The Rights of Nature

Monday, December 5

This afternoon I attended a panel about the Rights of Nature with some of the foremost international proponents of the notion:

  • Cormac Cullinan (lawyer and author of Wild Nature)
  • Shannon Biggs (lawyer and director of Community Rights Program at Global Exchange)
  • Tom Goldtooth (member of the Indigenous Environmental Network)
  • Natalia Greene (Ecuadorian activist and Political Program Coordinator at Fundacion Pachamam).

Cormac Cullinan: We have been so brought up to think that only people can have rights that the first thing we need to do is to “think the unthinkable” (Christopher Stone). Either we humans think of ourselves as separate and superior, or we understand that we are part of Mother Earth and that our imaginations and all other aspects of our lives are deeply and irrevocably shaped by this living system called Earth. At the time that I wrote Wild Law, many regarded this as a wacky idea, despite the fact that most indigenous cultures around the planet believe in these ideas. The great contribution that Ecuador made was to legitimate the notion of Rights of Earth by incorporating them into their constitution. The discussion now shifted to whether it would work.

Today we need to find practical examples of how to implement this approach. Bolivia is following, as are some municipalities in the US. I want to touch on the political implications of this. There was a discussion two days ago led by Pablo Solon; it was really interesting to see people wrestling with these ideas. We’ve come to understand that you can’t have it both ways: either you see yourself in holistic terms as part of the system and that our world being is derived from the whole, and therefore maintaining the integrity and functioning of the whole is essential for our life being, or you view yourself as separate.

What we’re talking about here is a shift of Copernican magnitude. Of course this was initially resisted by authorities at the time. The Church made Galileo recant. Today we face a similar potential shift.

Shannon Biggs next discussed the obstacles to Rights for Nature: The biggest issue right now is that the law supports the rights of property owners. I’m working with a community in Pittsburgh which has used the Rights of Nature to prevent hydrofracking. What if our legal system saw us as a part of nature rather than above it. What prevents this is a sense of colonization. The people of Pittsburgh don’t want fracking in general, but a small number of people are getting their way in pushing it forward. When I work with communities, the biggest challenge I see is getting over the colonization of minds: people can’t believe that they can challlege and throw away laws. We need to provoke a change in this mindset. That’s 90% of the work we do in communities. 140 ordinances have been passed in communities around the US; the problem, though, is that although they’ve been passed, they haven’t been implemented.

Natalia Greene: At the moment we’re working with three communities in Ecuador. Each has been working on Rights of Nature for a long time. In a way, we’ve all been working for this for some time without using this framing. What the biggest obstacle we face? The notion that we have to develop. We need the money from development in order to fund education, health services, etc. So the greatest obstacle is our mindset. Another major obstacle is the legal profession, which has been taught that only people can have rights. But, in addition, we’re all part of this system – we’ve all ridden in a car powered by gasoline at some point.

In Ecuador, we’re also working with indicators in order to help figure out how to implement the idea. But perhaps the biggest problem is that we’re willing to see Nature as an object that can be turned into a commodity. This attitude is really shaping current discussions here in Durban. Nothing useful is going on in COP17. It’s civil society that is progressing in this regard. We need to find a way to bring us back together.

Cormac Cullinan: Cultures have always had ways to talking about something like rights. We need to decide whether we are going to keep this concept. The danger of jettisoning it is that it has gained significant traction on the international stage. There’s also a long history of Rights gaining traction in the US. It’s a lot of more understandable than many of the other ideas that circulate around the world.

Tom Goldtooth: A basic issue is the question of how we go about a process of cultural transformation. For example, as indigenous peoples we are confronted with Christianity’s concepts of dominion. We have to confront the way in which this concept of having dominion over the land has been incorporated into governance documents. Steve Newcombe’s Pagans in the Promised Land focuses on this issue, arguing that we have to confront our relationship to the sacred and remake this.

Cormac Cullinan: I agree that we have to change our mindset, but we also need to change the external systems that reward exploitative behavior. CEOs are working within companies, for example, that are organized according to legal systems that not only encourage but mandate exploitative behavior. This is why we need a rights based movement that is advocating a just and balanced relationship between our species and other beings.

Shannon Biggs: This is a struggle for justice against oppression. People’s movements such as the abolition movement have only ever won victories through concerted and united struggle.

We’re also honored to have Desmond D’sa here, who is Chairperson of both the Wentworth Development Forum and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. We all need to go to south Durban and stand in solidarity with Desmond and his community.

Desmond D’sa: Although we’ve got a progressive constitution in South Africa, we need to fight to make sure that Right of Nature gets incorporated. It’s also clear from this week that the people of the world have spoken, and that we are opposed to the destruction of Mother Earth. Let’s not lose the momentum and let’s not allow anyone to divide us.

Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson is professor of postcolonial studies in the English department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.