What Will It Take to Give Nature Her Legal Freedom?

04.22.2021 Arts & Culture
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Recently, we published an article on decolonizing healthcare. Although the piece focused predominantly on racial discrepancies in medicine, it touched on the parallel issue of “human supremacy and environmental racism.” In the piece, author Rupa Marya defined the concept powerfully:

“Human supremacy and environmental racism, (is) where people feel superior to the rest of living entities, thereby subjecting living soils, seeds, animals, plants, and water to horrific treatment in the name of exploiting resources, which in turn feeds the capitalist need for ever-increasing profits.”

Struck by the poignancy of this quote and curious to learn more, we sat down with Michelle Bender from the Earth Law Center and asked her some questions to help us better educate ourselves on this issue.

First, what is Earth law or ecocentric law?

Earth law (you may also hear Earth jurisprudence) is an emerging body of law for protecting, restoring, and stabilizing the functional interdependency of Earth’s life and life-support systems. Earth law includes the Rights of Nature, human environmental rights, Indigenous rights and legalities, non-human/animal rights, defining “ecocide” as a crime, and others.

Can you share the differences between anthropocentric and ecocentric law?

Earth law looks at ecocentrism and anthropocentrism as endpoints on a spectrum; imagine a pendulum or a teeter-totter, each at the opposite and opposing side.

Ecocentric law centers legal decisions around Nature’s interests and needs (separating humans and Nature), while anthropocentric law centers decisions around humankinds’ (and in many cases, more specifically corporations and industries) interests and needs.

Earth law seeks to equitably balance those interests, creating a shorter distance between the back and forth of the pendulum swing, centering decisions around Nature’s interests, of which humankind is a part of.

By way of illustration, when Ocean use is the issue (the species, minerals etc.), a purely anthropocentric viewpoint considers only the human needs for the Ocean, to eat, to recreate, to use as a place to discharge waste, to create new medicines and products, and/or to use as a means of transportation. An ecocentric viewpoint on the other hand, may look at human activity and say that no level of harm is acceptable and the Ocean should remain untouched. Earth law attempts to bridge the two, accepting that humans are now a part of the system and reaching a balance necessary to ensure human activity is conducted in such a way that protects, stabilizes, and restores the vital functions and cycles of the Ocean.

Why is Earth law important?

Current environmental law is largely anthropocentric, creating standards based on human benefit and utility, and allowing pollution and degradation through processes such as permit systems. This does not maintain or increase the health of species or ecosystems, merely slows their decline. Additionally, Nature/Mother Earth does not have standing to represent herself in the courts, nor does she have representation of her interests and intrinsic value in decision making.

Earth law provides the framework for transforming our worldview, values, and ethics that underlie our governance systems, which then allows us to transform the way we approach conservation and implement and enforce policies. The approach of Earth law incorporates the interstitial spaces and the interconnectedness of humans as one of many lives within an interdependent web, that permeates all — rather than as something external, isolated, and imposed upon.

Although some of us are born into cultures that have a generational reverence for Planet Earth, many of us have grown up in societies and communities that have taught us to see Nature as human property. How can we begin to reframe our worldview to understand ourselves as being a part of and not separate from nature outside of our socio-cultural perspective?

It is hard to see Nature as equal when we have an inherent disconnect with the natural world, where our products come from, and our privileges for clean air and clean water, etc. We have to correct this disconnect, through education and immersion in the natural world. Not only should our schools and universities incorporate more about our relationship with and responsibilities to Nature through all disciplines and studies, but we also need to ensure access to learning and projects in all communities and peoples.

We can all start to reframe our worldview with conscious language changes, taking care of how we refer to Nature in everyday conversations. For example, the Earth Law Center does not refer to Nature as a natural resource, and we do not speak to the benefits humankind gains from Nature as ‘ecosystem services.’ In my Ocean program, I refrain from referring to fish as ‘fish stocks’ because this reinforces the notion of fish as a resource and property. We instead refer to Nature as she/he, recognizing that Nature is a living being.

Another way to reframe our worldview is the Rights of Nature framework, recognizing that Nature has inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve, just as humans have unique inherent rights for being. Recognition of an entity as a rights-holder helps us to rethink our traditional ownership models over the entity as an object.

We have seen this in other rights movements; for example people of color were not seen as ‘equal’ until recognized as having the same legal rights under the U.S. Constitution. Rights of Nature is one way to implement and enforce Earth law/Earth-centered governance.

What have been some of the biggest legal “wins” for nature?

  1. In 2008, the Constitution of Ecuador included Rights of Nature, giving Nature its legal “right to exist, persist, maintain itself and regenerate its own vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.”
  2. In 2017, after years of negotiations, the Maori successfully oriented the Whanganui River Claims Settlement Act around their relationship with the Whanganui River; recognizing the River as a legal person through the Te Awa Tupua Act, and creating guardians to legally represent the Rivers interests in decisions and disputes.
  3. In 2018, The Colombian Supreme Court recognized the Colombian Amazon as a “subject of rights” and supports the rights of future generations to live a life of health and in a healthy environment.
  4. In 2019, the State of Colima, Mexico approves an amendment to the state constitution recognizing the Rights of Nature.
  5. In 2020, the Nez Perce Tribe General Council passed a resolution recognizing rights of the Snake River, including the right to exist, flourish, evolve, flow, regenerate, and be restored. It envisions a legal guardianship body to enforce those rights.

You can see more on the Earth Law Center timeline.

What about challenges?

The principle challenge we are up against is the dominant anthropocentric worldview of our time. How do we overcome a paradigm (worldview) and disconnect from Nature that has become so ingrained in our society? We have to continually challenge this paradigm and offer replacements.

Industry and corporations generally do not support a change in the system, because a win for conservation is perceived as a cost to profit and the economy. We have to convince industry that systemic change is needed in order for the entire Earth community to thrive.

In order for us to realize human rights and to continue to sustain jobs into the future, the Earth has to be healthy and functioning properly, and the economic system must be embedded within natural systems and must respect planetary boundaries.

Where can our readers learn more about Earth law?

  1. Earth Law Center
  2. The ebook Ocean Rights: A Roadmap to a Livable Future; available on Amazon in English and Spanish.
  3. Youth and the Rights of Nature, a declaration from youth at the first IUCN Global Youth Summit.
  4. Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas; also available in English and Spanish.
  5. Rights of Rivers Report
  6. Community Toolkit for Rights of Nature

Michelle Bender is the Ocean Campaigns Director at the Earth Law Center where she is spearheading an innovative solution to protect and restore ocean health. Michelle is the founder and leading expert in the movement towards “Ocean Rights,” an ecocentric framework to ocean law and policy. Michelle is on the Executive Committee for the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature and founder of the Youth Hub, where she empowers youth to be effective advocates of Earth-centered law. You can find out more about her work and that of Earth Law Center on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. 

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