How We Can Change Our Laws to Protect the Rights of Nature
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
On April 20, South African environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan took part in a dialogue at the United Nations alongside Vandana Shiva, Riane Eisler, Peter Brown, and Bolivian UN Ambassador Pablo Solón as part of the preparatory process for the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Cullinan, who led the drafting of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth at the request of the Bolivian government last year, is the author of Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, 2nd edition (Chelsea Green, 2011), which calls for an Earth-centric, rather than anthropocentric, approach to jurisprudence. Cullinan recently spoke with Chelsea Green's Brianne Goodspeed about his work and the recently released second edition of Wild Law.
Brianne Goodspeed: You write that your experience studying law in South Africa during apartheid meant that, right from the start of your legal career, you realized that the relationship between law and justice can be tenuous. How has that influenced your thinking about the relationship between law and the natural world?
Cormac Cullinan: It was clear that laws were one of the main instruments of oppression used by the minority white government, so as a law student in apartheid South Africa, I quickly realized that there's not necessarily a connection between law and morality or between law and justice. Since I'm a white male, I wasn't at the receiving end of this legislation until I became in active in anti-apartheid politics as a student and fully understood that so much of what I'd been taught by the society in which I grew up -- and the values it espoused -- was false and deeply harmful to humanity.
Being born a white South African at that time meant you were born into the class of the oppressors. By doing nothing, you became an accomplice to a crime against humanity. Young white South Africans who became involved in the struggle for democracy had to consciously re-educate ourselves. This left me with the understanding of how important it is to critically evaluate the values of society and how oppressive systems can be established and reinforced by laws which are portrayed as neutral.
That experience made it easier for me to see how law is also used to legitimize and perpetuate the exploitation of nature.
BG: Wild Law is an argument for "Earth Jurisprudence." What does that mean?
CC: Earth jurisprudence is simply an approach to law and governance that takes the natural order of the cosmos into account and focuses on ensuring the health and integrity of the whole system, rather than being exclusively focused on human interests. It proposes that if we are to govern ourselves in a manner that enables us to participate fully in the Earth community, we need to align our governance systems with natural systems by ensuring, for example, that we keep pollution levels well within the ability of natural systems to absorb and neutralize pollutants. What I refer to as "wild laws" are laws that reflect this approach.
BG: How is wild law different than environmental law or animal rights? Can you give an example?
CC: Wild law is based on an Earth-centric perspective that sees maintaining the health and integrity of the whole Earth community as the best way to ensure the wellbeing of all members of that community, whereas environmental law is part of existing human-centered legal systems, which as a whole, permit environmental destruction provided that necessary authorizations are obtained. The animal rights approach is closer except that wild law doesn't merely advocate the rights for animals, which would be an important step forward, but goes further and argues that if human beings have inherent human rights by virtue of our existence as humans, so too must all other aspects of the Earth.