Environmental Protection and Limits of Rights Talk

For complete article visit Environmental Protection and the Limits of Rights Talk from Right Now – Human Rights in Australia

Peter Burdon, Adelaide School of Lawby Peter Burdon  — Excerpts of original article

There is a long history in environmental studies of locating and developing methods to combat the “root causes” of the current environmental crisis. Canadian philosopher John Livingston explains this approach, noting: “Oil spills, endangered species, ozone depletion and so forth are presented as separate incidents and the overwhelming nature of these events means that we seldom look deeper.” “However” Livingston argues, “these issues are analogous to the tip of an iceberg, they are simply the visible portion of a much larger entity, most of which lies beneath the surface, beyond our daily inspection.”

Human beings exploit the environment because they conceive it as existing for their own personal use and benefit

The rights of nature: an alternative approach?

The recent history of rights of nature advocacy is stunning and cannot be described in full here. Nearly 30 municipalities in the United States have drafted and adopted municipal ordinances to help protect local ecosystems from industries such as coal mining, water bottling and gas drilling (fracking). For example, in 2008 the township of Barnstead, New Hampshire adopted an ordinance that reads: “Natural communities and ecosystems possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish within the Town of Barnstead.” These developments were mirrored at the level of constitutional law in the Republic of Ecuador, which in 2008 adopted a new constitution. Article one of the Constitution reads:

Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution. Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognitions of rights for nature before the public organisms.

These developments have led to the pronouncement of a wide variety of ethical and legal approaches including: legally enforceable rights for nature (as envisaged in the legislation above); so-called “biotic rights” (being moral imperatives which are not legally enforceable); moral “responsibilities” for human beings; and “rightness” (a norm which prescribes a need for a proper healthy relationship between humanity and nature). What is common to each is an attempt to give concrete and meaningful recognition to the intrinsic value of nature.

For a related article, visit What if trees could sue? by Peter Burdon at ABC Environment