Nov 20, 2008

The Rights of Nature

Ecuador has just adopted a new constitution with some very radical new ideas. One in particular represents a totally new way of relating on the legal plane to the natural environment. The new Ecuadorean constitution recognizes that natural eco-systems have an inherent right to exist.

The text states;

"Natural communities and ecosystems possess the unalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador. Those rights shall be self-executing, and it shall be the duty and right of all Ecuadorian governments, communities, and individuals to enforce those rights."

This is ground-breaking because it is a non-anthropocentric view of the environment. As the International Law Observer points out, many states have environmental clauses in their constitutions, but hitherto these have always been couched in terms of the people's right to enjoy a clean environment or to specific environmental rights. No one before now has legally recognized an inherent right of nature itself.

The only historical parallel that occurs to me is King Asoka, and even he didn't go this far;

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity. I have given the gift of sight in various ways. To two-footed and four-footed beings, to birds and aquatic animals, I have given various things including the gift of life. And many other good deeds have been done by me.

Too often, even environmentalists couch their arguments in anthropocentric terms - how often have we heard that it is important to conserve the rain-forest because it might contain undiscovered medicinal plants? This kind of argument might be thought good p.r. but it still encourages a narrow, selfish view that overlooks the existential reality of countless sentient beings. It still assumes that only humans count.

Two arguments against this law might be raised. First, there is the practical issue of how much good it will actually do. Ecuador is on its fortieth constitution since independence, and even long stable constitutions are not always followed very well. (I'm looking at you, Bush.) Furthermore, like the rest of us, Ecuador is under considerable economic pressure and the pressing need of foreign exchange will always be a temptation for resource exploitation.

All this is true, but even if the clause is substantially ignored in the immediate term, it is still a paradigm shift and if more countries adopted similar laws, the legal framework would inevitably evolve in a more earth-friendly direction. I do not think we should slight the boldness of the Ecuadoreans in adopting this law by popular referendum.

The second argument is a philosophical and legalistic one about the meaning of "rights." Some hold that only thinking rational beings like humans can be meaningfully said to possess rights. This argument depends on an arbitrary definition of "right." It is probably true that only humans can understand and make use of rights. The turtles of the Galapogos certainly remain unaware of their new legal status! And if the rights of nature and its inhabitants are to be protected in Ecuador, it will still require sympathetic humans to use the courts. Legal or constitutional rights are an arbitrary conventional concept, and we can certainly define them however we like. It seems to me the new Ecuadorean concept is a very progressive one.

In a very insightful post at Daily Kos, a good point about this last issue is made;

But Ecuador is not the first country to propose granting rights to nonhuman entities: Many countries, including the United States, have long held that corporations possess many of the same rights – such as the rights to free expression and to due process – that human beings have. And in June, Spain’s parliament approved a measure to extend some human rights to nonhuman apes.

So, if corporations are already legal entities with rights, why not rain-forests and jaguars? It could be seen as a simple leveling of the playing field, giving environmental activists a whole new set of legal options to protect endangered habitats.

This is the new kind of thinking we need. It is clear that the old paradigms have become obsolete and are leading us to disaster.


- An excellent write-up in the UK Guardian, written before the constitution was approved.
- Legal background from the International Law Observer, includes comparison to other countries.
- Political analysis, (leftist) goes into some of the larger issues involved in Ecuador
- the Daily Kos article cited above, much interesting analysis and background.

1 comment:

Mark London said...

I'm not surprised to see no comments on this blog. Most people have no idea what anthropocentric even means. Yet it probably is one of the most damaging views humans cling on to. They look at the world through the lenses of the over-exaggerated ego. But hunter-gatherer peoples have always looked at the world from the perspective of man and nature as one. So this anthropocentric view is only part of so-called civilized societies. Most indigenous cultures allow for a member of the group to role-play as nature or certain animals to represent their perspective at councils.
But never the less I think this is an important step for the future development of "right view" constitutions and governments.