Earth jurisprudence: could nature “rights” prevent environmental crises?


Throughout history, humanity has consistently centred itself as the unique omnipresent being within the Earth’s system and the universe more broadly. This hierarchical perspective of dominance is undoubtably one of the reasons for the success of our species. However, as is becoming abundantly clear, this “success” is paradoxically connected to a failure to maintain our environment and create sustainable ecological futures. Existence (in the way we know it) is now poised on a proverbial tipping point…

Earth system scientists are now suggesting a Second Copernican revolution. In the same way the Copernican revolution decentred earth as the centre of the universe, humanity must decentre itself from the centre of earth. We do not exist alone: homo-sapiens comprise just 0.01% of all life, with recent estimates putting the number of species sharing the planet with us at 8.7million. Is it not then the duty of humanity to exist symbiotically with those whom we share existence? Should nature not have the same rights as humans?

There is no denying anymore that environmental degradation is an exigent issue

There exists growing global consensus and positivity surrounding Earth jurisprudence (adopting into legal frameworks the notion that nature has rights in the same way as humans). The newly formed international ’Rights of Nature’ movement seeks to recognise ecosystems and species as inherent beings in and of themselves, rather than resources primed for human appropriation. Rivers have the right to flow, trees have the right to grow and species have the right to exist in a sustainable habitat.

While frequently sidelined in the Global North, movements towards earth jurisprudence and the granting of rights for nature are beginning to take effect elsewhere. Abandoning traditional notions of living standards, Bolivia and Ecuador have both adopted the metric of “Buen Vivir” (living well with an emphasis on kin-centric environmental stewardship). The idea being to create structural societal change, establishing a non-anthropocentric paradigm. But they are not the only ones.

Brazil rewrote its constitution in 1988 to include recognition of indigenous and natural rights. Costa Rica in 2017 passed the Mother Earth peace and Wellness act in support of environmental sustainability. Belize, world leader in marine protection rights, granted legal rights to its Barrier reef (the largest in the western hemisphere). Indigenous Māori in New Zealand worked with government consensus to establish legal rights for the Whanganui river. Following this example in 2017 the Indian High court ruled in favour of equal rights to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and its human population. The list goes on…. However, the global movement towards earth jurisprudence is just getting started.

There is no denying anymore that environmental degradation is an exigent issue. Despite innumerate quantities of empirical data documenting issues (including sea level rise, extinction rate increase, surface temperature rise, ocean acidification, atmospheric greenhouse gas increase and tropical forest loss), global collective efforts on sustainability have been minimal. Even the 2015 Paris agreement, hailed as a turning point in global environmental politics, ignores reality and subtly advocates industrial growth and maintenance of the economic norm.

Despite innumerate quantities of empirical data, global collective efforts on sustainability have been minimal

Earth Jurisprudence and the Rights for Nature movements have, in turn, been met with significant resistance, and while there are valid critiques (solving human rights violations as the priority), it certainly offers an innovative approach to environmental advocacy. Throughout history indigenous communities have existed in reciprocal relationships with nature, valuing symbiotic living over boundless extraction and consumption, the Rights of Nature considered unquestionable.

Society has undoubtably changed immeasurably in the last century and potentially the pure ecological symbiosis of the past is not longer a realistic proposition. However, with the so-called ecological tipping point looming, society must adopt collective solutions of environment stewardship. In the same way the Copernican Revolution radically changed perspectives of humanity’s place within the universe, environmental revolution and the decentring of humanity’s position on Earth is required to prevent ecological devastation. We are not the centre of the universe, nor are we the only species on this planet… so let’s abandon the facade!

v2osk via Unsplash.

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