Nature’s Rights Matter

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Lydia Scherr, C+S ’17

People used to think that the Earth was the center of the solar system, until we learned that the sun is in fact at the center of the solar system. Making that transition in the human belief system was not easy because many people in positions of power were threatened by this new knowledge. The story is similar with climate change and other issues of human sustainability such as recognizing the rights of Mother Earth.

Bamboo Forest, China (Source: UN Harmony with Nature).

My internship this summer at the United Nations initiative for Harmony with Nature opened my eyes to a new sustainable development approach through the legal system. In 2017, a river in New Zealand became the first landmark in the world to be recognized as a living entity. The Parliament granted the Whanganui River legal personhood in March, ending a 170-year battle for the Maori Iwi people who consider the health and well-being of the Whanganui River intrinsic to community’s quality of life. Two people were chosen to represent the interest of the river, one appointed from the Maori community and the other from the government.

Indigenous tribal peoples who built their communities in harmony with their surrounding environment have long recognized the rights of nature. Recognizing the rights of nature can address some fundamental flaws in human belief systems that have led to the current predicament facing our planet today: global temperatures increasing, ice caps melting, sea levels rising, oceans acidifying, species dying off, and extreme weather events magnified in frequency and intensity.

Mumta Ito, an expert member of the Harmony with Nature Knowledge Network, describes another way to look at the rights of nature in a compelling talk where she explains, “In order for humans to have the right to exist and thrive, that it is imperative for the natural life-giving systems which allow humans to live are also granted that right to exist and thrive.”

People all around the world are calling for an ecocentric belief system, which applies inherent value to all environmental systems. This wider view would replace anthropocentric beliefs, which see individual humans and the human species as more valuable than all other organisms.

The ruling in New Zealand quickly inspired others to take actions recognizing the rights of nature. In March 2017, citing the case of the Whanganui river, the Uttarakhand High Court of India granted human status to the sacred Ganga and Yamuna rivers. One week later the same Court granted personhood status to the Himalayan glaciers, rivers, jungles, meadows, lakes and forests. Justice Rajiv Sharma explained the concept from the bench, observing that past generations handed over Mother Earth to us in pristine glory and that we are morally bound to hand over the same Mother Earth to the next generation.

Then came another groundbreaking case in Colombia in May. The Constitutional Court of Colombia granted personhood status to the Atrato River in response to community outcries against pollution in the river caused by illegal mining. The poisonous mercury used in tgold mining has contaminated the river and caused numerous health and environmental problems in the riverine communities.

The ruling makes it clear that the human species is only one more event within a long evolutionary chain that has lasted for billions of years and we therefore, in no way, are the owner of other species, biodiversity or natural resources, or the fate of the planet. Consequently, this theory conceives nature as a true subject of rights that must be recognized by states and exercised under the tutelage of their legal representatives.

Expert members by country of the UN Harmony with Nature Knowledge Network. (Source: UN)

This summer I observed a growing momentum within civil society in support for beliefs that Mother Earth has intrinsic value which humans are morally obligated to uphold. In June, the Town Council of Frome in the United Kingdom, where local authorities have the power to propose local level laws, is responding to pleas of local NGOs who are proposing a new bylaw that recognizes the rights of River Frome and surrounding ecosystem. Even in the U.S., laws recognizing the rights of nature exist at the local level by 36 municipalities including large cities like Santa Monica and Pittsburgh.

If you wish to learn more about Harmony with Nature please visit the UN website. I also encourage those of you who already care about ecocentrism to sign the Statement of Commitment to Ecocentrism.

The cases mentioned above are major legal victories, and yet they are just a few of several hundreds of developments from around the world signaling a paradigm shift in the way humans relate to our common home. Even though this is a global phenomenon, it emphasizes the importance of the beliefs of individual citizens, and how those beliefs are morally driven and can change over time.

In my experience at the UN this summer, I learned about the challenges facing human belief systems, and how legal ideas of rights and morality are deeply tied to issues of climate and society. I was happy to find that even the most deeply held individual beliefs can be transformed for interest of the greater good.

For example, I shared the same stories above with my grandparents who are long time climate skeptics. The power of storytelling and the strength of their moral obligations were enough to shift their perspectives from disdain, to interest, into support for the cause. This example, and the hundreds of examples from festivals and art galleries around the world underline the importance of studying climate and society. Because the ways in which people behave and make decisions tends to start in the realm of their personal values.


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