Rights of Nature at the International Level

In Peace & Harmony mural addressing environmental issues, by Leo Tanguma

In Peace & Harmony mural addressing environmental issues, by Leo Tanguma

By Darlene Lee

Believing ourselves to be separate from nature affects how we behave

Over 4.5 billion years of evolution have built Earth’s incredibly complex network of interdependent systems. Everything connects to everything in an ancient balancing act. Humankind’s recent and rapid rise to success has disrupted that system. With our population at over 7 billion and hungry for “resources” (largely commoditized natural systems), many of us have played a major role in creating eco-instability.[1]

The dominant attitude in industrialized western societies, of humankind and nature as separate from one another, views nature as a material resource for people to use. We often behave as if we believe ourselves to be independent of nature and above it.

Indigenous hunter-gatherer societies believed the opposite, recognizing non-human animals as sentient beings with equal status to humans. Even when hunted, the animals deserve the respect of their hunters. These indigenous societies see themselves as within nature. People comprise a part of a natural community of living beings.[2]

The idea that humans live in a supra-natural sphere developed when we gained greater control of nature through herding and agriculture. Once thought of as “ancestors or embodiments of sacredness,” wild species devolved to become perceived as “predators […], quarry for human hunts, competitors for space and resources, vermin, or spectacles….”[3]

Industrial urbanization has reinforced the belief that humanity and nature live in separate worlds. Nature has become a recreational resource in the city, a place where the worship of convenience and efficiency justifies controlling and profiting from non-human life.

Believing ourselves to be part of nature changes how we behave

After the Second World War environmental degradation became increasingly obvious. Nuclear testing, mass consumerism and global pollution moved citizens to act. By the 1960s a national environmental movement had emerged, hoping to undo the damaging effects of human activity and protect nature in the future. Then between 1970 and 1972, nine major pieces of environmental legislation helped to curb runaway environmental degradation. But these advances have still not gone far enough.

Despite the growth of environmental laws, the way the legal system thinks about protecting the Earth remains imperfect. The current legal framework approaches environmental harms from a “threshold” perspective, which legalizes environmental destruction up to a certain point. “Maximum pollutant” guidelines have not countered the continued net destruction of our natural world, as such guidelines continue to allow destruction to continue.

National environmental protection laws typically consider “human’s needs first” and “nature’s needs last.” Today we can see from the continued destruction of Earth’s natural environment that this approach does not tackle the root cause.

Environmental laws must evolve and adapt to changing global conditions. The situation grows urgent. According to the World Health Organization, between the years 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to directly cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per annum. These will be from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.[4] Lancet Medical Journal goes further and estimates that one out of every six premature deaths in the world in 2015 — about 9 million — could be attributed to disease from toxic exposure. The financial cost from pollution-related death, sickness and welfare is equally massive, the Lancet report says, costing some $4.6 trillion in annual losses — or about 6.2 percent of the global economy.[5]

Rights of Nature laws address the underlying cause of environmental degradation by giving legal equality to non-human life. Rights of Nature laws also remind society that humans form a part of nature – as opposed to separate from nature, as assumed by our current suite of modern environmental laws. By recognizing the innate rights of the natural world, Rights of Nature laws treat the disease, not the symptoms.

The global Earth Rights movement recognizes the inherent benefits of treating the Earth as a rights-holding entity with a stake in the decisions that affect it. By focusing future environmental regulations on the health and wellbeing of the planet itself, governments will be better able to protect nature and ensure sustainable human life.

Shifting the paradigm: changing our beliefs about our place in nature

The United Nations General Assembly widely acknowledges that depletion of nature and rapid environmental degradation both result from unsustainable consumption and production patterns. These patterns have led to adverse consequences for both the planet and humanity.

The scientific community offers well-documented evidence that our consumption and production patterns have severely affected the Earth's ability to support life. [6] Loss of biodiversity, desertification, climate change, and the disruption of a number of natural cycles number among the many costs of humanity’s disregard for nature.

Technology is often seen as the answer to all environmental problems. But to meet the basic needs of a growing population within the limits of Earth's finite resources, we must not rely on further attempts to control nature (which have largely failed). Instead, we need to devise a more sustainable model for production, consumption and the economy as a whole – one that places humans squarely within the larger community of nature.

Since 2009, the aim of the General Assembly, in adopting its five resolutions on ‘Harmony with Nature,’ has been to base this newly found relationship on a non-anthropocentric understanding of nature. The resolutions contain different perspectives regarding the construction of a new, non-anthropocentric paradigm in which the fundamental basis for right and wrong action concerning the environment is grounded not solely in human concerns.

Earth Law Center (ELC) partners with the UN Harmony with Nature Initiative to expand Earth Law education and to promote legal and economic paradigms in which humans and nature can thrive together.  We work within other UN processes, with a recent statement on ocean rights during the UN Ocean Conference in June 2017 and a new resolution that established a committee of experts in Earth Jurisprudence adopted by the UN in 2016.[7]

Follow the link to read a chronology of Harmony with Nature milestones.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

According to the IUCN, “We live in a world where we are subject to environmental and economic effects that transcend national boundaries. Increasing globalisation has led to a greater recognition of the need to address these issues.”[8]

The International Union for Conservation of Nature is an environmental network comprised of government and civil society organizations – including over 16,000 experts and 1,300 Member organizations. It serves as a “trusted repository of best practices, conservation tools, and international guidelines and standards.”

Every four years, the IUCN convenes to discuss the “status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.” At the 2012 World Conservation Congress, IUCN members recognized nature’s rights by passing Resolution 100, “Incorporation of the Rights of Nature as the organizational focal point in IUCN’s decision making.”

This resolution called for nature’s rights to be a “fundamental and absolute key element in all IUCN decisions,” and invited the Director General and IUCN Members to promote a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Nature. Read the resolution here: http://bit.ly/RES100. ELC also worked with IUCN leaders to ensure that rights of nature was included as part of the IUCN’s 4-year work programme, from 2017 to 2020.

ELC partners with the IUCN on a variety of initiatives to define and advance rights of nature concepts at the international level. For example, ELC’s Directing Attorney, a member of the IUCN’s World Commission on Environmental Law, is working to advance educational online training on rights of nature, as well as to define and educate on recent rights of rivers advancements. ELC looks forward to making several announcements on these initiatives in early-2018.

Join the global movement for rights of nature:

[1] https://you.stonybrook.edu/environment/sample-page/

[2] http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-01-17/the-indigenous-and-modern-relationship-between-people-and-animals/

[3] http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-01-17/the-indigenous-and-modern-relationship-between-people-and-animals/

[4] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs266/en/

[5] http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/study-world-pollution-deadlier-wars-disasters-hunger-50598932

[6] http://www.harmonywithnatureun.org/

[7] https://earthlawcenter.squarespace.com/united-nations

[8] https://www.iucn.org/theme/environmental-law