The Wrong Path to Nature’s Rights

Does nature have rights? Yes . . . No . . . Why?

It’s a strange thing; I imagine most of us would instinctively answer yes, nature most certainly does have rights – the right to continuance for example – yet we are living out a paradigm which inevitably leads to the mass decline of nature. We believe one thing, yet we do another, quite the opposite in fact.

Some believe that the best way to advocate for nature, and to align our beliefs and actions, is to enshrine ecological protection in law. For some time it has been recognized that the laws governing human society do not have equivalents to protect the natural environment. While the idealist in me longs for a heart-centred empathy and care for nature, believing there to be a sense of coercion in necessitating laws to govern our conduct towards nature, I also see great merit in this approach; if our laws are a reflection of our values then I say, yes, let’s fully capture our belief in nature’s rights within our legal principles . . . at least as a starting point.

But I see problems and I believe this is very difficult terrain to navigate. And before you think it, no, my issue is not around the question ‘what is nature?’, although, yes, that is a worthwhile question to ask here! Conveniently skipping over that one but on a very much related theme, does all of nature have rights? You see I’ve noticed an elephant in the room in most discussion about nature and how we humans act towards nature. We quite rightly often raise our concerns about nature from a starting point of the current system / method / attitude being anthropocentric. Yet the solutions we formulate, while shiny and helpful on the surface, are themselves potentially just as anthropocentric one or two layers down. If we wish to be truly non-anthropocentric then we need to significantly shift our perspective, we have to see through nature’s eyes. More on that later.

So back to the question, does all of nature have rights? Surely if we believe that nature has rights then we are in fact saying that all of nature has rights? We cannot pick and choose which parts of nature should have rights enshrined in law and which parts should not have; just as we do not apply human laws or moral frameworks to a subset of the population, we apply them universally. We may believe in a legal framework which seeks to put an end to species loss; that seems like the right thing to do morally and indeed a beautiful proposition. But will it also protect the rights of a man-eating Tiger or the HIV virus? If not, why not? They are, after all, natural are they not? In some parts of the Indian sub-continent Tigers have become man-eaters due to loss of habitat for hunting prey. Since they have a desire to continue living they will naturally feed on whatever is available to them, should it happen to be a human then so be it. Does it disturb you to imagine a framework which defends the Tiger’s right to continuance by hunting humans? Why is it any different to hunting another species other than the fact that we happen to be human also?

Ah yes, we happen to be human also! It offends and disturbs us because in actuality we find it very difficult to switch from our anthropocentric perspective to a more ecological one (the Tiger’s in this case, or better still the ecosystem the Tiger is part of) – we are perhaps the least ecologically minded of creatures, because we are the most egocentric. The late Australian ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood describes being attacked by a crocodile in her compelling essay ‘Being Prey.’ Plumwood narrowly escaped with her life and had serious injuries. When she returned to safety a group of local hunters said they would track down the crocodile and kill it. But Plumwood pleaded with them not to do so. She had knowingly wandered into the crocodile’s territory and knew that its actions were not wrong, they were completely natural, despite our human logic seducing us into believing that humans must always be right and therefore the crocodile must be wrong, therefore the crocodile must die (the same kind of anti-other attitude that lies at the root of racism, colonialism, Ecocide). Plumwood was a master of celebrating others in their difference; she was wise enough to acknowledge that the crocodiles instinctive actions were precisely part of what makes it a crocodile, and were therefore, in some sense, a beautiful act, indeed worthy of celebration if we can shift our perspective far enough. But you (like me) are probably a little taken aback and offended by that very idea.

That’s because we’re firmly planted in our human perspective. Fair enough, we are human after all. But the point is that if we wish to pursue any direction which takes a stand against anthropocentrism, a direction which requires us to truly see nature’s needs, then we have learn to value nature on its own terms. Environmental philosopher Holmes Rolston writes about happening upon a decaying carcass while out walking. He describes the putrid smell of decaying flesh and how the wriggling of maggots made the mass seem to move. Such a scene is generally not pleasant for us humans; it reminds us of our own mortality and acknowledges the reality of what will happen to our bodies one day. It is disturbing. But Rolston recognised the life-giving capacity of that carcass and that the scene being played out was greater than the death of the individual animal. Rolston uses the term systemic beauty to describe such a scene; while a decaying carcass may not be aesthetically appealing (to us), we can understand that in the larger stage of all life, it is – indeed it is the very thing which facilitates the continuation of life.

The truth is we find it very difficult to think ecologically and non-anthropocentrically, even when we are ostensibly attempting to do so. It requires a huge shift in perspective. As our technological and cultural narratives have continued to separate us from nature, we’ve built an invisible barrier which we seem unwilling to allow our ethics to cross. What we call the rights of nature is, in reality, the rights of nature as determined by humans. If we could hear nature’s voice it may have something quite different to say about what its rights should be. I am human (just in case you were wondering!) and I think we’re incredible; I want us to thrive. This line of enquiry – advocating for nature on its own terms not ours – inevitably leads to the question (another elephant in the room) should humans have continuance on Earth at all? There are no environmental issues, only cultural issues, human cultural issues. It is, unfortunately, human narratives that are causing such stress on the natural world. Should humans have continuance? Yes, I believe we should because I know that greater than our capacity for destruction is our capacity for love and empathy. We have been like children playing with new toys but hopefully we are growing into adulthood and starting to be ok with the loss of the appeal of those toys.

We can use our technology and vast intellect for good as well as to egocentric ends. Nature does have rights and I feel confident we will mature enough, one day, to fully understand – and accept – what those rights are.

Did the ideas in this article interest or inspire you? If they did and you wish to learn more check out a free preview of one of the lectures from my online course. Or check out the course overview here

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