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."

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.

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?

CC: There was a time in what is now the United States when the idea that slaves would be emancipated and have equal rights was regarded as laughable and was opposed by the property owing elites of the time. The same is true for the rights of women and ethnic minorities. Yet all these groups now have legally-recognized rights. As the environmental crises worsen and people increasingly see that the rights of corporations are being honored primarily to enrich a tiny elite that is already very wealthy, more and more people will grasp the need to stop this bizarre folly that places the rights of corporations over the rights of real human beings and of nature. Change will come. It will be resisted, but I don't doubt that strange decisions like Citizen's United will soon be consigned to the legal dustbin.


Cormac Cullinan is an author, practicing environmental attorney, and governance expert who has worked on environmental governance issues in more than 20 countries. He is a director both of Cullinan and Associates, Inc., a specialist environmental and green-business law firm, and the governance consultancy EnAct International. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.
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