Rights of Nature Would Restrain Humankind’s Ravenous Appetite
Animal and plant variety is crucial to human life, but biodiversity is being throttled
November 7, 2022
The collective we, Homo sapiens, especially white people in the Global North, have been overeating at least since the Industrial Revolution and most definitely since the Great Acceleration began after the second World War ended.
Homo sapien, translated from Latin to English, means “wise man.” Perhaps, but that’s a tough sell when you look at the damage we have inflicted on the planet, much of the suffering administered just to put more money in the pockets of the already obscenely rich or to fuel their consumptive behavior.
The wealthiest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half of the world from 1990 to 2015, according to a 2020 report by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute. The richest 10% accounted for 52% of the emissions added to the atmosphere during that time.
Humans have been able to evolve and advance because the natural world provides the conditions and resources that make growth possible. But rampant consumption and runaway expansion inside a finite system, such as Earth, eventually leads to collapse. The foundation is crumbling. The air is becoming noxious. Soil rancid. Oceans acidifying.
Humankind’s continued gluttony is placing the well-being of future generations in jeopardy. It has already led to the mass deaths of numerous plant and animal species. The planet’s sixth mass extinction is being driven by human activity though the burning of fossil fuels and the unsustainable use of land and water.
The extinction rate of species is now thought to be about 1,000 times higher than before humans dominated the planet. A million species are facing extinction, according to a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, because of habitat destruction, pollution, overexploitation of wildlife, global warming, and the invasion of invasive species.
Dodos and passenger pigeons are long gone. The last known eelgrass limpets, which once commonly lived on the blades of eelgrass along the East Coast, were observed in 1929. The number of tigers has plummeted 97% in the past 100 years. Filter-feeding whales are currently consuming millions of particles of microplastics every day.
The global population of humans is projected to reach 8 billion later this month, which will represent only about 0.01% of all living things. But our presence is felt.
Our global ecological footprint surpasses Earth’s biocapacity by 35%, and that percentage keeps increasing. Since the dawn of civilization Homo sapiens have caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of all plants, according to a 2018 study. And much of the nonhuman life that remains is here for us to consume.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that farmed poultry, most of the animals crammed into industrial facilities, makes up 70% of all birds on the planet. When it comes to mammals, 60% are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, and 36% are human. That doesn’t leave many warm-blooded vertebrates in the wilds that remain.
In fact, a study published last month found wildlife populations have fallen by an average of 69% during the past five decades. Populations of marine vertebrates declined 49% between 1970 and 2012, with some fish species declining by nearly 75%, according to a 2015 report by the World Wide Fund. The report also found steep declines in coral reefs, mangrove forests, and seagrasses that support marine food webs and provide valuable services to humans.
A 2019 global scientific review found more than 40% of insect species are declining, and a third are endangered. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% annually, suggesting they could vanish within a century, according to the report. Humans won’t last long without insects. They are essential for the proper functioning of ecosystems; as food for other animals, including humans; pollinators of food crops; and recyclers of nutrients.
Global Forest Watch has estimated the planet has 3 trillion fewer trees now than at the start of human civilization.
Basically, a lot of life is being snuffed out, and humans are largely responsible.
In his 2020 book “A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future,” well-respected British naturalist David Attenborough wrote, “We have become accustomed to an impoverished planet.”
Deforestation, industrial-scale pollution, the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and consumption beyond the limits of the planet are eroding biodiversity — the most complex feature of this planet and its most vital. Biodiversity is Earth’s life-support system. Its foundation. Research has shown that the more biodiverse an ecosystem, the better it captures and stores carbon dioxide.
“Without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity,” David Macdonald, a professor of wildlife conservation at Oxford University, told The Guardian in 2018.
Biodiversity represents the knowledge learned by evolving species over millions of years. Through this lens, the authors of a 2018 article published in the journal Frontiers wrote humanity is “burning the library of life.”
Rights of nature
How do we extinguish the fire we set ablaze? Continuing to rely on the tired corporate-controlled, business-as-usual model of environmental management that puts profit over all else isn’t the solution. The status quo is actually the problem.
One potential answer is to give self-protective rights of law to natural systems and the biodiversity they support. It’s called rights of nature. The idea was first introduced, at least to the capitalist world, in 1972 by University of Southern California law professor Christopher Stone, who proposed that “we give legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers, and other so-called ‘natural objects’ in the environment — indeed, to the natural environment as a whole.”
In the five decades since Stone wrote Should Trees Have Standing?, the idea has been slowly gaining support, because the status quo, which allows politicians, the extremely rich, and corporate lobbyists to undermine environmental protections, is all about the accumulation of wealth and power. Homo sapiens are beginning to take notice.
In his 2018 novel “The Overstory,” author Richard Powers makes a case for the rights of nature, writing:
“Children, women, slaves, aboriginals, the ill, insane, and disabled: all changed, unthinkably, over the centuries, into persons by the law. So why shouldn’t trees and eagles and rivers and living mountains be able to sue humans for theft and endless damages?
“The proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable. This is partly because until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ — those who are holding rights at the time.
“It is no answer to say that streams and forests cannot have standing because streams and forests cannot speak. Corporations cannot speak, either; nor can states, estates, infants, incompetents, municipalities, or universities. Lawyers speak for them.”
Glenn Rawson is a professor of philosophy at Rhode Island College and chair of the Philosophy Department who also teaches an environmental ethics course. He said rights of nature is a controversial concept because of humankind’s narrow notion of rights — they only really apply to people (some more than others).
He said the intrinsic value of the natural world is largely overlooked, but believes that sentiment is changing. There appears to be more concern about the long-term sustainability of the way humans are using the environment, he added.
“We’re recognizing more and more that we’re not protecting the interests of natural ecosystems and species as much as we need to or should,” Rawson said. “We ought to be protecting the interests of the those ecosystems for their own sake — and ours.”
The way humans have treated and are treating the natural world also plays into what rights future generations have, according to Rawson.
“How should we weigh the harms we’re doing to future generations?” he asked. “If future generations are going to have rights, does that mean future generations right now have rights?”
By the end of this century, according to Philip Alston, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, “We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”
Advocates for giving the natural world legal standing claim it would create a system of jurisprudence that sees and treats nature as a fundamental, rights-bearing entity and not as a resource to be exploited.
“Rather than treating nature as property under the law, the time has come to recognize that natural communities have the right to exist, maintain and regenerate their vital cycles,” according to the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. “Breaking out of the human-centered limitations of our current legal systems by recognizing, respecting and enforcing Rights of Nature is one of the most transformative and highly leveraged actions that humanity can take to create a sustainable future for all.”
According to the rights-of-nature doctrine, an ecosystem — old-growth forests, coastal wetlands, rivers, mangroves, kelp forests, the Amazon rainforest, the Great Barrier Reef — is entitled to legal personhood status and has the right to defend itself in court against threats, including environmental degradation caused by development or the climate crisis.
The goal of conferring rights to nature is to secure environmental protections that allow ecosystems to thrive. After all, their health is our health. Current legal theory, however, largely recognizes nature as nothing more than a resource, and those who harm or even destroy it are seldom prosecuted.
“If we do things that are unsustainable, the damage accumulates to a point when ultimately the whole system collapses,” Attenborough wrote.
Nature’s health, however, is seen as irrelevant, and environmental destruction is viewed only from a human point of view — for instance, how many parts per trillion of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in a waterway is safe for people. Establishing rights for nature would empower this waterbody, with, of course, assistance from a human attorney, to sue for damages, along with the harm done to the flora and fauna that depend on the waterbody’s health.
The basic truth upholding this legal approach is simple: humans and the environment are wholly interconnected, but with a significant caveat: we can’t live without nature, but it can thrive without us. On the flip side, we can live without corporations, but these man-made constructs with no sentient existence are considered “people” with the legal rights of “personhood.”
Despite our arrogance, humans haven’t transcended nature, and we can’t survive without a healthy, productive natural world.
“Humans are just another species in the tree of life,” Attenborough wrote. “We are not the final pinnacle of evolution.”
In 2006, Tamaqua, a small town in Pennsylvania coal country, enacted the first rights-of-nature ordinance in the United States, and perhaps the world. A Borough Council member worked with a group of local residents concerned that their hometown had become a sacrifice zone for dumping toxic sludge and other industrial waste.
The passing of the Tamaqua ordinance was followed by other initiatives worldwide designed to give the natural world rights. Some have succeeded in providing greater protections; others have failed, at least so far.
Elsewhere in the United States, the Pittsburgh City Council, in 2010, unanimously passed an ordinance recognizing the rights of nature as part of a ban on shale gas drilling and fracking.
In 2019, the city of Toledo, Ohio, adopted the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, a municipal law that gave the lake rights. A farmer filed a federal lawsuit claiming the ordinance made his farm vulnerable to liability when fertilizing his fields. The state joined the lawsuit, arguing it had the legal responsibility for environmental regulatory programs. In 2020, a federal judge ruled the Lake Erie Bill of Rights unconstitutional.
In 2018, the Florida Rights of Nature Network brought the fight directly to the corporate and political powerful who were allowing Orange County’s lakes, creeks, marshes, and other vital habitats to be poisoned. The network’s actions, however, were blocked by industry lobbyists and big-time campaign donors.
Not to be dissuaded, the organization launched a ballot campaign to put a rights-of-nature provision in the county charter. After a yearlong effort, the volunteers got their measure on the 2020 ballot. With an electorate that is 36% Democrat, 34% Republican, and 30% unaffiliated, 89% of Orange County voters approved the initiative.
But just prior to the November election, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis preemptively slipped a provision into state law to nullify any local election that granted protective rights to nature.
Earlier this year, the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe in Washington state filed a rights-of-nature lawsuit in hopes of saving a beleaguered salmon population, claiming that dams preventing the fish from migrating are a violation of the animal’s “inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve.”
In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to grant nature constitutional rights. Last year the South America country’s highest court upheld the law, deciding that activities that threaten the rights of nature should not be carried out within a protected forest ecosystem.
Last year the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality recognized the Canadian Magpie River’s legal rights of personhood through the adoption of resolutions. The river now bears nine rights and can be legally represented by guardians responsible for ensuring that these rights are respected.
In March the professional sporting group the Ocean Race launched a bid to establish the Universal Declaration of Ocean Rights, a proposed framework that would give the ocean legal rights within a multilateral governance system. Several countries, including Cabo, Monaco, Panama, and Verde, have already voiced their support.
Some humility needed
While the idea of giving nature self-protective rights is mocked by those in power, the concept is thousands of years old and still widely practiced by the world’s most experienced environmental stewards: Indigenous people.
Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by humans. But on average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous people and local communities, according to 2019’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report.
In the United States, hundreds of tribes, including the Narragansett Indian Tribe and the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation, continue to embrace both a spiritual and symbiotic kinship with the natural world.
It’s a vision of life and community not shared by multinational corporations that aggressively, with muscle provided by those who profit from the extractive economy, build fossil fuel infrastructure through their lands.
“There is no love for Mother Earth,” Bella Noka, a Narragansett Indian Tribe member, said.
Cristina Cabrera, a member of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation, noted that in a country that takes everything to court it should be able to acknowledge the rights of nature.
“Indigenous people, Aboriginal people acknowledge, protect, and honor Mother Earth, but the problem is other people don’t,” the Pawtucket resident said. “They trash, they burn, they pollute, they mine, they deforest … controlling and owning land is not the Indigenous way.”
Cabrera noted nature and the many creatures it supports have for too long been treated “as things or savages that could be controlled, possessed, owned, trampled over, and erased. The climate crisis is a relationship crisis.”
They both noted nature’s continued destruction will only end when humanity shows some humility and learns to respect the natural world it shares with each other and so many others.
“You’re killing Mother Earth … hunting wildlife is entertainment, a sport,” Noka said. “We’re all connected. You’re actually destroying your own ecosystem that allows the survival of your own people. So that’s not very smart, I would think.”