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.

Your Brain on Blogs

A kind of cool time-waster at lets you analyze the personality of a blog writer by submitting the url. Part of the results is presented as an image showing which parts of the brain are dominant for the writer. Here's mine;

The same site has two more similar features;

Gender Analyzer uses software to guess the gender of a blog writer (I apparently have an 81% likelihood of being male)

and OFaust which takes any submitted text and tells you which classic writers it most resembles (I have a low similarity to Goethe and Poe)

But don't take any of this too seriously. The Gender Analyzer has results just slightly above random guessing.

Nov 16, 2008


India has successfully hit the moon with an impact probe, called Chandrayana - Sanskrit for "Moon Vehicle." The space race appears to be on again. Beside the old players, Russia and the USA, the new players are China, Japan, India, the European Union and even South Korea. Japan says its goal is a manned base on the moon by 2030, and 2031 is currently set as the US target for a manned Mars mission. These are probably the two "prestige" goals and other players, notably China, may beat them to it.

Exciting stuff, but the question inevitably arises, why do it? The Buddha already noted the ultimate futility of such travel in the Rohitissa Sutta;

"In times past, I was a seer, Rohitassa by name, ... gifted so, that I could fly through the air. And so swift, was my speed that I could fly just as quickly as a master of archery, .. armed with a strong bow could, without difficulty, send a light shaft .... And so great was my stride that I could step from the eastern to the western sea.

"In me, arose such a wish as this: 'I will arrive at the end of the world by walking.' And though such was my speed, and such my stride, and though, with a life-span of a century, living for hundred years I walked continuously for a hundred years, save the while I spent in eating, drinking, chewing or tasting, or in answering calls of nature, save the while I gave way to sleep or fatigue, yet I died on the way without reaching the end of the world.

"But neither do I say, friend, that without having reached the end of the world there could be an ending of ill. It is in this very fathom-long physical frame with its perceptions and mind, that, I declare, lies the world, and the arising of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.
In other words, the end of suffering is here-and-now and we will not move any closer to that goal even by crossing the galaxy.

However, the same could be said for all mundane pursuits. The affairs and doings of samsara are ultimately futile; "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" as someone said. Space missions are no more, and no less, valid than any other karma.

Leaving the ultimate question of spiritual transcendence aside, even within the strictly conventional plane of conditionality, space exploration may seem useless or a waste of resources better used elsewhere. Certainly, from a strict economic view-point, it is very hard to see how any space travel beyond earth orbit could ever repay the investment, at least for a very long time.
(Unless you buy the Helium-3 hype)

Sometimes the argument against space exploration is framed in terms of how the money could better be used to deal with poverty and disease on earth. But it's really a false argument. It would be valid if that's where the resources really would go, but there would already be plenty available to help the poor and sick if that were a priority. Sadly, it isn't. There are trillions to spend on war, and hundreds of billions to give to the financiers to help them out of their folly, but thousands still sleep on the streets of our cities.

Realistically, nations will compete, one way or the other. Human beings are territorial primates. I would much rather see money and research go into a vigorous competition to be the first on Mars than to see the same resources go into building warships and bombs. Besides, aren't we all curious?

I say good on the Indians, the Chinese, the Yanks and the rest of them. First one there wins. Ready, steady, go!


Nerdy note - Assuming the air-speed velocity of an arrow to be about 200 feet per second, and allowing Rohitissa twelve hours of travel a day, in one hundred years he would have gotten about 60 million miles, somewhat more than the closest approach of Mars to Earth.