Earth Jurisprudence: Making a Legal System to Protect the Planet
It is now beyond dispute that our culture is damaging the world. Many attempts are being made to remedy the situation -- most focus either on technical fixes or on reforming existing laws, through such means as the introduction of "green" taxes or the extension of schemes using tradable emissions permits.
These approaches have much to offer, but perhaps it is time to question the very institutions and modes of thought that have lead us into our current predicament so that these can be changed before it is too late.
A key area that is crying out for reform is our legal system, which as it stands has aided and abetted the demolition of the natural world.
Our laws have at their core the Enlightenment notion that we humans live within a universe that is nothing more than soulless machine full of resources which we can exploit as and when we like.
Our jurisprudence has been carefully crafted to give us unbridled freedom to exploit these supposedly dead resources for the exclusive benefit of our own species. In the current legal system, only humans have rights.
But this human-centered or anthopocentric legal framework is based on an outmoded worldview that is increasingly at odds with science. Quantum physics has shown us that matter is much more like a sentient form of energy than the inert, dead "stuff" we had taken it to be.
Breakthroughs in ecological science have taught us that the entire Earth, far from being a ball of dead rock, is more like an living creature that keeps its surface fit for life through the complex interactions between its life-forms and its rocks, atmosphere and water. And recent findings within biology suggest even bacteria may have some level of self-awareness.
We live in a world that is far more animate than we ever dared suppose, so it is relevant to conceive of a legal system in which our planet and all her living creatures are given the same rights to live and flourish as human beings.
Seen through the lens of this new legal understanding, known as Earth jurisprudence, the whole of nature is like a corporation or "great body" that only works well when each component flourishes.
In practice this would mean that no development projects could take place without considering the rights of minerals in the ground, of individual living beings, of rivers, mountains and of entire ecosystems.
When things went wrong, cases would be tried in conventional courts of law where evidence would be heard from those best placed to represent the rights of these more-than-human persons. These could be people who have lived simple lives close to the particular localities in question: shamans or indigenous people, for example.
It would be understood that the Earth has no particular obligations towards us, but that her principal concern is to maintain the integrity of the whole, if necessary by curtailing the activities of any errant species such as ourselves.
For the South African lawyer, Cormac Cullinan, who, along with Father Thomas Berry is one of the pioneers of the Earth Jurisprudence perspective, changing our understanding of the purpose of human governance systems is of central importance.
Is it correct, asks Cullinan, for us "to govern so as to maximise human freedom to exploit the Earth, intervening only (or primarily) when that use threatens or undermines the rights of other humans"? I think not, for the survival of our culture depends on us learning to govern ourselves so that we can at last find our fruitful and rightful place within the great web of life.