Environment

Vision: Nature Needs Rights -- Why Our Human-Centric Model Will Doom Us and the Rest of the Planet

We have built our economic and development policies based on a human-centric model and assumed that nature would never fail to provide or that technology would save us.

Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from the recently released book,The Rights of Nature: The case for a Universal Declaration on the rights of Mother Earth, produced by the Council of Canadians, Global Exchange and Fundacion Pachamama. This book reveals the path of a movement driving transformation of our human relationship with nature away from domination and towards balance. This book gathers the wisdom of indigenous cultures, scientists, activists small farmers, spiritual leaders and US communities who seek a different path for protecting nature by establishing Nature's Rights in law and culture. In addition to this excerpt, the book includes essays from Vandana Shiva, Desmond Tutu, Thomas Goldtooth, Eduardo Galeano, and many others. Copies of the book may be obtained through Global Exchange.


The world needs the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and all humans need to internalize its key principles if the planet, and we, are to survive.

While it is true that many people still live on the land in harmony with the natural cycles of Nature, it is also true that with every passing year, more and more people around the world are moving into the "modern" consumer economy, seeking out a living based on capital exchange and no longer living in sustainable communities and traditional societies. In 2008, the number of city dwellers equalled the number of rural dwellers for the first time in history. By 2030, says the United Nations (UN), more than half the population of the large urban centres in the Global South will be slum dwellers with no access to sanitation. There is a huge scramble by the private companies of the Global North to convert the lands they leave behind into free trade zones to serve a global economy based on the doctrine of economic globalization, unregulated markets, more and cheaper consumer goods and unlimited growth.

Unlimited growth assumes unlimited resources and this is the genesis of the crisis. From fish in the sea, and old growth forests and wetlands, to oil, clean air and water, we are plundering our planet's natural resources. Quite simply, to feed the increasing demands of our consumer-based capitalist system, humans have seen nature as a great resource for our personal convenience and profit, not as a living ecosystem from which all life springs. So we have built our economic and development policies based on a human-centric model and assumed either that nature would never fail to provide or that, where it does fail, technology will save the day.

Even when we recognize the effect of our behavior on the natural world, we pass inadequate laws based on curbing the worst practices, but leave intact the system of economic globalization at the heart of the problem, which gives transnational corporations almost unfettered and unregulated access to the genetic, mineral, timber and water resources of even the most remote parts of the Earth. Thomas Linzey, a U.S. lawyer working to develop the new legal framework to protect Nature, explains that the dominant form of environmental protection in industrialized countries is based on the regulatory system, legalizing the discharge of large amounts of toxic substances into the environment, and is not working. Under a new regime recognizing the Rights of Mother Earth, compensation would not be measured in terms of an injury to people, but according to damage to the ecosystem.

In the absence of such fundamental protections for Nature, political leaders and their big business advisors continue, for instance, to promote international trade and investment agreements that not only limit the ability of domestic governments to protect the natural world for fear such protection may be seen as a "trade barrier," but also award the trade in "green" technology that will be needed to clean up the ecosystems we refuse to protect. If the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth were firmly entrenched in international jurisprudence, nation-state constitutions, and the hearts and minds of decision-makers, trade agreements would be very different than they are today and would be built around the need for more local sustainable systems of food and industrial production, and the protection of natural ecosystems.

False solutions

Protecting the Rights of Mother Earth will also challenge the current trend to commodify Nature in the name of a green economy. While there are many definitions of what a green economy could look like that fit very well with an Earth-centred vision, many in power now use the term to essentially protect the current economic system that promotes more growth, production and global trade. There is no need to change our lifestyle or to curb global production and trade, goes the argument; we simply have to replace bad technology with good technology and we can keep our economic and development models intact.

Let's be clear: no amount of talk of green futures, green technology, green jobs and a green economy can undo the fact that most business and nation state leaders, as well as UN and World Bank officials, continue to promote growth as the only economic and development model for the world. Until the growth model is truly challenged, great damage to the Earth's ecosystems will continue. Further, much of their false green vision is based on a market model to save Nature and create new opportunities for growth and profit.

One example of this false vision includes emissions (or carbon) trading. Governments set a cap on greenhouse emissions (ratcheted down over time) and then give away or sell licences to pollute (carbon permits) to major industries that are supposed to add up to the cap. Firms are enabled to buy and sell the licences on the "carbon market," which sets the price for emissions - the carbon price.

Carbon trading, in effect, privatizes the atmosphere, suggesting that the Earth's capacity to regulate its climate can be understood as a measurable commodity that can be bought, sold and traded. It is predicated less on reducing emissions than on the desire to make carbon cuts as cheap as possible for large corporations. It maintains the essence of the current human-centred market model that has led us - and the planet - to the current crisis. Corporations and governments can buy their way out of needed structural changes to energy practice, production and consumption patterns allowing business-as-usual to reign. Success is narrowly measured simply in terms of cost effectiveness, ignoring issues of power, social justice, inequality and community control over local ecosystems.

In the European Union (EU) Emissions Trading System (the world's largest carbon trading scheme) corporate lobbying has seen the over- allocation of permits, free giveaways of permits, and rules which have allowed some of the worst polluters windfall profits while carbon prices fluctuate widely - all undermining needed emission reductions. In other words, carbon trading opens up needed climate action to market volatility, "gaming" and corporate influence. Carbon offsets have also seriously compromised the EU scheme's effectiveness.

Carbon offsets are another form of carbon trading and an example of using the market to do a job that should be legislated. Carbon offsets are a "created commodity" that let consumers (under the voluntary market), corporations and sometimes international financial institutions and governments (under cap and trade systems) to invest in emission savings projects outside of the capped area. It is trading perceived as "good behaviour" - such as investing in a tree plantation far away - on the open market in order to offset their right to continue to pollute. Offsets typically involve a shift from the global North to South where "reductions" are cheapest.

Carbon offsets are a multi-billion dollar poorly regulated industry that permit the growth in trade of all kinds and lulls the public into thinking something real has been done for the planet. The United Nations Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a "flexible market mechanism" under the Kyoto Protocol, is the world's largest scheme. Since carbon offsets are created against a hypothetical business-as-usual scenario baseline, it is extremely difficult to ensure that the offset credits actually equate to carbon cuts. David Victor, the head of Stanford University's Energy and Sustainable Development Program, has found that "between a third and two-thirds of CDM offsets do not represent actual emission cuts." It is also extremely difficult to demonstrate that emission cuts are additional to what may have happened with offset credit financing. Worse still, there is clear evidence that certain projects applying for the CDM are causing serious social and environmental harm and human rights violations in the Global South. According to Michael Wara of Stanford University, the use of carbon offsets under the EU scheme meant that in 2008 European polluters will have emitted roughly one per cent more than they did in 1990.The now failed U.S. proposals for a cap and trade system would have seen up to two billion tons of offsets per year.

Another example is Payments for Ecological Services (PES), a growing movement endorsed by several major environmental groups, many governments and the private sector, that promotes conservation of natural resources through market mechanisms. "Ecological Services," such as water purification, crop pollination and carbon sequestration, are seen to have a direct dollar benefit to humans; therefore, it is reasoned, it is important to try to put an actual price tag on them. The UN Environment Program has recently done just that, and estimates that ecosystems and the biodiversity that underpins them generate services worth as much as $72 trillion a year - well over the World Gross National Income in 2008 of $58 trillion. The harvest and trade in these "natural capital" services is seen as an integral part of the global economy and so this approach seeks to pull the actual protection of nature into the market economy.

Some PES proponents cite examples that would be well suited to an Earth-centred model. For instance, the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program has for years paid participating farmers to protect their soil and water rather than use harmful chemical pesticides to grow more cash crops. This is not a pure market model, however; rather it is an example of public funds being used to promote diversity and conservation.

But others have a profit model in mind. A market model of PES is an agreement between the "holder" and the "consumer" of an ecosystem service, turning that service into an environmental property right. The consumer pays the holder or owner for protecting the biological diversity of an ecosystem property in accordance with an agreed upon price. Clearly this system privatizes Nature, be it a wetland, lake, forest or mountain, and sets the stage for private accumulation of Nature by those wealthy enough to be able to buy, hoard, sell and trade it. Already, governments and private corporations are studying Public-Private Partnerships to set up lucrative PES projects.

Similarly, there is a strong trend to turn the world's freshwater supplies into a private commodity in the name of conserving it. By turning water into a tradable market good, the case goes, the natural price of it will skyrocket, leading to its conservation. However, the model being promoted is not charging more properly for the true cost of bringing water services to the public or protecting source water, but for the private accumulation of water assets and the hoarding and trading of water. Water trading is growing around the world. Australia converted its water permits to water property rights, with the result that the government now cannot afford to buy back enough water to save the Murray-Darling water basin. Chile actually holds public water auctions and has sold most of its water rights in the South to a private Spanish company.

As well, in the name of a "blue economy," a number of governments and corporations are using their water resources to promote a water-based high tech industry as an incentive to foreign investment and wealth creation. While there is of course a place for water clean-up technology, it will be a tragedy if governments continue to allow the destruction of source water while promoting profit-making water reuse technologies. Already, utility corporations control drinking water services in many poor communities. Billions in the Global South do not have access to clean water simply because they cannot afford it, and many suffer further from water shortages when bottled water companies get long term extraction rights to local water supplies. When private interests control water sources, public oversight is lost as is the ability to manage and protect watersheds. Privatizing water puts watershed health at risk. Commodifying water renders an Earth-centred vision for watersheds and ecosystems unattainable.

An Earth-centred approach

The alternate, Earth-centred model promoted in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, would protect biological diversity as a global Commons and a strictly managed and more equitably shared public trust. The Commons approach is very old and based on the notion that common heritages, such as the atmosphere and oceans, freshwater and genetic diversity, cannot "belong" to anyone. In most traditional societies, it was assumed that what belonged to one belonged to all. Many indigenous societies to this day cannot conceive of denying a person or a family basic access to food, air, land, water and livelihood. Many modern societies extended the same concept of universal access to the notion of a social Commons, creating education, health care and social security for all members of the community.

At the same time, it is not a return to the notion that Nature's capacity to sustain our ways is unlimited and anyone can use whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want. It is rooted rather in a sober and realistic assessment of the true damage that has already been unleashed on the world's biological heritage as well as in the knowledge that our ecosystems must be managed and shared in a way that protects them now and for all time. A central characteristic of a true Commons is its careful collaborative management by those who use it and allocation of access based on a set of priorities set by the community.

The Earth-centred model also goes beyond Commons law, which is usually interpreted to mean protecting the right of access by the public to certain natural Commons, such as parks and waterfronts, not the Commons itself. The quest is a body of law that recognizes the inherent rights of the environment, other species and water itself outside of their usefulness to humans. Already, some jurisdictions are beginning to enact laws to protect Earth democracy.

The Rights of Nature was the inspiration behind a 2006 ordinance in Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania that recognized natural ecosystems and natural communities within the borough as "legal persons" for the purposes of stopping the dumping of sewage sludge on wild land. Earth rights have been used throughout New England in a series of local ordinances to prevent bottled water companies from setting up shop in the area. Residents of Mount Shasta, California successfully campaigned to have an ordinance on a November 2010 election ballot to prevent cloud seeding and bulk water extraction within city limits. Undemocratically, the ballot question was pulled, though it has not deterred the community and their efforts continue for the 2011 election.

In 2006, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that protection of natural lakes and ponds is akin to honouring the right to life - the most fundamental right of all according to the Court. In 2008, Ecuador's citizens voted two-thirds in support of a new constitution that says, "Natural communities and ecosystems possess the unalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador. Those rights shall be self-executing, and it shall be the duty and right of all Ecuadorian governments, communities, and individuals to enforce those rights."

Bolivia has recently amended its constitution to enshrine the philosophy of "living well" as a means of expressing concern with the current model of development and signifying affinity with nature and the need for humans to recognize inherent rights of the Earth and other living beings. The government of Argentina recently moved to protect its glaciers by banning mining and oil drilling in ice zones. The law sets standards for protecting glaciers and surrounding ecosystems and creates penalties for harming the country's fresh water heritage.

Every now and then in history, the human race takes a collective step forward in its evolution. Such a time is upon us now as we begin to understand the urgent need to protect the Earth and its ecosystems from which all life comes. The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth is a crucial link in this process and will one day stand as the companion to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the guiding covenants of our time.

Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, Chair of the board of Food and Water Watch, as well as an international best-selling author. She has received ten honorary doctorates as well as many awards; including the 2005 Right Liveliehood Award. She served as Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly.