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The Pope, a prince and a judge walk into a bar…to argue for nature’s rights (commentary)

  • It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but Pope Francis, Prince Charles, and judges around the world are now supporting the rights of nature.
  • The belief that nature was something to be both feared and conquered provided legitimacy for the enactment of laws that authorized the domination and destruction of nature by the Western world.
  • Today, the growing movement for the rights of nature is in its nascent stages but the outcome could help humanity onto a much more sustainable path.
  • This post is a commentary, the views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

The Pope, a prince, and a judge walk into a bar…

Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. What it represents instead is not a meeting in a bar, but a meeting of the minds around an idea that represents a profound change in humankind’s relationship with nature.

That change now being discussed by key religious, political, and judicial leaders comes with the recognition that we are facing overlapping, global environmental crises which require a fundamental shift in humankind’s relationship with the natural world. A central tenet of this is recognizing that the natural environment itself must be afforded the highest form of legal protection – the recognition of legal rights – in order for both humanity and nature to survive.

This represents a major shift away from current societal and legal norms – norms which have been codified into Western systems of law, in which nature is treated as a thing that we manage and control, toward a “new normal” in which nature is regarded as a living entity with its own legal rights to exist, regenerate, evolve, and be restored.

As we face rising temperatures, accelerating species extinctions, and a host of other ecological threats that affect our very existence, that’s no joke.

Drone view of flooded forest in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Drone view of river and flooded forest in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Nature as a thing

Today, legal systems around the world treat nature as a thing, an object, an item of commerce or property. Environmental laws then authorize certain uses of nature – legalizing practices such as fracking and open pit mining – industrial activities which cause known harm to the natural environment.

With European colonization of the “new” world beginning in earnest in the 1500s, and as technologies advanced, humankind’s ability to exploit nature grew by leaps and bounds. English and French philosophers, such as John Locke and Rene Descartes, spoke of “subduing the earth” and “rendering ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.”

In the American colonies, as the late author Barry Lopez explained, “Cotton Mather and other Puritan ministers preached against wilderness as an insult to the Lord, as a challenge to man to show the proof of his religious conviction by destroying it…” And, future U.S. president John Adams wrote that the colonists found “the whole continent was one continued dismal wilderness, the haunt of wolves and bears and more savage men.”

This societal understanding, that nature was something to be both feared and conquered, provided legitimacy for the enactment of laws that authorized the domination and destruction of nature by the Western world.

Has much has changed? Environmental laws and policies today regulate – and thus allow – our exploitation of nature, through practices such as drilling, fracking, blowing the tops off of mountains to mine coal, and the filling of wetlands (which means destroying them). We have environmental rules focused on forest and fisheries management and regulations which address animal control and authorize killing of “nuisance” wildlife. Indeed, the environment itself is considered a natural resource which provides economically-beneficial “ecosystem services.”

Overlapping environmental crises

Acting as though the environment exists solely to serve humanity is proving disastrous for the natural world and to humanity itself.

Today, we are heating up the planet. In January, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest year in recorded history, with the last seven years the hottest years on record. In March, NASA reported on its most recent study of global warming, finding that there is now “direct evidence that human activities are…trapping much more energy from the Sun than is escaping back into space.”

Global warming is bringing more severe weather, ocean acidification, and other impacts that are throwing ecosystems, species, and the Earth’s temperature out of their natural, delicate balance.

Species extinction rates are more than 1,000 times faster than natural background extinction rates, with the United Nations warning that we are entering what many are now calling the era of the Sixth Great Extinction, this time due to human activity.

Putting all of this to scale means that human-caused species extinction is now competing with the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

See related: Sixth mass extinction ‘tsunami’ coming, but preventable

Humpback whale and calf. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Humankind is not “a ruler of nature”

There is a need to make a fundamental shift in our relationship with nature, moving away from the axiom that we must control nature, that it must be governed – to an understanding that we are dependent on nature and must protect nature’s even most basic right to exist. As Colombia’s Constitutional Court declared in ruling that a river possesses legal rights, humankind must begin to understand that it is “an integral part and not simply…a ruler of nature.”

Otherwise, our very survival is at risk, along with the ecosystems and species upon which life on Earth depends.

This, of course, is not an easy shift. It means transforming how societies regard nature. Due to the extraordinary efforts of people’s movements, societies have changed how they regard women, Indigenous peoples, enslaved peoples and others, recognizing them as in need of and deserving of protection.

We need to do the same today, this time with nature. The good news is that this shift has begun.

In 2015, Pope Francis called for a new way forward in humanity’s relationship with the natural environment, explaining that we are dependent on nature and any “harm done to the environment…is harm done to humanity.” This from his encyclical – Laudato Si’ – which represents a remarkable departure from the Catholic Church’s prior teachings and actions, including the sanctioning of the colonization of lands, people, and nature around the globe through the papal bulls of the 15th century. Those papal proclamations infamously declared that “Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered”, claimed, and exploited.”

In the Laudato Si’, Pope Francis acknowledged, at least in part, the Church’s role in the exploitative relationship that humankind today has toward the natural world, writing, “Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” As he further explained, “The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature…This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church.”

The same year in which the Laudato Si’ was published, Pope Francis spoke before the U.N. General Assembly. He expanded on what he had written by declaring that, “A true ‘right of the environment’ does exist…

Courts and judges have also begun to acknowledge that a different relationship with nature is necessary. In 2016, the Constitutional Court of Colombia issued a landmark ruling in a case involving the Atrato River, which sought to address the severe degradation of a river basin that is home to Indigenous peoples. The Court declared that the river has legal rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration.” Other courts in Colombia have now recognized similar rights of the Amazon region, alpine paramos regions, rivers, and other ecosystems.

Across the globe, in 2017, the High Court of Uttarakhand in India issued rulings recognizing the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers, glaciers, and other ecosystems as possessing legal rights. This ruling was followed by others in India recognizing the legal rights of species and other ecosystems.

And earlier this year, Prince Charles, released his Terra Carta. In it, he calls upon corporations to change their operations to meet the environmental crises that we face. The Terra Carta explains that we humans are “an integral part of nature,” and states further that nature possesses “fundamental rights.”

See related: Pope makes impassioned plea to save the Amazon — will the world listen?

Tropical rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Borneo's rainforests are still being cleared at a rapid rate.
Tropical rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Borneo’s rainforests are still being cleared at a rapid rate. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

A new pathway for nature

The Pope, a prince, and a handful of judges – reaching across cultures, faiths, geography – are each calling for a new relationship with nature, one that fundamentally transforms how nature is treated by humanity, from being considered an object without even the most basic right to exist, to being understood as a living entity deserving of the highest form of protection that we have in human law, the recognition of legal rights.

This idea – that nature possesses legal rights – has been just that, an idea, up until just a few years ago. It was only in 2006 that the first law was adopted which secured the basic right of nature to exist. Since then, we have seen laws passed in several countries and communities, as well as by tribal nations, which secure rights of an ecosystem, species, or all of nature.

The rights of nature laws and court decisions that have been adopted and issued over the past fifteen years are each a milestone, paving the pathway forward to a fundamental transformation in humankind’s relationship with nature.

Today, the growing movement for the rights of nature is in its nascent stages. It is drawing on lessons from past people’s movements that similarly faced legal systems that denied rights and protections. Those movements, such as the Suffragists and the Abolitionists, understood that transforming the existing system of law required making a transformation within the culture itself – to change what it understood as a problem, what it cared about, what it valued, and what it would fight for.

This necessary cultural shift comes closer into view when the Pope, a prince, and judges raise their voices to challenge the long prevailing idea – centuries and millennia in the making – that nature exists to serve humankind.

As Pope Francis wrote, “A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.” He added, “(I)t is we human beings above all who need to change.”

Mari Margil is the executive director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Though humanity exceeds key ‘planetary boundaries’ there are many solutions

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