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Can We Save the Environment and Our Communities By Giving Nature Legal Rights?

From rural Pennsylvania to South America, a global alliance is promoting the idea that ecosystems have intrinsic rights.

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This idea is not original. The judges of ancient Rome, for example, recognized that certain biological principles –  jus naturale , in Latin – existed independently of the laws of men. Many Eastern religions simply assume the interconnectedness of all of nature’s elements, including humans. The Indigenous cultures of the Americas imagine the universe as a “circle of life,” an arrangement that doesn’t allow for any anthropocentrism.

The dominance of Western Enlightenment thinking (which views humans and nature as separate and apart) marginalized such biocentric worldviews. Over time, though, some thinkers have tried to get industrial societies to consider that humans do have obligations to other beings.

In the nineteenth century an animal rights movement evolved to fight against vivisection and unnecessary cruelty to animals. A few visionaries went further and floated the idea that even trees had value in and of themselves. “Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one,” John Muir wrote. In the early twentieth century, the emerging science of ecology made it more difficult to imagine humanity as apart from natural communities. Forester Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” set a new standard for evaluating the morality of our behavior toward the environment. An action is right, he wrote in  A Sand County Almanac, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

The explosion of environmental awareness in the 1970s was accompanied by a new wave of eco-philosophy eager to strike down modern anthropocentrism. In a 1972 lecture Norwegian philosopher and mountain climber Arne Naess coined the term “deep ecology” and said it was time to embrace an “ecological egalitarianism.” That same year, a legal philosopher, Christopher Stone, wrote a now-famous law journal essay, “ Should Trees Have Standing?” Stone answered in the affirmative. “The time is already upon us when we may have to consider subordinating some human claims to those of the environment per se,” he wrote.

Such ideas were influential. They helped spark  EarthFirst! and seeped into the Endangered Species Act, which asserts that other beings have a right not to be made extinct. Still, even among card-carrying environmentalists the idea of putting humanity on an equal footing with the rest of nature remains a minority conviction. The twenty-first-century environmental movement is focused almost exclusively on “sustainability” – which essentially is the idea that we have to keep Gaia just healthy enough to maintain human civilization. Mostly, we are “saving” the planet for ourselves.

Placed in this context, the new activism demanding legal rights for nature marks an important development for the global environmental movement.

Several factors have spurred the reinvigoration of the idea that we are not the center of the universe. Climate change is an obvious one. As some see it, a new ideology is needed to counter what appears to civilization’s drive to swallow the planet whole. In the US, the push for rights of nature is part of the broader attempt to push back the power of corporations. It’s a way of arguing that the environment should come before corporate earnings.

For some veteran environmentalists, the new effort is coming none too soon. “I am very excited about the move to a rights-based environmentalism,” says Gus Speth, a co-founder of the  Natural Resources Defense Council and the former dean of the  Yale School of Forestry. “Lord knows we need some new and stronger approaches. And endowing the natural world with rights is a big part of that.”

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