Overall, humanity has made a lot of progress, albeit uneven, over the past decades. Our environment, on the other hand, might be in worse shape than ever. So, what if we all agreed that nature had basic rights similar to human rights?
Today I want to talk about the “rights of nature” legal movement. The idea, that natural objects should have some of the same rights as people, originated in the United States some 50 years ago. Today, an increasing number of countries and judges are saying yes, they should.
Countries like Ecuador, New Zealand and Uganda have laws granting natural objects rights. And court rulings in India, Colombia and Bangladesh have recognized them, too.
Here’s what to know about the movement.
What does it mean to grant rights to nature?
The conversation about the rights of nature started with a 1972 law review paper titled “Should Trees Have Standing? — Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” written by Christopher D. Stone, then a professor at the University of Southern California.
It took decades for the idea to start influencing law. Tamaqua Borough, a township in Pennsylvania, is widely considered the first place to have recognized such rights, in 2006. Two years later, Ecuador added the idea to its Constitution, saying that nature, “where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence.”
Many courts have recognized the rights of specific natural objects. In 2017, a court in India recognized the rights of the Ganges River, which is considered sacred by millions. The judges ruled that polluting it would be like harming a person.
Stone’s argument was that it was time to extend rights to nature the way governments did to women decades before. It meant that we, women, were no longer property, but legal persons with rights, and it changed the world.
It would mean giving a species of frog the right to exist when, say, a corporation planned to destroy its habitat for a copper mine. Or granting an ecosystem the right to be restored when damaged by farmers looking for pasture.
A similar ruling in late March this year protected a section of Ecuador’s cloud forest in the Intag Valley from a copper mine.
Speaking from his home surrounded by lush green hills, Carlos Zorrilla, one of the leaders behind the struggle against the copper mine, told me that the rights of nature concept entrenched in the country’s Constitution had strengthened the group’s case.
“From 2008, a new window opened,” he said. “It’s another tool we have as humans to protect our surroundings and for people to protect the surroundings of many other species.”
The idea seems to be catching on in other countries. Two weeks ago, the city of Seattle settled one of the first cases arguing for the recognition of the rights of nature in U.S. courts. The agreement recognized that salmon had the right to pass through the city’s dams. Seattle will now introduce a program to comply.
Some experts are skeptical. Michael Livermore, an environmental law professor at the University of Virginia, told me he worries that provisions recognizing the rights of nature are too open-ended in classifying what nature means and who can represent it.
“Once you unleash the legal tools, you know, we can come up with examples where they might be good and have outcomes we agree with,” he said. “But we have to worry about all the possible effects.” As an example, Livermore has written about a case in Ecuador in which both the government and an association of agricultural workers claimed to represent nature.
There is also concern about how effective these laws can be. While Uganda has recognized the rights of its forests, that hasn’t stopped its government from allowing major oil projects that will severely disrupt them.
It’s not just about legal theory.
The struggle is also about changing hearts and minds, said Mari Margil, the executive director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, a nonprofit group that works to advance the rights of nature around the world.
Transforming our relationship with nature requires “legal change, really fundamental legal change,” she told me. “But that change happens only when we have a really fundamental society or cultural change.”
She argued that the movements that won recognition of the rights of women and enslaved people succeeded only because they caused enough of a shift in attitudes that people came together to demand change.
It’s about how we think of the natural world, how we feel about it. It’s not a coincidence that these laws have caught on so much more deeply in countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia, where Indigenous nations and communities have a spiritual relationship with nature and see themselves as part of it.
Embracing this legal movement may change the way we think about fundamental issues such as the energy transition. It will require a lot of mining for battery minerals and land for renewable power plants. But is there a way to live that doesn’t hurt nature as much?
It’s a question for all of us.
Related: If you’re interested in the rights of nature movement, follow the work of Katie Surma, a reporter at Inside Climate News.
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Claire O’Neill, Chris Plourde and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.