In the community I come from, life centres around Okanagan Lake. The Okanagan Valley is a spectacular vista of rounded hills, distant mountains, sparkling waters, and a unique ecosystem for human and non-human life to adapt and thrive.
Despite its apparent permanence, the Valley and the Lake are fragile and vulnerable ecosystems experiencing accelerating pressures from unsustainable patterns of settlement, travel, and economic development. The Valley is vulnerable to insect damage, invasive species, extinctions, drought, fire, flooding, and water contamination. Virtually all of these threats arise from human activities in one way or another.
Looking at it from a birds’ eye view, the Valley is a whole ecosystem, yet the laws that govern it, and those that determine its future, are piecemeal. As I have written before, movements to protect the Valley and the planet can build on holistic thinking using the political and social revolution in human rights. ‘Rights language’ can be used to transform the current framework of laws, policies, and decision making procedures that govern development.
The Valley is a whole ecosystem, yet the laws that govern it, and those that determine its future, are piecemeal.
The progress of human rights is one of the most vital political stories of human history. The broad recognition of rights has a natural logic of expansion and consolidation. Progress comes in waves and is often beaten back by counter-movements, nevertheless, rights language often reemerges in new clothes when violations are at their worst. Violence and abuse trigger a reaction toward conscience and care, and new rights become recognized and affirmed following the worst atrocities.
What does ‘rights language’ bring to environmental causes that other arguments may overlook? Arguments from science, expertise, economic interest and values are sometimes disembodied, ephemeral, remote. An appeal to ‘rights’ triggers foundational debates: the questions become fundamental to identity and society because many rights are enumerated and protected by constitutional law, and because Canadian society has made a point of ensuring that people know and understand what rights are.
As Canadians we also understand that rights have intrinsic value. Most agree that we would prefer to live in a society that recognizes and respects rights, rather than one that does not. While we may not all comprehend the statistical probabilities of climate models or the technicalities of a carbon tax as a policy instrument, we understand ‘rights’. They are a thing. Rights are personal.
Rights are powerful because they are inherently subversive and simultaneously affirming. Raising an issue of water as a right raises questions about the status quo. What are all of the ways that water is freshened, used, transferred, polluted, and acted upon? It prompts rethinking the economic premises of water management. Rights language also prompts us to recognize the intrinsic value of existence. In other words,the recognition of a right elevates the ethical value of a rights holder in the view of the government and society. For example, the right to exist is one of the most fundamental rights possible. A right to exist implies the logical necessity of respecting that existence by not threatening or undermining the integrity and dignity of the rightsholder.
While we may not all comprehend the statistical probabilities of climate models or the technicalities of a carbon tax as a policy instrument, we understand ‘rights’. They are a thing. Rights are personal.
Rights language is also ethical and cultural. The current imbalance between human development and natural protection, evidenced by the global scale of pollution, is at least in part a product of the tendency to view nature in purely instrumental terms. In Western cultural constructions, nature is inert, a dumping ground for human wastes, or a storehouse of potential resources ready for extraction. Nature has not even been seen as a player in the cycle, much less as a rights holder.
The degradation of nature is simultaneously and unavoidably the degradation of humans. Since nature is a closed system, wastes and depletion will circle back to impact human welfare. The Anthropocene is signalling not the supremacy of humans over nature, but rather the exact opposite: the re-embedding of humans back into nature. We are now as much a product of our own activities as we are of natural processes. The world is now fully ‘human’ in at least one sense: the fates of human and nonhuman alike are interlaced in a way not seen before in history. Human and nonhuman fates are planetary in scale.
Restoring balance means revisiting the roots of the gap between humans and nature, the original split that divided the world and made degradation possible, and even celebrated it. That split is symbolized in three ways: 1. the assumption of anthropocentric dominance, 2. the neglect of nature’s intrinsic value, and 3. the separation and distancing of humans from the ecosystems that sustain them (both physical and psychological) .
Laws and politics have tended to wipe nature out of the ethical universe by limiting legal standing to parties with property interests. In other words, the legal conversation about value, loss and damage takes place only among those who are deemed to have an interest, namely, property owners. Even the representation of the public interest is narrowly circumscribed by the necessity of showing direct property-like profits or losses, rather than a public interest in a long-term trust relationship with nature.
While present and recognized in law, the notion of a public trust has not proven to be an effective shield against destruction in the long term, primarily because it can always be trumped or replaced by a new property claim. In addition, property claims are themselves partial since they divide nature up into parcels of utility based on their value to particular property interests. Sky, land, water, and underground are all seen in terms of different types of access, use, and ownership rights.
Solutions to this problem already exist in law, but they are currently found only in isolated and disjointed legal opinions and cases, both locally and around the world. Recently the question of nature rights has risen in prominence in political discussions, partly due to the rising awareness of the planetary nature of environmental damage being experienced in the Anthropocene, and partly due to the increasing recognition of indigenous rights and the distinctly contrasting worldview of nature that such rights represent.
The Whanganui River decision in New Zealand, the rise of Buen Vivir in Ecuador, the Ganges decision and others are pushing back against the notion that nature is nothing more than property, sink, or resource. At the heart of this counter-narrative is the recognition that humans and nature are together, with common fates and interests, and that the inclusion of nature as member of the human family, worthy of respect, care and affection, is essential to human survival. This is represented by indigenous worldviews in varying ways around the world and set down in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as many other international legal declarations and treaties. Both humans and nature have a right to exist, what is needed (even if it is a first step) is the recognition and affirmation of these new rights in politics, law, and development planning.
This is no small thing, so what are the problems? One may object to the recognition of nature as a rights-holder on various grounds. One objection is that extending rights to nature means the diminution of existing human rights. However, this is not a new argument. This argument is familiar to historians, who documented them in response to the expansion and extension of rights to slaves, women, unpropertied males, and ethnic and religious groups. In every case the historical extension of rights did not result in the reduction of existing rights protections, but instead allowed for the more fulsome exercise of existing rights. This is because the pattern and framework of rights growth reinforces and legitimizes that a universe of moral beings and rights holders exists and is deserving of respect.
Another objection is that nature rights are expensive. Indeed, it is hardly arguable that valuable social and political goals are costly. The question of how to pay for rights has rarely been a strong argument against the recognition of rights, however. Few would argue today that the cost of freeing slaves, or protecting children from abuse are not worth the price of rights enforcement. As well, the social, political and even economic benefits of rights recognition spill over into remarkable new avenues of growth and development. Protecting the right of the lake to flow, to provide recreation and fish and a rich environment has immense economic benefits that should also be taken into account when considering the balance sheet of rights recognition.
Finally, a last objection is that recognizing the rights of a lake necessarily undermines the value of other beings who may be more ‘appropriate’ or ‘deserving’ of rights due to their similarity with or affinity for humans. Why should lakes have rights that are not extended to whales, elephants, monkeys or dogs, all of whom demonstrate more ‘human-like’ characteristics such as family relationships, intelligence, and emotions and feeling? What about microbes or farm animals? What about Mars or the moon or other distant territories? Why lakes and not mountains, or deserts, or garbage piles?
These are all valid and complex issues which should be deliberated and which will likely be decided and come before the courts in the next few years. Awareness is growing about how humans and nonhumans should be governed in a truly planetary ecosystem. It’s important to keep in mind that rights recognition is about governing human action, limiting and allowing different kinds of human interaction with the nonhuman world.
Such rules governing human interactions with the nonhuman world already exist, whether they are laws against animal abuse, or rules about mountain climbing or fishing or logging or nature reserves. The issue is that these rules are currently one-dimensional, shaped disproportionately by property and the need to prove an interest in that property. The rules are insufficiently permanent and not based on inter-generational ethics, and they rely on an out of date worldview of nature, one that is amply demonstrating its failures to protect humans and nature every day.
Rights recognition is about governing human action, limiting and allowing different kinds of human interaction with the nonhuman world.
Rights for lakes will help the larger conversation about how to move beyond the exclusiveness of property, to recognize the limits of the planet and the power of nature to act on human societies. Rights for lakes will reiterate the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world. They won’t solve every problem, but not much can be started without them.
- Environmental Rights Database
- Rights of Nature Tribunals
- Climate Rights Declaration
- The Rights of Nature: FAQs
- Rights of Nature: Rivers that can stand in court
- Wild Law: A Proposal for Radical Social Change