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How We Can Change Our Laws to Protect the Rights of Nature

Cormac Cullinan talks about his book "Wild Law," and why we need a legal system that looks out for "the health and integrity of the whole system."

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For example, an environmental law would typically seek to restrict the extent to which humans may abuse a river by requiring polluters to obtain permits authorizing them to discharge a certain amount of effluent into the river during a given time. An animal rights approach would argue that if polluting the river harmed otters then the law should enable the prosecution of those polluters for the harm they cause to the otters. From a wild law perspective, however, the objective is to maintain the integrity and health of the planet as whole.

Accordingly you could go to court on behalf of the river to argue that polluting a river to the extent that its ecological functioning as a source of fresh water and as a habitat for other species is impaired constitutes an infringement of the river's rights unless the pollution was necessary to protect a human right, such as providing a vital service to keep people alive. In most instances, rivers are polluted as a by-product of manufacturing processes that produce items of trivial significance to people's survival and wellbeing. Consequently this sort of pollution would constitute an infringement of the river's rights. Importantly, this involves a balancing of rights.

BG: The first edition of Wild Law was published in 2002. A lot has changed since then. What are some of the updates and revisions you made in this second edition?

CC: I revised the second edition to include more up-to-date information on the state of the global environment and the text of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. It also includes a new postscript that deals with the spread of the ideas in Wild Law since the book was first published and the recent emergence of a global Rights of Nature movement.

BG: The movement to recognize the rights of nature has progressed rapidly in some countries and very slowly in others. Are there countries that take this idea more seriously than others?

CC: The idea is more easily grasped in places where a significant number of people retain an ancient understanding that humans are members of a larger Earth community. In the last few years these ideas have emerged strongly in the Latin America, particularly in Ecuador and Bolivia. However, these ideas have also become more visible in India, Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States. Many people in the industrialized world don't yet understand these ideas and dismiss them as a quaint cultural phenomenon confined to people who believe in Nature deities. Dismissing this movement as a pagan religious movement is not only incorrect; it misses the change in worldview that it signals.

BG: What is the Universal Declaration for the Rights of Mother Earth?

CC: The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth is a document that was proclaimed on April 22, 2010, which is International Mother Earth Day, by the World People's Summit on Climate Change that was convened in Cochabamba, Bolivia by President Evo Morales. Right now, it functions as a manifesto for the emerging global movement for the Rights of Nature. However, an increasing number of countries are proposing that it be adopted by the United Nations to complement the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Indeed human rights can only be sustained if the rights of ecological communities to exist and to play their role in contributing to the health and integrity of Earth are defended.

BG: One of the most striking implications of your book is that we live in a world where the rights of corporations -- especially following the US Supreme Court's Citizens United decision -- are taken more seriously than the rights of nature. Realistically, do you have any hope that, in a world where massive multi-national corporations have a stranglehold on legislative and judicial decision-making, the right of a river to flow will ever be taken seriously?

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