Nature in the context of some wise words from one of our great foremothers and seminal environmentalists in the United States, Rachel Carson: “The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.”
Today, as we stand at the precipice of the destruction of all life as we know it, this question of what we call “civilized” truly tears open the reality of our startling and dangerous circumstance.
We know we can no longer live as we have been and clearly, our worldviews, laws, economic structures, and governance systems must change.
I believe one of the most critical areas of work that we can focus on is Earth law. The idea of Rights of Nature or Rights of Mother Earth can address our dire need to truly become “civilized” in the highest sense of this word—meaning to live civilly with each other and our Earth, respecting both natural laws and the Earth’s ecosystems.
Around the world, and in almost all non-indigenous systems of law, nature and ecosystems are treated as property. Our life-giving rivers, forests, and mountains are treated as property to be sold and consumed, often protected under commerce laws. As property, these natural communities and ecosystems are not recognized as rights-holders. In our legal systems, because nature is property, it is invisible to courts.
Beyond the legal frameworks, this nonrecognition of the inherent rights of nature has dangerously contributed to distancing us culturally and personally from our living planet. I think we should consider this old, property-based legal system as highly uncivilized.
That said, what is very encouraging right now and brings promise is that for the past three decades, environmental lawyers and visionary thinkers around the globe have been developing a new theory of jurisprudence to change that system.
The “Rights of Nature” approach promotes a structure of law that recognizes that our living planet has rights of its own. If a Rights of Nature legal framework were implemented, activities that harm the ability of ecosystems and natural communities to thrive and naturally restore themselves, would be in legal violation of nature’s rights.
The Rights of Mother Earth framework recognizes the inherent meaning, sacredness, and value of the natural world: that which is not tradable or subject to commerce.
These rights along with respecting human rights are what being civil means.
Can Rights of Nature take hold? Yes! In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize Rights of Nature in its constitution. In a remarkable step that could begin to alter the way we understand the natural world, Chapter 7 of the Constitution of Ecuador now explicitly states that nature has the right to exist, the right to be cared for according to its natural life cycles and ecosystems, and the right to restoration in the event of environmental harm. In broad language that requires repair of past damage as well as regulation of future potential harm, Article 72 states:
In the cases of severe or permanent environmental impact, including the ones caused by the exploitation on non renewable natural resources, the State will establish the most efficient mechanisms for the restoration, and will adopt the adequate measures to eliminate or mitigate the harmful environmental consequences.
Additionally, Bolivia has established eleven new Rights of Nature laws after hosting The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in April 2010, which also produced the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.
Before these national developments in Ecuador and Bolivia, a vital shift had taken place in 2006 in the rural U.S. community of Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, when the community with the assistance of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund passed an ordinance recognizing nature as a rights bearing entity. Since then over twenty-four communities in the United States have passed local ordinances, which recognize Rights of Nature to protect their ecosystems. We can change our laws—think civil rights, suffrage, and the end of Apartheid.
Countering the Market-Driven Economy
All of these actions herald not simply a declaration of new rights in the traditional sense, but a new consciousness of the Earth as a living organism with which we as humans must coexist. In order to live in harmony with the Earth and to halt the most destructive aspects of our modern life, we need to advance a new economy based on the carrying capacity of our Earth and finite planetary boundaries. Recognizing that nature has rights can inform and help to legally re-enforce principles that counter a solely market-driven economy, thereby fostering a new sort of sustainable economy—an “Earth Community Economy,” if you will—based on respect for natural laws and governance systems that uphold the rights and needs of nature in balance with the rights and needs of humans.
This way of thinking globally takes into account and includes the entirety of the Earth Community: human communities together with ecosystem communities of river, forest, desert, ocean, mountain—and all that those imply. There is room for growth of understanding as well as the health and prosperity of each community over time, if we act without further delay.
What can a system of earth jurisprudence (such as Rights of Nature)—a system that views the natural world not as property, but as a rights-bearing entity with legal standing—offer as we work to build a sustainable economy?
Rights of Nature laws would require a fundamental redirection of the world economy, necessitating that we adhere to precepts that uphold the ecological design and boundaries of nature. Recognizing that Nature has rights means that human activities and development must not interfere with the ability of ecosystems to absorb their affects; to regenerate their natural capacities; to thrive and evolve.
As an example, current extractive practices like mountaintop removal to obtain coal, which destroys entire ecosystems, would be categorically illegal. So too would industrial agriculture practices that poison soil and water, genetically alter natural species, or cause a loss of biodiversity. To this we must urgently add any industrial activities that pollute the ecosystem of the atmosphere.
Consequently, employing a Rights of Nature framework will encourage an economic transition to renewable energy, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the investment of resources in energy efficiency, and organic/diverse agriculture—all of which can support healthier ecosystems and promote vibrant local economies. Rights of Nature laws require that those responsible, including corporate actors, be held accountable for negative environmental impacts, thereby encouraging economic models and practices that respect the natural limits and laws inherent to the natural world we inhabit.
Additionally, within a Rights of Nature framework, laws are conducive to revealing the true costs of industry because corporations and individuals are required to take responsibility for costs associated with any effort needed to ensure and protect the integrity and well-being of ecosystems for the entire cycle of activities of production and transportation—costs which have previously been externalized and passed on to others. A “true cost” economic model will drive industry toward sustainable activities and practices because it becomes cost-prohibitive, as well as prohibited, to pollute and harm Nature.
A Framework to Support Human Well-Being
It is important to note that acknowledging and enforcing Mother Earth’s rights does not stop necessary development for the well-being of human communities, but rather reorients these inevitable developments to simultaneously protect ecosystem balance and respect the regenerative capacity of Nature’s vital cycles. Indigenous communities worldwide have been demonstrating “sustainable development” for thousands of years; this is not a new understanding. Because of this, we need to do everything we can to protect indigenous communities for their own sake but also because we have so much to learn from their longstanding example.
What we have learned in the past decades is that an economic system based on infinite physical growth and development on a finite planet is irrational and simply not sustainable. As Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley of Bhutan stated in his 2012 address at the United Nations High Level Meeting on Well-Being and Happiness, “The GDP lead development model that compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources no longer makes economic sense.”
Rights of Nature legislation will encourage the formulation and implementation of new economic structures and indicators such as Gross National Happiness, Genuine Progress Indicator, Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, and others that do not rely upon GDP as the only true or acceptable metric. We must question defining worth, wealth, value, and well-being based on only the measuring of money and quantities of material goods. The vital force of life itself and human happiness cannot be forced into a monetary system; they do not equate. In the language of the “new bottom line” put forward by the Network of Spiritual Progressives in its mission statement, we are called to evaluate our social and economic institutions “not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also by how much they maximize love and caring, ethical and ecological sensitivity, and our capacity to respond with awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation.”
At the core of our global societal and environmental crises is a need to change our fundamental personal values and what we uphold as meaningful in our lives. When we honestly look at the level of systemic change now required to meet the urgency of our time, we can see that personal transformation and changing how we are living on the earth is critical to mitigating our global crises.
While we teeter on a precipice without knowing the outcome, it’s encouraging to remember that unprecedented changes have occurred throughout history, positive shifts that at one time seemed impossible. Many of us have drawn upon examples of these shifts for inspiration: from the abolishment of slavery to women’s suffrage, from the end of Apartheid in South Africa to the fall of the Berlin Wall, from unchecked industrial pollution to the restorative Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, from green technology moving from a fringe venture to a critical and fast-growing contribution. And although each of these changes still face ongoing struggles, we can see and experience the worldwide benefits of these paradigm shifts as they occur. Yet these changes came about in our societies only because the root cause of the problem, the suffering or imbalance, was first recognized by individual people who changed their own minds, thus changing the world around them.
In this sense, the development and implementation of Rights of Nature is best understood as a deep and necessary shift in our human understanding about our relationship to our Earth and can be best seen as not only a change in law and economic structures, but also as a transformer of values and culture.
Working Toward an “Earth Community Economy”
Around the world, we are seeing the emergence of creative alternatives to destructive economic paradigms. The good news is what is healthy for an ecosystem is also good for people: key ingredients are localization and regionalism. The best economic and environmentally sound solutions are place-based, diverse according to region, and are responsive to local communities and social needs. Instead of fearing a transition to an Earth Community Economy, we can support and enjoy local organic food, vibrant local businesses, a healthy local economy, jobs with justice and the development of clean decentralized energy.
I’m not talking about utopias, but rather regenerative, functional, local communities. Already we are seeing many creative, self-organizing groups and their ideas on the move with this concept: Transition Towns, Eco-builders, Cool Cities, Eco-villages, Eco-Cities, permaculture communities, food sovereignty groups. The list grows daily with working concepts and models in every part of the world.
History and logic dictate that transitioning away from a globalized economy will not always be smooth or easy. Yet our survival depends on our ability to do so, and quickly.
We must change the way we think about what an economy is for, and how we measure it. Today, we measure economic well-being using flawed instruments such as the GDP. Yet even the generation and dumping of toxic waste is part of the GDP—a wildly inaccurate measure of progress. We must begin to develop new metrics like the Gross National Happiness Index, which assesses economic performance based on the health and well-being of people living in balance with each other and nature.
Cultures living close to the Earth have shown a balanced way of life quite unlike newer, consumer-driven notions of simply having more. “Living well” in the Kichwa language of the Indigenous people of Ecuador, is called sumak kawsay; in Spanish, it is buen vivir. The Buryat people of the Lake Baikal region express it this way: “To live a life of honor is to live with tegsh,” meaning to live in appreciation and balance with all of life. An Earth Community Economy envisions a future that has not come from enslaving Nature and treating all other life as mere resources for human exploitation and unchecked material growth.
A Rights of Nature legal framework would foster human well-being in harmony with the integrity and functioning of the entire Earth community, thus prompting economic incentives and disincentives aligned with this purpose. An Earth Community Economy recognizes the inherent meaning, sacredness, and value of the natural world: that which is not tradable or subject to commerce. To this end, in order to truly protect our Earth, we must stop the commodification and financialization of nature.
While a Rights of Nature framework does not solve all of our daunting problems, it does offer a foundation upon which healthy economic principles and sustainability can be built. Advocating for a systemic economic alternative that balances the rights of human communities with the rights of ecosystems should be at the heart of all international sustainable development and climate negotiations. As we look to completely transform our responsibilities and relationship with the natural world, this Earth Community Economy based on Rights of Nature is an idea and a necessity whose time is now.