Earth Jurisprudence and its Consideration of Animals

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By Janice Cox from World Animal Net

World Animal Net (WAN) is an animal protection organization with its roots and mission firmly embedded in the desire to build a more just and compassionate world for animals; one where they no longer suffer and die – often needlessly and excruciatingly painfully – at the hands of humans. This quest has taken us on a long and deep journey into the international policy realm, where we have worked on advocacy with many international/inter-governmental organizations, including the United Nations (UN). Through this advocacy we have delved into the root causes of animal exploitation and abuse and have come to realize that the major drivers of these are the self-same drivers responsible for the exploitation and degradation of nature. 

These drivers form a complex, interlinked web, but they all stem from humankind’s values and priorities – fueled by an increasing focus on economic growth and wealth creation at the expense of social equity and environmental protection.

Economic Growth and Exploitation of Nature

The adoption of economic growth as the primary development paradigm has led humankind into a destructive mindset that treats nature as a commodity and animals as “productive assets” to be exploited in search of profit. Yet, continuous growth is impossible in a world with rising populations, limited natural resources and massive human-driven environmental destruction. 

The exploitation of nature and animals is now becoming ingrained in values and policy. Even the concept of “sustainable development” (particularly “sustainable use”) is being exploited by those favoring consumptive use.  This is part of a bigger picture where natural resource and energy demand has increased over time, with more animal use, land use, extraction, degradation and pollution than ever before. The rising resource demand from industrialized countries and emerging economies depends on resources located in the Global South. Driven by the economic growth paradigm, many governments in the Global South now advocate for natural resource exploitation as a path to greater socio-economic development.

We need greater recognition that development is not just economic. It is qualitative as well as quantitative. Most importantly, it should be about well-being and quality of life – about flourishing: for nature, people and animals. 

Earth Jurisprudence

The concept of sustainability is often presented with reference to its three pillars – economic, social and environmental. Policymakers often act as though the economy is at the base of everything. However, these are both flawed models. In reality, the environment – land, water, atmosphere, and the lifeforms surviving as interconnected parts of this natural world – are at the core of everything and central to our survival. 

This is why WAN is fully supportive of a shift towards Earth Jurisprudence, prioritizing and protecting the natural world. It is time for a new ethical approach which recognizes and addresses our current skewed values.  Indeed, the survival of our planet, and thus human- and animal-kind’s survival, depend on this. 

Animals and Earth Jurisprudence

There have been some interesting – largely philosophical – debates about the rights accorded to animals under Earth Jurisprudence. In a comparative analysis of the status of animals in Animal Law and Earth Jurisprudence, Glen Wright states that animals are not accorded any rights in Earth Jurisprudence over and above those granted to all other components of the Earth system. Rather, all natural subjects hold the same basic ‘rights’. In his book Wild Law which outlines the legal approach of Earth Jurisprudence, Cormac Cullinan simply notes that “the starting point for humans is the principle that each member of the Earth Community should be at liberty to fulfil its role within the Earth Community”. However, this does not deal with the complex matter of differing and often competing needs and interests of various components of the earth system. When asked whether Earth Jurisprudence would entitle a human hunter to shoot a zebra, Cullinan responded that this would depend on the circumstances - “different communities will have different versions of Earth Jurisprudence”, based on the ecological characteristics of the locality, their local customs, and their relationship with nature.

Melissa Hamblin notes that at present, the regulation of animal industries is guided by human interests, with profitability enshrined as the core value. Modern animal agriculture, facilitated by these regulatory regimes, has led to a well-documented decrease in animal welfare and negative impacts on the environment. She argues that an Earth Jurisprudence approach to animal industries would reframe regulation so that the core concern would be improving humans’ relationships with other members of the Earth Community. In particular, an Earth Jurisprudence approach to animal agriculture would require smaller operations, improved welfare standards, a strong focus on the environmental impacts of the entire system and better consumer education.

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Animal Sentience

An important consideration in any reflection on the role of animals in Earth Jurisprudence is that animals have an intrinsic value and status beyond their role as part of an ecosystem. They are “sentient beings who share with us consciousness, feelings, perceptions – and the ability to experience pain, suffering and states of wellbeing.”

Animal sentience is now widely supported by the fields of animal behavior, neuroscience and ethology. It was explicitly recognized in the Cambridge “Declaration on Consciousness”, signed by a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists. Further, the European Union has officially recognized animals as sentient beings in the Lisbon Treaty and requires Member States to “pay full regard to the welfare of animals”. 

Animal Law and Earth Jurisprudence: A reconciliation?

Wright suggests that Animal Law and Earth Jurisprudence could be appropriate vehicles to “reconcile Animal Rights and Environmentalism”. We agree there is scope here, and recognize the importance of tackling the “common enemy” in the Western concept of property and the fact that current policy is guided by human interests. We also appreciate his view that both areas of law need to be developed significantly and in ways which respect and advance the other. 

John Knox, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment states: “Human rights and environmental protection are interdependent. A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to an adequate standard of living, to adequate food, to safe drinking water and sanitation, to housing, to participation in cultural life and to development, as well as the right to a healthy environment itself ...”

Exactly the same is true for animal rights: Animal rights and environmental protection are also interdependent. 

While animal law has not yet reached the level of development of human rights law, it is evolving. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), an international organization with 181 Member Countries, has agreed a number of international standards on animal welfare based on sound, internationally-accepted science and which references the “ethical responsibility to ensure the welfare of such animals to the greatest extent practicable”. The OIE’s work is supported by Regional Animal Welfare Strategies, which have been validated for every geographical region of the world and aim for the implementation of the OIE’s international standards and the progressive development of animal welfare. 

WAN has developed a “Model Animal Welfare Act” (the MAWA) to provide “best practice” for animal law, based on current realities. This may be a useful starting point to consider legal protections of animals which need to be reconciled with environmentalism. As we say within the MAWA: “The main reasons for introducing animal welfare legislation should be grounded on this ethical approach, recognizing and appreciating the need for reverence for life, and comprehensive practical care and protection.”

The lives of humans affect those of our fellow animals – both directly and indirectly – in many ways. We know that animals experience pain and suffering and have the potential to experience states of well-being. We also know that they have needs, interests and emotions that are important to them. Our actions can influence an animal’s physical and psychological well-being, freedom and even its life. Thus, humans have a clear moral duty to protect the welfare, and the lives of, other animals. In time, the fundamental protections of animals should be enshrined into rights. But in the meantime, they remain couched in less absolute terms.

For example, the “Fundamental Principles” in the MAWA include the internationally-accepted ‘Five Freedoms’:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst and Malnutrition
  2. Freedom from Physical and Thermal Discomfort
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury and Disease 
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Patterns of Behavior 
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress

Do these not seem to echo the very sentiments expressed by Knox about human rights, but in relation to animals?

As Glen Wright said, both Animal Law and Earth Jurisprudence are very much works in progress. Given that both aim for similar legal reform and face similar challenges in achieving this, we should ensure that an advancement of Animal Law or Earth Jurisprudence leads to an advancement of the other. WAN will follow and champion the call for Earth Jurisprudence. We call upon Earth Jurisprudence to take into its scope the full and ethical protection of animals.

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In the words of Henry Beston (from the Outermost House):

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” 

Earth Jurisprudence should be developed in a way that provides the rights needed to ensure flourishing –  for ecosystems and the individual parts of the greater whole, including people and animals. A deep and intuitive understanding of the value and interconnectedness of all of life on earth requires no less than this. If this can be achieved our ethics will continue to develop towards a universal harmony with nature. 

Then we will find that Environmental Rights are Human Rights are Animal Rights.


[1] Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Four of nine planetary boundaries now crossed. https://www.pik-potsdam.de/news/press-releases/four-of-nine-planetary-boundaries-now-crossed

[2] Heinrich Böll Foundation, European Center for Institutional and Human Rights. Tricky Business: Space for Civil Society in Natural Resource Struggles. 8. Dec. 2017. https://www.boell.de/en/2017/12/07/tricky-business?dimension1=division_demo 

[3] World Animal Net. Structural and Systemic Barriers to Sustainable Development.  http://worldanimal.net/world-animal-net-blog/item/446-structural-and-systemic-barriers-to-sustainable-development 

[4] Sustainability Advantage. 3 Sustainability Models. http://sustainabilityadvantage.com/2010/07/20/3-sustainability-models/ 

[5] Wright, Glen. Animal Law and Earth Jurisprudence A Comparative Analysis of the Status of Animals in two Emerging Critical Legal Theories. http://www.glenwright.net/files/Animal%20Law%20and%20Earth%20Jurisprudence.pdf

[6] Cullinan, C., Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice (Green Books, Totnes 2003) at 78.

[7] Hamblin, M., ‘Wild Law and Domesticated Animals: a wild law approach to the regulation of farming industries in Australia’ (Wild Law Conference, Griffith University 16-18 September 2011).

[8] World Animal Net. Model Animal Welfare Act. http://worldanimal.net/proposal-for-the-wording 

[9] The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. 7 July 2012. http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

[10] Wright, Glen. Animal Law and Earth Jurisprudence A Comparative Analysis of the Status of Animals in two Emerging Critical Legal Theories.

[11] Knox, John H.  UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. United Nations Human Rights Special Procedures. Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment. 2018. http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Environment/SREnvironment/FrameworkPrinciplesUserFriendlyVersion.pdf?platform=hootsuite

[12] Cox, Janice H, MBA, and Lennkh, Dr. iur. Sabine. World Animal Net. Model Animal Welfare Act. A Comprehensive Framework Law. http://worldanimal.net/our-programs/model-law-project

[13] Earthlings - Animals Are Other Nations https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qf2j9w8HMhA&app=desktop